Love is a rose but you better not pick it It only grows when it’s on the vine Handful of thorns and you’ll know you’ve missed it You lose your love when you say the word “mine”
–Neil Young, “Love Is a Rose”
She is stranded in a whirlwind: exhausted, alone and so wound up and strung out and shitfaced drunk that her self-image has shrunk to the size of a tiny, fallen dime that she can’t even attempt to stop on, let alone locate on the filthy phone-booth floor.
Slumped to a halt yet driven forward, all the psychic brake linings are burned through. But she has so damned much to do tonight; so many things are demanded of her by so many feverish faces.
For the Rose, soul-wrenched rock singer nonpareil, it all comes down to one hard reality: somewhere out in the vast pitch, Rudge, her insatiable motherfucker of a manager, wants her to perform. Right this minute. And the added fact that she’s lost and terrified in her hometown makes her private hell complete. So she spills out her kit bag, finds another dime and calls the only two strangers who can do absolutely nothing to help: her parents.
This scene is the centerpiece and true climax of The Rose, Bette Midler’s long-awaited cinema debut, and the ensuing conversation is perhaps one of the most heartbreaking ever captured on film.
“Mom? Yeah, yeah, it’s me,” Rose entreats with a croak. She is calling from a forlorn outpost next to her high school football field, and while the squad wraps up its practice under the lights, this ragged rock queen, the woman who many years earlier had allowed the home team to gangbang her on the 50-yard line, now takes a last simpering stab at being a little girl. But there is no consolation coming back over the wire, so she hangs up and ties off and sinks into a smack-induced murk as the booth’s windows fog up.
Seldom has Hollywood depicted disjunction and despair with such mundane clarity. And what makes the scene so sad is precisely this awful ordinariness, the undramatic realization that, for Rose, shooting junk is merely the next most accessible option. Scarcely even a choice.
“Unrequited love is a subject very near and dear to my heart,” says a reflective Bette Midler, 34, as she nurses a glass of white wine in the dining room of Manhattan’s legendary Algonquin Hotel. “I have a whole well of inspiration when it comes to that.”
Unrecognized by the well-heeled young socialites and overdressed dowagers who amble by, Midler goes on to describe both the plot of The Rose and her character in vividly personal terms. I express surprise, noting that gossip columnists have been reporting that the movie is a thinly veiled roman à clef about Janis Joplin’s epic self-destruction.
“The truth is, it’s a story about a girl who happens to sing and who has a need for the great love of an audience,” Bette says. “I love that shit, I love to bare my breast.
“My own family household was fairly violent,” she offers. “I’m not talking about whipping each other or anything, but we did feel very strongly about things, and we expressed ourselves in very strong terms. Yet there was a lot of thwarted emotion. My father was always right, never wrong. It was simple: he was the loudest and the oldest and the heaviest. It was usually him against us. My mother tried to be a soothing influence, but she wasn’t very successful at it. There was that kind of passion.”
She jumps to the subject or her songs in the film, explaining that she had chosen its two most riveting numbers–”When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Stay with Me”–because “they’re songs I always identified with. I was determined just to be genuine, and good. I didn’t want anybody to dump on me. I didn’t want to have anybody calling me names. You know,” she says with a wounded grin, “how they do that sometimes…”
Indeed, in all of rock & roll, few stars have made a bigger initial splash than Bette Midler, only to peak and fade with astonishing swiftness. In the space of only two years, she rose from a camp curiosity at Manhattan’s Continental Baths to the nationally acclaimed headliner of a lavish New Year’s Eve bash at Philharmonic Hall in 1972. She was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show and made the cover of Newsweek; her percolating remake of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” blasted out of radios across the nation. But her one smash album, The Divine Miss M (1972), was followed by four comparatively sparse-selling offerings, the best of the lot being Live at Last, a two-record set that contained a bit of the electricity of her stage shows. How she managed to plummet from this pinnacle remains a mystery, the blame usually laid on a temperamental Bette, a tempestuous Aaron Russo (her manager of six years, now out of the picture) or both. Regardless, the furor was over by the end of 1973.
