BetteBack February 24, 1973: A New Singing Rage – The Divine Miss M

The Toronto Star
February 24, 1973

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: USA Photo of Bette MIDLER (Photo by Robert Knight Archive/Redferns)
UNITED STATES – JANUARY 01: USA Photo of Bette MIDLER (Photo by Robert Knight Archive/Redferns)

It was early morning, far too early morning. And “the pits, honey, the pits” as the Divine Miss M would say.

In other words, on this particular morning, Bette Midler, better known as the Divine Miss M, was definitely not feeling too divine.

As a matter of fact she was not looking too divine, either.

Floor-length green wrap-around dressing gown pulled over an Alice Cooper T-shirt that made her five-foot-one, D-cup figure look vaguely dumpy. No make-up, pale eyes staring out perceptibly hostile. The usual ’40’s flaming halo flattened down to a wallflower’s carroty curls.

Schlepping sleepy-eyed out of the back bedroom of a mediocre-camp ground floor Greenwich Village flat, orange juice and cigarettes in hand, the Divine Miss M was looking – well, there was just no getting around it – she was looking ordinary.

She would shudder

Ordinary! Migawd, how she would shudder at the word. Ordinary! This little orange streak with the big red-hot-mama voice who had dedicated her entire 27 years to being extraordinary, who had turned the tackiness of three decades into an art form, had spiraled sleaze into a celebration, who – with her outrageous cleavage spilling out of too-tight ’50s satin, and her pouty tart-red lips spouting coos, confessionals and wicked cattiness – had parodied sex symbolism into all-time poignant high-camp.

In gold lame toreador pants and see-through plastic wedgies, in Fanny Hill corsettes, strumpet silks and plastic-cherried turbans, she had come up singing and sassing from the very bowels of the city that has seen everything, up from the steamy, Stygian depths of the gay Continental Baths, at 79th and Broadway, newest darling of the Gay Lib Set, chicest off-shoot of freak-rock – had surfaced from the belting out fantasies for a bunch of beautiful and not-so-beautiful boys in turkish towels to become the talk of the talk shows the toast of the tuned-in town.

Ordinary! Why, on New Years Eve she had filled the Philharmonic Hall to overflowing, Johnny Carson had invited her to open his Las Vegas show, and Burt Bacharach will feature her on his spring TV special next Wednesday. With her album less than four months old, she has jammed them in on a cross-continent concert tour that brings her to Massey Hall Monday night to freak them out one more time – “to zap them”, as she says, eyes briefly flashing awake, “to just really make their eyes pop out.”

Right at this particular moment, however, nobody is about to be zapped. Up since 6am for a TV interview which went badly, her latest gentleman friend still asleep in the back bedroom, and with a TV crew due at noon, Bette Midler is in fact feeling just a little on the ordinary side.

As for the Divine Miss M, she is nowhere in evidence – despite her alter ego’s protestations.

“I really don’t know where one leaves off and the other starts,” she keeps insisting. “Any moment now the Divine will rear her head and be off and running…”

But for the moment there is just plain Bette Midler curled up in the rose velvet chair like a mouse. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t take long to get the idea that life for Bette Midler has been a lot like that.

“I’ve been lonely most of my life,” she suddenly admits, half way through unraveling the tale. “I think most people are lonely. What can you do about it? I sing about it. And it’s not over either – it’s not over till you die…”

Born in Honolulu

It was certainly just starting back when she was born in Honolulu, the daughter of a Jewish housepainter from New Jersey who’d packed up his family for Hawaii looking for the South Sea Island dream. Unfortunately what he found was not the Hawaii of lei’s and luaus and gleaming white beaches, not the tourists’ flower-shirted fantasy, but an existence eked out just above the poverty line in war-time housing on what she calls “the seamy side of town.”

“Here I was, white, in this Samoan neighborhood, always different, terrified of physical violence, made to feel afraid, unattractive,” she remembers, not fondly. Alone, unpopular and bookish, she was the model student who worked for the school librarian in summer vacation, went to too many Marilyn Monroe movies and had these fantasies…not of moonlight and roses exactly, you understand…

“But I used to wander the old red light district,” she says. “The tacky part of town. And it looked very romantic and passionate to me, so alive. See even then I was always fascinated by the bad girls. It seemed like the bad girls always had the most fun.”

She had ‘this demon’

She knew she at least wasn’t having any fun when she lit out for the mainland after a year of college, hitched to New York with $1,000 in savings and “this demon – I had to be on the stage.”

The first years were the usual ones, starving on the rounds of obscure auditions, sleeping in a sleazy Broadway hotel by night and selling gloves by day.

After three years of off-off Broadway, she finally landed a chorus spot in Fiddler on the Roof, and by the end of another three years she’d graduated to the part of the daughter, Teitzel. Not that Bette Midler was still having any fun.

Then one day a friend dragged her to see the Theatre of the Ridiculous. And clearly it was love at first sight.

“Here they were really living out what I had always wanted to do,” her face comes alive for the first time as she recaptures it, her eyes alight like birthday candles. “People who were living out their dreams, living out their fantasies.”

“I remember one girl came out as Waterfront Woman – you know, from the Josef von Sternberg movies, all in shadows except the face? His women were so mysterious, always getting on boats or disappearing on docks into the fog. Oh I just fell in love with those images. I saw that show and I just went out shopping the next day. At the end of two weeks I was Waterfront Woman. I remember the first dress I bought – it was red velvet floor length, cost me $5.

“But it didn’t fit so I had to hike it up in back with a brooch. Oh I just climbed into it right away.”

