BetteBack September 9, 1973: Good, Better, Best, Bette

Independent Press Telegram
September 9, 1973


Bette Midler is almost too camp to be true.

From her frizzled, orange-red hair to her clompy, platform shoes, she embodies a busty, bawdy, rag-and-bones vision which is both uproariously funny and emotionally electrifying.

She struts, she shimmies, she vamps her way across the stage, as she belts out four decades of American popular music. She describes herself as “trash with flash” and tells her audience she’s going to sing “all the garbage” she knows.

From the torch songs of the 30s, the Andrews Sisters of the 40s, to the teenybopper laments of the 50s and the “low-rent rock ‘n’ roll” of the 60s, Belle’s performance is a blend of high style and art and superselfexpression.

On New Year’s Eve she filled Philharmonic Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center – twice.

At midnight, with horns hooting and fireworks crackling out in the streets, she ascended from beneath the stage, diaper-clad, proclaiming 1973 with a banner wrapped around her ample decolletage.

To call her a character is feeble, milk-toasty language, an unworthy appellation for such a vibrant, gutsy girl. She’s a cult figure to be sure, but she’s also a phenomenon. The type which provokes newspaper headlines like, “Good, Better, Best, Bette-” And that accolade came from the New York Times.

We met in her Greenwich Village apartment – four rooms of over-stuffed and faded furniture, wall-to-wall records and a living room carpeted by a clutter of sheet music. On a 90-degree day there was kindling in the fireplace, peacock feathers and a palm tree in opposing corners and a clock on the mantle which probably hadn’t moved past 1 0 in days.

The door was wide open with the keys still stuck in the lock, and a faint breeze moved the hanging plants occasionally. Happy and free-spirited, in snug levis and bright halter, Bette drank iced coffee and chatted.

At a time when there is screaming nostalgia for the ’50s, when heads turn backward instead of confronting today, never mind tomorrow, Bette Midler is much more than a camp entertainer. Her performance may be a bawdy, bodacious vision, but Bette herself is a visionary. Her zest, her fun, her satire and her searching echo the heart and hinderland of America 1973.

She is expansive, in gestures and speech, energetic and warm. She smiles and laughs and mocks and mimics. She doesn’t take herself too seriously – at least on the surface.

When she pushed her hair back and did an early Rita Hayworth or stood coquettishly at the door of her garden for the enthusiastic photographer – “very Ida Lupino” – she is sending herself up and loving it.

“I really like people,” she says. “I like to talk to ’em. And I get personal real quick. I mean, I don’t snoop around in their lives or anything, but I like to talk to ’em about what they want to talk about. What they’re doing, where they came from, what they like. I like
to be friends.”

The warm reaching out is part of an interview too. Several times she stopped and asked, “What do you think?” And she really wanted to know. Bette talked about anything and everything except her age. “I’m a mystery woman,” she said, rolling her eyes which become tiny moons of merriment. “I’m ageless. Anyway it’s not important.”

The popular guess is 28-30 years old. She was born in Patterson, N.Y., but her father, a housepainter, soon moved the family to Hawaii in search of more idyllic environs. As a kid growing up Bette planned to be a great actress. After all, her mother had named her after Bette Davis but pronounced it “Bet.”

But she was fat, she was funny looking and she was Jewish in a community that didn’t particularly like lews. She had immortal longings but the only way she could express them was in the language of the Silver Screen. “I used to call people ‘dahling.’ ‘Oh my dear,’ I
would say.”

She drifted through school and a year of college, working summers in a pineapple factory, sorting out the good from the bad slices.

Bette escaped Hawaii by getting a )ob as an extra in the film Hawaii in 1965. She was shipped to Los Angeles for the filming in the studio and existed on a daily food ration of $2 in order to save what she earned. When the film finished she moved to New York.

She settled into the Broadway Central Hotel, a seedy establishment which is good for a singer’s breath control. And for five years she wandered around the Village looking for Bob Dylan, while supporting herself by typing and filing and being a salesgirl. She sang without
pay in Village coffeehouses.

Finally, she made it into the chorus of fiddler on the Roof, from which she graduated to Tevye’s eldest daughter. For a while it seemed like heaven. Then she reconsidered. “I’d come to New York to have a career not just be in one show. I wanted to work a lot, to grow, and the theatre was a closed market.”

So she started singing again. She worked hard at it – “the way I was brought up I was taught you must work” – and took lessons until one day her acting teacher called her up and said there was a guy who ran a posh, homosexual bath and he was starting entertainment.

Thus began her gig at the Continental Baths, “the tubs” to Bette, which characteristically and quixotically skyrocketed her to fame.

After singing to her male audience, starkers except for loincloth, for $50 a night, she became a cult figure, and Johnny Carson wanted her and David Frost wanted her and nightclubs all over the country wanted her.

When Bette talks about “the tubs” she just glows. Let others titter, she remains fiercely loyal “to the boys” – and they to her.