“‘Being laughed at’ is not the phrase to describe what happened,” Bette says woefully. “I was snickered at–that was much uglier.”
As it happens, The Rose is likewise steeped in trauma. Its plot is nothing so much as the story of a young woman’s fear-ridden homecoming, in this case a confrontation between a hard-drinking, low-living rock star on the slide and the dingy past she is striving to eradicate. Rose wants to quit the business “for at least a year,” as soon as she musters up the courage to play a huge outdoor concert in her hometown. Obstacles abound–from Rose’s need to overcome her lesbian inclinations and try a little heterosexual tenderness with an AWOL army rounder (played to near-perfection by Frederic Forrest) to her wavering resolve to end her symbiotic relationship with Rudge (Alan Bates).
Although flawed, the film succeeds as a vehicle for Midler, showing her range as a singer and comedienne, but most importantly, her potential as a serious actress. In other hands, Rose could have come off as a repellent bitch, but Midler manages to bring a human dimension to the role without resorting to gauche grandstanding or bathos.
“When Janis passed on,” says Midler, “there was a script that came to me called Pearl. I was really shocked by it I didn’t know Janis, but I thought she was treated irreverently. It wasn’t that it was a bad script; it was just the idea of not letting this person alone, especially so soon after she died.”
During this period, Russo and Midler tried their damnedest to locate a suitable film property for Bette. The ongoing quest provided several years of grist for the Hollywood gossip mill: “She’s doing the life of Dorothy Parker! Helen Morgan! Zelda Fitzgerald! Sophie Tucker!” None of the projects ever materialized.
“Just idle speculation” was the way the slightly rotund Russo dismissed it one winter afternoon some two years ago. “She’s not gonna do Ethel Merman or Janis Joplin. I don’t think that Bette’s fans, the people who really love her, want to see her play someone else,” he said heatedly, then proceeded to contradict himself.
“George Furth and Joan Rivers are writing one, an all-out musical comedy,” he enthused. “She’s not playing Bette Midler. Lilly Potts is one name we’re thinking of for the character. It’s about a superstar and the relationship between her and her manager.”
Russo went on to boast of the film deal Midler signed with Columbia, how she would have her own production company and that screenwriter Arnold Schulman (Love with the Proper Stranger, Goodbye Columbus, Funny Lady) was at work on another effort, “tailored” for Bette, about an avid autograph collector. But less than a year later, there was a reshuffling of executives at the studio and the wolf was suddenly at Divine Pictures’ front door. “They decided we were not a happening thing,” says Bette, “and they sort of asked us very politely to give up our grand offices and go.” Undaunted, Russo and Midler found their way to Twentieth Century-Fox and producer Marvin Worth, who now had possession of Pearl.
“By this time, I was worn out,” Bette recalls, “but I wanted to do films. I felt I had a contribution to make. Aaron called me up and said, ‘Why don’t you look at this again?’ I read it. I said, ‘These are the elements I’d like to keep: I’d like to keep this person a rock & roll singer, and I would like to keep the sorrow and a certain amount of self-hate, this constant seeking of hers for approbation. Everything else has to go.’ And that’s what they did. It’s a fine framework to hang the songs on, something to hang the character on. We did a lot of improvising.”
As a result, the statement that emerges transcends the tenuous Joplin connection and comes compellingly close to being Bette’s own story. The monstrous star-manager relationship is at the center of the film. And while specific scenes may or may not reflect real life, Midler and Russo, throughout their many troubled years, had retained a stubborn attachment to this particular cinematic theme. They seemed to relish the sense of drama created by their bond, however suffocating it grew to be. It is perhaps no accident that the tie was finally broken only after it was played out on screen to its horrific finale.
