In Print

Books and Articles


Author: George Kalogerakis
Date: November 2003

Better Than Ever
By George Kalogerakis –
More Magazine

With a coast-to-coast concert tour starting next month, a new album and a starring role in one of next year’s hottest films, Bette Midler is – most definitely – still devine.

It’s not that she hasn’t already been funny and charming. She has discussed her theories regarding the food chain (“Cooking leads to gardening.”), and how donating land to conservancies is the best thing you can do for the next generation (“I have little bits all over the country that I’m saving for posterity.”). She’s talked about her daughter (“She’s sixteen – oy. We spend a lot of time on her. We’re hoverers: We hover.”) and speculated on how she herself is seen by said daughter (“As a total nut-job.”). She has even performed – a capella, seated on her sofa with eyes half-closed and a cup and saucer resting in her lap, but still gesturing, pointing, selling it – a bittersweet, unrecorded song she’s written about a stand-up comic (“Whaddaya got if ya ain’t got your health?/And seriously folks, I’m killing myself.”). All very entertaining.
But it’s the walk that does it. Dressed in a simple black top, a light skirt, hoop earrings and tinted glasses, Bette Midler is leading me through the “not really Art Deco but it’s close” Fifth Avenue penthouse she shares with her husband, performance artist Martin von Haselberg, and their daughter, Sophie. We’re bound for the great outdoors: a tour of her two-level garden (the presumed result of von Haselberg’s serious cooking habit).

But before admiring the mint and chives, there’s that walk to appreciate: a singular strut negotiated on black Prada pumps, purposeful yet dainty, and altogether unmistakable. She pushes a door open, and click-clacks into the sunshine – all five-foot-two of her. You want to applaud.

“We have our sweet peas,” Midler is saying, indicating as much with an outstretched arm. “We have our birches. We have our dead hydrangeas. Ah…my compost,” she adds, tenderly. “I’m very proud of my compost.”
Back inside, Midler reluctantly offers up some décor details. “A lot of this is Josef Joffman furniture,” she says. “But the best thing about this apartment is that it has light. If I didn’t see the sky, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Wait, is that another staircase, going down? It is.

So, this is a triplex?

“I’m so embarrassed. I’m so embarrassed. Yes, it’s a triplex. But I worked hard.”
After a relatively quiet period, Midler, 57, is working hard again – no resting on the laurels of four Grammys, three Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a Tony. Next month, she begins a new concert tour, which she calls her “I’m Not Retiring And You Can’t Make Me” gig. She’s also collaborated with her old accompanist, Barry Manilow, on Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook, a tribute album just out from Columbia Records. To top it all off, she’s filming a remake of The Stepford Wives with Nicole Kidman, due next year (“This one’s a comedy,” she says. “I have high hopes for it.”).

It all smacks of synergy, but Midler says there’s no grand design; she is simply happy to be making a movie again, happy to be “getting back to my old thing” – the stage – and, expecially, happy not to be doing television anymore. Doing Bette, which ran for 18 episodes on CBS in 2000 before being deep-sixed, was, she says, “unbearable.”
“You have to be funny every single week; if you aren’t, you’re dead, you are just plain dead,” she says, seated again in her bright and airy living room. In front of us are tea and cookies, behind us Central Park and, yes, a great deal of sky.

“It was my own fault,” she says of the show’s ultimate demise. “If I hadn’t gone on David Letterman and said that I was a dung beetle pushing a heap of poop up the mountain, I’m sure I’d still be on the air, even with my crummy ratings. But I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut.”

Bette got mixed reviews, endured a wholesale change of cast – and coast – before the end finally came. “I was so happy,” Midler says. “I was terribly relieved. And then it hit me that I had had this big flop. So I sank. I closed a lot of doors, said good-bye to a lot of people. That old model – me as a production executive – didn’t seem to be working.”
Hollywood, she says, underwent an entire generational change in the early Nineties. “It was almost overnight, and it was severe. People you had been working with for fifteen years were suddenly all gone. And the new people didn’t want to see those old familiar faces anymore. So here I am, sort of starting up again – sort of on my own terms.”

Midler’s original start-up was in Hawaii, where she was raised; her father was a house painter for the U.S. Navy. (“When I came to New York, I said, ‘What’s wrong? It’s gray,’” she laughs.) In 1965, when she was 19, a bit part in the film Hawaii brought her to Hollywood; the next year, a role in Fiddler on the Roof brought her to Broadway. Soon enough, she was delighting the gay clientele of the Continental Baths in New York as a flamboyant chanteuse, backed by the equally unknown Manilow. Her early records, beginning in 1972 with The Divine Miss M, were winningly retro, drawing on the Andrews Sisters-era hit parade, on girl groups and show tunes. They – along with her over-the-top live performances – established her as a cult star. In the years that followed, Midler toned it down enough to enter the mainstream, becoming a talk-show favourite, and Oscar-nominated actress (The Rose, 1979), an almost-has-been (Jinxed, 1982) and a movie star for Disney (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Outrageous Fortune, Ruthless People). More films, good and bad, followed – including Beaches, that mother of all chick flicks. So did the monster (perhaps in more than one sense) hit “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” “That song,” she says, still bemused by its pervasive popularity, “put me into some kind of strange place where I’m standing all by myself.”

