LOS ANGELES — In 1991, cardiologist Bernadine Healy published an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine about a phenomenon she called “the Yentl syndrome.” Yentl, the heroine of a 1983 Barbra Streisand musical based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, was a Jewish girl who disguised herself as a boy so that she’d be allowed to get an education. Like Yentl, Healy wrote, women only received proper treatment for heart disease when they exhibited classically male symptoms.
Twenty-one years after Healy’s report, cardiology remains a surprisingly chauvinist field, with women constituting less than a quarter of participants in heart-related studies and with women’s heart disease less likely to be properly diagnosed than men’s. The disparity persists despite the fact that heart disease is the leading killer of women, surpassing all cancers combined.
Now Streisand, 70, has become not only a useful symbol for the problem, but one of the most high-profile figures in the effort to fight it.
On Thursday, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center will announce the dedication of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at an event at the singer’s Malibu home that will conclude a more than $22 million campaign for research into women’s cardiovascular health.
The center will be funded by a $10 million gift from Streisand as well as several $1 million gifts she solicited from individuals such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, media mogul Barry Diller and his wife, designer Diane von Furstenberg, Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, designer Ralph Lauren, billionaire financier Ronald Perelman, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone and billionaire Haim Saban.
“I’ve always been outraged by inequality - civil rights, gay rights, gender discrimination,” Streisand said. “I don’t like that women somehow are not important enough to have studies done on them.”
Streisand’s role as an entertainer has always been her most potent fundraising tool - for years, she has sung for hat-holding Democratic presidents and senators, and Thursday night she’ll perform for about 174 people at her home, including former President Bill Clinton.
Guests who have paid up to $100,000 a couple to attend will dine on heart-healthy cuisine, take in entertainment by singer Josh Groban, Canadian musician David Foster and Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard, and bid in an auction of luxuries that will include a Jim Dine painting, a Neil Lane bracelet and the weeklong loan of a yacht.
The evening will be the culmination of years of research and planning by Streisand and Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, the medical director of the Cedars-Sinai center that will bear Streisand’s name. Five years ago, at the same time that the singer was looking for an outlet for her interest in women’s health, Merz was looking for a way to buffer her research from the dramatic ebb and flow of government grants.
Women’s health is often held hostage to partisan politics, Merz said, because it is lumped in the public conscience with controversial issues such as abortion. And women’s heart health in particular is an underestimated problem, she said, which makes it harder to raise funds. In a 2005 poll conducted for the Society for Women’s Health Research, a health advocacy group, 22 percent of women identified breast cancer as the disease they feared the most, versus 9.7 percent for heart disease.
“I thought, there are women who have money now, who would want to help,” Merz said. “We’re not in the kitchen anymore.”
As a physican, Merz treated a friend of Streisand’s, and the doctor and singer forged a relationship with the shared goal of bringing women’s hearts the same kind of money and attention breast cancer has received.
Last year Streisand and Merz delivered a Ted Talk on the issue of women’s heart health, and this spring Streisand began approaching potential donors to Merz’s research by calling Forbes’ list of female billionaires, none of whom ultimately gave. After striking out with wealthy women, she switched to men, appealing to their concern for their daughters, wives and girlfriends.
“The first man who gave me $1 million said to me, ‘I didn’t know women get heart disease,’ “ Streisand said. “Some people didn’t take my call, by the way. They know I’m asking for money, I suppose. But I’ve never done this before.”
With the $20 million, Merz said she will be able to hire more scientists to help her tackle questions such as whether birth control pills cause heart attacks and why women die of heart disease more often than men.
After the event, Streisand said she will turn her attention to another $20 million project that has proved harder to finance - a script she wrote more than 25 years ago and intends to direct about the romance between photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White and writer Erskine Caldwell, with Cate Blanchett and Colin Firth attached to star.
“This is hard to raise money for?” Streisand said. “I’m just in shock. Hollywood has changed so much. It’s about a woman ahead of her time. It’s just a fascinating story that is very relevant to today. I may have to pick up the phone again.”
The heart center donation comes at a reflective moment in Streisand’s career. In October, she’ll sing in Brooklyn for the first time since her high school graduation, as one of the main attractions in the opening of a new, 19,000-seat venue in the borough. She also has an album of older but previously unreleased material due in the fall, and a comedy called “The Guilt Trip,” in which she stars as Seth Rogen’s mom, arriving in theaters in December.