“Me and those boys,- we just went somewhere else. It was so much fun. I had the best time. It was something I just had to do, and I did it for them, and I did it all. And probably they saw the most inspired of it. It was really abandon.”

The word spread and the straighter, richer, crowd came on weekends to see the raffish little figure, with the orange frizzled hair and outlandish costumes sing songs left over from Your Hit Parade and American Bandstand.

The freak who sang at “the tubs” became the Divine Miss M, whose characterization was as finely honed as Charlie Chaplin‘s Little Tramp.

She started as a cult figure, but she soared to broader heights.

Pretty soon came her first album, The Divine Miss M, which featured songs like Do You Wanna Dance, Leader of the Pack, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, and Delta Dawn.

Two of Bette’s mentors are Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin, and she’s been compared to both – plus to )anis )oplin, Mae West, Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf. Some company for a gal who a year earlier couldn’t find an agent.

Bette camps up a lot of songs, like Going to the Chapel, but she’s also in her element when she’s wringing the last drop of emotion out of Am / Blue.

“I like torch singers who can make you cry. Ethel Waters used to kill me. When I first started listening, I heard the stories these women were telling; they were laying incredible stuff down. Their lives were fabulous and it was in their voices and their songs. There were some things I had to say about things, where I’ve been and who I’ve been with and the pain I know . . .”

When Bette talks about fabulous lives, she isn’t using an ordinary yardstick. Like a moth to the flame, she is attracted to the strange, the tortured, the painful people. She dismisses the mundane, the plastically funny molds of Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball.

“I’m fascinated by people whom I guess most people consider bad. People outside the pale, Tennesse Williams characters, people who have found themselves through no fault of their own in certain positions in life . . .alcoholics, junkies, prostitutes and Bowery bums. I like people who live lives outside the ordinary.”

She studies them – in the streets of New York and vicariously, by reading biographies of the great, soulful ladies. It’s almost as if, in encompassing another’s pain, hers is lightened.

“I like to observe the way people are. It’s hard to do on any level except a superficial one, but even then it’s very entertaining.

“Sometimes I make a judgment, but the only judgment I really make is whether I want to continue studying them. You know, if they know anything better than I do.”

The Divine Miss M tossed her head and rebuked herself. She says ‘You know’ or ‘Do you know what I mean?’ quite often, and she doesn’t like people who do that. Impatience bristled through her slight frame. She’s only 5 feet 1, and she bites her fingernails.

“I don’t know myself very well. I can never figure out if the way I lead my life is the way a human life should be lead. Like the fact that I have no patience, that I move around so much, so fast.”

She describes herself as “tense, temperamental and without patience.” The latter is probably a product of her desire “to get things done” and get them done well. She says she’s just “a schlepper,” and her publicist says she’s a perfectionist.

“I worry about problems more than most people. I went to a psychiatrist for a little wjiile. I am a do-it-yourself kind of person. If it doesn’t come from inside you, it isn’t valid. Other people can talk till they’re blue, but it doesn’t matter unless you know.”

She thought about her act: “I could be better. Good, better, best, Bette. I have severe bouts of unhappiness. I also have great moments of real joy about what I do. The most wonderful thing is having something to live for. A lot of people don’t have something to live for.

“I don’t really understand why people are on this earth. I’m not religious. I realize that there is a certain amount of time on earth you have to spend. The more enjoyable it is the faster it goes. ‘Living well is the best revenge for having to live at all.’ ”

She doesn’t think that’s depressing – just realistic. And then as she’s opened wide the door of her vulnerability, she snaps it shut.

“J’ai ne regrette rien. It’s been interesting so far.”

Now that she’s well on her way to riches and fame haven’t some of the shadows receded?

She may endure a New York summer without air-conditioning, she may still have a wardrobe of hand-me-downs from fans, but that’s her choice now.

Security or lack of it has never lurked in the shadows of her mind. It is not one of her hang-ups. “I have been poor a little, but I have never starved. I have never spent much money. Does it look like I’m a star? If I bought anything more to put into this place it would be over-flowing, gluttonous. I am not into possessions.”

She is thinking seriously of starting a scholarship for some black to study drama or films. “I think the black people have the biggest cause in this country.”

She is not essentially into causes. She’s not a joiner and is suspicious of anyone who has all the answers. Take the Women’s Movement. Bette herself has always felt liberated. But looking at Women’s Lib after its turbulent beginnings, she observed:

“Some good and some bad came out of it. It helped some people realize they were not alone and that they had no reason to feel guilty about their feeling, because everyone else was going through the same changes.

“But it also offered false hopes like psychedelics did in the early ’60s. People thought they’d find themselves through drugs but only made life harder for themselves. I think the Equal Rights Amendment was a good thing but all the rest of it isn’t the sort of thing which you can work out on a group basis.

Bette admits that she doesn’t have much time for anything but her work at the moment.

This summer, her rest period before another exhausting, cross-country tour, she’s taking singing, piano, dance and acrobatics.

