In a blue-and-white smock with red sandals coordinating her Bicentennial-look, the star shimmied along New York’s 42nd Street on a recent afternoon. Some of the drifters and drunks recognized and swooped down on her, and she fluttered her fingers in self-defense. She slunk past a peep show window, then nipped into an alley. A second later her bright red head popped out—the hand clutching the throat is her own, in the classic strangulation bit of vaudeville. “I wouldn’t say I invented tack,” Bette Midler observed, nasally, “but I definitely brought it to its present high popularity.” Though meant as a self-effacing remark, it is true. Her virtual one-woman Broadway show this season has been the biggest hit by a solo artist since she herself last brightened the Great White Way in 1973.
It was getting late, and Bette sped three blocks to the Minskoff Theatre. In just a few hours she and The Divine Miss M, her adopted alter ego, were due on stage. After a 15-month separation, which allowed Bette time to sort out her personal life, the two personas had come together again in the blockbuster Clams on the Half Shell Revue. The Lilliputian (5’1″) lady of song describes herself: “Bette Midler is a nice girl, but The Divine Miss M is hell-on-wheels. She runs around the room, breathes heavy and puffs me up. She changed me from a pauper to a princess. Yet I was glad not to see her, to be quiet for awhile.”
When Miss M was first and last on Broadway, at the Palace in 1973, she set that theater’s box-office record for advance ticket sales in a single day—$160,000. Before that her national concert tour grossed over $3 million. Her full-throttle delivery of nostalgia cum schlock and her raunchy-campy flair for parody were catapulting her toward massive stardom. Two albums had gone gold to confirm it. When Bette abruptly dropped out for more than a year, show business minds boggled. Was she going to blow it all—the record deals, the TV specials, Las Vegas, the movies?
At 29, Midler has confounded the industry again, coming back to triumph. Clams’ run was extended from four to 10 weeks. The Minskoff’s box office set a new one-day record of over $200,000; the show overall will have grossed some $1.8 million. Most critics hurrahed. Packed audiences rolled over and begged. In the past Midler’s devotees were largely the gaily liberated; this time they were as broad as her repertoire, spanning four decades.
Directed by Joe Layton in vast, goofy sets by Tony Walton, she was a showpiece of exhausting versatility, singing, dancing, bringing an SRO house to its feet night after night. She tackled Elton John’s The Bitch Is Back in trampish rapport with The Harlettes, her backup group; tenderized When a Man Loves a Woman; and belted out favorites from her albums like Friends and Delta Dawn. The act, which she styles “trash with flash” and “sleaze with ease,” included ad-libbed asides—”I digress”—a rekindling of risqué Sophie Tucker jokes and a collection of shrewd impersonations. In the second act she was joined by big-band vibraphonist Lionel Hampton in a guest spot, inspiring nostalgiacs as much as Bette’s Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.
Hurrying into the Minskoff that afternoon, Bette changed into pink cushioned slippers and clambered into the orchestra pit to shine up her act. At the piano, her musical director, Don York, banged out frantic chords as she deliberately gasped her way through “here it comes…here it comes…here it comes…my 19th nervous breakdown.” York started to hum along, and she eyed him curiously. “Don’t sing, honey,” she jabbed. “You play. I’ll sing.” York chain-smoked cigarettes, Bette nibbled on sliced steak from Sardi’s. The rehearsal ended at 6 p.m.
York, who signed on with Midler last December, says, “Bette knows how to put a ballad over. The first time she did If Love Were All in rehearsal, she broke down and couldn’t get through it. She is open to a lot of pain as well as a lot of joy.”
One factor in Midler’s taking her sabbatical, York says, was the decision by her previous musical director, Barry Manilow, to strike out on a solo performing career (PEOPLE, Aug. 26, 1974). “They had a strong communication worked out,” York explains. “It was hard for Bette to accept someone else’s presence.” (Manilow broke in York as his successor.)
Betty and Barry met five years ago at Manhattan’s Continental Baths, where she performed for $50 a night for 16 weeks before an all-male and heavily homosexual audience. Overnight she became a cult figure. Manilow co-produced Bette’s first album, The Divine Miss M, and its successful follow-up, Bette Midler. He says of her simply, “She is the best entertainer I’ve seen in my life.”
Bette Midler was born in Honolulu. She does not speak of her childhood there with affection. “My father was a bellower,” she recalls. “To get a word in you had to bellow back. He loved a good argument; he loved the adrenalin rush.” Being Jewish in a community that had no particular regard for Jews further chafed her. (Bette’s father—a house painter for the Navy in Honolulu—has yet to catch her act, vaguely appalled by what he has read of it. But she recalls her mother, who would not let her wear a bra until age 13 despite an ample cleavage, showing up at a 1973 performance and screaming, “Fabulous…I didn’t know she was so witty.”)
