Bette Midler, photographed at the St. Regis hotel in New York in early November, is one of this year's recipients of Kennedy Center Honors recognizing lifetime artistic achievement. The Kennedy Center Honors gala is Dec. 5, and it will be broadcast Dec. 22 on CBS. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Bette Midler: The people’s diva

‘I don’t give myself a lot of pats on the back. I’m too busy moving on,’ says the actress-comedian-singer

13 min

NEW YORK — Growing up in Hawaii, Bette Midler had no idea what she looked like. “None,” she says. It’s a stunning admission from someone so magnetically present, who has devoted so much talent and energy over the years to pushing outsize versions of herself to center stage. This is the Divine Miss M talking, after all! The erstwhile darling of the Continental Baths, the bawdy headliner of “The Clams on the Half Shell Revue,” the woman behind Dolores De Lago, the toast of Chicago!

Her childhood home near the Pearl Harbor naval base, where her father worked as a civilian, had only one mirror, Midler explains, and “we had very few photographs. Very few.” When success arrived when she was an adult, she was hit by a revelatory jolt. “Once I started getting photographed, I would look at these photographs. I’d say, ‘That’s not me. That’s not what I look like.’ I didn’t recognize myself.”

This was not the sort of reflection I was expecting from Midler, who, at nearly 76, is preparing for yet another photogenic moment, as a Kennedy Center Honors recipient. Then again, even her “entrance” on this Friday afternoon in October was unexpectedly muted. In person, she exhibits what David Hyde Pierce, her co-star in the hit 2017 Broadway revival of “Hello, Dolly!,” calls “a shocking petiteness.” In fact, as her publicist and I waited for her outside the Shubert Organization doors on West 44th Street, she breezed right past us, undetected.

“She is a very refined, educated, old-fashioned kind of person who’s delicate and vulnerable,” says Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, who has been a close friend of Midler’s for many years. “At the same time, she can put on the brassy, loud, funny, ‘cynical broad’ side of herself.”

The brassy, loud and funny side is the one that propelled Midler to stardom and still shows up in places like her Twitter account (2 million followers), where she has been known to mock Republicans and recently refereed a fight between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and billionaire Elon Musk with the tweet: “Girls, girls! You’re both pretty!” But that’s not the dominant aspect of her personality on this October afternoon, as she sits in a chic black suit and black loafers and converses, eagerly and thoughtfully, in what was once the Times Square apartment of Jacob J. “J.J.” Shubert — a co-founder with his brothers of the Shubert theater empire.

The Shubert group owns and operates 17 of Broadway’s 41 theaters, and its properties figure prominently in Midler’s career: It was in a Shubert house in 1967 that she landed her first major Broadway part, taking over as Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel in the original production of “Fiddler on the Roof” (you know, “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match … ”). And the flagship playhouse, the Shubert Theatre, directly across 44th Street from J.J.'s apartment, is where Midler scored her biggest Broadway triumph 50 years later as Dolly Gallagher Levi — a performance that won her a Tony and left fans’ hands raw from applause.

Bette Midler and ‘Hello, Dolly!’ are a perfect match. Don’t tell me you’re surprised.

“I don’t give myself a lot of pats on the back. I’m too busy moving on,” Midler says as she considers the meaning of a career now selected for national distinction. “I mean, I was on a straight path, I was consumed by something. I never figured out if it was hormonal or if it was some sort of glitch in my makeup, but I was consumed by something. And I never wavered from that, from some crazy goal. And now that I am at my age, I have to stand back and take a minute and say, ‘What the hell was that?’ ”

The observation prompts an involved joke that she prefaces with “I can’t tell you because it’s vulgar” — which of course is exactly the kind of joke you want Bette Midler to tell. So she proceeds: It’s about an old, desperate-to-work stage actor who’s hired to travel from New York to a Cleveland theater to deliver a single line, one that he anxiously practices over and over on the way there: “Hark! I hear a cannon!” “Hark! I hear a cannon!”