“Our relationship was so much sicker than anything in that film,” Midler assures me. “Aaron was very protective of me–in his way. He made a lot of enemies on my behalf. You see, we had a personal relationship at the beginning of everything, and when our personal relationship foundered, it tainted our professional relationship. I was so dumb; I didn’t think that’d happen. He was so overbearing, and he kept me very isolated, kept the bad stuff away from me and a lot of the good stuff, too.
“For a long time I never saw people backstage, never read anything about myself, never had fun. And he would have a magazine article about me in his hand as I was going onstage and I’d say, ‘Oh boy, lemme see that!’ But he’d say, ‘No, I don’t want you to read it now or later. It’ll only upset you.’ Long, long afterward, I would find out it said bad things about him, not me.” (In 1977, shortly after writing an article on Bette that Russo felt reflected badly on him, I received a funeral wreath with a card that read, “Love, Bette.” Midler now says she never sent the flowers and did not even read the story until just before she agreed to speak to me again.)
In fairness to Russo, Midler concedes that, unlike the mean-spirited Rudge in The Rose, who does his best to pull his overwrought star through a contractual knothole, “Aaron never forced me to work. I can be very lazy and temperamental that way, and I guess he indulged me.” Midler did, in fact, take a year off (1974) and did not perform again until Russo organized her well-received Clams on the Half-Shell revue.
“We were just two bullheaded people going at each other like crazy,” she says, recalling that their low watermark occurred during and shortly after the record sessions for her 1977 Broken Blossom LP.
“I was in the studio forever,” she groans. “I had lost a lot of confidence along the way–and I had a lot of help in losing my confidence. But I would have to say that the absolutely lowest point came when I was on the road the last time with Aaron [Europe and Australia, in 1978]. I knew that if f didn’t get out at that point, I would never be happy again.
“I used to do shows, and no matter how good they were, it didn’t matter until he told me it was okay. And he used to withhold this approbation from me all the time. That game. And that’s a real horrible mindfuck to get into. I was pretty messed up there for a long time. I don’t know why–emotional retardation, I guess. He was the only one I trusted. I started out with a lot of people around me and eventually they all left, and I was alone with Aaron. If it didn’t go down the way he wanted it to go down, there was no joy in Mudville.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to speak to you at this time,” says Russo when I later ask him for his side of the story. “You know me, you know how I am,” he sighs, alluding to our long conversations in the past. “When I talk, I shoot from the hip. But that’s only when I choose to shoot. I just don’t want to now.”
As Bette and I order dinner, I think aloud about her appearance last May on Saturday Night Live. Poured into a sleek white dress covered with jagged black spots, she had treated the studio audience to a disco-driven rendition of “Married Men,” the single from her latest LP, Thighs and Whispers. She resembled some manic she-devil–half woman, half jungle cat–as she slithered and snarled to the torrid dance tempo.
Ruffling her unruly blond tresses, Midler carried on with vintage vigor, supported by a phalanx of backup singers whose garish costumes (satin wedding gowns, black tails) and cocky grins were of a piece with the Divine Miss M’s trademarks of hot flash and sassy trash. But when she stepped from the shadows for her second song, her racy attire had been replaced by a simple black smock and tights, and there was a vulnerability in her humble demeanor. She stated she wanted to do a song written by her friend Tom Waits, and in a strained, doleful voice she began to sing “Martha.”
Operator, number please, it’s been so many years,
Will she remember my ol’ voice, while I fight the tears
Although rather bleak, the ballad is not terribly different from many of her more somber torch songs. But there was an underlying grittiness to her tone that had less to do with performing than with simple grief.
I feel so much older now, you’re much older too,
How’s the husband, how’s the kids, you know,
I got married too,
Lucky that you found someone to make you feel secure,
We were all so young and foolish, now we are mature.
Creeping into the second chorus, her voice faltered, and the camera caught a tiny sparkle in her eye, a glimmering pinpoint that grew steadily into a tear.
