The first musical role she played was off-Broadway, at the Cafe La Mama, in a Tom Eyan play called Miss Nerfiti Regrets. After auditioning for almost an entire year, she finally got her first break on Broadway, a job in the chorus of Fiddler on the Roof. After she was with the show for a while, she auditioned for and won a role she had understudied, as Tzeitl, one of the daughters in the play.
"For a while I was just ecstatic," she continues. "I couldn't believe my luck – I was actually on the Broadway stage! I stayed with that show for almost three years and then the whole thing started to turn sour. I felt like I was stagnating, busting my ass every night for three years and getting nowhere. At that time there was this friend of mine in the show with me, Marta Heflin, her name was. She was fed up with the show too, so after work she used to go down to this little bar on the Bowery called Hilly's to sing out her frustrations. I had frustrations, too, so I figured, 'Why not give it a try?'"
Bette was so well-received that first night at Hilly's that she was encouraged to seek gigs in other small clubs, one of which was the Improvisation. It was here that she met Barry Manilow, who was working there as the house pianist one night a week.
Manilow, a professional studio musician and coach, with a long list of commercial jingles to his credit (he's the voice that sings "You deserve a break today" in the McDonald's commercials) became Bette's musical director and arranger. For the next couple of years, Bette worked regularly at the baths, perfecting her songs and developing her stage alter-ego, the Divine Miss M.
She owes much to that first gig at the baths – it led to her audition for The Tonight Show, where she received her first national exposure, and to being asked by Carson to open his nightclub act in Las Vegas. But didn't she feel at times that it tended to make people pigeonhole her?
She bristles at this question.
"Do you mean how do I like performing for faggots?" she asks, almost petulantly. "Well, they're just people really. And as for being categorized, I don't think anyone could categorize me at all because I'm beginning to get all kinds of people now. I love those boys at the baths because they were the first audience to encourage me. They will always mean a lot to me but that doesn't mean that I can't branch out and reach other people, other groups as well . . . I mean, I don't categorize myself, so why let anyone else do it and think they have me all figured out?"
About her work with Johnny Carson, she says: "I have a lot of respect for him. He's a good man, a real professional, and the more professional I became, the more he respected me, the more he opened up to me. I mean, he's not hip by any means, but he's not what you'd call a real right-winger, either, though he's certainly more conservative than you or me. He's basically just a good honest person once you get past all the bullshit. I enjoyed doing his show when I felt ready for it, some I did, some I didn't . . . but Las Vegas – puh-leeze, honey, that was really bizarre. The audience was really weird – all the women wore wigs – and I don't think they knew what to make of me, where I was coming from at all . . . I hated Vegas, but it was fascinating as an experience, to have it behind you, you know?"
The doorbell rings. It's Bette's bassist Michael Federal who has come over to watch the Carson show with her. She greets him with a warm hug. Federal used to share this apartment with Bette (his name is still on the mailbox), but recently he moved to his own place a couple of blocks away. A frail, pixyish man with a shy, reticent manner, when I asked him to comment on Bette, he told me, "Well, I used to be her lover – what would you like me to say? That she was great in bed? Actually Bette and I still love each other, but we can't live together. I mean, she is a very fiery lady. She's always rushing some where but she's never there on time. I'm just the opposite. I'm very mellow and laid-back so I couldn't take it anymore. I just moved out, but I still love her and I think she still loves me. . . . "
Soon we are joined by two other members of Bette's entourage: her drummer, Luther Ricks, and his girlfriend Gail Kantor, one of the Harlettes, who looks more like a City College coed than a cocktail waitress or a Fifties slut behind the wire-rimmed glasses she wears offstage.
We all gather around the set when Carson comes on. Bette crouches on the floor, totally absorbed.
As she watches herself singing a humorous version of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" she's all smiles; but then as she watches herself sitting down making small talk with Carson, her mood changes and she starts to frown, as though what she sees and hears disturbs her. The image of this brassy-looking girl on the screen, so eager to please, seems to bother her. Perhaps it has something to do with the guest who preceded her, a dumb blond with enormous breasts who owns a filling station in Brooklyn. The blond was the perfect foil for the double entendres of Carson and Ed McMahon and while she was on there was a nice communal feeling of superiority in this room as Bette and her friends joked about what a coy, stupid stereotype she was. Now Bette is talking to Carson and there's a heavy silence in the room. This image of herself on the screen, talking compulsively, anxious to please, seems to embarrass her. Carson is shaking his head with characteristic Midwestern Gee Whiz incredulity, saying, "You know something? You're gonna really be something to contend with. . . . You're gonna be a very big star in this business."
"I can't wait," Bette says, a clashing flash of fiery hair and painted lips, as seen on the screen.
"Well, you'll just have to," cracks Carson.
"Hmmmm. That's interesting," Bette is saying, from down there on the floor. "That's very interesting. . . . "
The lounge of The Continental Baths, almost empty in late afternoon, has the comfortable artificiality of certain nocturnal haunts like cocktail lounges during the daylight hours. No daylight enters; the languor lulls one. . . . There are a couple of bathers around the pool, only one or two elder senators lounging nearby, drinking them in with cool, lizard eyes. Steve Ostrow waves to me from across the room. He's wearing a towel, taking a busman's holiday, one supposes. A well-preserved man of apparent middle age, Ostrow has long silver surfer hair and a lean Mahatma Gandhi physique covered with an overall layer of thick white body-hair that makes him look kind of blurry, like an out-of-focus Polaroid. He greets me, explaining that he's on his break and leads me to a little round table at poolside as though we're on the French Riviera. After getting us coffee from the refreshment counter, he sits down opposite me and starts right in telling about how he discovered Bette Midler.
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