Bette Midler photographed by Jonathan Pushnik.

Next up in our Digital Dialogues series of archival podcasts is Bette Midler.  I interviewed Bette back in 1991 for the cover of Vanity Fair when she was about to open in the film For the Boys, director Mark Rydell’s musical drama set during the Korean and Vietnam wars which limns the story of the contentious relationship of two show biz troupers – a 1940s actress and singer known as Dixie Leonard, portrayed by Midler, and Eddie Sparks, a vaudevillian-like performer who bobs about onstage with a kind of hyped-up hope who is played by James Caan.  The musical numbers are mostly staged as USO turns when Leonard and Sparks entertain the troops together during those two wars.  The film wasn’t a commercial success but has correctly achieved its place as a cult classic for those who love movie musicals.  Midler is magnificent in it and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her portrayal of Dixie.

This part of the podcast takes place in the living room of Bette’s home in Beverly Hills – well, “Beverly Hills Post Office,” as she corrected me with a kind of humility that itself was as endearingly hyped-up as the hope that Caan displayed as Sparks in For the Boys.  The day before, Bette and I had had lunch together at Disney in the then new Michael Graves building where the studio’s commissary was housed.  At one of the neighboring tables were Michael Eisner, Disney’s then Chairman and CEO,  and his wife Jane who were accompanied by one of Disney’s biggest shareholders at the time, Sid Bass and his wife Mercedes.  The podcast opens with our talking about Mercedes and Bette’s impressions of her.  Because it takes place back in 1991 – and proving its archival bona fides – she also talks about having recently met Gene Kelly and Billy Wilder.  Indeed, Midler, who recently turned 72 and is a show biz legend herself but still one in a heyday all her own, is a bridge to other legendary Hollywood artists of the past who have passed on.

My cover story on Bette Midler. Photographed by Firooz Zahedi. 1991.

I adored my time with her out in Hollywood and “Beverly Hills Post Office” and on the set of For the Boys as I watched her artistry up-close and in close-up.  But our own relationship became a bit contentious after the story in Vanity Fair came out.

I once art directed myself for the subjects of my interviews.  Before I began to spend time with Midler for her story,  I knew that her husband, Martin von Haselberg, had often shaved his head so for the first time I had mine shaved – and have kept it that way every since.   When I walked into her office on the Disney lot, she exclaimed, “You shave your head like my husband Martin does.  I hate it on him but it’s not so bad on you.  Maybe that’s a good omen –  both of you shave your heads.” 

“Want to touch it?” I asked her.

“No,” came her immediate reply, shocked a bit even that I would ask such a thing right off-the-bat.  But I’d learned early on at Vanity Fair to do something like that to throw my subjects off a bit and let them know this was not going to be the normal interview process for them. 

“Just as well,” I told her.  “You have to be careful rubbing it.  You have to have your three wishes ready because Barbara Eden has been known to sprout out of it.”

Bette cackled.

Her husband Martin is an ex-commodities broker who was at one time known as Harry Kipper, a member of the avant-garde performance duo called the Kipper Kids, whose act consisted of scatological good humor and whose costumes were nothing more than fake noses and chins, jockstraps, and, yes, shaved heads.  “It’s so sad,” she said about his propensity to shave his head even in his “civilian” life.  “It breaks my heart.  I know it’s going to be another six months before I see his beautiful hair again.  But he does it because he loves it – he doesn’t give a shit what I like.  This is our relationship: I can’t put him in a corner, I can’t be put him in a box.”

Midler met von Haselberg in 1981 at a Los Angeles club called the Roxy, where they went with mutual friends to see a concert by King Crimson.  Two years later they ran into each other again at the old Lhasa Club in LA, and this time she gave him her home telephone number.  One year later he worked up the nerve to call her, and they attended an Eric Bogosian performance.  Six weeks after that, they were married by a part-time Elvis impersonator in a Las Vegas wedding chapel to the accompaniment of the sound track to Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits.  For the next two months, they lived in separate houses. 

“I hardly knew him!” is how Midler explained such a conjugal curiosity.

When I was tweaking the Bette story a tiny bit for a second draft  with my Vanity Editor editor Wayne Lawson, I noticed that there was one sentence that had been left in the story that I thought might  be edited out.  I had written about Midler’s child Sophie, who had joined Midler and me for lunch at the Disney dining room.  “A chair is brought up to the table for [Sophie], and she orders a chocolate frozen yogurt,” I wrote.  “Midler beams in her daughter’s presence and it is easy to see why she is so proud.  Sophie, who was a charmingly homely baby, has matured into an adorable child.” 

Wayne said he thought it was okay to leave it in but that I should ask Tina Brown, VF‘s Editor-in-Chief, about it if it bothered me that much.   So I took the story down to Tina’s corner office.  “Tina, I’m not a parent so I don’t know how sensitive you guys are about your children,” I told her.   “Should I keep this sentence in the Bette Midler story about her child once being a ‘charmingly homely infant’? I’m uncomfortable with it.”

“Oh, please,” she said, rolling her eyes at me, rightly so because I was always accused of doing puff pieces – impertinent ones, but puff pieces nonetheless.  But my reason for doing so was that I wrote about celebrities, not Nazi collaborators.  “Kevin, I’ve seen photos of that kid,” said Tina.  “She’s getting off easy.   I’d keep the sentence, but do what you want.”

I kept the sentence.   Puff pieces?  I’d show them a bit more impertinence.

