March 1, 1996 | Hanover, Donna
Bette Midler, in jeans and a brown jacket, spoons her black bean soup from a plastic cup and talks rapid-fire about the loves of her life – her daughter, her husband, and her campaign to clean up New York City. I’ve had more glamorous meals with her: She’s been a dinner guest at Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence in New York, where my husband and I entertain. Today, the self-described Queen of Trash is holding forth at The Cloisters, a reconstructed medieval monastery (now a museum) inside the 67-acre Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan. Her mission: to save this once-beautiful park and others like it from the ravages of illegal garbage dumping and environmental neglect.
After moving back to New York from Los Angeles in late 1994, Midler started the New York Restoration Project, providing $250,000 to reclaim Fort Tryon from drug dealers and debris. She personally visits the ground and works with crews to revive the open walkways, green vistas, low stone walls, and lovely gardens that were hallmarks of the park when it was designed in 1927. She has hired people from the neighborhood so they will reap the benefits of the time they invest.
At 50, Bette Midler is calmer than she was when she shot to fame as a bawdy singer in the 1960’s and went on to star in such hit movies as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People, and Beaches. Today her heart lies closer to her hit ballads – “The Rose,” “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” and “From A Distance” – that test our tear ducts. Since her marriage in 1984 to Martin von Haselberg, and the birth of their daughter, Sophie, now 9, she has become a committed family woman with serious concerns about preserving the earth for future generations.
As we begin out tramp across Fort Tryon Park, we pass neglected areas that cry for attention – as well as garbage trucks. We encounter the hulks of old boats, abandoned refrigerators, and cast-off shoes, and visit a scorched site where stolen cars have been set on fire. “This is mild compared to the stuff we’ve already taken out,” Midler explains. “More than a thousand bags of litter. Truckloads. It breaks my heart to see it trashed.”
DH: Why did you move back to New York City?
BM: After we were in the earthquake in 1994, I told Martin I wouldn’t mind getting out of L.A. He’s a film director now, and he didn’t want to move where he couldn’t work. So we came here.
DH: Tell me about being the Queen of Trash.
BM: I started with the Adopt A Highway program about seven years ago in California. Then, because my daughter went to school in Coldwater Canyon, which had become a big dumping ground, I began to work with Adopt-A-Canyon, a project that involved going in and hauling out trash. People who steal cars and run chop shops and contractors who do renovations are always looking for places to dump their stuff because they don’t want to pay fees to use dump yards. So, you find old refrigerators, cars, asbestos, all kinds of things on public land. God knows what it does to the animals.
When I moved to New York, I was very disappointed in how parts of the city looked. I was so upset, I didn’t sleep for weeks. I love New Yorkers, and I’m like them. I’m noisy. I have my opinions. But I’m not used to the kind of carelessness and waste that I was seeing. People were throwing their garbage out the window, leaving their lunches on the ground. Finally I realized I needed to actually do something – even if I had to pick up the stuff with my own two hands. I called Scott Mathes of the California Environmental Project to come help me set up here. We’ve been in Fort Tryon Park since August 1995, and we’ve hired 16 people to do the cleanup and plan to hire more. We’ve made big strides. But it is a big, big job. I am spending my own money. And our group is striving to someday have access to public money to expand this work.
It’s become a family affair. My daughter comes to the park with me. Last week we went to a tree-planting ceremony on the children’s lawn, and we planted magnolias. My husband has undergone the biggest transformation. He used to be happy to let me get involved by myself. Now he joins in. He’s really into it. Working up here is one of the things we do as a family.
DH: I think it’s vital to have special rituals or activities in a family. I ave a little tradition with my daughter. We sleep in matching T-shirts every night. When I’m home in the evening, we pick out our T-shirts together. And if I’m not home, she picks them out and leaves mine on my bed for me.
Do you have other things that you do with Sophie that really connect you to her?
BM: Sophie is very bright and independent. She does shows for us. My husband and I are the audience. And we have a spotlight in our house – it came with the building. She chooses her music, she does her dance. She decides how she’s going to entertain us. And he’s quite wonderful…. Also, we have inner together every single night. Either my husband cooks or I cook. if we’re going out, we prepare her food and talk about it ahead of time. We always check her homework. And we take her to ballet rehearsals. We really do try very hard.
