March 10, 1986 12:00 PM

Back in 1961 when she was 19, Barbra Streisand earned a meager $5 a night singing in bars and clubs around Manhattan. In a few months she will begin work on Nuts, her 14th movie, in the role of a prostitute. Her pay will exceed $5 million.

Although inflation like that would send most governments packing, Streisand’s lifetime earnings (nearly $100 million) have made her the highest paid—and perhaps most powerful—woman entertainer ever. Talent counts of course, and the singer’s gifts are formidable. But for Streisand, old-fashioned frugality and Flatbush Avenue savvy have provided much of the octane in her drive to the top.

Certainly she has long been mindful of money’s importance. Left fatherless at 15 months when her pa, a Brooklyn high school teacher, died of epilepsy, she grew up struggling. “We weren’t poor poor,” she said once. “We just never had anything.” By her teens she was already sure of her talent and assertive of her worth as a singer. On her first out-of-New York booking she read the opening night’s rave reviews, then immediately demanded a raise. A few years later, when filming on her third movie, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, went into overtime, she tried something different. “We didn’t want to pay her more money,” says producer Howard Koch. “So we made a deal. She wanted a trailer we owned. All the furniture. All the wardrobe she wore, and some stained glass windows.” Said Barbra later: “I made some real money on those windows. The studio rented them back from me for $500.”

As Streisand’s salary increased, so did her sense of economy. While starring on Broadway, she still clipped grocery coupons, kept track of supermarket sales and hitched rides to the theater to avoid cab fares. At Christmas she mailed out recycled cards with the original sender’s name crossed out and replaced with her own.

These days, despite a 1986 income estimated at $12 million from her films, her 42 albums and her many investments, Streisand is no less cost conscious. In shops she is a notorious haggler whose favorite opening line, according to one retailer, is: “What’s your best price, and what do I have to I do to get it?”

She is also a shrewd collector of art and antiques. “She must have over $2 million worth of the stuff sitting on the floor of Manhattan Storage,” says a friend. Her latest passion, American folk art, carried the star to a shopping spree in Manchester, Vt. last October, and one week later, wearing black Reeboks, she was in line again when the doors opened at the Fall Antiques Show in Manhattan. To house her new collection, Streisand built a barn on her 40-acre ranch in Malibu, a spread that includes five houses and a computer-controlled hot tub. Last fall Streisand sold another Malibu house to Sting for a reported $1 million.

The singer’s sense of finance has not appealed to everyone, and she has been sued for back fees by her hairstylist of seven years and for royalties by onetime songwriting collaborator Paul Williams. (Both suits were settled out of court.) The most recent complaint comes from Peter Matz, one of Barbra’s hot Broadway Album producers. “The work proceeded on a handshake for 5½ months,” says Matz. “When it was over, the terms we agreed on were drastically reduced for me.” The album, which is expected to sell 4 million copies, could earn Streisand $8 million before the year is out.

If the past gives any clue, more riches will not change that taste for sharp dealing. In Barbra’s mind, even 25 years after those $5 performances, hard times only seem to be held at bay, never vanquished, and a bargain is better than almost anything. Those seeking one from Streisand had best look elsewhere.

Shaun Considine (author of Barbra Streisand: The Woman, The Myth, The Music)

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