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BetteBack: In The Kitchen With Bette

The Divine Secrets of Bette Midler.(Interview)
Article from:Good Housekeeping Article date:October 1, 2000 Author: Allen, Jenny


With an eagerly awaited new TV show and a loving family, she’s on top of the world. So why is she fighting mad? An intimate chat with the outrageous, and outraged, Miss M.

The Divine Miss M, self-proclaimed goddess, teller of naughty jokes, chesty show-business queen, is here on the patio of the very fabulous Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, dining at a choice banquette, surrounded, as she deserves, by garden flowers fragrant enough to make a person swoon.

But the Divine One is unhappy. Not about the fawning white-jacketed waiters, nor her crab cakes, which she polishes off with gusto, nor the long night ahead of her. (Being a living legend is hard work, and no one toils harder than Midler; tonight she will sing at a benefit, then mix the music for her eighteenth album.)

No, Miss M is in a state about books. “I have a girlfriend who volunteers in a school in the Bronx where there are no books in the library,” she says darkly. “That is not acceptable. That is unacceptable.” And it hits you, if it hasn’t already: This diminutive dame is one tough cookie.

Sure, she’s feminine, even dainty–tiny and fine-boned, with wrists no wider than a child’s. And she’s got those deep-set hazel eyes that turn into merry crescents when she really, really smiles–that beam of pure joy that is no small part of why millions have adored Midler for more than 30 years. But Miss M is not just the confection she portrays on stage. Dressed not in sequins or leopard skin but in gray slacks and a white jersey top that somehow reins in that bosom of renown, she talks as easily about Hawaiian architecture and the deplorable condition of the parks in New York City‘s poorer neighborhoods as she does about the importance of a hearty handshake. She’s funny and passionate–about the stresses and pleasures of marriage, about her determination to protect her teenage daughter from assorted dangers, and about Bette, her new CBS sitcom.

After two Academy Award nominations, one Tony, four Grammys, four Golden Globe awards, and three Emmys, she is taking on the one show-business arena in which she hasn’t yet shone her megawatt light. At 54, Midler isn’t hanging up her heels and taking her well-earned ease; instead, she’s putting herself out there, reinventing herself again.

One reason for turning to television, and one very close to Midler’s heart, is 13-year-old Sophie–her cherished only child with husband Martin von Haselberg–Sophie (from the Greek word for wisdom) Frederica (for Midler’s father) Alohilani (Hawaiian for “brightness of heaven”) von Haselberg to be exact. “My daughter is going into high school, and I want to have those years with her,” Midler says. “And they say a television schedule is the most civilized life you can have in show business”–regular hours, home by six most nights.

“Sophie’s a great kid,” Midler adds. “Likes boys, likes clothes, likes vintage fashion”–as does her mother, whose addiction to thrift shops and flea markets is intense. “Sews a little bit.” Again, as does Midler, who does needlepoint and made all her daughter’s Halloween costumes.

“She did a cheese souffle from scratch,” Midler, no mean cook herself, says proudly. “Then she made a chocolate mousse, which was not as successful, but still pretty good. She made her father’s birthday cake, which didn’t rise, so it was like a chocolate-covered pancake. We bronzed it.”

Midler’s good friend and entrepreneur Christy Ferer says Sophie is “really well-adjusted.” And really loved: “Where they go, what they do on weekends, totally revolves around her.”

Midler began dating Sophie’s father, a commodities trader turned artist, in 1984. Then 38, she had pursued her career relentlessly with colossal success, earning an Oscar nomination for her wrenching performance as a self-destructive singer in The Rose in 1979. But when her film Jinxed bombed at the box office, Midler had a breakdown of sorts. “I slept all day and cried all night,” she told a reporter. “I was miserable.”

Then, von Haselberg, who had met Midler in 1981, called and asked her out. “He lit up my life,” Midler says simply. “I feel so lucky.” She pauses. “I cannot express to you how lucky I feel.” Two months after they began their courtship, they were married, and they have been together now for 16 years.

