Story by Richard Price
February 2-4, 1990
She’s been good at all of it.Â Hilarious comic, versatileÂ actress, great singer. She putÂ a song on top of the chartsÂ just last summer; she’s always a hit on stage. She’sÂ been up for an Oscar, andÂ she’s on a string of fiveÂ ‘ straight box-office winnersÂ for Disney.
Bette Midler doesn’t doÂ things halfway. When the Divine MissÂ M sets a goal, she flies into it.Â That’s why she wound up in the parking lot bawling her eyes out. She sat inÂ the car outside her daughter’s school, andÂ the sobs tore through all 5-feet-l-inch ofÂ her. Tears flooded her cheeks. SheÂ wailed, she shook, she questioned her entire reason for living. Her heart had beenÂ broken, snapped by a 3-year-old girl whoÂ has been teaching Mom all the tough lessons- of parenthood. That day’s class:Â Don’t Try So Hard, Mom.
The occasion was Sophie’s 3rd birthday, which has turned out to be an important day in Midler’s life as a mom, andÂ not so distant from the theme of herÂ newest role as an actress. In Stella, a movie that debuts this weekend, she plays aÂ woman who would do whatever it takesÂ to give her child a better life, even giveÂ her up. Midler’s that way. For Sophie,Â she’d do anything, sometimes too much.
“I’m crazy about her,” she sighs. “I’mÂ telling you, we (slie and her husband, actor Harry Kipper) come down for breakfast every morning, and we just look atÂ her, the two of us, like where did sheÂ come from? What is she doing here?Â We’re absolutely mad, mad, mad about
her, to the point that we almost don’t seeÂ each other, we’re looking at her so hard.
Well, not all the time. On the moming of her 3rd birthday, Nov. 16, 1989,Â Sophie woke up, made a face, burst intoÂ tears and threw away the crown Midler had made her. At breakfast, when sheÂ found her booster seat wrapped in foil (itÂ was to be a throne) she ripped it off andÂ threw it on the floor. She announced sheÂ didn’t want to be 3. She hated the cupcakes Midler had baked for the kids atÂ school. She didn’t like the drinks. SheÂ didn’t like anything. She was miserable.Â Midler crumbled. She had worked feverishly to pull off the ultimate birthday,Â and it had bombed. “Oh, I was so hurt,Â oh, it was so horrible, horrible, horrible,”Â she says, laughing at herself now. “Oh, IÂ can’t tell you how horrible.”
Midler made the standardÂ p a i n f ul error. She hadÂ tried to be a Perfect Mom.Â For a b o ut two weeks,Â nothing else mattered, notÂ even multimillion-dollar movie deals.Â While meeting with the heads of WaltÂ Disney Studios, all she could think aboutÂ was the birthday. “They’re talking to meÂ about this script and that script, and I’mÂ thinking, ‘Well, I could have a musicianÂ come, and I could have someone play theÂ piano.’ And so they’re talking to me, and
I’m going yes, yes, yes, but my mind isÂ going a mile a minute, and I’m thinking, I’llÂ make the invitations myself.”
So she cut and pasted and painted invitations, then she agonized over whom toÂ invite from Sophie’s school. “First I wasÂ going to have the whole class, and myÂ husband said, ‘You can’t have the wholeÂ class, because they won’t pay attention toÂ her.’ And then someone called me up andÂ said, ‘Oh, when she’s 1, she’s supposed toÂ have one friend, and when she’s 2 she’sÂ supposed to have two friends.’ And IÂ thought, God, that’s a brilliant idea, but I
can’t give her just three friends, so I’llÂ give her 10 friends.”
Then she had to make ruffles andÂ pompons for the clowns, because she hadÂ picked clowns for the party theme, so sheÂ went to the knitting store and realizedÂ that she didn’t know what to do there.
“I’ve never been in a knitting store, I’veÂ never bought yam, I have no idea what’sÂ going on. It’s the most expensive yamÂ store in the world. It’s like S9 for twoÂ yards . .. all I know is I’ve got to get outÂ and make those pompons.” Midler grewÂ up poor and still thinks about price, butÂ she finally bought just a little bit of whatÂ she needed â€” and was up half the night
working on pompons.
The week before the birthday, MidlerÂ and Sophie went to a party for CandiceÂ Bergen‘s 4-year-old daughter, Chloe, atÂ Kiddieland, a child entertainment centerÂ complete with children’s rides and videoÂ games. “She was smart,” says Midler, sickÂ of pompons by then. “I’m saying this isÂ what I should have done, then I seeÂ there’s a K mart across the road and I sayÂ I’ve got to get out, I’ve got to leave thisÂ party and get to the K mart: Maybe they
have yarn. So I go to K mart, and I’m inÂ heaven. Everything is 90 cents, like two miles of yarn for 90 cents. I’m saying, thisÂ place is fantastic!”
