Catching Up With Sandra Bernhard: Bette Midler, Donald Trump, And Culture

Catching Up With Sandra Bernhard: On Trump, Citi Bike, And NYC Ambassador Taylor Swift


We spoke with Bernhard in advance of a New York Restoration Project event that she is emceeing on June 1st: Bette Midler’s Spring Picnic, a yearly fundraiser to support public green spaces in NYC. Below, Bernhard discusses the city’s transformation, the Presidential candidates, the Mayor, and why Brooklyn terrifies her almost as much as Citi Bikes do.

The Spring Picnic event you are emceeing sounds like a lot of fun. I love Red Rooster, the Morris-Jumel Mansion looks amazing, and it’s organized by Bette Midler. I was driving on the LIE once and noticed a sign that said that Bette Midler had adopted it. That is right. She is very good about all this stuff.

Is she a friend of yours? As she knows, she was one of my big influences when I started performing when I was very, very young and I would write her fan letters and she actually remembered getting them. It is sort of funny, and over the years I have met her and seen her, and she has always been a little… I don’t know if wary is the right word, but she has always been a little bit like suspicious or something, so now after coming on my radio show Sandyland a few weeks ago, I think she was pleasantly surprised, and we had a wonderful conversation. We kind of covered everything and of course, I adore a healthy environment, and for all of us who live in New York, a tree has so much more meaning here than it does anywhere else. I am just really thrilled to be a part of it.

That is definitely true. I also saw Martha Stewart is involved with this… They’re good friends. I think they have been friends for a long time.

I was curious to see if there was any connection between the two of you and, there was something…I wonder if you know what it is. I don’t remember. What is it?

There was an MTV show called Celebrity Deathmatch, and there is an episode where you and she do battle. Oh yeah, and she won right?

She did win. She had a scented candle table spread set up in the middle of the ring. That is funny. Yeah, there won’t be any bad fights or anything going on at the picnic.

So, the picnic is to benefit public green spaces in the city. Do you have any personal favorite? Of course, the High Line because it is right outside my window, and it was something I was involved with early on. A friend brought me to literally one of the first little initial fundraisers where they explained what it was going to be and so I got on board kind of early on. Of course, I’m not Barry Diller or Diane von Furstenberg so I didn’t throw in a hundred million dollars, but it was a passion and I have watched it unfold. The first summer it was open, I took everybody who came to town to the Highline but a lot of people hadn’t been turned onto it yet, so it was still a little bit open and now it’s like if you don’t hit it early in the morning, or on an off day, you literally can’t move. But that is definitely my favorite green space in New York.

You’ve lived in New York since the ’80s, and obviously the city has changed a lot since then. How would you describe the transformation from your perspective? I think when you are in it, you don’t even see it. I was here doing King of Comedy in ’81, and New York was always to me, just very raw. I felt it was much more just mixed up. People lived everywhere, obviously Midtown and Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea and the Lower East Side, you felt all of the cultures and you saw them and you smelled them. When they used to have the San Gennaro Festival, you went to it and it really was fun and the people still lived in Little Italy and the Italian women sat in the doorways and on their lawn chairs. It was very close to the way it was when people came to this country and the city at the turn of the last century. There were still the pockets of people, and now you go to places and it’s like, where is everybody? You may see people on the train, but then they seem to disappear back into wherever they have been moved out to. I think that is the most startling difference that I have observed over the years coming in and out of New York, and it is a little sad and painful because you think it’s sort of lost its emotional core.

I agree. If you were coming up as a new artist today in the same position that you were back then, what do you think you would do? Would you still go to New York, maybe Brooklyn or would you go to LA or Detroit or…? I don’t know, and I think about it a lot. My daughter is leaving for college in the fall and I think she is lucky in that she has support and resources. When I moved into L.A. in 1974 I literally could support myself. I had a job, so I made enough money. My rent was $120 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, It was insane. I never needed to borrow money from my parents or anybody. Nobody can do that now, so honestly I don’t know where I would go… Detroit and these strange little enclaves and surprising places but yeah, it’s just a different world.

When you are a musician, you need a place to put all your band equipment and make noise and that’s not easy to find in New York now. You can’t. It’s very frustrating.

Which you wouldn’t think since a musician, Taylor Swift, is now the official tourism ambassador!That’s the craziest thing, it’s like what? (laughs) You are certainly not representing me. It’s nuts.

Well there’s two ways of looking at it, as a travesty, OR maybe she really is the face of what New York is now. Yeah, maybe she is the face of New York now, that could be the truth.

How is the Citi Bike system working for you? Oh I wouldn’t get on a bike in New York City for a lot of money. I mean forget it. There is no way I’d ride a bike in this city. But I think it’s great for those people who are really confident and ballsy.

Some of the bikers don’t seem to really know how to do it that well. That is my concern and my point, for sure. They are endangering themselves and everybody else.

Have you ever had any fantasies about moving to Brooklyn? No, absolutely not.

Why not? I don’t like Brooklyn. I don’t want to be going out there all the time. My work is in the city and I don’t understand Brooklyn, I’m not comfortable in Brooklyn, I can’t get around Brooklyn. I know in theory, it’s great and I appreciate it but the minute I get out there I panic and just want to come back home.

