The legendary star of stage and screen lives in a tony Manhattan penthouse filled with more than four decades’ worth of memorabilia from her career, but with a new album coming out and an active commitment to social causes, the Divine Miss M is a long way from Sunset Boulevard
Author Catie Lazarus Illustration Raphaël Vincenz
When Bette Midler was starting out, she’d do anything. In 1970, while working as a performing waitress at the Improv comedy club in New York City, she got offered another gig at the Continental Baths, then a mecca for New York’s burgeoning underground gay culture. Midler had no idea she’d be singing in the sauna, never mind that the audience would barely be wearing towels. Still, the job paid $25 a night, so she said yes. Right before the emcee was to introduce her to the audience, he forgot her name. From offstage, Midler told him to just call her “divine.” So the emcee announced, “Here’s the Divine Miss M.” One Tony, three Grammys, three Emmys, four Golden Globes and an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame later, Midler has lived up to her chosen name. But what separates Midler from most entertainers is that after more than four decades in show business, she remains as driven, droll and, yes, divine as ever.
Midler phoned Hemispheres for this interview from her three-story penthouse overlooking Central Park on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She was in the midst of planning her upcoming annual masquerade Hulaween Benefit for New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit Midler founded 19 years ago to create green spaces in the city. She also released her 14th solo album, her first in eight years, last month. Called It’s the Girls, the record serves as a valentine to famous girl groups from the 1960s through the 1990s, including the Ronettes, the Exciters, the Supremes and TLC. We talked to Midler about the new album and her upcoming tour, but first we asked about her uncanny ability to move people to tears.
Hemispheres: You have the distinction of having made Johnny Carson, Oprah and Barbara Walters cry on television. Do your fans ever come up to you and just start crying?
Bette Midler: Yes, it has happened and sometimes it’s disturbing and other times I just want to hug them, especially the young girls who know me from Hocus Pocus [the 1993 horror comedy in which Midler plays a witch]. On Halloween, sometimes I’ll just come out with the teeth I wore filming. I stole them from the set.
Hemispheres: Wait, I meant girls who went to sleep-away camp and sat around the campfire singing your songs, like “The Rose” and “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
Midler: Is that what happens at camp? This is such a revelation. That’s sweet that people sing my songs at camp. I had no idea until just now.
Hemispheres: Any girl who has ever sat around a campfire has learned the lyrics to your songs. I am sure it’s a rite of passage, like learning how to ride a bike or a boy giving you a box of chocolates the day after Valentine’s Day, because they were 50 percent off.
Midler: I don’t think that happens to everyone.
Hemispheres: [Silence.] Yeah, well, “The Rose” really helped me get through those first crushes, dates and breakups. But camps and campgrounds should be paying you a royalty of some kind.
Midler: I never thought about that as a revenue stream. I didn’t go to camp, but I did work in a pineapple canning factory for, like, three summers, which was a blast. Everybody I looked up to where I grew up [in Hawaii] worked in a pineapple cannery. But I could never peel the pineapples and chunk them right. I was lousy at it. But now I feel so sad that they’ve moved all these pineapple plants out of Hawaii. They provided so many jobs for people in Hawaii and were such a point of pride. It’s truly sad. I had to sit shiva.
Hemispheres: Yeah, you seem to be very self-aware about how fortunate you are. You have a good sense of humility.
Midler: Honestly, it’s all due to my dad. He raised us to be very down to earth. He was a complete believer in equality, and I mean true equality for everyone. He had such a sense of ethics, and he grounded that into us, had us do the dishes from age six on. He had such a conscience. He could have been Atticus Finch. He was what I’d call a real old-school Democrat. Humility is the key word to describe him, and I think that quality is so often missing now. In some ways I wish it wasn’t in my bones, because it is a struggle to teach others.
Hemispheres: How did you impart that humility to your daughter [Sophie Von Haselberg], since she was afforded a type of lifestyle that you didn’t have growing up?
Midler: It’s a struggle for every parent, but Sophie was such a grounded kid. My husband and I were very honest with her, and she also possessed such a conscience.
