Ottawa was dazzled when Barbra Streisand appeared with Pierre Trudeau in January of 1970. She said he made her feel like Jackie Kennedy. But could America’s superstar ever have become queen of Canada’s Camelot?
The news rippled across the National Arts Centre audience like wind through a wheatfield.
“Barbra is here—with Pierre! Barbra Streisand, of course! She’s dating Trudeau, didn’t you know?”
Heads turned as the couple entered the auditorium and there was applause as they rather shyly took their seats. Prime Minister Trudeau had pinned a characteristic red rose to his tuxedo and also a button with the slogan Manitoba IS. The evening was a gala in honour of the centennial of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation, and, as the Ottawa Citizen noted, “the sombre stone walls almost bulged with Prairie people and emblems.”
Yet all eyes were on Streisand. In her white wool Arnold Scaasi evening suit with its plunging neckline, white mink collar and matching hat and muff—pictured above—she looked positively regal, a Queen Nefertiti of the Snows. As the lights dimmed and the chattering ceased, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet took the stage to perform Five Over Thirteen, a new ballet by Canadian choreographer Brian Macdonald.
Trudeau had first met Streisand at another gala a year before. In mid-January of 1969, they had both been seated at Princess Margaret’s table for a swank party at Claridge’s following the British film premiere of Funny Girl. Trudeau was in London for his first Commonwealth Conference and the English press was mobbing him—they had never seen a Canadian prime minister like him before. He obliged them by sliding down a polished banister at Marlborough House to a lightning storm of camera flashes.
When Trudeau turned 41 in October 1960, he was still living at his mother’s house in Outremont and squiring younger women around town in a Mercedes convertible. His 20s had been mostly devoted to graduate studies at Harvard, the Sorbonne and the London School of Economics, and to exotic travel. In his 30s, he had been active in opposing the regime of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, particularly through the small but influential journal Cité Libre, which he had co-founded and edited. He was well regarded in left-leaning circles, but even many of his friends considered him something of a dilettante. When he won a seat for the Liberals in the November ’65 federal election, his mother said to his longtime girlfriend, Madeleine Gobeil, “Now he might amount to something.” Within two years, Trudeau was justice minister and by April of 1968, he had become prime minister of Canada.
Streisand’s rise during the ’60s was equally meteoric. As the frumpish Miss Marmelstein in the 1962 musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale, she had made her only solo a show-stopper. This led to a starring role in Funny Girl, a musical based on the life of Fanny Brice, which opened on Broadway in March of ’64 to huge acclaim. Within weeks, she was on the cover of both Time and Life, and by May she had won two Grammy Awards for her first solo recording, The Barbra Streisand Album. At 22, the ugly duckling had become a swan. But it was television that would make her a household name. Her 1965 special, My Name Is Barbra, featured an hour of Streisand performing alone, a rare thing for TV, and it won big ratings and five Emmys. Four similar specials would follow.
It was television that also spurred a 1968 phenomenon in Canada known as Trudeaumania. As Marshall McLuhan noted, Pierre Trudeau was the perfect “cool” public figure for a “cool” medium, and his insouciant TV style helped turn a balding, middle-aged law professor into a political rock star. As Peter Gzowski would later write: “He was glamorous, he was sexy, and he was ours—the perfect symbol of the newly invigorated Canada that had emerged from Expo and the centennial celebrations.”
The universe thus unfolded so that these two stars spawned by the ’60s would come into alignment.
In October, Streisand began filming The Owl and the Pussycat, and, during a break at the end of the month, Trudeau flew down to spend the weekend with her in New York. On the Friday night, they dined at Casa Brasil, a popular midtown restaurant, before going by limousine to Raffles, an exclusive discotheque in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Afterward, they went back to Streisand’s apartment and did not emerge until Sunday, when they ventured out to the theatre. That evening, Trudeau returned to Ottawa and Streisand returned to filming.
They seemed smitten with each other and, when a reporter asked Trudeau how long he’d known Streisand, he grinned and said, “Not long enough.” Back in Ottawa, there was a discussion in the PMO about the political risks of Trudeau dating the temperamental (and still married) actress, which ended when his executive assistant Timothy Porteous said, “We’re debating whether Pierre should date the hottest star in the world. My God, this is political gold!”