“The last couple of years have been really great. We don’t fight anymore,” she says with a smile. “I think you get to a point where you realize, I’m never going to change this person. I’d just better accept this person and enjoy what they have to offer. I think I’ll just relax …

“I don’t think anyone who’s lived with a person for a long time hasn’t wanted to reach over and strangle that person. Fortunately, those things pass,” she goes on. “Our life hasn’t been a bed of roses by any means, but we stuck it out, and we came through at the other end. All of a sudden things fall into place.” Again, the smile: “It feels like the best of times are about to begin.”

“He is definitely her Rock of Gibraltar,” Ferer says. “He gives me a lot of career advice,” Midler says. It is yon Haselberg who stays with Sophie when Midler travels, making sure Sophie practices the piano and overseeing homework. The von Haselbergs carry on a cozy family life. Spooked by California earthquakes and weary of living in a show-business town (“I needed to rub shoulders with real people,” Midler has said), they left Los Angeles six years ago, eventually moving into a spacious, airy apartment on upper Fifth Avenue.

It’s a far cry from Midler’s own childhood in the sugarcane fields of Oahu, Hawaii. Her origins couldn’t have been more obscure. She grew up poor, one of four children born to a Navy housepainter and a housewife, living in converted Army barracks. She was “overlooked,” as she has said, by her well-meaning but overwhelmed parents, but she says she didn’t mind: “I had a great fantasy life.” She wasn’t pretty in any ordinary way, but she didn’t let that stop her. She belted out “Lullaby of Broadway” in a tin shower, and planned on becoming famous. By 25, she was the saucy toast of gay New York, the star attraction at the city’s Continental Baths. Nine years later she was a movie star (who would appear in such hits as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Outrageous Fortune, and Beaches), in part because she realized the importance of never sitting still. It’s a lesson Midler has always remembered: She went out and bowled over concert audiences when film work became sparse, and she created her own production company when she wanted control over her own projects. And now, there’s the sitcom, which she’s executive-producing with her long-time partner, Bonnie Bruckheimer and two others.

She’s taking a risk, to be sure, but Midler has the equanimity that comes with age and with the slings and arrows of experience. “I know nothing,” she says of doing a weekly series. Then, with a shrug, “I know nothing. It’s either going to be the best thing I ever did or the worst thing I ever did. And I don’t care either way. The whole thing is a crapshoot.”

And what about the so-called stigma of television? “It has been suggested to me by friends that I should be more careful about this as a career move,” Midler says. “But I say, `What are you talking about? I’ve had a great career. They can’t take thirty years away from me.’ What can they do–put you in jail because you’ve done a lousy sitcom?” A smile. Midler can’t resist: “Maybe they should.”

This sensible fatalism is at odds, to say the least, with the character she plays in her new show: herself. The Bette in Bette is heavy on histrionics and light on equilibrium. On the show, she is hilariously, unendingly high-maintenance–a megastar given to spasms of stage fright and anxiety. Frantic about aging and obsessed with food, she is either starving or stuffed or stealing forkfuls off other people’s plates. She is, in short, a wildly insecure but adorable diva. She even gets to show her ribald wit: “Careful, Doc,” she cracks to a plastic surgeon examining her bust, “these girls are half my act.”

But here in the Polo Lounge she is so ladylike, so in control, so … not needy. Is the TV Bette the real Bette? “Sometimes the plate doesn’t hit the table before I’ve got my fork in someone else’s food,” she says. And what about her character’s stage fright? “That’s very true.” (Bruckheimer concurs: “It’s never a thing of the past. She’s been known to throw up before she goes on.”) And that neediness? “Oh, I’m very needy,” Midler says with a smile. “Oh, yes, very needy.”

But as her friend Christy Ferer notes, that’s not the whole picture. Ferer has never once heard Midler discuss aging. Nor, for that matter, her career. “She talks about her friends, her kid.” And she is far from self-absorbed: “She can tell you what grade her makeup artist’s child is in,” Bruckheimer says.

