The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.
Meryl Streep is an anomaly among the figures I’ve studied: a movie star who appears to have had an unremarkably happy childhood. Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and Jodie Foster were all children of divorce; Daniel Day-Lewis had a father, previously married, who died during his adolescence. Clint Eastwood came from an intact family, but an itinerant one buffeted by winds of the Great Depression. Conversely, the prep-school Day-Lewis was born into a storied family of the intellectual elite; Foster is literally and figuratively a child of Hollywood.
Streep, by contrast, is a child of suburbia. Suburbia has had its thoughtful critics, but for her it appears to have functioned the way it has been most fondly imagined: as a kid-friendly place where an intact nuclear family, relative prosperity, and access to the metropolis function as a garden where success and happiness twine. It is surely no accident that Streep and her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, chose to spend the majority of the time raising their own four children in small-town Connecticut. (Two of those children, Mary and Grace, are now professional actors. In one of the more amusing turns in her career, Streep has a small role as the older version of Mary, also known as Mamie, in the 2007 ensemble piece Evening.) Clearly, there are multiple roads to greatness.
Mary Louise Streep was born on June 22, 1949, in Summit, New Jersey, the eldest of three children (she has two brothers). Her ancestry is mostly German; one branch of her family line goes back to William Penn. At the insistence of her father, a marketing executive at Merck pharmaceuticals, she was named after her mother, who after her christening (as a Presbyterian) rued the decision and started calling her Meryl. The family spent much of her childhood in Basking Ridge and Bernardstown, two towns in central New Jersey, on the western rim of metropolitan New York.
Mary Streep had been a commercial artist before having children, and continued to work as a freelance illustrator after they were born. But motherhood was her vocation, and one that, notwithstanding the professional aspirations she nurtured for her daughter, made a deep impression on that daughter. Streep has referred to her mother’s example frequently in her work, both in gratitude as well as a source of inspiration for specific characters, whether they happen to be mothers, or not. “My mother was and is my role model,” she said at a time when Mary Streep was still alive (she died in 2001). “Not precisely for what she did in her life, but for the way she’s always done everything. She always started the day singing, she loves a good joke, she has energy and verve, wit and great natural graciousness. Everybody loves my mom because she’s the Will Rogers of women; she puts people at their ease and can diffuse any awkward situation with a witty aside or a joke at her own expense. I’ve always admired this ability to lighten the atmosphere when she enters the room, and I think the best role models for women and girls are people of either gender who are fruitfully and confidently themselves, who bring light into the world.”
Both Streep’s parents were musical—Dad played piano, Mom was a singer—and Streep had ambitions for becoming a singer herself (her younger brother Harry became a dancer and choreographer). She’s fond of self-deprecatingly telling the story of her mother taking her for singing lessons on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the confident child was preceded by a student named Beverly Sills. “Nobody had heard of her either,” she joked years later. “I thought she was sort of good.” (Actually, Streep has a very good singing voice that she has deployed to good effect in a number of films, among them Postcards from the Edge, A Prairie Home Companion, and Mamma Mia!)
Streep’s voice lessons were part of a larger cultural education that included frequent trips to the theater, musicals in particular. Still, an early love of the performing arts was only one element in the mix of a classic postwar childhood. As an early biographer noted, Streep quit her singing lessons after four years “and devoted all her time to playing out a winning performance among the boyfriends, girlfriends and teachers in the biggest drama of her adolescent life: high school.” Though she often describes herself as an ugly duckling as a child, there’s little sign that Streep, a high school cheerleader, was anything less than a star once she entered adolescence. Her 1967 yearbook portrait shows her to be an attractive, if somewhat unusual-looking, blonde, and the accompanying list of activities include being named Homecoming Queen as well as membership in the National Honor Society. Interestingly, acting in school musicals is not on the list, despite the fact that she appeared in enough to engender envy among her rivals (a problem that would become familiar in the years that followed).
When Streep entered Vassar in 1967—one of the legendary “Seven Sisters” of liberal arts schools for women—same-sex education was still the rule among elite undergraduate institutions. But that was rapidly changing; indeed, Streep was a junior when the school went co-ed in 1969. She did not like it. In particular, she objected to the way men took over leadership positions in student activities and dominated political discourse. “Everybody was a miniature Abbie Hoffman in front of a swarm of adoring girls,” she remembered. “I just thought it was bullshit.”
Fortunately, by that point, she had carved out a domain of her own as a dramatic actor, where her talents awed her teachers. To escape the tumult of Vassar’s transition, as well as the jealousies of her classmates, Streep spent a term of her senior year as a visiting student at Dartmouth, which did not yet allow women to matriculate. This did not prove to be a happy experience for her, either, and she returned to Vassar, from which she graduated in 1971. She got her first work as a professional actor with the Green Mountain Guild, a Vermont troupe, supplementing her income by working as a waitress. Streep decided within months that if she were to have a future in the business she would need a graduate training, and so applied, and was accepted, into the three-year Master of Fine Arts program at Yale Drama School, where she was awarded a scholarship. Streep’s Yale years were the crucible of her career.
She had arrived at a pivotal point in the school’s history. A few years earlier, the legendary theater writer and critic Robert Brustein had founded a repertory theater program at Yale, and as its artistic director transformed New Haven into a powerhouse venue for arresting interpretations of classic works (Shakespeare, Chekov, et. al.). Brustein mentored Streep along with classmates like playwright Christopher Durang. The training she received there was the theatrical equivalent of a boot camp, fostering a range and intensity that would make much of what followed seem downright easy.
But not everything. Upon Streep’s graduation from Yale in 1975, she took a job with the Theater Communications Group, a company that performed in small venues around the country. From there she made the transition to the New York stage, performing with the New York Shakespeare Festival (where she met fellow actor John Cazale, who became her fiancé) and the Public Theater under the direction of Joseph Papp. These, too, were grueling proving grounds. By this point, however, Streep’s career was on a steep upward trajectory, earning rapturous reviews in a string of shows. She received a Tony Award nomination for best actress in the 1976 production of 27 Wagons of Cotton, and was poised for stardom far beyond live performance.
Next: The long road to overnight success.