I was always so impulsive, guess that I still am,
I guess that our bein’ together was never meant to be…
As the plaintive music subsided, Bette clutched the microphone, mascara running down her cheek. The dark eyes glazed over and her face fell into a pained expression so distant that I wondered if she remembered where she was. It was an altogether curious vignette, profoundly moving yet equally perplexing.
“That song calls up a lot of deep things for me,” Bette sadly admits as she picks at her Caesar salad. “That night on the show, I was thinking about my mom. I lost my mother this year; she had leukemia for a long time, cancer of the liver – and of the breast, incidentally, when I was a kid. She suffered most of her life.
“She just thought I was it,” Midler says, brightening for an instant. “She thought I was so funny and so adorable; she just loved all the excitement. She used to say I was the only thing that brought her joy.”
Bette explains that Ruth Midler and her husband, Fred, moved from Paterson, New Jersey, to Honolulu in the early Forties and settled in a converted military barrack in the midst of the sugarcane fields of the rural Aiea area. They subsisted on the modest income Mr. Midler earned painting houses and doing civilian work with a U.S. Navy ordnance detail. Ruth, meanwhile, escaped their threadbare circumstances through a consuming interest in Hollywood films and movie fanzines. S
he went so far as to name all three of her daughters–she also had one son, Danny – for her favorite screen stars: Judy (after Garland), Susan (as in Hayward) and Bette (in tribute to Davis).
“Eventually, she and my father bought a couple of houses and fixed them up and had tenants,” Bette says. “They were small-time landlords. My mother was extremely talented at it and got a real kick out of that, yet she did it all from her own house. She never had the nerve to go out and get a job; she was totally house-bound. She wanted to be in the world the way other people were in the world. She was just a housewife, but she wanted to take part. And she loved all the Hollywood whoop-de-do.
“She got no satisfaction any way she turned. She was afraid and she wanted my father to shield her, yet he refused, so she resented him for that. And that made it very, very rough. The Depression had a terrible impact on them. They were terribly frightened that they were gonna lose everything. I think that’s why she was so charmed by me. She saw that I was taking a chance and wasn’t a total failure. Whenever I think back on it now, I think of this Carl Sandburg line.”
“What line is that?”
“You know,” she says, “the one about ‘dreams stronger than death.'”
Caught off-guard by Midler’s sudden intensity, I stop to consider this woman seated next to me as she orders after-dinner coffee.
There is little outward indication of the great charisma and convulsive energy she exhibits when she steps before the footlights. She is diminutive (five feet one) and deceptively frail-looking. When she is somber or sour, her rubbery features harden into a forbidding mask worthy of a Gahan Wilson cartoon, but when those huge eyes flutter.their mystic fanfare, and her awesome, mugging smile is on the move, rising on that mammoth proscenium of a mouth like some radiantly toothy orchestra, well, as the lady herself would say–I mean, it just melts you down, hon-ee.
And then there’s her tight little frame, a stripped-down bumper car of a body with the biggest headlights in the arena, bustling and spinning and battering away at the opposition with short spurts of gleeful abandon, then long surges of head-on savvy. Growing up as the only chesty Jewish haole in a hostile world full of Samoans, Japanese and a host of other South Pacific nationalities, Midler rapidly developed into a sharp-tongued fireplug, defusing her enemies with a lightning wit and winning them over with an open heart.
By the time Bette graduated from high school (she was class president and valedictorian), she had earned a reputation as a first-rate clown, a second-rate amateur shoplifter and a fledgling folk singer as part of a female vocal trio called the Pieridine Three (“It means, ‘like a butterfly’ “). A bit part as a missionary’s wife in the George Roy Hill-Walter Mirisch production of James Michener’s Hawaii strengthened her hunger for the spotlight, and she departed Hawaii in 1965 with $1000 in savings (she left $1500 more behind, “just in case”).