But when she returned to the BergenÂ party, there had been a setback. SophieÂ didn’t like the Kiddieland clowns. In fact,Â she’d decided she hates clowns altogether. “But Sophie’s party is going to be a clownÂ party,” Midler said despairingly. WhenÂ she rushed home, she called the womanÂ who was going to play the clown. “I say,Â Grade, there’s a crisis. Do you do anything besides clowns? She starts tellingÂ me what she does. Oh, she does MaryÂ Poppins, she does this and she does that.Â And then she says, ‘I do Dorothy.’ ”
Magic words. Sophie loves everythingÂ about The Wizard ofOz. “We’ve been inÂ Oz Land for over a year,” says Midler,Â who has dressed up and played every partÂ a hundred times for her daughter. SoÂ wh en Gracie mentioned Dorothy,Â Midler yelled, “You do Dorothy? You doÂ Dorothy? I’m saved! I’m saved!”
Intense? Credit part of it to the natural comic in her, but it’s clear thatÂ Midler really does sweat the detailsÂ of bringing up daughter. Everything has to be right.Â ^^â„¢ Food, for example. Midler hasÂ hooked Sophie on the healthies. Fish,Â tofu, vegetables. Sophie even likes broccoli; she calls it “the tree.” Her onlyÂ steady vice is chocolate. “My husband is
German, so he’s got German chocolateÂ on the brain,” Midler says with disgust.
And clothes. She and Sophie alreadyÂ are fighting about those. Sophie wants to
wear skirts and to twirl and tap dance â€”Â in fact, she wore tap shoes to bed all last
summer â€” and Midler wants somethingÂ down to earth: “I want her to wear pants
and get grubby and to run around.”
When Sophie hits elementary-schoolÂ age, Midler’s sending her someplace thatÂ requires uniforms. “I’ve had enough ofÂ these trendy clothes. These are yearsÂ when they should be absorbing as muchÂ as they possibly can and not thinkingÂ about stupid things like, ‘What do I lookÂ like?’ and ‘I want that jacket because Bobby has that jacket.’ ”
No television, either. Midler thinksÂ the programming is too violent and theÂ commercials too sexual. She’ll let SophieÂ watch a classic on the VCR now andÂ then, but that’s it.
“We just do stuff together. We do aÂ lot of construction paper, a lot of drawing, a lot of chatting, a lot of dancingÂ around and making up stories and gamesÂ and stuff. I really enjoy that becauseÂ when I’m with her, I’m really with her.
“I’ve got to say we’re on the pompousÂ side. At first, I thought, ‘Well, gee, everyone’s going to think I’m a jerk.’ AndÂ then I thought I don’t care what theyÂ think. I want her to have a foundation inÂ things the world considers good and artful. I want her to have a certain innocence. I don’t want her to be jaded at 8, so I keep a lot of things away from her.”
That includes material things. SheÂ rarely allows Sophie gifts that fans send,Â and she’s cautious about her own givingÂ for fear she’ll spoil Sophie.Â She wrestles over whether to guideÂ her daughter into show business. Sophie’s already come up with her ownÂ whirling dance routine that Mom andÂ Dad call “The Sophie.”
“My daughter sits in the makeup chairÂ and yells mahkey-mahkey-mahkey (herÂ word for makeup). She wants powderÂ and paint, and she thinks that’s a fun life,Â and what can I do? She doesn’t see what IÂ have to go through screaming at peopleÂ on the telephone and all that stuff.”
What Midler really wants is toÂ raise a capable daughterÂ who could survive rich orÂ poor, so she’s constantlyÂ teaching. “I want her to beÂ able to solve problems. I want her toÂ know how to use a hammer and nail,Â how to sew and to cook. I don’t want herÂ to slough off numbers like I did. I wantÂ her to understand math and physics andÂ all that stuff, because I think that’s part ofÂ understanding the universe.”
She tells Sophie stories, endless stories,Â all the great fables of history, drawingÂ heavily from Greek and Indian mythology, and embellishing them with her ownÂ “half-baked theories of the world. AndÂ we’re always counting, ‘Oh, my goodness, I dropped FOUR peas,’ you know.
And ABCs: ‘Happy, happy we shall beÂ when we know our ABCs.’ ”
She worries, as most moms worry.Â She’s nervous because Sophie doesn’t likeÂ reading. She frets when Sophie fightsÂ with friends. She wonders what will happen when Sophie reaches grade schoolÂ and can’t come along on Midler’s trips.