“The truth,” Bruckheimer continues, “is that the character is definitely an exaggeration. She’s a great girl, and she is insecure–but I don’t think anyone who’s an entertainer isn’t.”

The difference is this: Midler has always been willing–no, happy–to serve herself up to the public as a character, to mock her image. Imagine, say, Barbra Streisand zipping around in a motorized wheelchair as Dolores DeLago, the second-rate mermaid chanteuse who’s a staple of Midler’s stage act. Midler likes poking fun at show business, and she’s going to continue doing that on TV. “The public is very savvy about celebrities now,” she says, “but there’s a part of it they just don’t know. The whole life, the whole charade. The maintenance, the incessant compulsion to stay young. It takes a village to make a celebrity stand up and walk down a red carpet. It’s hilarious. It’s just so silly.”

In part, it is her impatience with the business itself that has led her into television. “I’ve been making movies for many years, and I was always frustrated by the fact that it was a very, very, very, slow process–very slow to develop, very slow to get a green light, very slow to make, very slow to edit,” she says. “Then, if you don’t do well that first weekend, all that work is for nothing.”

The warp-speed pace of a weekly series, as opposed to the grinding weeks and months spent on a film, appeals to Midler. “You have to be on your toes,” she says. “The entire time you’re doing it, they’re rewriting and they’re feeding you lines. If you snooze, you lose. When it’s done, you’re flying.”

By all accounts, no one works harder than Midler. Most stars flee to their trailers when they’re not required; she stays on the set, running her lines, waiting to be called for her next scene. When the pilot episode was shot, “she’d say, `I’m here, I’m ready,'” says Jeffrey Lane, the show’s creator and co-executive producer. For a scene in which she had to wrestle with a complicated piece of exercise equipment, Midler stayed two hours after a draining day’s work to nail down the choreography. “She never settles,” Lane says.

Not at work, and not at home, where she’s a vigilant mother. She has eased up a bit on her strict “no TV” policy, but “Sophie doesn’t watch the teen shows. She chooses what she wants to watch, and we watch it with her.” They also rent videos–the other day, for example, Peter Sellers’s classic comedy The World of Henry Orient. “We died! We loved it so much!

“I make a big fuss,” Midler continues. “My motherly instinct has told me that this is a good way to train my daughter. There are some things that are completely off the table.” Such as? “Really terrible language,” she answers. “And drugs. And behavior that is uncivilized. Violence. Sex before you’re ready for it. Violent sex. Grossness–there are other ways to behave. You just shouldn’t let that become part of your soul.” Sophie no doubt has heard her mother’s opinion about some teen movies: “They’re grotesque. I mean, There’s Something About Mary–that stuff used to be private. What happened?”

It may seem strange that Midler, who has told more than her share of dirty jokes, who has sworn like a sailor onstage and in films, would take such a stance. But her act has always been an act–performed for adults–not a way to behave in the world. Midler’s language in person is precise; she has been vulgar onstage, but never gross, and she certainly has never endorsed violence.

Has Sophie ever asked her mother about her bawdy bathhouse routines? “She’s not even a little bit curious. I think that’s better,” Midler says with a smile. “Let her get her own dirty jokes. She doesn’t need any of mine.” Sophie may not be interested in her mother’s act, but she does want to know about the ’70s. “She wants to know what it was like at Studio 54, and she wants to know all that smarmy stuff that we lived through. Fortunately,” Midler says, with a perfect comic pause, “there are enormous blank spots. But what I do remember I tell her about. And she’s just, `Oh, my goodness, oh, my goodness.'”

Midler frets about the pseudo-sophistication of today’s teens. (“I was thirty-five before I knew half that stuff”), but she trusts her daughter’s good sense. “Sophie knows the difference between right and wrong, and she knows what’s not good for her,” Midler says. “She’s not judgmental, she’s not scandalized by other people’s behavior, but she knows it’s not for her.”