Found her style

She rushes to her closet now, hauling out her “drag”, as she calls it – a fragile $10 antique black-beaded blouse; the outrageous 50s fuchsiac sequined floor-length with the fishtail she wore New Years Eve; a sleazy white cocktail number with a red satin slit up the front, and a garland of gaudy red and orange lame roses bulging down one shoulder and over the bust. The first time she auditioned for Johnny Carson she got out of the cab wrong, ripped her favorite brown velvet, couldn’t find a safety pin and went on anyway. It didn’t matter, after all. Bette Midler had found her style.

“Tacky,” she swoons, a la Miss M. “Chic? Puh-leeze, I was never, never chic, my dear. Though for years, trying to get into TV commercials, I used to try, God knows. But nothing ever worked, you know – nothing matched. Now tack – I know it, I grew up in it. Tack comes naturally to me.”

The “last of the tacky ladies,” as she called herself, took to trooping around town after Fiddler as the Waterfront Woman with her shopping bags full of old clothes. One night a friend told her about a club where you could sing out your frustrations after-hours for free, and she thought, “I’ve got a lot of frustrations.”

So the Waterfront Woman debuted at Hilly’s–“a dump,” as she fondly recalls it. “He had a ladder in the middle of the room – that was his idea of decor.”

Her repertoire was torch songs – “songs of the fog, songs of sadness and sorrow,” the Divine Miss M is working up to her best diva dramatics when she is rudely interrupted with a question.

“The reaction? Oh, mostly they thought. ‘what a dumb girl’. They never paid any attention to you.”

But a year later, by the time somebody mentioned her to Steve Ostrow who’d just jazzed up his steambaths at the Continental Health Club and was looking for some campy entertainment, that was no longer Bette Midlers problem.

“They had to pay attention to me,” she says. “I was wild woman.”

In the torrid subterranean Tubs, as they call them, she worked the tiny stage like a TNT stick, strutting out her Mae West stuff, then dashing off into a towel turban with some plastic cherries pinned atop to roar back as Carmen Miranda, building up this clutch of the cities most jaded, woman-eschewing men into cult-like fervor.

Loved her at the Tubs

“Oh, they loved me at the tubs, they really encouraged me,” she says fondly. “They allowed me to act out the whole dream, all those fantasies, all the people I wished I was…”

But if they were her fantasies, they were also their fantasies; her sly cattiness was theirs. Still there was something more. Here after all was this incredible creature done up like a drag queen with all the toughness of a tart and the vulnerability of a two year old, a girl who could sing about loneliness like a veteran to those who had known what it was like to be desperately lonely, who could talk about what it was like to be different to those who had known difference with despair.

“I think that’s one of the things they locked into,” she says.

But a word leaked out above ground, as the hairdressers and decorators brought their chicest clients to share the freaky joys of the Divine Miss M at the Tubs, and the adulation and club dates started, as the TV talk shows and record contracts rolled in, something else trickled out: that Bette Midler had turned her back on the boys at the Tubs.

It is still a sore subject – one she had cut the TV talk show host dead on only that morning.

Always so snide

“See, the tone that people use is always so snide,” she says. “And it’s just beginning to get my goat. I don’t mind the baths, I still go there socially – to hob-nob, see who’s doing. But I am who I am. I owe no allegiance to anyone. I have to go on, I have to grow…”

She rhymes off the fantasies she has left to fulfill – “the grand diva, the great lady, Jezebel, Sarah Bernhardt, a whole road series you know. Miss M Goes to College, Carry On Miss M…”

But ask her what she wants and she pauses, suddenly serious.

“I would like to be loved the way Charlie Chaplin was loved.” She looks up at the tinfoil portrait of the Little Tramp over her mantel, “I guess that’s what makes you perform. It’s like that constant search for all that affection and attention that you never had when you were young.”

To hear vulnerability laid bare like that, a dream so stripped to its needing core, you understand how she could dish up the dirt one minute and give the boys goose-bumps over their turkish towels with a lump-in-the-throat plea like her theme song, Friends, the next – how could she go on, night after night, making them laugh, making them cry, fighting for affection, anything, defying them to say she’s a freaky overnight fad.

“I’m not a freaky fad,” she says angrily. “What I do may be, but I’m not. If this doesn’t go, I’ll just find something else. I have stories to tell, characters I have to be.”

“I’m not afraid. See, there was a time when I was so afraid cause I loved it so much–the music, the characters, the clothes – afraid that it wouldn’t turn out right. I was afraid, not that people would make fun of it, but that they just would not pay any attention – which is worse. Cause, see, I made it up. I put everything into it. It’s my whole life…”

Her need is still hanging thick in the air when the doorbell rings. The CBS-TV crew has arrived. She retreats hastily, to put on make-up, the fine penciled brows, bright red mouth, hair fluffed out to a hay-tumbling halo, cheap plastic bangles up one arm. When she reappears, the vulnerable Miss Midler is nowhere in evidence. The Divine Miss M has not only reared her head, she is definitely off and running.

“Whoooo!” shrieks the Divine Miss M like a train whistle, patting her cleavage coyly, during introductions. “Sorry, honey, I just had to clear out.”

She is sashaying now discoursing on the merits of basement dance halls with the sexy Puerto Rican interviewer, strutting and fluttering, dangling one gaudy cork wedgie, hand lolling backwards over her head a la Mae West, quipping and queening it up.

Wants to do it all

“I want to do it all. Everything.” She flings her arms wide at the TV camera in her best doomed grand dame voice, “I want to live fast, die hard, live hard, die young, leave a brilliant memory.”

She plays the interviewer for all she’s worth, and he plays her back, gets her to sing to him her breathy opening lines to her ’50s rock parody, Do You Want To Dance? And the last thing you see of the divine Miss M, she is snaked out on her rose velvet couch, curling a brassy come-hither and the ultimate compliment – from the Divine Miss M, that is.

“Oh honey,” she coos wickedly, “you are such trash.”

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