Hemispheres: Speaking of your husband, Martin Von Haselberg, you’ve been together for almost 30 years. You two have separate bedrooms. Are separate bedrooms the key to a good marriage?
Midler: One of the keys, especially if he is a snorer. We have connected doors, and they are padded, but we can always see one another when we want, and we both have our own things going on. I’m up all night reading about bees on the Internet right now. Did you know that bees are dropping like flies?
Hemispheres: Incredible! Now that your daughter is an adult and acting, do you and your husband, who was also a performer, try to advise her?
Midler: Yes, but I’m not sure we’re helpful. So much of acting goes on inside you. Acting is so personal. Between my husband and myself, we do try to be supportive, but they have to make their own way. Sophie has. She’s appearing in a new Woody Allen film and does theater.
Hemispheres: How are things different for actors now?
Midler: It’s not as much about how talented you are. They don’t have to show as much talent. It’s very different.
Hemispheres: You’ve done Vegas, so you know how to do a show seven nights a week where you’re singing, dancing, acting and producing, but last year you had your first starring role on Broadway. In “I’ll Eat You Last,” you portrayed the infamous Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers, who worked with Barbra Streisand, Michael Caine and Faye Dunaway, and self-destructed careerwise. What was it like having to carry a show on Broadway?
Midler: Tough. The first preview, I knew I had forgotten a line, so I improvised. Then we had a party after, and I noticed that the director [Joe Mantello] and writer [John Logan] were frosting me. So I finally got the guts to go up to them, and they were clear that “this is not how we do it.” In theater, the writer is king. So I worked really hard and am proud of my work and glad so many of Mengers’ friends and people who knew her felt I got her.
Hemispheres: What was it like playing someone you actually knew?
Midler: It was surreal. I mean, I’m a complicated person, but Sue was really complicated. As an agent she had both a gigantic life and quite an ordinary one. I mean, she wasn’t a household name. She also thought these people she worked with were her friends. She could be cruel. It was sad. I knew her more toward the end of her life, so I sorta had her voice in my head. And I did a lot of research; I spoke with her friends, everyone. Her best friend, Joanna Shimkus Poitier [Sidney’s wife], took out a box of Sue’s things, which was mind-blowing. She had saved all of her letters and Polaroids from the time she was a refugee through her Hollywood parties, with you name it. She was also hilarious in her own way, and if she hadn’t been lazy she could have been an actress. But she fell into self-loathing, and she was more interested in the good life. She had no spirituality. Zero. Zip.
Hemispheres: You’re also doing all of these incredible philanthropic projects. I knew about New York Restoration Project, but then you also just launched a Kickstarter campaign for a theater.
Midler: You mean Stages for Success? I wanted to create theaters for kids in underserved schools, so I’ll do whatever I can to raise money—send letters, benefits, Kickstarter. This was on Crowdrise. We actually surpassed our goal. I match whatever we raise, but we have to make it sustainable, so that’s why we fundraise like mad. This last school we helped, in Far Rockaway, Queens, was ruined in Hurricane Sandy. These kids are so grateful for the theater space and auditorium. I love anything with children, art, music, theater. It’s really exciting.
Hemispheres: Are you excited about your latest album, It’s the Girls?
Midler: Oh yes. I love listening to those tear-jerking albums, so it was a lot of fun going through all of the songs. We started with, like, 80 songs and then had to pare down.
Hemispheres: Were there any songs or girl groups you left out?
Midler: Yeah. I don’t have the McGuire Sisters on it.
Hemispheres: Are you going on tour?
Midler: Yes, of course.
Hemispheres: You sang most of the parts on the album. Are you planning to do so when you go on tour?
Midler: No! I’ll have backup singers. I haven’t been on tour since, like, 2004. Now they have to do more and more—sing, dance, you name it.
Hemispheres: Well, you’ve come a long way. Weren’t you a typist before your show business career took off?
Midler: I was, and a traffic girl at two radio stations. Oh, it’s a good thing I got into showbiz.
Writer and talk show host Catie Lazarus swears she was kidding about the cut-rate Valentine’s Day chocolate.