Midler hopes for the best for her TV show, and she is hugely proud of it, but her full life hardly depends on it. She cares for her daughter, sees friends, travels. She reads constantly, a habit she acquired as a child, when her parents would drop off their children at the Honolulu library for hours every Saturday. She calms herself by cleaning (“I find it verrrrrry relaxing,” she purrs. “It’s like Zen”)–though when asked about her apartment, she describes not its interior but the view of the Central Park reservoir it overlooks. “It’s one of the prettiest places I’ve lived,” she says.

But, then, she is passionate about parks. Appalled by the amount of green space in the city that had been literally trashed, Midler, in 1995, created the New York Restoration Project, an organization devoted to saving neglected parks and other public spaces. Ferer remembers driving on a city highway with Midler shortly after she returned to New York City. “Oh, my God!” Midler suddenly shouted, scaring Ferer. “Look what’s on the side of the road! Did a garbage truck explode?!” She tackled the problem like a woman possessed. The fruits of her labor include the recent reclamation of a huge decrepit area of northern Manhattan called Highbridge Park, and her eleventh-hour save, last year, of more than 100 community gardens that the city planned to take over. She puts on her overalls and drags potential donors through green space in distress. And she’s fund-raising like crazy: “We nag, we make phone calls, we get pledges.” Midler can now pronounce in mock-prim tones, “Garbage is my field of expertise. It’s shallow, but I’m more interested than most.”

Talk of her park project veers into talk of the city’s troubled public school system. As it happens, the younger of my two children attends public school in Manhattan, but I don’t have time, I moan, to deal with the school’s problems. “What else are you doing?” Midler asks tartly, but not unkindly. “Sitting around the Polo Lounge interviewing me? It seems as though there are a lot more valuable things you could do with your life.”

Midler is a woman who believes in things. “I do love the planet. When I look around, and I see all the things that have managed to begin and end their lives on this planet, I just know there’s a God. There has to be. It couldn’t be this beautiful without one.”

On that note, she freshens her lipstick, brushes on a bit of blush, and stands. One last question: What is she going to call her new album? “Maybe `Overjoyed’ or,” she says, stopping long enough to flash that famous grin, “`The Time of My Life.'” And she’s gone, taking small brisk steps through the hotel lobby on narrow-heeled sandals. Her toenails, it turns out, are painted blue. Divine.

In the kitchen with Bette

Though she has whittled down her once ample figure, Bette Midler still loves food. Not just eating it-she also enjoys preparing favorite dishes in her New York City apartment, where the kitchen-dining area is the heart of her home. Below, two special recipes:

TUNA SALAD

“For starters, you have to use tuna in oil-screw this tuna-in-water stuff,” Midler says. Then add two different kinds of pickles: dill and sweet gherkins. Crumble up one hard-boiled egg, chop up the pickles and some celery, and mix all the ingredients together with mayonnaise. “Hellmann’s,” Midler specifies, “or Blue Ribbon, which I buy in New Orleans.” Add salt, pepper, and “a tiny, tiny bit” of chopped onions “if you have a taste for it.”

POTATO SALAD

“This is my mother’s recipe, but then my husband sort of took it over,” Midler says. “I use plain old boiling potatoes, he uses Yukon gold.” Boil the potatoes and, when done, remove the skins and slice. Take some mustard powder, some chopped onions, chopped celery-how much depends on what you want the texture to be and a tablespoon or two of sour cream. “First you have to make a sauce of the dry mustard, some mayonnaise, and the sour cream-but go easy on the sour cream.” The main part of the mixture should be the mayonnaise, Midler advises. Add one crumbled hard-boiled egg to the potatoes, celery, and onions, and then combine with the mayonnaise mixture. Finally, add Midler’s secret ingredient: a splash of pickle juice. Apparently, it makes all the difference.

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