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Date: 03-01-1997


Bette Midler appears to be afloat upon the Pacific Ocean on a blue-and-white upholstered chaise. Directly behind her, the sun is setting in a blaze of glorious color, silhouetting a distant island along the horizon. The scent of eucalyptus wafts by on the late afternoon breeze, exotic and soothing. The perfect, purposeless mantra of the surf fills the air.

"Isn't this fabulous?" sighs Midler, as she sips at a tumbler of red wine. "Yes. Twenty years from now I'll be back on some island somewhere in the South Pacific. Absolutely. I'm going
home." For just a moment as Midler lies here---in an apple-green suede jacket and blue jeans, her Jack Russell terrier, Puddles, curled up at her feet, seemingly en route to her island via
chaise longue--the scene has a surreal quality that suggests a campy stage version of the poem "The Owl and the Pussycat."

In reality, of course, the divine Miss Midler--accomplished cabaret singer, dancer, stand-up comedian, actress, producer, recording artist, author, activist and mother--is simply relaxing in front of the open windows of the master bedroom in her Laguna Beach, California, home. She appears to be adrift because this rambling, light-filled house is poised like a barnacle on the side of the high sea cliffs, cantilevered over the pounding main. And while it may seem perplexing to find Midler--the exuberant star of comedies like The First Wives Club and Ruthless People, the world-renowned entertainer whose entire 30-year career has been a spectacle of explosive humor and attitude--in such peaceful repose, the serenity that surrounds her is temporary. In the six months since the smash hit First Wives Club, Midler has starred in That Old Feeling, to be released in April, and in a 10-city concert tour and an HBO special (Diva Las Vegas). Soon she will return to Los Angeles for the next wave of work. But not before she gets a quick Pacific fix.

"I love this house. I bought it in 1988, when I was shooting the death scene from Beaches at Crystal Cove, five miles up the coast. I wanted something that would remind me of home," says the Hawaiian-born and -raised Midler as she takes in a big snootful of sea air. The five-bedroom structure, with three levels of terraces and a fanciful turret that houses a circular stairway leading right down to the sea, was built in 1928 and has been designated a historic landmark. For years Midler and her husband, artist Martin von Haselburg, and their daughter, Sophie (now 10), lived in nearby Los Angeles and came to the house almost every weekend and in summers. After the earthquake of 1994, the family moved to New York City, so visits are more sporadic now. "But this is the first place we think of when we come back," says Midler. "It's a real home. The house wakes up very quickly.

"I always wanted a Hawaiian beach bungalow, which is a very specific style," continues Midler. "It's a wooden-frame house, and very unpretentious. No carpets. No thick shag rugs. It's a house where you can track sand in and don't have to worry--just sweep up. When I saw this house, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it." Which was almost nothing. Once the house was hers, Midler consulted decorator Jarrett Hedborg, who had helped her with her Los Angeles home. They decided to bleach the wood floors, whitewash the dark wood beams in the cathedral-ceiling living room, add one bathroom and renovate another. Period. "This is a bare-bones house," says Midler. "There is no screening room, no pool. All it has is beautiful sky and sea and the island across the way and the sun and the moon. That's all I care about."

For those who judge Midler by her professional persona only, her South Pacific background may come as a surprise; they're more likely to guess Brooklyn as her hometown. Indeed, it is paradoxical--the nice Jewish girl who grew up in Hawaii, the brash urban wit with the sugar-cane roots. Midler is the first to admit that she is "a walking dichotomy. It's an odd combination, but I feel very lucky to have my island upbringing," she says. "My parents were eccentric. They left New Jersey and moved to Hawaii in the thirties, when no one would ever think of doing that. They never went back." Midler's father was a housepainter who worked for the Navy; her mother, a housewife who struggled to create an orderly life for her husband and four children.

"As a kid I didn't really have a home--we lived in an apartment, but there wasn't anything beautiful to look at," Midler remembers. "Not one thing. As a result I think I have a very strong need to see beautiful, to have beautiful things around me. My older sister had the need worse than I have it, but she died very young." As she alludes to a sister who was struck and killed by a car in 1968, something seemingly impossible--temporary speechlessness--overcomes Midler. There are other pockets of sadness. Both of Midler's parents have died, leaving her with two siblings--another sister, and a brother, who is brain-damaged. "I thank my parents, publicly and privately, every day. They were extremely down-to-earth people. They were fabulous," says Midler.

