But it was not Bette's big voice alone that made her such a sensation at the baths. There was also the way she looked: The costumes she chose from the rummage piles of recent history, the styles from the Forties that had become her visual trademark. Far from pretty, she had the appealing tenacity of a tough little drag queen. When she tried to be sexy it became a poignant burlesque. Innocence and tawdriness merged and made Bette Midler just plain tacky.
And since Bette by her own admission was the "last of the real tacky ladies," she was incredibly attuned to the camp sensibility. She knew its nuances in a way that few women did. She picked up on its wry bitchy humor and dished it out with delight.
From where I stood, near a section of chairs that had been roped off as a sort of peanut gallery for timid heterosexuals who did not wish to brave the crush, the stage was a raft of light adrift on a sea of naked shoulders. Her backup trio, the Harlettes, stood in formation in black cocktail dresses with hands on hips. These three dark-haired girls had this incredible . . . Attitude. They were chewing gum.
Steve Ostrow, the owner of The Continental Baths, looking like a dummy out of Bloomingdale's men's shop, grabbed the mike and said, "She needs no introduction. . . . "
Everyone turned expectantly toward stage-right, and, at the first feathery fluttering in the wings, a great roar went up from the very bowels of The Tubs . . . the pits.
As she went into her theme song, "Friends," I was not giving my full attention to the music; I was engrossed in noticing the details: the way her disproportionately large bazooms, with a plastic Woolworth's rose stuck in the cleavage, overflowed the silver corselet she wore, bouncing like jellied fruits as she sashayed around the stage; the way those gold lame Miami Beach toreador pants or whatever they were hugged her buns and stretched over her cute little pot belly like a baloneyskin; those incredible open-toed shoes with the little transparent plastic spike heels that even the hookers on 42nd Street don't wear anymore!
Her stage make-up was so stylized that it was almost impossible to imagine what she might look like underneath it; the Orphan Annie frizz curls, the Raggedy Ann doll rouge spots on each cheek, the Martha Raye smile smeared with scarlet – it all gave the animated but impenetrable impression of a mask in a Japanese Noh drama.
It was as stifling as a stalled subway car down there in the steamy depths, but Bette's most loyal audience hardly seemed to notice. They pushed forward and stood on chairs to get a glimpse of The Divine Miss M. Her performance, despite the grueling heat, was fast-paced, moving from the Streisand-esque schmaltz of her opening "Friends," into a sultry "Am I Blue," then into a racing, strenuous "Leader of the Pack." All the while she was rapping between numbers: "I guess you're wondering 'Who are those three cocktail waitresses up there with Miss M anyway?' They're my girl singing group, the Harlettes . . . They're real sluts."
By the time she-finished an emotionally charged version of "The Weight," paraphrasing the lyrics so that they became a moving comment on one woman's vulnerability, she had this crowd of nearly-naked woman-eschewing men howling and stomping and whistling like the troops greeting Mamie Van Doren at a USO show.
* * *
Sitting in her apartment, waiting to watch herself on the Carson show, Bette talks of her early childhood, and growing up in Hawaii:
"I guess Hawaii is a weird place for a nice Jewish girl to be born," she is saying, curled on the couch like the last shrimp on a serving tray, "but my father was a housepainter from New Jersey with an adventurous spirit, and before I was born he decided to move there, so . . . I had to make the best of it, you know? You wanna see my high-school yearbook?"
She takes it down from the shelf and lays it in my lap. Flipping through, I see the same pictures that have filled high-school yearbooks since time immemorial: fresh-faced kids smiling under crewcuts, greasy pompadours and shiny pageboys; except in this one all the faces are Oriental. I remember watching halftime at the Honolulu Bowl on television one afternoon. All the cheerleaders were hula dancers, dark-haired little China dolls in grass skirts. It was impossible to imagine Bette Midler among them.
"As you can see, the school I went to was just like any high school anywhere ... like a high school in Brooklyn or Cleveland. We had rock & roll, sock hops, American Bandstand, the same as anywhere else. The only thing different was that all the kids were Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Samoans. . . . And those kids were tough. But I wasn't and all the girls hated me because I had such big boobs. At the tender age of 14 or 15, they were quite phenomenal, I had quite a pair on me, let me tell ya" – and she looks down at them now, nestled quietly under a nondescript sweater (even her breasts relax when she's offstage) – "I still have, as you can plainly see. Anyway, all these tough girls would chase me home from school and try to beat me up just because I had bigger boobs than them. I guess I was very inward when I was young. You wouldn't believe it but I was very shy, stayed by myself, read a lot, lived very much in my head ... in my daydreams.
"Then one day I learned that I could be popular by making people laugh. I became a clown to win people's acceptance and I think that's when I decided that I wanted to be in show business, to do something in the theater, on the stage ... By the time I was in my senior year of high school I was completely stage-struck and had made up my mind that eventually I would come to New York. . . . "
Arriving in the city in 1965, Bette took a room in the Broadway Central, a dilapidated welfare hotel on lower Broadway, whose lobby, any hour of the day or night, was likely to resemble the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital. She supported herself by working at Stern's department store, selling women's gloves.
"I wanted to be a great dramatic actress back then," she says with a little self-derisive laugh. "I had always sung, but I never really thought of becoming a singer at first. The Thea-ter was my great love, dahling – I was calling people 'dahhhhling' even back then. I got into singing eventually because I had the idea that if I started out in musical comedy, it would open the doors to those great juicy dramatic roles. . . . "
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