At length, she arrived in New York and took a room in the Broadway Central Hotel, begged for bit parts on and off the Great White Way and survived by doing filing at Columbia University, selling gloves at Stern’s department store and go-go dancing at a bar in Union City, New Jersey. Her first break was landing the title role in Tom Eyen’s off-off-Broadway production of Miss Nefertiti Regret, followed by a part in Eyen’s Cinderella/Sinderella and the role of the Red Queen in Alice through the Glass Lightly.
Next came a three-year run in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, first as a member of the chorus, then as the eldest daughter Tzeitel. “It was great the first year. It was great the second year. The third year it got a little unnerving cause I couldn’t get a raise, I couldn’t get another job, and I was auditioning all the time. See, by that time, Fiddler wasn’t where it was at: it was the Beatles and marijuana and Hair and Janis Joplin. All of a sudden people my age were happening, and I just wanted to see where, and if, I could fit in.”
Her last significant theater stints were a brief appearance in an off-Broadway musical called Salvation and the double role of Mrs. Walker and the Acid Queen in the Seattle Opera Association’s 1971 production of Tommy. Deciding to concentrate on her singing, she made her solo debut at Hilly Kristal’s old club (he now owns CBGB), doing a fervent version of “God Bless the Child.”
After she appeared to raves at the Improvisation, the club’s owner, Budd Friedman, booked her on The David Frost Show, The Mery Griffin Show, The Tonight Show and at the Continental Baths for 16 weeks. She attracted the interest of several record companies, eventually being signed to Atlantic by Ahmet Ertegun. Bette (now managed by Aaron Russo, the former owner of Chicago’s Kinetic Playground rock palace) became the brightest new star in the music industry. It should have lasted, but it didn’t.
To put it politely, Bette’s brush with success has been no day at the beach, and she is now poised on the brink of what will either be a triumphant comeback or her most ignominious defeat. But if Midler has had difficulty surviving her recent troubles, it has been no less difficult outliving her early years, and coping with the painful threads that bind the two.
“I’m a lot like my mom,” says Bette after her coffee arrives, fixing me with a piercing gaze. “I guess that’s why I leaned on Aaron so heavily for so long. I have to give him his due. I had this dichotomy of a tremendous wanting and yet this gigantic fear. He was a leader and he really did lead me.
“See, my mother was the most negative woman. Hypertense. I saw this misery, this incredible misery that she could not force her way out of, this loneliness and bitterness. But I adored her because I saw in her this somebody who was trying to get but, who had a dream that unfortunately never came true.” Bette refers to her father as a “minor tyrant. He would scream and carry on,” says Bette. “He thrived on it. My sister Susan and pa, they’d have terrible riles. She used to call the cops on him! He used to piss her off.”
“He didn’t like us wearing makeup and we had a curfew, some ridiculous hour like ten o’clock,” Susan Midler later tells me. “And if you weren’t in the house, you usually got locked out. Us sisters were always sticking up for each other, and sneaking each other in the window at night.”
A petite, attractive woman, Susan, 35, works with the disabled and mentally retarded and now lives in the cozy West Village apartment that was Bette’s throughout her early theater career.
“It was hard,” Susan says of her cantankerous father. “If he was angry, he let you know it right away, so we would take that anger and try to turn it around and make him laugh at himself.”
Whatever it was that was eating at Fred Midler, he found a constructive outlet for his dogged contrariness shortly after the birth of his youngest child, Danny, who was diagnosed as retarded following a postnatal illness.
“The public-health authorities, the social workers, wanted to put Danny away,” says Bette angrily. “But my parents wouldn’t hear of it. This doctor told my mom that Danny’s tongue was too long, and he would have to cut it a bit in surgery. And because the doctor cut it, Danny lost the power of movement there. In other words, the doctor severed some nerves, so Danny wasn’t able to move his tongue anymore. So now he can’t chew, he doesn’t talk quite right.