Apart from a Divine Miss Millennium tour in 2000, this is Midler’s first time out on the road since the 1993-94 Experience the Divine tour, when she sold out a remarkable 30 nights at Radio City Music Hall in New York. “This time I’m working with horn,” she says. “I was gonna call the show Kiss My Brass, but then I thought people would expect a really big band, which I don’t have. But I’ve never taken horns on the road before, and I’m excited to see if I can sing louder than they can.”

Don’t be surprised if she does. After more than three decades, Midler has had a lot of practice. “It’s very curious to be this old,” she says. “I’ve never been this old. I kind of don’t dislike it.” In any event, she certainly doesn’t feel any trepidation about hitting the road again. “Being on the stage and singing and telling jokes, that’s second nature to me,” she says. “The actual putting the thing together is difficult. But we’ve been working on this for a long time, so maybe this time I won’t feel so terrified. And if I do,” she shrugs, “there’s always Klonopin.”

One thing is clear: Midler has the kind of star quality that has enabled her to weather changing audiences, tastes and trends. How does she explain her enduring appeal? “When I started, I think people were relieved to find me, because I didn’t say, ‘I’m only gonna do one kind of music,’” she explains. “I was outrageous and bawdy, and that was a great relief, too – because suddenly, there was a younger person who people could go to and still enjoy themselves in the old way.” She pauses. “Then, when I started making pictures, that gave me a legitimacy that a lot of people my age didn’t have – people who were recording but didn’t cross over into movies. And then I resurrected myself as a comedienne.”

So where does she fit in? “You tell me,” she says, rubbing her palms together. “Where am I?”

Well, maybe the only real constant is the personality?

“I think that’s true. If you wanted to say the personality has a place in the pop world, I think that’s accurate.”

Still: which talent – singing, dancing, acting – gives her the greatest satisfaction? “I really like being funny,” Midler says without hesitation. “I really like making people laugh.”

That inclination, as it turns out, is due at least in part to her husband. Midler met Martin von Haselberg, then a commodities trader/performance artist (stage name: “Harry Kipper”), in 1982; their first date was two years later. She was at a low point personally and professionally, with no idea of what she wanted to do with her life. Von Haselberg, she has said, helped her to hone – and appreciate – her gift for comedy. The two fell in love, and were married in Las Vegas two months later – appropriately enough, by an Elvis impersonator. Their daughter, Sophie, was born three years later, in 1987. “Her arrival meant we became a family,” says Midler. “It’s been quite a ride.”

Midler retrieves a photo album she and von Haselberg put together for their daughter, which chronicles the couple’s recent trip to Europe. The pictures are typical of any Grand Tour, with requisite shots of the two grinning at outdoor cafes and posing next to statuary. However, they’re accompanied by some very funny rhyming verse, hand-written by Midler for Sophie’s amusement. “We like culture, but my husband likes it in small doses,” she says. “Mostly, we like to eat, and drink wine. A lot of our travels are based on, ‘What can we eat when we get there?’”

At home, the family invariably eats together. “We go to a lot of restaurants,” Midler says. “When you’re in your twenties, you go to rock shows; when you’re in your thirties, you go to dinner. It starts, and that’s it; you just keep on going.” Still, they also try to eat in occasionally – in part because both von Haselberg and Sophie love to cook. “We’ve sat down to dinner almost every single night of my daughter’s life,” she says. “I think that’s really good for a kid. You find out what they did, who their friends are, what they’re talking about, who they’re listening to. All important stuff.”

When she isn’t eating, Midler likes to hear live music, go to the theater and read. She devotes a few hours a week to her role as founder of the New York Restoration Project, which cleans up parks and abandoned public places. Oh, and she likes to go on drives. “We driiiiive!” she trills. “My husband loves to drive! We go to farm country. We bought some land, but we didn’t build, because I was too depressed to build after 9/11. So we visit our land: We sit. We watch birds. We check for ticks.”

Her downtime when she’s touring is not quite as bucolic. After she performs, she likes to unwind with a couple of glasses of pink champagne. “Then I go home and I crash,” she says. “On the road, there’s nothing else to do. I mean, you can get loaded. You can play chess. You can play poker. You can’t get laid.” She leans forward, fingertips together. “The women’s version of this job is really different from the men’s. We don’t have anywhere near the fun that the guys have.” Her eyes narrow. “Women don’t have the capacity for alcohol and drugs that men do. And you also can’t pick people up the way men do, you just can’t do it! I did a Behind the Music, and it was the dullest one they ever did. I think what happened to me was that I had a broken fingernail.”

Still, to her fiercely devoted fans, Midler is anything but dull. So just who is her public, anyway? For the first time, she seems a little unsettled. “I actually don’t know,” she says finally. “I think it’s pretty…I don’t know how to say this without insulting some demographic.”

Oh, go on. Insult away.

“There’s this public the marketers really pay attention to, and then there’s the rest of us,” she says. “I think people over thirty are getting the shaft. But I go out in the street and I see real people doing real things. They go to the store, they buy their peanuts. It’s like the difference between MTV and Mister Rogers. You don’t want to be on MTV-time all the time. You don’t want to spend your whole life overcaffeinated. Do you?”

Perhaps it’s this kind of attitude – sassy, street-smart, pragmatic – that has made Midler such an enduring star. And even if she’s been worried in the past about her future, the same can’t be said of her fans. “I’ve had bad patches,” she says. “But I don’t have enough of them to get the major sympathy vote. I get, like, ‘Oh, she’ll pull through – she’ll be okay.’” She sighs, and gives me a mock-crestfallen look. “The public, they don’t really worry about me. They know I’m a survivor.”