BetteBack June 1973: Cookin’ With Bette Midler

Modern Hi-Fi & Stereo Guide
June 1973


Bette Midler struts around the stage in her spike heel springolators and skintight gold lame pants, belting out her theme song [“Friends”] at the top of her lungs. She stamps her feet and thrusts out her arms, smiling jubilantly at the audience response – their clapping, hollering and whistling drowns out everything but the uppermost register of her honey-and-sandpaper voice.

Hysteria is running high. It is premeditated and fey, for in the world of Camp, even fanaticism is stylized. Bette Midler is the High Priestess of Camp, her subjects a writhing, adoring audience.

She stands for a moment, arms akimbo, until there is a hush. Then she flips her wrist. The circle of Camp mockery tightens into exquisite absurdity: “Puhleeeze, huhnee,” she says, in an elegantly sarcastic impersonation of a homosexual imitating a torch singer.

Fondling the microphone, she goes full speed into her lovable-tough-kike-fag-hag shpiel. Then she instructs her band to “cook, cook, cook!” while she belts her heart out with Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues”. On to “Chatanooga Choo Choo” a la the Andrew Sisters and a languid, sensual version of “Do You Wanna Dance?” Her arms flap in a style alternately reminiscent of Empress Josephine at the ball and Mrs. Yablonsky shaking out her rugs; an ample bosom heaves out of a Carmen Miranda blouse.

“Oh, you fellas are cookin’ tonight!” she croons, Mae West style. Her face contorts into folds of laughter. A prominent nose squeezes out between voluptuous cheeks, a raspberry slash of a mouth, eyes that crease into merry slits-all framed by two shocks of bright red hair that pleat out in frizzy step-formation from a part at the top of her pearshaped head.

“How’s ya Haagen-Dazs, huhnee?” she asks between numbers. They howl.

“This is my tough shiksa voice,” she interrupts a song to announce. They wail.

“At intermission, dahling, we have slides of Martha Raye giving downs to the Vietcong,” she drawls. They break up. She struts around like a little girl in search of a toilet, until precisely the right moment comes for her to break into the next song.

They love her here at the Bitter End just as they loved her for 18 months at the Continental Baths, the steam bath-cum-nightclub in the old Ansonia Hotel where she collected a cult of rapt fanatics among the towel-wrapped gays in the audience. In fact, the crowd tonight is largely one of repeaters (although you might not recognize them with their clothes on), along with New York’s haute-voyeur night clubbers. They haven’t seen the likes of Bette since Barbra Streisand was singing “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” in her middy blouse and inch-long purple fingernails at the Bon Soir eleven years ago. This is a money crowd – the penthouse decadents. They yawn impatiently through the warm-up act, an earnestly fringed and slumping rock group whose lead singer introduces each number by pushing the hair out of his eye and saying, “this is from our new album .” No tacky Fillmore flak for this gang. They came to see the diveeeen Miss M.

Bette (pronounced “bet” because “my mother didn’t know any better”) Midler is a very chic freak in New York these days. People are comparing her to Piaf and Garland and Helen Morgan and Streisand and all the other sturm-and-drang little-girl-lost torch types. She landed an Atlantic recording contract last year when Ahmet Ertegun saw her hoisted on the shoulders of her cultists amidst a screaming ovation at one of the New York clubs. And, despite a general pre-release feeling among music cogniscenti that Bette’s act might be bigger than her voice, the resulting album has been lauded by the critics and is selling handsomely. Steam bath days are over for Bette. She’s been playing the biggest rooms in town -Carnegie and Philharmonic Hall – and, yes, she even did Vegas.

On a rainy Friday a few days after her closing performance at the End, Bette shleps groceries into her modest West Village garden apartment. In jeans and a sweater, her hair tacked up into a sensible little topknot over a face devoid of makeup, she could be mistaken for a nice Jewish girl who works for the Welfare Department.

Squeeling “I got foood!”, she throws her arms around Michael Federal, a lean, handsome young man with bright blue eyes and a shy Carolina drawl. Michael is her boyfriend and bass player. He used to live with Bette but now he maintains his own place around the corner. Wearing a Fritz the Cat T-shirt and sipping root beer, he looks like anything but the lover of a Campy, decadent torch singer.

But then, right now Bette doesn’t look much like a Camp, decadent torch singer in her faded jeans.