“At that time they didn’t have public-school classes for retarded children, so my father taught him. He used to come home from work at about four o’clock every day and sit him down in the rocking chair to teach him to talk, read, write and add.
“Pa would start off quietly, but by the time 4:30 rolled around, he was screaming at the top of his lungs out of frustration, and Daniel would be crying. He’s not so retarded that he doesn’t know it. But eventually Danny did learn. It took a lot of love for my father to do that. Or some heavy guilt.
“I think,” says Bette, “there are certain things you have to pass through in life in order to come out on the other side.” But there were other sorrows in store for the Midlers.
Judy, the eldest daughter, gave in to her own restless urges a few years after Bette had, and she migrated to San Francisco, where she did office work briefly before resettling in New York City. By all accounts the prettiest and brightest of the Midler girls, she was fluent in French, fascinated with filmmaking and was considering a career in set design or directing when she was killed at the age of 25 in a freak car accident. Bette took it upon herself to notify the family, and when the telephone rang back in Hawaii, Susan answered.
“I gave the phone to my father,” says Susan. “Bette spoke to him first, and then it was passed around to all of us. It was a nightmare. I don’t think my mother ever got over it. Then when my mother passed away, it took its toll on all of us. The chemotherapy for the last couple of years was really rough. Bette made her very happy with the things that she had done, and reading some of the articles about her, and fan mail, and talking to fans on the phone, things like that made her very-happy. But dad is very lonesome now. It’s just him and Danny [now 31] in his little house. I can imagine what he’s doing right now.”
I’ve just been working on some machinery out back,” says Fred Midler when I phone him. “My success is rather limited,” he asserts with a muffled, nasal chuckle. “I enjoy repairing it, but I enjoy cussing it out when it doesn’t work, too.”
“Looking back, how would you evaluate the years you spent raising your children?”
“I’ll tell you the truth about that particular period,” he murmurs solemnly. “I was too busy chasing after the buck. I left everything to my wife. I didn’t pay much attention to the children.
“I used to have some terrible arguments with Bette, and I regret most of them. I tried to be too strict with all of them. Bette liked more of a freelance life–doing the things most of the normal children did, like dancing and theater and movies and things of that nature. I was a very conservative person and I couldn’t see it.”
“Still, you did spend a lot of important time with Danny.”
“That was when he first started out,” Fred Midler says with a hint of bitterness. “I don’t do it anymore, because there’s just so much you can do with that sort of thing. I believe he’s reached his capacity. We had to talk to a psychiatrist from the mainland, a harsh man who believed in shock treatment for alcoholics, and he insisted there was nothing wrong with Danny and he was simply lazy mentally. He shouted at the boy, who was scared something terrible from the shouting alone, and I followed that method. My wife jumped all over me for shouting at him that way.”
“Are you pleased with Bette’s fame?”
“I’m still astonished at her success,” he says meekly. “I don’t understand it, I never expected it. I still don’t believe it.”
“Have you ever been to any of her concerts?”
“Truthfully? No, I haven’t. I’m not a fan of pop music, no way. As long as she’s happy, I’m happy. I try to divorce myself completely from her and let her do as she will.
“I remember Judy, she also was a real hard driver; she would fight for her rights for anything. I was in favor of that stuff up to a certain degree. After that I say a woman should be a woman, stay at home. It was very bad losing Judy. As I understand it, an auto came out of one of those indoor garages and smashed her right up against the wall. Mutilated her completely. The funeral directors wouldn’t even permit us to view the body. As you get older, you realize that it all comes down to the final stage.”
Bette does not share her father’s resignation. There are, however, traces of his willfullness in her, just as she evinces a strain of her mother’s insecurity. But the qualities she inherited are the same ones that impelled her to seek a life apart from their world. “I’m telling you, it’s better to be isolated from family sometimes,” Bette says vehemently. “Family is so hard; it’s your intro to the world, this microcosm that sometimes can be so fucked.”