DH: You said you and your husband are good cooks. What are the absolute essentials in your refrigerator that might not be essential in somebody else’s refrigerator? I’ll confess, catchup is big in mine.
BM: Greek olives. And we have to have good pickles. My husband is a connoisseur. Sometimes we have 20 jars of different kinds of pickles. The most important room in our house is the kitchen. It’s basically where we live.
DH: You grew up in Hawaii. Did spending your childhood in such a beautiful setting influence your concern about the environment?
BM: Yes, no question. Although, it was a hard childhood. We lived in a very poor neighborhood called the Halawa, which was very rough. We were the only white family for miles around. And we were reminded of it every day. People avoided us because the tradition there was antiwhite. Only the weakest children would play with white children. But there was a great deal of solace from nature: the beautiful skies, the sea, the smell of the flowers, all those bugs and birds. There was so much to look at. And I thought the whole world was like that. So when I came to what they call the mainland, I couldn’t understand. It was a complete shock to my system.
DH: What did you learn about mothering from your mother?
BM: I thank God every day of my life that she was my mom. One thing I learned from her was that most things a mother does, a child remembers. I remember so many things about her. She was a great seamstress. She really could sew. She had a great eye. And her stitches were so fine. Her ability was so tremendous. She was very kind, and she never said anything mean about people. Neither of my parents did. They weren’t prejudiced or bigoted in my way. I was taught that people are basically all the same. They all want the same thing. They wan’t to be noticed. They don’t want to die unknown. They wan’t a better life for their kids.
But we had a very rough time. I have a retarded brother. It was very, very hard for my mother because her friends all told her to put him in an institution and she refused. So ill my family, everything was for my brother. Everything. My parents put money away constantly so that he wouldn’t be a burden us girls after they were gone.
DH: You always stayed close to your mother?
BM: Oh, yes. She was fabulous. [Bette’s eyes mist.] I just miss her a lot. She really was great. [Ruth Midler died in, 1980.] They were both great. Now that I have a child, you know, I see how hard it is.
DH: Did your dad help your mom?
BM: They were very supportive of each other. My dad didn’t make a lot of money but they were very thrifty people. He earned about 60 bucks a week as a house painter. And my mother was raising four kids, it was that kind of ethic: You worked; you just worked. But my parents had a dream of getting into real estate. They managed to buy a house – four or five houses, actually – in the best neighborhood in town, which they subsequently rented out. Every Saturday and Sunday my father was there pounding, painting, gardening, and this and that, trying to make the house livable. It was quite a feat. My mom had a dream that she would get out of the poor neighborhood, where she was cut off from her friends and very isolated, and have a home. She focused on their real estate investments as the way out. And, by God, she got her house. She never moved into it, but she got it.
DH: Are you doing anything special to help Sophie learn the values that you were taught?
BM: We make her do chores. She makes her bed. We have a graph made up oil the computer: make bed – so many points, empty trash can – so many points, feed dog – so many points, lay out clothes – so many points. Our problem is that we get so busy that we are not consistent.
DH: What’s going on for you professionally now?
BM: I’m going to make a picture with Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton called The First Wives Club. It’s about women who are dumped for trophy wives.
DH: I hope they get their revenge.
BM: They do. It’s very funny. Also, my production company has a deal with CBS to do a television show based on the girls who used to sing backup for me – the Harlettes. It’s about three girls in New York who are background singers.
DH: People always think of you as a New Yorker. Why do you think that is?
BM: Probably because I’m very energetic. And I’m awake. I think the main thing that people always said about me when I was starting out in humanity. That’s really why they came to see me. Because I was very funny, but I could also make them cry. And they knew I had a soul.
I always felt that the character I was playing on the stage was completely separate from my real life. It was a good chance to act out without really being in any kind of danger. I love the idea of being a wild woman but I don’t really want to be one. I mean, think about… What’s the word?
DH: The consequences?
BM: Yes, consequences. I’m not big on consequences. My real life is very, very satisfying.