She briskly assembles the vegetables for “your basic stew” on a cutting board over the sink. Michael sits on a stool behind her and, between potato chips, flashes grins of pure affection and large, even teeth. The diveeen Miss M. peels garlic and recalls her childhood:

“I grew up in Honolulu. My father came there before the war and then after it was over he had three kids so he didn’t leave. They’re weeeeird, my parents. Thirty years in Hawaii and it’s like they’re still in New Jersey. In grammar school, I was the only white kid in my class. I was always getting unexcused absences for the Jewish holidays. It used to freak me out. I was afraid of people. In a pinch, I could be aggressive with people but I always worried what they thought of me. It was hard. But thennnn …. she makes a mockdramatic flourish with the garlic knife,”. I came into my glory in high school. I bullosssomed. I blossomed into a D-cup and there were finally white kids in my school. I was even popular. It was a real surprise because before that I had always been left out. In high school I became a person. That was when I began to realize I wasn’t as bad as I thought. Those were happy times, which is why I like the early ’60s music so much-especially the girl groups, like the Shan-Gri-Las. Oh, they were tuffff, huhnee, weren’t they?”

Bette attributes her chutzpah to the family. Cutting a carrot into even slices, she says: “I was never taught that little girls should be soft and passive. It was only later, when I grew up, that I found out they were supposed to be, and by then I knew it was all bullshit anyway. See, my father always wanted a boy, and instead he got three daughters and a retarded son. So it sorta freaked him out and he decided to make his girls as self-sufficient and independent as boys. We were taught survival early. I mean, they never gave us a dime. Whatever money we ever had, we always worked for.

“That’s why coming to New York was so easy for me. I felt I understood New York before I even came. I did a year of college at the University of Hawaii, but it wasn’t going fast enough. I had a bit part in the movie Hawaii, and I saved $3,000 from it. I am reeeeealy Jewish about money. With those $3,000 I came to New York to be in the theater.”

Bette’s first home in the Big Apple was a $15 per night room at the Broadway Central Hotel, one of the town’s all-time shoddy dives. “There was a hole in my bed and I was always falling through it at night. And the bathroom was down the hall. And I mean really down the hall. You had to get dressed, go out the door, turn right, turn left, turn right again. It was your basic freak scene, that hotel. Winos in the hall …whores in the next room …junkies outside. The dyke bar was downstairs and the gay bar was down the street.” Bette bites into a carrot to punctuate her ecstacy: “I loved it! My dear it was my great adventure. So exciting! No, seriously, I got used to it. It became just another trip down life’s merry road.”

She even tried the conventional route selling gloves at Stern’s Department Store for $56 per week. That caper lasted four months until “this old lady came in and, honey, was she a killer. She had ‘Dementia’ written all over her face.” Bette reaches for a mixing bowl and plops her can of whole Italian tomatoes into it. “In an hour and a half the old bitch tried on about a hundred pairs of gloves. Then she started screaming that I didn’t show her everything so I threw the gloves down and just walked out.”

Acting lessons at Herbert Berghof led to gigs in children’s theaters. “I always played the witch. I was a great witch. Then, a friend of mine called me up and said they needed singers for a musical at La Mama. So I went down and sang this song, “Pirate Jenny.” It’s a Kurt Weill song – a very bitter song. Tom Eyen thought it was hysterical that this girl from Hawaii was singing “Pirate Jenny.” He thought it was the silliest thing he’d ever seen.” So Bette became one of two chorus girls in the off-off-Broadway production, “Miss Nefertiti Regrets.” After a while she graduated to the lead. “I was Miss Nefer-Tits,” she said, hugging herself with sublime satisfaction.

Her Broadway break came with the role of the oldest daughter in “Fiddler On The Roof”. “The chaaaanges they put me through to get that part,” she moans, turning her head abruptly from the onion she’s slicing. “First they said I was too Jewish, then they said I’m not Jewish enough. This went on for eight months, finally, I got the role. But the whole experience represented my introduction to the true Broadway system. From then on, it was a series of rude awakenings. What I had thought it was gonna be like – legitimate theater – turned out to be nothing of the sort. I mean, the superficiality, the trappings were the same, but the bone and marrow . . . it was cheap, dirty, full of politicking. At the end of my second year with the show, I knew I had to get out.”

That was 1968 – the turning point of Bette’s career. “I was going out with a guy who really loved music. He used to play things for me, things I had never heard before. He turned me on to “Unforgetable,” one of Aretha Franklin’s earliest albums – a sort of tribute to Dinah Washington. When I listened to it, she was talking right to me. That’s the essence of art, yunno – when someone can communicate like that. It affects you. You may forget the details, but you don’t forget the essence. Anyway, I was over at Ben’s house one night listening to that album and I was ripped – rippedripped! Really stoned. I started singing at the top of my lungs. Finally, at the end of the evening, I said, ‘I’m going to be a singer.’