“He jumps out of a cab,” Midler says, “he runs into the theater, he runs onto the stage, something goes ‘BOOM!’ and he yells, ‘What the f--- was that?!’ ”

Midler tells the joke with breathless relish. It’s classic Borscht Belt material, a reminder that despite all her campy touring acts and concerts in clubs and gay bathhouses in the 1960s and ’70s, Midler’s heart belongs to the earlier eras, to standards by the likes of Frank Sinatra and the Andrews Sisters. Those acts were, in fact, her ticket to perform the older music she loves — “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” anyone? — in times when rock seemed to drum out everything that came before.

That’s how Dolores De Lago, Midler’s dishy mermaid character, was born.

“I happen to have a real fondness for lounges and I have a real fondness for lounge singers, because I’ve been one,” she says. “And it’s actually a fabulous life. I mean, I just loved it from the time that I did it. So the other reason I chose lounge was because I love the music. I wanted to be able to sing those songs without getting, you know, harassed, because a lot of people turned their backs on that kind of music in the late ’60s.”

These songs from musicals changed my life. Now they can sustain me.

Perhaps her most widely witnessed demonstration of that throwback devotion came about after a startling invitation. For Johnny Carson’s last night hosting “The Tonight Show” in 1992, the longtime talk-show maestro asked Midler to be his final guest. For the occasion she delivered an emotional rendition of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” the Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen ballad from 1943. The performance was watched by 55 million people.

To this day, Midler says, she’s not sure why Carson chose her for his sign-off. But one can hazard a guess. Just as the couch on Carson’s set was a way station for talents of every era, Midler was always a kind of crossover artist, one who has been able to span genres, in movies particularly, and remain a touchstone figure.

Or, as she puts it: “I’m the people’s diva.”

Iris Rainer Dart, who wrote the novel “Beaches,” which was adapted into the 1988 cinematic tear-jerker starring Midler as C.C. Bloom, lifelong best friend to Barbara Hershey’s terminally ill Hillary Whitney Essex, says it is Midler’s emotional accessibility that anchors her in the public imagination.

“I was always very popular at United Jewish Appeal ladies’ lunches,” Dart recounts, “and first and always when I asked for questions the first one was, ‘What’s Bette Midler really like?’ Whether I was talking about ‘Beaches’ or something that had nothing to do with ‘Beaches’ they would say, ‘If I ever met her, we’d be best friends.’ ” (They probably also heard in their heads the hit song Midler recorded for the movie, Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.”)

For Midler, once upon a time, performing was as exotic as the tropical flowers she grew up around in the small town of Aiea, near Honolulu. She adored her mother, who stayed home to take care of her and her two sisters and brother. “When I was in first grade I sang ‘Silent Night’ in front of an audience,” she says. “The kids in my class, they all applauded. I didn’t understand why. I mean, I was happy for it, but I didn’t understand.” Several years later, the attraction became more intense after a librarian gave her and a friend tickets to a community theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.”

“I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, I have to get up there. I have to be there.’ It was the prettiest place I’d ever seen — I mean, aside from outside the doors, because I was living in Hawaii.”

Though Broadway provided a brief oasis in the late ’60s, the first chapters of Midler’s life as an entertainer were filled by those saucy shows she cooked up, that gave early boosts to such other artists as Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester and the Broadway composer Marc Shaiman. Katey Sagal, later a star of “Married … With Children,” toured as one of Midler’s backup singers, the Harlettes: “Oh those girls!” Midler wrote in her 1980 memoir “A View From a Broad,” about a European tour. “My three favorite chotchkes on the breakfront of life! … I knew even then, that under those dirt-streaked, rouge-stained cheeks, there was magic.”

That raucous life eventually lost its luster, as Midler noted in the introduction to a 2014 edition of her memoir. “After this tour, I knew that certain things were not for me, and that I had to make a choice,” she wrote. “Could I continue to make a joyful noise when I was angry, ill and hung over? Some can, but I couldn’t.”

Kennedy Center’s massive season of in-person theater, including ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Hadestown’

The transition was to the big screen, where her marvelous, attention-getting bravura turn in 1979’s “The Rose” — playing against type as a drug-addicted rock star based on Janis Joplin — earned Midler her first Oscar nomination. (She has gone on to win three Emmys and three Grammys, but never an Oscar.) It provided her the best dramatic role of her career. There would be other high points, including the lavish World War II film “For the Boys” (1991), for which she received a second Oscar nod. But the decisive moment may have come in the 1980s, when she starred in a string of Disney comedies — including “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” with Nick Nolte and “Big Business” with Lily Tomlin — that rebranded the people’s diva a bit uncomfortably, as a creature of that corporate entertainment giant.

