“Oh, yes,” says Midler’s husband, Martin von Haselberg, when I ask if the couple had reservations about her coming to Caesars. “Las Vegas is not immediately what we would consider to have our … sensibilities,” he says, milking that final word as if it had stink lines radiating off it.
But weren’t you married here by a guy who moonlighted as an Elvis impersonator?
“That was a long time ago,” he says.
That was 1984. It was an even longer time ago that von Haselberg co-founded the Kipper Kids, a roaming performance duo known for doing violent slapstick in jock straps, wearing dicklike nose prostheses, spray-painting their testicles blue, communicating in fart noises, and pouring SpaghettiOs and shaving cream over one another’s heads. As town-appropriate as that act might seem, the von Haselbergs are not typical Las Vegas show people. Though they have a place in Los Angeles and a spread upstate in Millbrook, they spend most of their time in Manhattan—specifically, in a Carnegie Hill apartment not far from Woody Allen’s old place. In person Midler comes off as almost aristocratic. She offers only the slightest of smiles as she shakes your hand. Her accent—vaguely Brooklyn ethnic on TV—might be described as upper-crust thespian. Her favorite hobbies are gardening and reading. Her daughter, Sophie Frederica Alohilani von Haselberg, is a senior sociology major at Yale. (“If you ever go into the movie business,” Midler told her as a child, “I’ll never speak to you again.”) Her best friends are Jann Wenner and his partner, Matt Nye; in 2006, the couples spent two weeks hiking and camping through Bhutan together. And Midler is a philanthropist: In 1995, she founded the New York Restoration Project, which plants trees, maintains community gardens, and cleans up public spaces in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.
As a welcome-to-Vegas gift, and perhaps in an effort to negate the effects of such cultural slumming, Midler’s husband bought her the entire Penguin Classics Library. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in her dressing quarters is stuffed with several hundred of the 1,082 titles. “I’m such a cheese,” she says, averting her eyes bashfully as though she were trying explain a Star Wars action-figure collection. “I’m reading Chesterton right now. The Man Who Was Thursday. I thought I’d start light.”
What lured Midler out of a comfortable semi-retirement in Manhattan to do 200 shows in a flashy resort town in the poorly humidified desert? Well, there’s the money, of course. The closest she comes to saying what she’s netting for two years of performances at Caesars is joking onstage about “the shitloads of cash they’re paying me.” Her musical director, Bette Sussman, has described the amount as enough to provide Midler with “freedom for the rest of her life.” Of course, Midler’s worldly needs must have been obliterated in the late eighties when she was one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, but there’s money, and then there’s “fuck you” money. Céline Dion reportedly strode out of Caesars after five years with more than $100 million.
A Vegas engagement also offers the opportunity to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. Prior to Showgirl, Midler’s last big gambit was a 2000 sitcom called Bette that lasted only sixteen episodes on CBS. When I ask Midler if, eight years later, she’s still feeling the sting of the failure of her television show, she says, “Very, very much so. What I intended was Entourage. What I got was nothing.”
If Midler once seemed too hip for Vegas, the city has changed in recent years—the $5 buffets replaced by Bobby Flay and Jean-Georges, the desiccated acts like Steve & Eydie giving way to performers like Prince. Besides, Midler always had quite a bit of Vegas in her. “I read a lot of books about people who followed the same path as me, you know, going from being a low clown to being a rather grand clown. And from being a grand clown, they try to forget that they’re a clown at all, and try to become very grand and marry up, you know like, Bea Lillie or Fred Astaire’s sister,” she says. “But you know, ultimately, when I ride the elevator with the housekeepers, I know that I’m one of them. That’s what I come from.”
In the end, she simply couldn’t resist the siren call. AEG Live, the company that books shows at Caesars, had been courting her for three years, and Midler’s friend Steve Wynn had talked about building a theater for her as well. “At first I said, ‘It’s not me. It’s not me.’ But eventually you have to face it. It is you. This is what you do. You love sparkles. You love showgirls. You love boas and feathers. You love boobs. I’m like a magpie. I’m a sucker for whatever glitters.”