“I had a girlfriend, Marta Heflin. She was in ‘Fiddler’ with me but she wanted to be a nightclub singer. After the show every night she would go down to all the showcases in town and try out her material. I went with her a couple of times to see what it was all about. One night, at Hilly’s on Ninth St. . . . good old Hilly’s . . . I got up and sang. I sang “God Bless The Child.” Something happened to me when I was singing that song. It was really weird. It was a physical thing, and a very emotional thing, too. It was just what I needed to help me decide on becoming a singer. So I started doing the showcases. I was singing ballads and torch songs, ’cause that’s what I had the greatest affinity for. Then I got into my black music passion.”

At first, Bette performed in street clothes. “Then,” she says, reenacting the revelation, “I saw this picture of Helen Morgan on the cover of one of her albums. She looked so … so lost. She wore a long velvet gown and held a glass in one hand. The image was terrifically romantic. It appealed to me. So I went out and bought a black velvet gown with beaded sleeves from a junk store around the corner. Ten dollars, and it’s still the most beautiful thing in my closet. I really got into the costume thing – the whole image. It was like being bitten by a fever. I just couldn’t stay away from it. After ‘Fiddler’ every night, I’d put on my face, do my hair, put on my costumes and take the subway down to Hilly’s or The Apartment or the Improv and then I’d be up on stage. Oh, was I weeeeird, honey! A silk scarf in one hand, a glass of booze in the other. I was getting into all my heavyweight fantasies. I mean, dahling, me and Miss Marleeena Dietrich!” She crinkles her nose in glee. “I loved it.”

Bette’s first legitimate booking was at a nightclub called The African Room, a garrish jungle where a mechanized gorilla nodded his head back and forth all night long. “It was really the pits!” she recalls, emphatically ripping the eyes out of a potato.

In the summer of ’70, the owner of the Continental Baths decided to start legitimate nightclub entertainment in addition to the other entertainment available on the premises. He was looking for a suitable opening attraction when he wandered into Hilly’s one night, saw Miss M. and signed her on the spot. “It’s just been a merry chase ever since: me and the boys at the Tubs,” she croons in her pseudo-fag dialect. Mock-dramatic Camp seems to be the lady’s own language, and the hysterical exhibitionism she projects in her act is a stagey disguise for an offstage presence that is warm, unpretentious, and quite apparently secure.

Bette calls to mind the zany earth mother you knew in high school – the big-hearted, ebullient girl who was always a buddy and never a beauty, though she never seemed to mind because she knew someone would get hip one day.

“I have a strange face,” she says, matter of-factly, “and no one ever let me forget it
most of my life. It’s painful, I guess. I mean, it really used to hurt, but it does build your character. You’re not as lazy as you might be if you were beautiful. Who was it that said ‘Beauty is only skin deep’? The Temptations. Well, really, who would want it any deeper, yunno? Unless you’re a cannibal…!”

“I don’t think I’ve picked up the fags’ way of talking,” she says, “I always talked like this. Maybe the fags are imitating me!” However the process went, the identification with her specialized audience eventually made Bette a little uneasy. “After a while, things at the Tubs got pretty outrageous. I mean, I like to giggle and fortunately those boys do, too. But it started getting a little out of hand. There was a point when I was worried that I was just gonna become someone people would giggle over. But I think I got past that.”

Her stretch at the Baths did, however, provide her the gimmick-value that got her into the limelight. Word-of-mouth led to press coverage and, since fully-clothed straights were allowed in to see her (“ladies requested to leave after the show”, the notice read), she swiftly became a sort of underground toast-of the-town, Vogue center spread and all. “They just thought is was maaad, bizzare-o, cause, really, there wasn’t a whole lot happening in the city at the time. Bette stirs the potato cubes into the stewpot and checks the flame. “I haven’t changed. Look at me – I’m making my stew, I’m washing my dishes…I’m just truckin’ the way I’ve always been truckin’.”

Running hot water over the dishes in the sink, she thinks about it. “I do freak out a lot though. I just work, work, work. I can’t stop. I’m very Jewish. Michael’s trying to get me to relax, but I’ve gotta get this music business out of my hair first.”

And after it’s out of her hair? “I want to travel. Somewhere exotic like Samoa,” she says with a grand flourish of her sponge. “And maybe adopt a kid one day.” She squints and envisions it: “a hip little kid, like ‘Fernando 154’ or ‘Chico 182.’ A little spic. Someone who’ll guarantee my posterity by writing my address on the walls of the IRT.”

Bette Midler, who may just turn out to be the greatest Jewish mother of them all, squeezes her sponge, lights a cigarette, and announces that dinner will be ready in an hour.

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