Indeed, the Laguna house seems to act as a kind of canvas for all Midler's family memories--light and dark--as well as the passion for beauty that resonates within her. Much of the house's glory is courtesy of Mother Nature, for the view from every room is from-here-to-eternity beautiful. But the artful touch of Mother Midler is visible everywhere as well. Stencils of marlins and pineapples surround the living-room fireplace, and the big blue dining-room table is painted with palm trees, sailboats, marlin, pineapples, grass huts and hula dancers. Midler commissioned friend and artist Nancy Kintisch (who also stenciled the fireplace and dining-room table) to create a huge tile mosaic of a woman hula dancing above the word Aloha, on a hallway floor leading to a guest suite.

The Manhattan-Tropicana aura is not the only contradiction Midler's personality presents. Her manner, for instance, is both saucy and shy. And although she is a full-blown star of television and film, for her own entertainment she turns to books. She has some serious reading in tow today--Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian and Jocelyn Fujii's Under the Hula Moon--but poking out of her canvas bag are two tabloids, the Star and the National Enquirer. ("I was bored!" she yelps defensively.) As wild and risque as Midler can be as a performer--after all, this is a woman who played the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse and nightclub in New York City--she seems surprisingly conservative and even prudish as a mother. "Yeah, I have TV rules," she says. "Here's my TV rule: NO TV."

Even Midler's physical look is unusual; big-bosomed with slender, shapely legs, she gives the appearance of being both full-bodied and petite at the same time. "Oh, it's a struggle," moans Midler when she talks about dressing this body. "The combination of big bosom and big arms can make you look very wide. But I have an eye for what suits me. I exercise a lot--six days a week--and I love it. I run on the treadmill and I lift weights."

Perhaps the most surprising thing to emerge as Midler talks is that this extraordinary superstar has a passion for ordinary family life. She is an intensely devoted mother and wife. "Sophie is the greatest thing that ever happened to me," Midler says of her daughter and only child. Hus-band Martin rates a rave as well. "He's a totally, completely involved father. I'm so lucky. He's very wise, and he's a real rascal with Sophie. He taught her German, all this wild stuff. The two of them speak German together, and I'm like, you taught my child that word?"

Martin is also the family cook. "My husband can cook anything," says Midler. "Sophie and I are only handmaidens, the scullery maids to the maestro. We wash, we scrub, and we peel. Sometimes we are allowed to chop. Occasionally there is a request that I make my great potato salad--my mother's old recipe." The three of them eat dinner together every night at home in New York. "And we cook our dinner," says Midler, narrowing her eyes to a tough-guy squint. "We don't order in." Midler, who is a dedicated environmentalist and the founder of a street- and park-cleaning group called the New York Restoration Project, even takes the time to compost in the city. It all sounds so wholesome and--so cozy. "You could kill yourself, it's so cozy," says Midler with a quiet smile.

The sun has nearly dropped below the horizon outside Midler's bedroom window. If von Haselburg were here, this would be the Bloody Mary hour. They would be sitting with Sophie on the terrace below, watching the sun set behind San Clemente Island and anticipating what treat chef von Haselburg had cooked up for dinner. Afterward there would be kitchen cleanup, followed by a video or perhaps a family game of Scrabble or Monopoly. Then reading, and to bed.

"I miss them so much," sighs Midler, who has been in rehearsal on the West Coast for almost three weeks. "But I'm making my plans. Being away this long has upset me. In the future, when I work I'd like to work near my family.

"The other thing I'd like to do is stop," Midler adds. "I'm trying to think ahead. I don't want to go on so long that I'm so decrepit that I fall off the stage. Which is what happens. You're blinded by the light and suddenly--boom--there you are in the pit. I want to see my daughter grow. I want to watch my husband--cook," she says with a laugh. But can there be any challenges left for Midler? "To get through a college chemistry class would probably be a challenge," she suggests. "To learn my multiplication tables--that's a good place to start.

"I love making pictures, but I feel that I've done a lot. I've done a whole lot," adds Midler. "Creativity is good for the soul, and work is a process of self-definition, of finding out who you are. But once you find out--" Midler pauses for a second as the sun drops out of sight. "You can lie down," she finishes, with a triumphant smile. "I have a strong nesting instinct. But after I had my daughter I was a maniac. I was living the Martha Stewart life."

"I love arts and crafts--just love 'em. When someone says to me, 'I had it made,' that's the living end."

"I felt that if I had a serene and beautiful home, my life would be serene and beautiful. It's not really true--but it helps."