As Pierre and Barbra held hands in the dark at the National Arts Centre, a second dance piece by Brian Macdonald called “Aimez-vous Bach?” was performed. After the curtain call the Prime Minister, with his date and the other VIPs, then went backstage to congratulate the dancers. Arnold Spohr, the artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, told Streisand that he had seen her perform in Winnipeg early in her career. This apparently pleased her though her gig at Winnipeg’s Town ‘n’ Country supper club in July of ’61 had not. The club’s owner had taken a dislike to her odd clothes and off-beat manner and later bragged that he had fired her, though she may have departed early of her own accord. Until the Ottawa trip, this had been her only experience of Canada.
Soon, the sound of a violin summoned the dignitaries to join the party and a Red River fiddler led them down the Arts Centre’s grand staircase. Ed Schreyer, then Manitoba’s premier, recalled that Streisand “kept exclaiming enthusiastically as the fiddler danced the Red River jig, which I explained to her was like the Virginia reel. Everyone was watching her reaction because it was quite funny and quite genuine.”
Soon, a beautiful young Métis woman clad in buckskin initiated a candle-lighting ceremony with Gov. Gen. Roland Michener, and Pierre and Barbra held their tapers while joining in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for Manitoba. When the dancing started, Barbra was serenaded with “Hello Dolly” in honour of her latest movie and in the hope that the PM would sweep her onto the dance floor. Trudeau resisted this, and they eventually departed around midnight with the other dignitaries. But the party carried on. As the Citizen reported, there was “too much celebrating to do” and “too much to talk about—mostly about the lady with the shy smile who carried the white mink muff and held hands with the Prime Minister.”
The intense coverage of the star’s visit had been less than thrilling for 21-year-old Margaret Sinclair who had been dating Trudeau in recent months. She later described how over the next few days her “pique and jealousy” mounted and when Trudeau called her, she screamed, “Go back to your American actress” and slammed down the phone. He eventually managed to win back her favor—yet Streisand remained in his thoughts. In Just Watch Me, the second volume of his Trudeau biography, John English writes that Barbra flew up to Ottawa a few months later for a spring weekend with Pierre at the PM’s retreat on Harrington Lake “where he impressed her by diving expertly into the chill of the lake.” Pierre also reportedly expressed his desire for children and raised the notion of marrying her.
Barbra was flattered and intrigued. “I thought it would be fantastic,” she confided in a 1977 Playboy interview. “I’d have to learn how to speak French. I would do only movies made in Canada. I had it all figured out. I would campaign for him and become totally politically involved in all the causes, abortion and whatever.”
Abortion, of course, would not be something on which the Catholic Trudeau would campaign, and religion was likely just one of the “certain realities” that eventually punctured Streisand’s fantasy of becoming Canada’s Evita. Her demanding movie career and three-year-old son were no doubt also foremost among those realities. She said that she would never dream of asking Trudeau to give up his position, which was “too important to a whole country, a world.” And so, with great affection, they agreed to part. A few months later, Streisand flew to Sweden where Gould was making an Ingmar Bergman film to try and effect a reconciliation. But it was not to be, and they would soon divorce.
Trudeau began to woo Margaret Sinclair in earnest, and, in March of 1971, Canadians were startled by the announcement of his secret wedding to this beautiful woman 29 years his junior. On Christmas Day 1971, their first son, Justin, was born. By then, a romance had blossomed between Streisand and actor Ryan O’Neal, with whom she would co-star in the 1972 movie What’s Up, Doc? Ironically, O’Neal would be one of the celebrities with whom Margaret would have a dalliance after she famously bolted from her marriage in 1977.
Margaret had found life at 24 Sussex Drive to be suffocating, and it’s hard to imagine that the more imperious Streisand would have lasted anywhere near as long. Yet Barbra’s affection for Pierre endured, and they would reconnect in later years on several occasions. She also sent loving notes at important points in his life and called to express condolences on the loss of his son, Michel, in 1998.