And she’s still sorting out how to handleÂ religion. Midler’s Jewish, and she plansÂ to teach those traditions, but her husbandÂ was raised by two atheists, and he wantsÂ Sophie exposed to a variety of thinking.
Lately she’s been struggling with rebellion. Sophie has learned to say no, andÂ she says it every night at 9:30, her bedtime. So Midler is learning the disciplineÂ business. But she’s doing OK. She knowsÂ the kind of relationship she wants withÂ Sophie. “I don’t want to be my daughter’s buddy, I want to be her mom …someone she can look up to.”
Sophie has completely changedÂ Midler’s life, and most parents willÂ recognize the symptoms.Â “When IÂ work, I have to be quiet, to stareÂ off into space and try to get some ideas.Â When I Like Bananas Because They’ve GotÂ No Bones is playing in your ear, it’s real
hard to sit and think about how you’reÂ going to make this project that’s going toÂ elevate the human race.”
It’s affected her outside relationshipsÂ â€” “I don’t have any,” she moans â€” and she’s tired all the time. She partly blamesÂ “Attila,” her workout trainer, but mostlyÂ it’s the old story of balancing job andÂ family. She and Harry devote two hoursÂ each morning to Sophie and she spendsÂ the rest of the day dashing back and forthÂ between meetings to be with her. She
does the cleanup after dinner (DadÂ cooks), and parents swap bathtime duties,Â not a house favorite. “The baaaatthhh,”Â Midler calls it, rolling her eyes and collapsing on the floor in mock agony.Â “Every day is full. I get into bed and IÂ read for five minutes, and my eyes get soÂ heavy I just pass out.”
Will there be more kids? ProbablyÂ not. She and Harry are trying, but MidlerÂ thinks their chances are slim because ofÂ her age: She’s 44 and has gone throughÂ one miscarriage. She’s considered adoption, but Harry is cool to the idea.
Meanwhile, Sophie’s umbilical cord is preserved and floating around somewhere in aÂ virtual library of motherhood memorabilia.Â When it was time to cut a lock of hair, MidlerÂ cut two. There are hundreds of baby recordÂ books, piles of pictures. It’s no wonder MidlerÂ has no friends left, she says: “I’m too busy putting pictures in albums.”
Then there are all those strangers in herÂ house â€” an endless parade of nannies whoÂ leave as soon as they’ve become a part of theÂ family. “There is c h a o s, j u stÂ chaos.”
Her husbandÂ k e e ps t e l l i ngÂ her to r e l ax.
“He gets on myÂ case a lot. He isÂ so convinced heÂ is if in the fat h er d e p a r tment. Once inÂ three years he’sÂ said he did theÂ wrong thing.Â The rest of theÂ time I do theÂ wrong t h i n g.
He t h i n ks IÂ overreact, I spoil her, I’m always trying toÂ push food down her throat.”
But she admits he was right about oneÂ thing. She overextended herself on the birthday. Obsessed is the word she uses. All sheÂ could think was, “I gotta, I gotta, I gotta.”
She was in a frenzy right up until 2 a.m. onÂ the last night, baking those cupcakes, hanging
those decorations, putting on those last touches. Next morning came the disaster. And afterÂ dropping Sophie off at school with the hatedÂ cupcakes and drinks, she trudged out to theÂ parking lot for her big cry.
Still, there’s a happy ending. Two thingsÂ finally turned it around. One was her husband’s idea: For the party at the house, heÂ filled the dining room with a waist-high seaÂ of wadded-up newspaper so the kids couldÂ j ump around. They loved it.
The other triumph was Dorothy.Â “Thank God,” Midler says. “All of a sudden this disaster turned into a huge success. IÂ have to say this was my fault, I went nuts. IÂ just went nuts. I won’t do this again … IÂ learned a lesson. No one cares as much as youÂ do, and they’re usually happy with a little, soÂ you don’t have to knock yourself out.”
Someday Bette Midler may write downÂ these lessons. She’s been invited to write aÂ book on motherhood (somebody told her sheÂ could be the Bill Cosby of her generation) butÂ Midler’s holding off. She doesn’t have time,Â she says, and besides, if she’s learned one thingÂ about parenting, it’s what kids have known allÂ along: Parents don’t understand much.
“I’m just flying by the seat of my pants. IÂ don’t even know what I’d say. All I have areÂ experiences, but I won’t even have time toÂ t h i nk about what happened before we’re on toÂ the next birthday.”