“You know,” Dart recalls, “the joke was they are taking down the statue of Minnie Mouse and they’re putting up Bette Midler.”

There were some other dreary film comedies, such as Paul Mazursky’s “Scenes From a Mall” (1991, co-starring Woody Allen). And “Bette,” the sitcom she starred in and co-produced for CBS, went belly up in 2001 after just one season.

After the cancellation of “Bette,” Dart says, “I was at her apartment one day, hanging out with her. And she said, ‘Why did I do that stupid show?’ And I said, ‘Honey, I just saw your face go by on a bus. That’s why you did it.’ ”

“I made a lot of mistakes,” Midler says now. “But at the same time, everybody makes mistakes. Everyone has regrets. They don’t and they didn’t overwhelm me.”

On the first day of rehearsals for the 2017 Broadway revival of “Hello, Dolly!,” Midler walked into a studio just off Union Square and glanced around a room filled with excited cast members.

“Now, look,” David Hyde Pierce recalls Midler announcing, “You can all sing better than me. And you can all dance better than me. But you’re not funnier than me!”

Midler’s comic feistiness convulsed the room — an icebreaker at the start of a production that would cement a warm friendship with Pierce, best known as Niles from the NBC sitcom “Frasier.” On Broadway, he played the curmudgeonly love interest, Horace Vandergelder, to Midler’s Dolly.

“There are, you know, big stars who just abandon you onstage for the audience and you’re left to — you know, if they look at you, you’re shocked,” Pierce says. “That’s not her. And it wasn’t just me. It was with anyone who was onstage with her, including anyone in the ensemble. She was with you 150 percent.”

Midler calls her run as Dolly a highlight of her life. The role offered her a pivotal aspect of performance — an arena to feel free. “I’m not particularly good at games,” she says. “So I just didn’t play when I was a kid. Sometimes we played hopscotch. But I didn’t play play.”

“When I’m on the stage, I’m playing,” Midler continues. “I am just playing. I’m having so much fun. And then I have all these people who are in on the joke. And they’re having fun, too. Because we’re all in this place where we can enlighten each other, we can laugh at each other, we can laugh with each other, we can cry. It’s a communal thing, and especially in my own shows, the personal shows, the shows that I put together myself.”

Midler’s run-up to playing Dolly was a 2013 Broadway engagement as talent agent Sue Mengers in the John Logan solo show “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.”

Bette Midler’s blissful turn as super-agent Sue Mengers

“The irony is that I met Bette at Sue Mengers’s house 20 years ago. The circle of life, that she came to portray her, was simply marvelous,” says Graydon Carter, former editor in chief of Vanity Fair and one of the play’s lead producers. A longtime friend, he persuaded her to take the part, another sign of her versatility. “You can have great talent in one decade, but over many decades, you need outsize talent, and you need a reservoir of goodwill around you that comes from being a good citizen and private citizen. And she’s all of that.”

The good citizenship includes Midler’s 1995 founding of New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit group that plants trees, creates and restores parks, and rehabs community gardens.

Along for the long haul has been her husband, performance artist Martin von Haselberg, whom she wed in 1984. Their actress daughter, Sophie, 35, graduated from Yale and its graduate drama school, and works in film and television. Plans are underway for mother and daughter to work together, but they are not ready to make those public.

Now Midler is at work in Rhode Island on a sequel to “Hocus Pocus,” the witchy 1993 comedy, with Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy. Doing, in other words, what she always has done.

“I had a residency in Vegas, and I was given a lot of awards at that time, a great time,” Midler recalls of “The Showgirl Must Go On,” her Caesars Palace concert gig that ran from 2008 to 2010.

“Toward the end of the run I got probably one of the greatest awards I ever received. And that was an award from the ushers and the box office staff — for perfect attendance. Because if you don’t work, they don’t get paid. I’m so proud of it because look, hey, their lives depended on me showing up. And I showed up.”