Singer Barbara McNair walks into her Washington Hilton Hotel suite, her trademark, a bright smile, still dazzling. It's her fourth interview in about four hours and she's still ready with the punches, the little jokes and stories, all punctuated with her deepdown throaty laugh.
Just a bit too ready. She sits on the edge of the couch in her room, wearing a neat blue pin-striped pantsuit. She is here to perform at the 41st Annual D.C. Chamber of Commerce awards dinner tonight, and she is asked about her work.
"Ohhhhh, I've been working in clubs," she says matter-of-factly, "a little acting, guest spots on 'Police Woman,' 'Vegas.' I haven't recorded in about four years. The kind of stuff being recorded wasn't my kind of thing. I'd like to do some disco stuff though. I'm looking for material. But don't write that. I'll be swamped."
She laughs, the deep husky voice again.
When it comes time to talk about the incident that brought her career to a standstill, drug possession charges against her in '72, of which she was later cleared, the voice quiets, the laugh subsides. "You can spend all this time building something and it can be destroyed in a minute," she says, and snaps her finger. She frowns in though. "Well, not that it was destroyed like that. But you just think, well, shoot, I'm gonna spend less time on this."
She laughs again, a bit ruefully.
It was a career that started early -- singing at the Village Vanguard in New York and then winning Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scout Show" at the age of 19. After that came the club dates and a Broadway show called "The Body Beautiful". It closed after two months.
Several movies came along, including two with Sidney Poitier, and one with Elvis Presley.
She had her own syndicated television show, as well, which ran for two seasons.
But in 1972 that all changed. "Commercials were taken out from under me," she snaps her finger again. "Television specials were canceled...."
She purses her lips and say firmly, "I don't want to get into that...."
It was between shows on her opening night at the Playboy Club and Resort in McAfee, N.J., in October 1972, that a package was delivered to her dressing room.She signed for it, and she has always maintained that she never knew it was half an ounce of heroin. Within minutes, she and her husband were arrested. The rest of her engagement was canceled.
A grand jury cleared her of all charges.Her husband, Rick Manzie, was convicted and placed on probation for attempted heroin possession. In 1976, he was found shot dead in their Las Vegas home.
McNair had once said she would sue the government for damages resulting from false arrest. She never did.
"Do you know what's involved when you try to sue the government?" she asks, wide-eyed. She is up on her feet and walking away from the sofa, waving her hands, the throaty laugh gone.
She relaxes a little. A companion implores her to eat a little, but she turns it down. A glass of red wine is brought out, but she turns that away. "Oh, I'll fall asleep," she says with a laugh. Ginger ale is brought instead.
She is an agelessly beautiful woman with smooth brown skin, high cheekbones, and dark eyes. And she refuses to tell her age. She speaks of singing -- the career she knew she always wanted -- and acting with the professionalism and enthusiasm of a veteran. "I hear about people getting nervous and throwing up before a performance, and I just can't believe it!" she says. "I love entertaining!" She likes to think of herself as a performer not just a singer. "If I got sick like that I'd have to leave the business."
But her earlier problems have softened her fierce drive to work constantly. "I don't feel like putting that much energy into it," she says. "I'm half in and half out."
She thinks about leaving all together: "But I wouldn't quit unless I got married, which I don't have a burning desire to do right now. (She does have a boyfriend of five months, who is not in show business.) I wouldn't quit unless I had something else to do."