A few months later, I saw Bette and her husband Martin on our shared corner in Tribeca where she then had a loft in the same building where photographer Bruce Weber lived around the corner from mine.  Yes, we were New York City neighbors – or maybe “Tribeca Post Office” ones.  I was unlocking my bike when they strolled by.  “Hi, Bette!” I said.  “Remember me?”

She stutter-stepped quickly by me.  “Ugh…” she grunted.  Vividly.”

I was both shocked and rather impressed: I had just been “read” by Bette Midler.

I saw her a few times after that in our local cafe downstairs from my own loft.  It was always around 8 a.m.  She seemed to have just rolled out of bed.  And it was always the same.  I’d try to engage her and she’d grunt at me without really saying anything.  She obviously disdained me.  I assumed it was about that one impertinent sentence.

Then one day she stutter-stepped into the cafe after I had seen a screening the night before of The First Wives Club.  “Morning, Bette!” I called to her. 

Hmmph,” she grunted.

“I saw a screening last night of The First Wives Club.”

Hmmph,” she hmmphed again.

“I think you’ve got another big fat hit.”

An eye roll.

“The audience was roaring with laughter.”

A grunt.

I gave up.  I turned back to my espresso and my croissant and that morning’s New York Times

Suddenly the sound of those stutter-steps were coming my way – a little snare drum snarl with a beat all its own.

I looked up.

There, standing akimbo, was Bette Midler at my table.

“Kevin, we have to talk,” she said.   “You remember that story in Vanity Fair you wrote on me?”

“Yes …” I began to answer.

She held a finger up to my face to silence me.  “Let me speak.  I’ve been building up my courage to speak to you about this.”  She dropped her finger.  She seemed overcome by emotion, but kept it in check.  She cleared her throat.  She began again.  “In that Vanity Fair story, you said my baby was homely.  It broke my heart,” she said, her voice breaking a bit like it could in the middle of some schmaltzy ballad from which she was mightily wringing all schmaltz.   And then she repeated it as if the words themselves were being stuttered-stepped my way: “It.  Broke.  My.  Heart.”

I started to speak again.  Again, she lifted a finger to silence me. “Tut-tut-tut,” she told me.  “I talked to my shrink about it.  I talked to my husband about it.  I talked to my rabbi about it.  I wanted to forgive you.  I tried to forgive.  I really tried.  I tried, tried, tried.  But, Kevin, I will never forgive you.”

The Western Union telegram I received from Midler proclaiming her forgiveness of me.

And, with that, she returned to the coffee counter to place her regular order with the barista.   My hand was shaking when I went to pick up my espresso cup.   I tried to return to reading Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of the Ron Harwood play Taking Sides that had opened the night before on Broadway starring Daniel Massey and Ed Harris which was about a real-life orchestra conductor who collaborated with the Nazis.  I felt a bit like a Nazi collaborator myself in that moment but I screwed up my courage and steadied my hands. I approached Bette.  “May I say something now?” I asked her.  She grunted and waved a conductor-like hand my way as if to try to untangle a balance problem in the horn section in a piece by Brahms.  “Do you know, Bette, when you give a performance on a set for a film it’s not always the performance that ends up on a screen.  The director chooses a take you didn’t really like.  The editor cuts away when she should have lingered on your face.  The score does too much of the work – or too little of it.  It’s the same way with a  magazine story,” I said.  She put that hand of hers to her face and listened to me now.  “Sometimes once a couple of editors have their way with it, it is not exactly the story one initially writes and turns in with a first draft.”

She studied me.  She took her cups of cappuccinos that were ready for her.  The barista gave me a look herself as if to say, “Good luck.  Stop digging this hole, honey.”   Bette frowned.  “Are you telling me that they made you say my baby was homely?”

“No,” I said.  “I take responsibility for the line.  I wrote it.  But I should have insisted it be taken out.  I didn’t.  It was my decision to leave it in but I want you to know it bothered me too – enough to ask about taking it out.”

“It didn’t bother you enough. Okay, this helps a little to understand it maybe.  But, Kevin, this remains: I will never forgive you.”

I watched her stutter-step out the door and, I thought, out of my life.

A couple of years later when Graydon Carter had come onboard as Vanity Fair’s Editor-in-Chief he was running, for a while,  a series called The Vanity Fair Hall of Fame.  We’d nominate a new person each month for it.   One month, Graydon wanted to nominate Bette for her work beautifying New York and restoring its parks.  The form of the series was a compendium of sentences that began “Because ….”  He asked me to do the one for Bette and I wasn’t about to let him know about the falling out Bette and I had had over my use of the adjective “homely.”  I thought this was my way to make an amends to her long before making amends became a part of my healing process as a recovering drug addict.  So I made a point of writing “Because of all her accomplishments her biggest one is her lovely daughter Sophie Frederica Alohilani von Haselberg.”

The week after the  Vanity Fair issue with Bette’s Hall of Fame page in it,  my downstairs buzzer buzzed.  I pushed the intercom button and asked who it  was.  “Western Union,” came the disembodied voice. 

“What?” I asked, wondering if someone were playing a joke on me.

“Wester Union, dude,” said the voice.  “You’ve got a telegram.”

I still wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.  Who sent telegrams?  But I buzzed the guy up since I was curious as to what he really was about to deliver to me.   Surprised, I signed for a, yes, Western Union envelope.  I opened it up.  “Dear Kevin,”  I read.  “That was very decent of you.  All is forgiven.  Bette.” 

Enjoy, the podcast.  I hope Bette doesn’t mind my running it.  And if she does, I hope she forgives me.

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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