Remembering Barbara Cook

The legendary singer rebuilt her life after battling alcoholism and depression.

Posted Aug 30, 2017

“Then & Now” book jacket photograph courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers. Used with permission.
Source: “Then & Now” book jacket photograph courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers. Used with permission.

When I learned in early August that Barbara Cook had died, I felt as bereft as if I had lost a favorite—and stupendously talented—aunt.

Cook rose to Broadway fame as Marian the Librarian in the original production of The Music Man, starring Robert Preston. The 1957 original cast recording of the show was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. My mother played it often, and I was mesmerized by Cook’s gorgeous, creamy soprano as she sang “Goodnight My Someone,” “My White Knight,” and “Till There Was You.” I dreamed along with Marian of meeting a man who would be quiet, gentle, straightforward, honest—and fascinated by Shakespeare and Beethoven.

Cook won a 1958 Tony award for her work in The Music Man. She also starred in a number of other Broadway musicals, including the original casts of Candide and She Loves Me, as well as New York revivals of Carousel and The King and I. In Candide, she performed a stunning operatic aria, “Glitter and Be Gay,” that routinely stopped the show with ovations lasting two or three minutes.

I was disappointed that Shirley Jones, not Cook, played Marian opposite Robert Preston in the 1962 film version of The Music Man; it seemed unfair. But I lost track of Cook after I entered high school and stopped listening to albums of Broadway shows with my mother. I kept my secret ambition to be a Broadway musical star like Cook so secret that I never acted on it; instead I studied English literature in college (including the dreamy William Shakespeare) and eventually made my way into journalism.

During my years as a journalist, I was an avid, if sporadic, reader of The New York Times arts and leisure section, so I think I must have learned that Cook had moved from Broadway musicals to the sophisticated world of cabaret singing. But until I read an April 2005 New York Times Magazine story on how Cook was coping with the death of her long-time accompanist, Wally Harper, I was unaware that she had not transitioned seamlessly from Broadway to cabaret. Instead, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cook spiraled into alcoholism, depression, and substantial weight gain. In the magazine story, she described herself during those years as “a real nonfunctioning alcoholic.”

The story, which termed Cook “the grande dame of cabaret” and described the professional comeback she achieved with the help of Harper, made such a profound impression on me that I clipped it and carefully saved it in a manila folder. I was shaken to learn that this supremely gifted artist—an icon of my youth—had been beset and brought low by such savage demons. At the same time, I was awed by her ability to reclaim her life, return to singing and rise to the top of her profession again.

In 2016, at age 88, Barbara Cook published a memoir titled Then & Now—a warm yet unflinching account of her long and fascinating life, including her darkest moments as a child and an adult. After Cook's death on August 8th, I bought a copy of Then & Now to honor her memory and I immersed myself in it. 

In the book’s preface, Cook notes that she had been asked a number of times to write a memoir, and her usual thought was “Who the hell cares?” But, she continued, “now I do feel that this book might help some people through bad times, might help them see that they can come out the other side and have a new life.”     

Cook’s bad times included much of her childhood in Atlanta. She was born on October 25, 1927; a younger sister, Pat, was born 18 months later. Pat died of pneumonia when Cook was 3 years old, and Cook—who had had whooping cough just before her sister developed pneumonia—grew up believing that her mother blamed her for her sister’s death. Three years after her sister’s death, Cook’s father—whom she adored—left the family. When Cook’s mother told her that her father would not have left if her sister had lived, Cook felt responsible for this tragedy, too.

After her father’s departure, Cook and her mother soon slipped into poverty; for a time they lived with Cook’s maternal grandmother and three of Cook’s aunts in two rooms with no electricity and no heat. Cook took refuge in Saturday afternoon movies and Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts; in her cramped bedroom she would light candles and listen to classical music “for hours on end.”

She also dreamed of being a musical comedy star, and tap dancing lessons and early praise for her singing talents helped fuel that dream. In 1948, at age 20, she and her mother took a trip to New York. Over her mother's objections, Cook decided to stay and look for opportunities to sing professionally there.

Cook’s talent and determination, aided by fortuitous meetings with well-connected show business legends like composer Vernon Duke, helped her build her showbiz résumé and land her first Broadway musical, Flahooley, in 1951—just three years after her arrival in the Big Apple.

She met and in 1952 married a fellow actor, David LeGrant, and continued conquering the Great White Way. In 1959, she left The Music Man after 19 months because she was pregnant; the couple’s son, Adam, was born at the end of 1959.

Motherhood did not slow Cook’s career: She had starring roles in a revival of The King and I in 1960; the new musical She Loves Me in 1963; and the musical Something More! in 1964. But she began to feel increasingly stifled by her marriage. Her husband’s inflexibility and his need for control made her feel “stuck in a box,” she wrote in her memoir.

Her personal life became even more turbulent when she and Arthur Hill, her Something More! co-star, fell in love. Cook describes Hill, who was also married, as her “soul mate,” but the affair was wrenching because Hill was unwilling to leave his wife and children. Eventually, Hill made the painful decision to break with Cook, leaving her bereft even though she agreed that he had made the proper choice. Still, she remained grateful to Hill, writing, “Arthur did nothing less than change my life and inform my art.”