“I watch politics now and again, and I dabble in scientific things. But I don’t have much interest outside my work unless someone brings it to me. I’m a dilettante. I don’t know much about anything other than what I do. I’m not exactly well-rounded.”

She’s not particularly comfortable with the cult crown and stardom she’s won. She’s not ready to become an institution.

“I’m quiet. I don’t bother anybody. I just have a few things I’d like to say, and I have these ways of saying ’em, and some of it is real good and cheerful, so it’s like healthy, you know, and I feel like I’m doing something constructive in the world . . .”

She pauses, shifts abruptly from the serious to the self-mocking. “I wanted to be a diplomat but I don’t think I was very diplomatic, so …”

Bette is upset by inefficiency and people who lie. She dislikes great, huge manufacturing companies that don’t care about people but police the air and streams. “But anyone can hate them, that’s easy.” So she switches into something more personal.

-I don’t like people who follow trends blindly. And people who have to be part ot a group like ‘hippies’, ‘college grads’, ‘ singles’ or ‘young marneds.’ ”

Speaking of young marneds – ”¢- I never once thought of getting married and seeing down. I never met anyone who I wanted to commit myself to. I know the way I do things^ and I like to have everything my way. Maybe (.could live with someone if we had a gigantic house with two wings – one for each ot us. And if I could find someone who was as strong as I am and nevertheless compatible”
Talking about her persona life was, she thought, “tacky,” which is also one of her favorite words. Like “pits” her description of the lowest, whether a club or a song ending.

But she did it anyway.

“I love to be in love. I’ve done it four times. But everything gets harder as you get older You don’t trust it. It isn’t really worth the trouble. I don’t pursue love so much now. And I expect less from all situations. I d |ust as soon have my own company as the company of one who I wasn’t crazy about.”

“People aren’t sentimental as they once were. I like people who are sentimental, who want to get involved in others’ lives. They want to hop into bed. You can, and you feel good for a while, then they go back to their own cocoons. It’s all very degrading.”

Although Bette doesn’t talk about her family much, one senses a certain closeness. Ot her parents and five siblings, she says, “We re fairly close. But we’re all individualists. She dedicated her album to ludith, her oldest sister. None of her family has seen the Divine
Miss M in concert “and they’re not gonna. It would just kill my father. My father * very, very conservative and I wouldn’t do it to him. He’s OK, you know; he’s a good man. He always tried real hard.”

Her mother, a movie buff, happily saves clippings. And of course they have seen her on television talk shows.

She sounded protectively maternal when she talked about her father. And Bette admits that there’s a lot of that in her. It could have started when she was a camp den mother at the tubs, but one guesses it has deeper roots.

“Yeah When I’m on tour I always play housemother. The first tour I went there were fights, I always tried to patch them up keep things running smoothly.

“I eel very irritable on the road. Tours get me down. I feel torn away from all the things I love, like the rug has been pulled out from under me.” . .

Nevertheless she’s going on another big one this fall, which will include Los Angeles.

She’ll tone down her raffish, Rabelaisian act a bit – not so many sequins and Carmen Miranda hats for the small town audiences But she’ll still be Bette, belting out those old favorites, sometimes tender sometimes bawdy, always with warmth and laced with inner laughter.

I think about her rendition of Friends – Bette really swings into it: ”You’ve got to have frieeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnds. And then she talks over the music: ‘We’re moving too fast, got to slow down.” That seems to be selfdirected advice.

“I get along with almost anyone. But I like to be around people who are alive and who are doing their best. My closest friends are people I have known since I have been in New York. I don’t want to give them up because they’re my only link with reality.”

“I feel myself slipping out of reality when I’m on tour. That’s when it’s frightening. Everytime I do a different project I change. The only time 1 remember what I really am is to confront people who knew me before all this happened. As long as I have this link I don’t have any fear of going under.”

She is wistful and she is searching. I am lonely sometimes.. .sometimes I think I haven’t got any friends left at all. I’ve traded in big friendships for the love of a great number of pTople. But you can’t take 10,000 people home to bed with you.”

The Divine Miss M shrugged, almost visibly shedding the creeping sadness. She switches, does Miss M, from a low to a quickly.

She showed me her favorite plant, a stag horn fern, which is not temperamental. It |ust grows anNowW that she’s famous, does she worry about what people think? About critics and ‘”Ttry not to worry. It takes too much time and enerRV that I need for my work. Pause.

“fi£?Vant to wrap it all up like a present and cwe it to people. If they dig it, they dig it, and K d’d”” ^8 »- wel1’ ‘^e they â„¢*A the vision. But it’s scary.”
How would she like people to think of her?

-lust the way they think of me,” she retorted, all oerkv and soaring into high. .”¢People think I’m fabulous, and that’s what I’ve always intended. I didn’t use to thmk I was verv crazy or interesting. But I rn the happiest I’ve been with myself. I like me.” D

Share A little Divinity

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.