She shrugs with an uncertain chuckle. “I think that’s how I get away with singing those strange off-the-wall ballads that are about that particular kind of weirdness, like John Prine’s ‘Hello in There’ and James Taylor’s ‘Millworker.’ They tell you in black and white terms about somebody’s baggage, they give you someone’s saddest stories. By the time my mother died, she had isolated herself so completely–and you know how cancer can eat you alive. God, if there are 8 million stories in the Naked City, then there must be 8 million songs too. Any joy I get in singing them is probably borne of despair.”
Bette’s mood lifts and as we leave the restaurant she rhapsodizes about her parents’ colorful quirks, notably their habit of accumulating mountains of knickknacks and junk. “The stuff was gonna stay there come hell or high water, and so it did,” she says, giggling at the memory of the 35 nonworking lawn mowers her dad had squirreled away on the grounds of their home.
“We also had 12 refrigerators on the lawn. He’s like Mr. Fix-it, Mr. Handyman, except he’s not very good at it. One day the roof was leaking, so rather than hire a roofer, Mr. Midler gets up there with his tar paper. He didn’t have a roller for it, so what does he haul up there? One of his lawn mowers! I came home from New York one day and there he was on the roof, mowing the shingles flat!”
Laughing uproariously, we hit the street and walk up Fifth Avenue in the direction of Bette’s hotel. The sidewalks are fairly empty at this late hour, and we stroll along in peace, window-shopping and chatting.
The sight of a bookstore reminds Midler that her own flippant scrapbook of memoirs, A View from a Broad, is due to be published this winter by Simon and Schuster. As she is telling me that the project was conceived during her last European tour, her spirited discourse is interrupted by two young, homeward-bound waiters still wearing their uniform vests.
“Hey!” one calls out to Bette. “Where you been? What you been doing? We don’t see you so much anymore on TV or anything.”
“Say, I’ve been working hard, making records and giving concerts, and I got this film coming out! Now you fellas better be watching for it!” she scolds. Further up the avenue, we nearly collide with a swarthy custodian who is taking out the trash.
“Will you look at this?” Midler yelps, tugging me over to the garbage heap. “Do you believe he’s just tossing these away? Here,” she says, handing me two dogeared, bound volumes of the Christian Science Monitor. “You take 1961 and I’ll take 1962. Would you help me carry mine back to the hotel?”
As I lug the heavy volumes for the next 15 blocks, I am convinced there are more of her parents’ idiosyncrasies in Bette than she realizes. Reaching the lobby of the posh Sherry-Netherland, she thanks me profusely for my gallantry and I leave, my collection of Monitors under one sore arm, determined to deposit them in the nearest wastebasket.
Somehow, I wind up taking the strange burden all the way home and sit up until early morning, thumbing through a brown-edged ledger of the early Sixties. I come upon a lengthy article touting the abundant business and investment opportunities to be found in “the nation’s newest state.” Prosperity blooms in Hawaii, boasts the headline.
The story explains that “the people of Hawaii–are showing a single-minded determination to show their mainland cousins just what ‘growth’ is all about.” Obviously, the venerable Monitor didn’t know the half of it. I’m so thrilled with this book!” whispers a frizzy-haired Bette, turned out in baggy jeans, a droopy yellow sweatshirt and no makeup. She’s leaning over the galleys of A View from a Broad in the small dining room of the rented Los Angeles home she has been sharing for the last two and a half years with actor Peter Riegert (he played Boon, the social chairman of Delta Tau Chi, in National Lampoon’s Animal House).
“There’s something about typesetting that really elevates the written word. Or at least my written words.” She gently puts the book away and gives me a brief tour of the happily disheveled house.