In 1965, as she continued to find starring singing and non-singing roles in New York, Cook decided to separate from her husband. Their son lived with Cook, visiting his father on weekends. She appeared in several plays in the next seven years, including 1967 productions of Funny Girl and Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders  and, in 1972, Maxim Gorky’s Enemies.

But at the same time, she had begun drinking more heavily and gaining weight; in the early 1970s, Cook was overwhelmed by alcoholism and depression and her career and her life ground to a halt. She found herself unable to clean her apartment or even shower and brush her teeth regularly; at age 13, her son fled the chaos to live with his father. In her mid-40s, at a time when her career should have been flourishing, Cook was, as she writes, “utterly adrift and drowning in an alcoholic depression.”

In early 1974, when she was 46, a lifeline appeared in the form of Wally Harper, a supremely talented pianist who had once expressed admiration for Cook’s singing to mutual friends. Following up on a suggestion that she develop a solo concert, Cook met with Harper; they clicked musically and began a professional collaboration that lasted 30 years, until Harper’s death in 2004. “When I met Wally, he rescued me professionally, plain and simple,” Cook writes.

Cook’s comeback was not without challenges and setbacks. After the duo had great success in a few smaller venues, their manager proposed presenting them in concert at Carnegie Hall in January 1975. Cook’s weight had ballooned during her period of unemployment; she was, she writes, “embarrassed” by how much she weighed and uncertain about performing at Carnegie Hall. She was also still drinking. But in the end she saw her decision to commit to the concert as a life-or-death one: “ ‘Yes’ led toward life.”

The Carnegie Hall concert was a turning point: The audience and the critics were enthusiastic, and offers followed to perform in storied venues such as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, and the Hollywood Bowl. But in spite of her great musical success, Cook endured continuing gibes about her weight, including a New York Times story that ran photos of the once-slender Cook and Cook after her weight gain.

In February 1977, following a severe panic attack in Los Angeles, Cook received a stern warning from the doctor who treated her there: She was on the verge of diabetes, her body was shutting down and she should stop drinking immediately. Cook initially dismissed his words because, she rationalized, she had a "calorie" problem, not a drinking problem. But she consulted another doctor when she returned home to New York; this doctor put her on a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, and she also managed to stop drinking. She began to lose weight and, to her astonishment, she found that the depression she experienced every day while drinking had vanished. 

“It was as if someone had opened a window and let the sunshine and light and playfulness back in,” she writes. After a brief relapse with wine one evening about six months later that led to another panic attack, Cook swore off alcohol completely and remained sober for the rest of her life.

Attending 12-step program meetings for both alcohol and food addiction proved valuable to Cook—although she confessed it took her 10 years after she stopped drinking to walk in the door of an AA meeting because she didn’t want to describe herself as an alcoholic. “I would bring needlepoint to the meetings, sit and listen, and eventually came to realize that the meetings were helping me become a more honest person,” Cook writes. “They help you lead a more moral life, teaching you to follow through on your commitments.”

Cook’s career as a cabaret and concert artist continued to bloom in the decades following her last drink. She and Harper performed in clubs and concert halls around the world, and over her lifetime she recorded 36 albums in addition to the nine original cast recordings of musicals in which she performed. She returned to sound financial footing, bought an apartment and found a steady source of emotional support in her adult son, Adam.

In her memoir, Cook speaks repeatedly about her development over the years as an interpreter of the music she performed—classic standards by Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, as well as the work of contemporary composer Stephen Sondheim.

“I probe more deeply into the lyric and now have a lot more courage to keep going, deeper and deeper,” Cook writes. She also speaks of the restorative power of her singing. “I believe art that is authentic can be healing," she writes. "I suppose that I’ve come to think of myself as a salesman, because I really do believe that what I have to say through my songs can help people.”

Cook, who gave master classes at the Boston Conservatory of Music and Julliard, includes advice for singers in her memoir—advice that seems to apply equally well to non-singers. With wisdom born of her own long experience, she tells her students: “Work toward embracing yourself and who you are. You don’t need to look like anybody else. You don’t need to sound like anybody else. Have the courage to give us your true self.”

Few of us will ever achieve the success that Barbara Cook had; she performed to adoring crowds in venues large and small around the world, and before four presidents, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, and even the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. She received countless awards, including the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 2011 for her life’s work in the performing arts.

Remarkably, she achieved most of that success after sinking into a dismal, frightening pit of despair and somehow summoning the strength to emerge, return to the world and share the priceless gifts of her music, her intelligence, her warmth, and her vibrant spirit.

At the conclusion of her memoir, Cook writes, “I remain, most of all, grateful.” For your sublime music, your spirit, your courage, your strength, your honesty, and your wisdom, so am I, Barbara Cook. So am I.                    

Copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper

Then & Now book jacket photograph courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers. Used with permission.