The young Bette developed an interior life, escaping into trashy southern novels. One day she would draw on these inner reserves to bring a certain tenderness to her life and her art. In her junior year of high school Bette met a friend who “was hysterically loud and loved noise and a good time. I fell in love with her,” Bette remembers. “She was the most adorable thing. She made me feel okay to be who I was, enjoyable, good to have around. My family never made me feel this way. She drew me out of myself.”
At the end of Bette’s freshman year at the University of Hawaii, her friend died in an auto accident; five years ago Bette’s sister Judith, to whom she dedicated her first album, was killed in a car crash in New York’s theater district. “She was studying to become a movie-maker,” Bette says, her head drooping. “She was the most brilliant, perceptive, sensitive…” Another sister, Susan, age 30, teaches the mentally retarded in Honolulu; a brother, Daniel, age 24, is himself mentally retarded.
Bette left home for Los Angeles after a bit part in the film Hawaii in 1965, then on to New York, supporting herself by random jobs—file clerk at Columbia University, go-go dancer in Union City, N.J. She became an unsalaried singer in Village coffee houses. After a few bleak years, she landed a chorus spot in Fiddler on the Roof, soon graduating to the role of Tevye’s eldest daughter. Then one day she learned the Continental Baths was starting entertainment. From there she sprang, on gaudy platform heels, to both a Grammy and a Tony in 1973, and a gold mine. This was a girl who “couldn’t imagine parents tighter than mine.”
Bette met Aaron Russo, her manager, while working small clubs in Chicago. His career was at low ebb, hers beginning to catch fire. “We met,” she says, “and it was instant love and devotion. Ours is a long and interesting tale…ah, Aaron and Bette. There’s a great deal of love and terrible rows. He’s a lot like my father. He’s a bellower and in that way he intimidates people, but he’s a real softie underneath. But that’s what my mother says about my father, and I don’t believe it.”
Coming off a Russo-directed four-month concert tour in 1973, Bette recalls, “I was so battered emotionally and physically that I thought I would break down. I’d been in four or five cities a week with the same people who would always come to me with their problems. I had no one to talk to. Aaron and I had one of our famous battles, and he didn’t go on tour.” She decided she had to split. After luxuriating on the Caribbean island of Grenada (“I caught the first plane out after the revolution”) and visiting her family in Honolulu, Bette toured France for several months. “I had a mad, torrid love affair with a Frenchman,” she recalls casually. “I really liked him for about two days, and then he held me captive. I want to go back to Paris. I loved the food. The people are awful. Next time I want to tell ’em so.”
Russo—who is legally separated from his wife of seven years—remains in firm control of Midler’s career, if not her entire life any longer. (Bette’s liaisons, averaging one a year, have been mostly with musicians and men on the staff of her shows.) Russo’s present plans for his star include cutting an album this summer, a cross-country tour this fall and a “movie deal for a feature starring Bette Midler that is close.” A television special is scheduled for March.
Gypsy-like in jeans, a blouse tied at the midriff and a faded scarf covering hair curlers, Bette lives contentedly in a modest Village house. Her living room is wall-to-wall books and records, including every album made by her idol Aretha Franklin. A professional hair dryer decorates the small study, and there is a single, tiny bedroom. She is attended by a male live-in secretary. “I think I’m a millionaire,” she haphazardly responds to a question about finances. “I’m learning to have a good time with money. You have to learn to spend it when you come from none. Or else I give it away to Channel 13 or Ramsey Clark.”
With Clams on the Half Shell now a memory, Midler and Russo are especially intrigued by TV. Michael Eisner, ABC vice-president for prime-time series, says, “We’re in discussion right now with Bette Midler. In my opinion she has tremendous television potential.” Perhaps thinking of Bette’s uninhibited ways, he adds, “You cannot judge her performance in one situation and automatically assume she would do the same thing in a different medium.” Recently, however, Bette, appearing on a United Jewish Appeal telethon in New York, sang four songs and announced she would drop her black sequin dress for a pledge of $5,000. A caller offered the sum immediately. The Divine Miss M stripped down to a chemise slip and shrieked “Kiss my tuches!”
Bette is happily eyeing her television prospects, “but not a series,” she told one reporter. “I couldn’t cut that Mary Tyler-Rhoda crap.” What about a film autobiography of Bette Midler? “Not me,” she says, recoiling from the suggestion. The Divine Miss M? “No. Well,” says Bette Midler, “maybe something like The Perils of the Divine Miss M.”