Joan Rivers, Barbra Streisand and the Truth About Driftwood

For a great many years, Joan Rivers painted a ribald lesbian picture of 1959 (Way) Off-Broadway play Driftwood.

In her 1986 autobiography Enter Talking all the way through to interviews like this one in 2008 with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rivers talked about a crucial last-minute role gender switch (from male to female), Barbra Streisand’s kissing abilities and wielding a knife in her “love scene” with Streisand’s character Lorna. (Although Streisand was just 16 at the time of the play, she portrayed an adult character age 35. Back then, Rivers was also still known as Joan Molinsky.)

Rivers’ version of theatrical events officially came crashing down last fall. For Streisand: Her Life, author James Spada was able to confirm that none of what Rivers had been saying was correct:

“There was no lesbianism in my play,” says Driftwood playwright Maurice Tei Dunn. “I can’t imagine where Joan got that. In those days, it would have been suicide in the theater. Barbra and Joan never had a single exchange together. They were never onstage at the same time. That picture of them together in Joan’s book was posed during rehearsals.”

Are we trying to denigrate Rivers’ career accomplishments? Not at all. As Spada notes a little later in the same chapter, Streisand lied about a number of things on her acting resume right after Driftwood, to buoy her own professional pursuits. That’s showbiz.

The more puzzling aspect is that Rivers felt the need to embellish at all, given how much great circumstance surrounded the 1920s-set Michigan potboiler stage drama. Driftwood was never reviewed; the play was directed by a 17-year-old; Streisand graduated from Erasmus Hall high school during the run; and playwright Dunn only closed it down after six weeks because he was afraid that cigarette-wielding patrons were going to burn down the attic performance space at his apartment on 49th Street.