When news of Barry Manilow’s wedding to his longtime love, Garry Kief, got out, his fans responded with kindness and joy. “The reaction was so beautiful — strangers commenting, ‘Great for you!’ ” says Barry. “I’m just so grateful for it.”
It’s been a long road for the star, who during his seven-decade career has sold 85 million records around the world. And at 78, the “Mandy” singer is still in demand. Currently enjoying his residency at Westgate Las Vegas Resort, Barry looks back with love and gratitude to the people who helped him along the way — including Susan Deixler, the high school sweetheart he married in 1964.
Of course, times were different then. “It was a difficult thing to be gay at high school in 1961, not a good thing to broadcast,” Ed Shapiro, Barry and Susan’s former classmate at Eastern District High School in Brooklyn, recalls. “I don’t remember [Barry] socializing much at school. I just remember he was a thin, good-looking kid.”
Music was already a big part of Barry’s life. Abandoned by his father as an infant, he discovered popular music through the record collection of his stepfather, Willie Murphy. “Each album was more glorious than the next — Broadway scores like Carousel, The King and I,” Barry recalls. “Great pop singers like Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, Sinatra and his gorgeous Only the Lonely album.” Recognizing Barry’s passion, his family scraped enough money together to afford a small spinet piano and lessons once a week.
From then on, Barry retreated into music whenever things got difficult at home — which was often. Barry’s mother, Edna, drank and suffered bouts of severe depression. “We all have stories,” admits Barry, who came to forgive his mother after they spent hours talking in preparation for his 1988 memoir Sweet Life: Adventures on the Way to Paradise. “It was the first time I saw her as a woman who had a life,” he recalled. “She was just a woman doing the best she could.”
In high school, Barry fell hard for Susan, the prettiest girl in the class behind his. “She was adorable, small with great legs and a voluptuous figure,” he says. “Jet-black hair, dark brown eyes and a smile that lit up the room.”
Miraculously, Susan liked him back. Barry was 21 and Susan 19 when they wed before a judge in 1964 and then repeated their vows with a rabbi at her family’s insistence. “Even my friends thought I was rushing into it,” says Barry, who admits they were right. “I was in love with Susan. I just was not ready for marriage.”
He began getting work as a pianist, composer and arranger. Barry wrote the score for an off-Broadway musical and composed and sang jingles for State Farm Insurance, among others. He played piano whenever and wherever he could, staying out late and causing tension in his marriage. Things got bad. “I asked a lot of people what I should do, and they all said different things,” Barry says. “Finally, I was so desperate, I wrote to the ‘Playboy Advisor.’”
Barry left after a little more than a year of married life. An upset Susan told him not to take anything from their apartment but his clothes — although she eventually relented and let him have the piano, too. “I was too young,” Barry admits. “I wasn’t ready to settle down.”
Barry’s personal life took a back seat after he was signed to Columbia Records in 1969. “I wasn’t really excited about it,” he confesses. “I know it sounds crazy, but I didn’t want to be a singer.” Over the next decade, he skyrocketed up the Billboard charts with hits like “Mandy,” “I Write the Songs” and “Copacabana,” but admits that he was “pretty lonely.”
That changed when he met Garry, a Houston native and TV executive, in 1978. Barry says he “never even thought about whether I was gay” before they met. It was similar for Garry, who had been married to a woman and was the father of a young daughter. From the start, the two very private men complemented each other. “Garry is a businessman, and Barry is an artist,” says a friend. “They have two totally different mindsets, but that’s why they’re good together.”
Garry proved to be a good business partner, too. “I was screwed over in the beginning,” says Barry. “I hired somebody I trusted and shouldn’t have. Suddenly, I had $11,000 in the bank. That was it — after ‘I Write the Songs’ and ‘Mandy’ and all that touring.” Garry became the manager and president of Barry Manilow Productions, roles he still holds today. “He’s the smartest person I’ve ever met in my life — and a great guy, too,” Barry says. “I was one of the lucky ones.”
Decades later, Barry’s ex-wife Susan remains a friend. She moved to a small town north of San Francisco, where she is a holistic healer and the mother of two adult children. “Barry likes to check in and make sure she is doing all right,” says the pal. “The love they had and still have is genuine.”
When Susan heard about Barry’s wedding, she expressed happiness for him. “What happened between us, our relationship, is ancient history,” she said. “I wish him well. I’m happy for him. I’m glad that he’s found love and happiness.”
—Reporting by Rick Egusquiza
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