Where have you gone in Brooklyn that is giving you these feelings of panic that make you want to go home? Anywhere. Everywhere. I mean the minute I get outside of Manhattan and I get off the train or somebody takes me out there, I’m just like, “What am I doing out here?” I walk for miles and I don’t recognize anything. Yes, there are some cute restaurants. I understand why people are out there, but since it’s almost as expensive as Manhattan now, it’s totally confusing. I just don’t want any part of it.

Some of Brooklyn has turned into Manhattan for all intents and purposes. Williamsburg is basically an extension of the East Village now. Exactly, I mean all these big buildings and the condos and the brownstones that have been refurbished over-the-top

All the multimillion dollar properties… Yeah. It’s too much.

What do you think of Mayor De Blasio and the job that he has been doing? I am not totally thrilled with him. I can’t understand why he is not putting a stop to the horses in Central Park and I heard he just gave the drivers a raise. Those horses should be off the streets. He just does weird things, and I don’t feel there’s any continuity, I can’t get a real grip on him.

Yeah, the horse issue seemed to be one of the things he kind of based his campaign around. I was never really that excited about him to begin with. I’m sorry, Christine Quinn messed up because I really like her, and I think she would have been a great Mayor for the city, but unfortunately she sold St. Vincent’s [hospital] down the river so she kind of shot herself in the foot there. There was no hospital for her to go to after she shot herself in the foot.

It is interesting how angry New Yorkers got over that third term, so much so that it went beyond Bloomberg all the way to her. Yeah, she was really in cahoots with him. I guess she was taking marching orders from him. We’ll see…New York is a funny, resilient place. It doesn’t ever seem to stop, and I think we have gone past the point of no return. I think it’s so moneyed now and people are not going to finally be able to come back in here and make it a “mess” again. I guess whoever the Mayor is will sort of have to work in the confines of the financial world that controls it.

You bringing up what happened with Quinn reminds me of how Hillary Clinton is attacked I think disproportionately to her actions. Like, how everyone got so angry that she said the race was over, and yet candidates often refer to themselves as “the next President of the United States” and no one blinks an eye, but the minute a woman says something in a swaggering tone like that, she’s crucified for it. We are totally living in a misogynistic society. She is an incredibly brilliant woman. She has done so much. Just, enough already. She will be a fabulous President. She is human. She has made some mistakes on the way, but when you have been at it as long as she has, you’re bound to have some mistakes. But she is the smartest kid in the room. There’s just no two ways about it.

I guess you’re not voting for Trump then. (laughs) Oh, I wouldn’t have dinner with Trump. I wouldn’t stay in one of his namesake hotels or rent an apartment in one of his buildings, let alone vote for him for President. Nobody… New Yorkers don’t know him, people don’t hang out with him. He’s an embarrassment.

Apparently not even fellow rich people hang out with him. No, and he’s not as rich as he claims to be anyway, so that is the other issue.

Yes that’s true. I wanted to ask you about a couple of other non-New York things. Your film,Without You I’m Nothing, ends with a dance performance to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette”. Does Prince hold any special meaning for you? I loved his whole take on sexuality, and I thought he was incredibly prolific. He was just one of those charismatic, amazing, brilliant artists, indescribable in so many ways, ephemeral, just kind of a brilliant mix of cultures–rock and roll, and soul, and funk and all the things that get you up off your ass and get you moving.

Was there any reason in particular you picked “Little Red Corvette” to end with? I just thought the madness and strangeness of the lyric against the music made so much sense. It’s like a love song to a car and just the kind of crazy, anthem of America …

Interesting, and you are wearing red, white and blue during that sequence. Exactly. Yeah.

I watched an interview you did with Charlie Rose, I think it was 1998, and you said the one thing that was important to you as an artist above all else was to tell the truth about both yourself and the world. That was kind of the pre-internet era, and since that time, people have become terrified of saying anything offensive and having the internet outrage machine come after them. Do you think it has become harder to tell the truth, for you or for anybody? I just choose the places that I tell the truth and it is usually on stage. Live. In my work. If I can’t write a story or tell a story and fully explain where I am coming from, then I am not going to do it. I’m not going to put it on Twitter or Instagram in 140 characters and help the people get the meaning cause people just aren’t that connected or savvy or do they pay enough attention so if you put something out there that is seemingly confrontational or a critique, you have got to back it up and the only place you can do that is in an actual piece of work, so I have just stayed to that experience and that’s kind of my platform. The rest of it all is just kept very light and frothy and I just don’t want to put myself in that position.

That’s interesting because to be honest I expected you to say something along the lines of “To hell with the internet outrage machine”, but you just kind of acknowledged that it really is a force to be reckoned with. Well it is. It’s toxic. It’s scary. It’s very dangerous. It reaches people that are not fans of my work nor do they care about my work nor do they care about a message or a piece of work. They are interested in attacking from behind a mask, and I don’t want to engage in that. It’s not what I got into this business for. I’m a performer and an artist. I don’t want to have public fights with people where I don’t even know who they are or what they are talking about.

Yeah. I don’t blame you. No, No. It’s not fun.

No. Well, this was fun! It was great talking to you. Great talking to you too.

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