NEW YORK (Aug. 25)
Barbara Barondess, a Hollywood entertainer of the 1930′s, is a staunch believer that excitement is the ride called life, not the destination. In Barondess’ 78 years of life, she has never stopped the ride, only directed its course.
“I’ve had four complete careers, and they were all successful,” Barondess explained to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency from her remarkable Park Avenue apartment — replete with souvenirs, paintings, and other memorabilia.
After youthful unrest steered her away from show business — a career in which she appeared in five Broadway plays and 25 motion pictures — Barondess actively pursued a broad spectrum of personal interests. “I was an interior designer for 40 years,” she said, as she became one of Hollywood’s top interior designers, attracting such clientele as Ronald Reagan, Howard Hughes, and Ann Miller.
Also, Barondess prides herself on a five-year career designing clothes that she claims “revolutionized the fashion business in the United States.” In 1947, “I was introduced as the girl with the new look … I also designed fabric for Schumacher and Co. and sold them all over the world,” she added.
Most recently, Barondess has acquired the title “author” as she has just completed a 500-page autobiography, appropriately entitled “One Life Is Not Enough.”
A CHILDHOOD OF HARDSHIP
But Barondess, who next year will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the launching of her career, had to endure a childhood of hardship before enjoying the myriad of successes she boasts of today.
Born July 4, 1907 in New York City, Barondess, whose parents were both Russian Jews, was brought to Russia at the age of six months to meet her grandparents. Plans were set for the family to return after three or four years as her grandparents persuaded the couple to stay long enough for Barbara to remember them.
But before she reached the age of five, Barondess recalled that, “my mother was pregnant with my next sister, so it was not convenient to travel, and I think my mother purposely did that because she liked the life and style in Russia.” Then World War I broke out and according to Barondess, “We were stuck.”
During her life in Russia, Barondess remembers being” pointed at and being called ‘The Little American’ — so I never felt as if I belonged.” Although brought up with a “broad-version of not-Orthodox religion,” Barondess “learned about the word Jew during the Bolshevik Revolution and what it meant because we became wrong on two sides — capitalists and Jews. That’s when I got my bitter education about ignorance and cruelty and violence and stupidity.”
Barondess, who considers herself a nonsectarian metaphysician, espouses her father’s explanation of religion, which according to her, was that “every religion believes in God and it is the same God … He said when you’re 21 you can choose what branch of religion you want — whether you want to stand on your knees, wear a yarmulke, cross yourself, or be a metaphysician, but that is your choice, as long as you believe in God and respect the 10 Commandments.”
After a series of setbacks, including the Revolution, the birth of her youngest sister, the shooting of her father in the throat — which robbed him of his speech — and the confiscation of their property and possessions, the family escaped to Poland, where for almost two years they awaited Barbara’s birth certificate which would prove she was American. Finally, the Barondess family sailed in steerage to Ellis Island, only to discover that their citizenship papers were void.
THE ONLY AMERICAN DETAINED ON ELLIS ISLAND
With the help of two influential relatives, Joseph Barondess and Justice Louis Brandeis, President Warren Harding intervened and ordered their release from Ellis Island.
“We went through the whole Revolution and my princess childhood stopped at the age of seven and didn’t resume again until 1926 … after I learned to speak English which was my first ambition — and to speak it like an American without an accent,” Barondess remarked, speaking with a perfect American accent.
Her experience of being the only American-born to be held on Ellis Island for two weeks has prompted officials at Ellis Island to tape her for inclusion into their permanent records. Since the Ellis Island Museum is scheduled to open in 1986, the same time the restored Statue of Liberty will be unveiled, Barondess is excited to be celebrating with her “first girl friend in America” — the Statue of Liberty.
It was also in 1926 that Barondess’ creative careers began as she recalled being “fished out of a swimming pool in Luna Park in Coney Island” by a press agent who was running a beauty contest that day. After winning first prize, she was signed by J.J. Shubert, the Broadway theater producer, and Louis Mayer, the Hollywood motion picture producer.
“God granted me a certain amount of good looks with my youth,” Barondess noted “and that is a gift, it’s not a career … If you’re lucky and you have the gift then it opens more doors and you have to be ready when the doors are open.”
She added, “I used to say to my father, ‘Aren’t I lucky to have these opportunities’, and my father said the word rhymes with plucky. If you’re lucky and plucky you can make it.” Her father also advised her that “in order to find out whether my ambition was as big as my talent I would have to go to school, educate myself, and learn,” she said.
NEVER HID HER JEWISHNESS
Throughout her performing career, Barondess, who was married to the late actor and producer Douglas MacLean, a non-Jew, never hid her Jewishness under a false name. She said that “I’ve always thought of myself as the little American who happened to be Jewish by birth.”
She said her “first identification with an actual Jewish woman” is in “Open Cages,” a picture Barondess filmed two years ago. It is the biography of a Polish Jew, Anzia Yezierska, who came to America at the age of 14 to become a writer and who in 1922 was elected Woman of the Year.
Aside from “Open Cages” and her autobiography,’ Barondess is busy running the Barbara Barondess Theater Lab, a non-profit foundation for professional performers. Next year, Lincoln Center will begin presenting a Theater Lab Survivors Award to be given to an actor, an actress, a director, and a playwright who have been in professional theater at least 10 years and who give some of their time to the non-profit theater. To benefit the Theater Lab, Barondess will present a series of double features from September 12-19 in the Bruno Walter Auditorium of the Library and Museum of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. “I’ll spend the rest of my life doing something for somebody else. That’s my way of saying thank you to my country,” Barondess stated.
She has also instructed in her will that her money be distributed to various museums and theaters. “I’m trying to put my mouth where my money is and leave it to educate other people,” Barondess explained “That’s why I’m leaving it to all the institutions that gave me my education.”
Despite Barondess’ age and accomplishments, she refuses to get off the ride of life as she hopes to write three more books about her careers. “I have a feeling that, after all, my future is here and I have to accomplish everything that I ever dreamed of accomplishing, “declared Barondess.