The New Yorker
Bette Midler Looks Back on Her Autobiographical, Fantastical Children’s Book, “The Saga of Baby Divine”
By Rachel Syme
June 25, 2019
For Bette Midler, the early nineteen-eighties was a period of searching. Her début studio album, “The Divine Miss M,” from 1972, had catapulted her from cult lounge singer to national star, and the record’s success had led to film projects, such as the starring role, as a reckless rock star, in “The Rose” (1979), which earned Midler an Oscar nomination and spawned a hit single. But her follow-up film, the comedy “Jinxed!” (1982), famously flopped. She wrote a memoir, “A View From a Broad,” which was published in 1980 and well received, but her show-biz career was at an impasse. “I was waiting for something to happen, for something to come my way,” Midler told me recently by phone. One day, daydreaming at her home in Los Angeles, she came up with an idea for a children’s book: the origin story of a precocious baby, a tiny diva in the making, who combats self-doubt and learns to step into the limelight with the help of three heavily maquillaged fairy godmothers. Midler shared the idea with her close friend Jerry Blatt, a composer and lyricist for “Sesame Street,” who had co-written Midler’s “Clams on the Half Shell Revue.” “In show-business parlance, he thought it had ‘legs,’ ” Midler told me.
“The Saga of Baby Divine” was published in 1983 and became a New York Times best-seller. Midler went on a multicity book tour, sporting special hats that she commissioned to celebrate her new life as “an authoress.” (Her favorite was in the shape of a vintage typewriter, with keys that actually moved.) The story, written in a doggerel stuffed with show-biz references (Darryl F. Zanuck! The Folies-Bergère! Giselle!), begins with an uptight suburban couple named the Divines, who welcome a baby daughter into the world just as a comet enters the sky. They are hoping for a “Proper, Presentable Daughter”; “nothing too Madcap or Garish or Wacky” is allowed in their sleepy neighborhood. But, much to the couple’s consternation, their baby arrives on this earth wearing high heels, and within moments of being born begins crowing the word “more!” The book’s cartoon illustrations, by the Pop-Surrealist artist Todd Schorr, depict Baby Divine with the guileless face of a Kewpie doll and the sultry mien of a lounge singer, wearing a jaunty floral diaper and with a giant flower decorating her curlicues of orange hair. Not to be outdone by her infant avatar, Midler appeared on the book’s back cover in a matching outfit, though with a Hawaiian-printed bikini in lieu of the diaper.
Midler told me that she considers “Baby Divine” to be an autobiography. Growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii, she and her siblings were the only Jewish kids in her neighborhood; her parents were, as she put it, “as square as square could be.” “I always felt a little bit odd, because I was always listening to music and singing out loud,” she said. “I remember standing in the shower, singing at the top of my lungs, and people used to gather outside my apartment and listen to me sing. Because they were so struck that anyone was so loud.” She went on, “I felt that I was this Technicolor child in a black-and-white world. When I was finally liberated, when I finally came to New York and managed to get on the stage, with whatever it was that I had, I had finally gotten to Oz.”
The only people who understand Baby Divine are a trio of “Irrepressible Dames”: Lily, Tillie, and Joyce, who live together in a cramped boarding house filled with peacock feathers and oversized plants, in a section of town with a “Scurrilous Reputation.” (One of the book’s many quirks is a seemingly random capitalizations of words.) When they look out their window on the night of the baby’s arrival, the women see the sky over the Divine home “lit up like a Giant Marquee.” The caravan to the house and ring the front bell, elbowing past the Divines to gather beside the child’s cradle. Each woman bears a fabulous gift: Tillie her favorite feather boa, Joyce a “decrepit false nose,” and Lily a “Flutter of Rainbow and Dreams.” The women take their leave, but Baby Divine wiggles out of her cradle and goes searching for them. She rides on the back of a bird, and encounters a flame-eyed monster who calls himself Anxiety, but before he can prey upon her the three guardians swoop to the rescue. They encourage her to laugh and cry, and to dance and sing (the book includes two pieces of sheet music, one of them for a song called “More”), and teach her to tell the difference between “what’s Important and what / Is only a Crockful of Hooey.” By the time Baby Divine returns home, to newly appreciative parents, at the book’s end, it’s with the knowledge that her life will one day be fabulously lush and large.
I first read “The Saga of Baby Divine” in the stacks of a children’s library in Albuquerque, my home town, and I confess that I did not understand the half of it. Midler admits that the book is meant for older children, or maybe just for adults. Baby Divine herself sometimes struggles to apprehend the lessons of Lily, Tillie, and Joyce, as in this great extended passage in which Lily offers a taxonomy of laughter:
“Let’s start with the giggle,” said Lil, “it’s the
And rather undignified, too.
Giggles and titters are laughs that slip out
Whenever a laugh is taboo.
“Next there’s the chuckle, a satisfied laugh,
A cluck to yourself that feels good.”
Baby Divine fluffed some hairs on her head
And chuckled, ’cause she understood.
“But then there’s the mean and insensitive
Disrespectful and low on civility.
It’s a bit un peu trop for a child of your taste
And highly refined sensibility.”
Poor Baby Divine had to race to keep up—From Bette Midler’s ‘The Saga Of Baby Divine
She’d not heard these distinctions before;
She wanted to scream, “I have had quite enough,”
But out came her usual: “more!”
Even with my limited grasp of these rambunctious rhymes, the text of “Baby Divine” fascinated me. The story became imprinted in the still, small part of me who also longed for more, who felt like the Baby who did not quite fit in with my dusty desert town. I didn’t realize it then, but Midler’s myth, like so much of her music, was unapologetically about a struggle to belong. Lily, Tillie, and Joyce are ostensibly women, but Schorr, for his part, drew them a bit like drag queens, garishly glamorous exiles who can turn any scrap of errant cloth into a fashion moment, and whose ultimate gift to their young charge is the power of pageantry. They are also the characters in a topsy-turvy nativity story, the Three Wise Women to Midler’s anointed child. Whether or not you find it inspiring or galling to see a woman cast herself as a Tinseltown Messiah depends on what you find sacred.
Midler, who is seventy-three, recently starred in “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway, and will appear next in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix drama “The Politician” and in Julie Taymor’s Gloria Steinem biopic, as the pugnacious feminist lawyer Bella Abzug. In her spare time, she has been waging a Twitter battle against Donald Trump, who called her a “washed up psycho” on the platform earlier this month. (She responded with a Photoshopped still from the film “Hocus Pocus” that shows herself, Kathy Griffin, and Stormy Daniels as witches grouped around the President.) Midler’s daughter, Sophie, liked reading “The Saga of Baby Divine” as a child, but she’s grown now, and Midler keeps copies of the book, which is out of print, on a high shelf in her office. She said that before I called she hadn’t thought much about Baby Divine in a long time; “more!,” as a lifestyle, leaves little room for lingering in the past. “It’s a funny thing. Certain kinds of people do what they do—they look at it, they’re proud of it—and then they move right on,” Midler told me. “ ‘Thank u, next,’ as Ariana Grande likes to say.”
- Rachel Syme has been a contributor to The New Yorker, where she covers fashion, style, and consumer culture for On and Off the Avenue, since 2012