The place is owned by actor Richard Chamberlain, whose mementos are hopelessly intermingled with Bette’s gaudy costumes and Peter’s dry cleaning. Later, we sit on a lumpy couch across from the large fireplace in the living room. She is sipping Courvoisier, openly anxious about the impending premiere of The Rose, and I remind her of the request she made of Aaron Russo some seven years past: “Make me a legend.”
“I said exactly that,” she nods, red-faced. “I was half joking and half desperate. And what I meant was that I didn’t want to be just another chick singer. I don’t want to go to Vegas and wind up singing other people’s stuff. I want to be what I think I can be, which is certainly not a legend. But you know, Aaron loved that stuff. That was like throwing down the gauntlet, dearie. His eyes just lit up.
“It’s insane to let something like that consume you,” she says with a sigh and a long sip. “It’s good in terms of being creative, but it’s fairly hard on the people around you, your family. And you wake up one morning and you don’t really know very much except that ambitious, selfish dream you’ve been in love with all these years. I don’t want to be that. I want to grow up. I don’t want to be Peter Pan or Janis Joplin.
“With a certain amount of introspection, triggered by age, plain old maturity, you find that it doesn’t hurt so bad not to be in the eye of the hurricane. I don’t have that desperation anymore, ’cause I know I can do what I do. A lot of people insulate themselves and refuse to feel that kind of pain. I find myself suffering from the same problem–of really loving to be with people but fearing that maybe they won’t like me, you know? And isolating myself, because of a funny fear.
“I used to phone my parents every time something came up. Of course, being so far away from each other, everything always has a distance to it–you know, death, sickness. They used to not tell me a lot of stuff about sickness, and I never told them the bad parts. Until real desolation set in, like when my sister died. What happens when you leave home is, you turn around to watch and see how your folks are doing and they’re the same.”
Bette becomes agitated when I tell her how affected I was by the phone-booth scene in the film. “They took something very lovely out of that scene that really burned my ass, because I thought it was the most telling thing in the whole film. She [Rose] says, ‘What are you watching [on TV]? Oh. She’s good. I like her.’ Those two or three sentences told the whole story of the relationship between the mother and father and daughter. They’d prefer to watch somebody else, some other girl on a show. It’s so mystical, it makes me all misty-eyed.
“I tried to say everything to my folks, but they never listened, they never asked for any daughterly advice. I told them to try to have a little more fun, but they couldn’t get themselves into that frame of mind. It used to drive me mad, because I could see them wasting away before my eyes.
“My parents – they were a pair of characters, and now Daniel is turning into sort of an amalgam of the two of them. I guess, because he’s retarded, all those traits are just so blatant in him. All those things about yourself that you’ve been hiding for years, everything that you might be worried about in yourself, is right out there in the open with him– only he doesn’t give a damn. There’s something to be learned from people like that.”
“Something your father learned from Danny?”
“God, that’s hard to know. He’s a strange old bird.” She sits pondering the question for several minutes, then slowly nods her head. “You know, maybe he’s more open now in his own fashion. He went to New York last summer, flew in unannounced and sat on my sister’s stoop until she came home. She sees there’s this strange man sitting on the stoop with a little knapsack, and she looks and it’s pa. ‘What are you doing here?!’ she says. “He only came in for a day. Wanted to say goodbye. He’s getting ready to kick off and wants to put his affairs in order.”
“And how has knowing Danny changed you?” She stares at me for a moment, then puts her brandy down and touches her fingers to her face, looking away as if gazing into some distant mirror.
“I always wished–” says Bette pensively,”–that my chest was smaller–that my hair was thicker–that my eyes were bluer–that my IQ was higher–that my shoe size was smaller. I never thought I was too pretty most of the time; I used to spend a lot of time turning my nose up in front of the mirror, you know, thinking, well, maybe you should have a nose job. Now, I think I can live with it, and like myself a bit more.
“Maybe I just grew out of it,” she says, facing me, “but what I can promise you is that I will never do that stuff again.”