Star of “Funny Girl” (1968) and “Hello, Dolly!” (1969). Star, writer and director of “Yentl” (1983). Winner of 15 Grammy Awards.
Barbra Streisand, famed for these and many other artistic triumphs, was born Barbara Joan Streisand 76 years ago Tuesday.
First Lady Barbara Bush (1925-2018), who died a week ago at age 92, is the only other Barbara whose renown rivals Streisand’s.
Barbara comes from a Greek word meaning “foreign.” In the seventh century, stories about St. Barbara, a third century martyr who survived many tortures before her father beheaded her, were first told. Though modern historians doubt she ever existed, Barbara was a hugely popular saint all over medieval Europe.
By 1400, the name was rare in England. Around the year 1550, it revived, and Barbara ranked among the top 30 names for 17th century English girls. It was about the only saint’s name to rise instead of fall after the Reformation. Most 17th century Barbaras in England and America were Anglican or Catholic.
Lutherans loved Barbara even more. Twenty-five percent of the 36,796 Barbaras in the 1850 U.S. Census were born in Germany at a time when only 2½ percent of all Americans were German-born.
In 1863, John Greenleaf Whittier published the poem “Barbara Frietchie.” Based on a real Marylander who confronted Confederate soldiers, its line “Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag, she said” was recited by countless schoolchildren.
In 1899, Clyde Fitch wrote a play, based on the poem, which became a Broadway staple for decades.
Barbara bottomed out at 164th on the Social Security’s yearly baby name chart in 1901. It rose again, though, accelerating after Harold Bell Wright’s “The Winning of Barbara Worth” (where a cowboy and a dam builder vie for Barbara’s hand) became a 1911 bestseller.
When Barbara Bush was born in 1925, the name had risen to 22nd most popular. Then, in 1926, Broadway chorus girl Ruby Stevens saw a poster for Fitch’s play and renamed herself Barbara Stanwyck. She became a star the next year, when Barbara first broke into the top 10.
Though Barbara would have been popular without Stanwyck, her film career pushed it to its peak when she claimed her first Oscar nomination for the tearjerker “Stella Dallas” in 1937. In 1938, more than 3.4 percent of newborn girls were named Barbara, ranking it second only to Mary. It stayed at No. 2 until 1945, and in the top 10 until 1959.
Streisand disliked “Barbara” — she wanted to be unique, but thought it “false” to make a major change, so she switched to “Barbra.” Though Streisand’s fame wasn’t able to stop Barbara’s fall, she did cause a short-lived boom for her spelling. The television special and album “My Name is Barbra” were mega-hits in 1965. The 343 babies named Barbra in 1966 were the most ever for that spelling.
Fans of classic television remember actresses Barbaras Anderson (Eve on “Ironside”), Bain (Cinnamon on “Mission Impossible”), Billingsley (June on “Leave it To Beaver), Eden (the genie on “I Dream of Jeannie”), Feldon (Agent 99 on “Get Smart”) and Hale (Della Street on “Perry Mason”).
Geneticist Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) won the 1983 Nobel Prize for medicine.
By 2016, Barbara ranked 856th for American newborns.
By 2040, avant garde parents looking for a classic to revive will surely rediscover it.