If Midler needed any reminder of time’s passage, the obit pages over the last couple years have chronicled the loss of many links to her show-business past. “It was a bloodbath,” Midler says. “It was terrible. I went to a lot of memorials.” Lung cancer got Hilly Kristal, who before opening CBGB ran Hilly’s on Ninth Street, in the back room of which Midler first started singing cabaret in the late sixties. Ahmet Ertegun, who signed Midler to Atlantic Records after seeing her paraded around on the backs of screaming fans at Downstairs at the Upstairs in 1971, never woke up after bumping his head at a Rolling Stones show. Arif Mardin, who produced “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “From a Distance”—songs that would resuscitate Midler’s music career and define her to Generation X as Mom’s favorite singer—died of pancreatic cancer.
And then there was Aaron Russo, her manager and fiercest protector through her chaotic rise in the seventies, to whom Midler gave the instructions “Make me a legend.” Midler would hurl ashtrays at his head; Russo was so in love with her that upon hearing she was seeing her sound man, he made sure much of the sound department got busted on possession charges in Buffalo. He died last year of bladder cancer. “People used to just flock around Aaron,” says Midler. “First of all, he had all the drugs … He was what they used to call ‘a character.’ There aren’t many characters left.”
Midler fired Russo in 1979, and he was the last manager she ever had. She’s barely even employed an outside director since Joe Layton directed her legendary Broadway revue, Clams on the Half Shell, in 1975. She directs her own stage shows, with the help of her longtime choreographer, and “Mickey” singer, Toni Basil. So if there is anybody to thank or blame for her legendary successes or failures—Beaches or Drowning Mona—it is Midler, who, cackling, concedes, “I have had in my lifetime many really bad ideas.”
This reluctance to cede authority might explain how Midler has acquired, even among her longtime champions, a reputation for not making anything easy. “I’m used to it,” says Bruce Vilanch, who has been writing jokes for her for almost 40 years. “I know what her M.O. is. Yeats calls it ‘Turning in a gyre.’ It’s whipping yourself up into a lather. She takes that and synthesizes it and it explodes when she performs. A lot of that is nervewracking for other people, but that’s her process.’’ Preparations for the Vegas show were no exception. “She micromanages,” says Basil, who clearly adores Midler despite her freakouts. “She sat in the audience as we showed her every lighting cue. Every lighting cue! Do you know how many lighting cues there are?” When, during rehearsals, Midler frantically called her former musical director, Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman, for his opinion on something, he gave her the following advice: “Why don’t you calm the fuck down and enjoy yourself finally?” Says Shaiman, “Bette’s constantly beating up herself and all those around her. She enjoys the moment when she’s finally in front of the audience, but she doesn’t enjoy herself when she’s putting together the show. I wish she could learn how to enjoy that part, but it’s part of her molecular structure.”
At the opening-night after-party thrown in her honor at Pure, the nightclub inside Caesars, Midler finally seems relaxed. She’s allowed herself a celebratory glass of Champagne, which is all she’ll be having. “I had a couple years there in the eighties when I was not good with alcohol, so I just stopped,” she says. “I’m a very bad drunk. I’m violent. I’m nasty. And I bite.”
The crowd is typically Vegas random, in that the only other place you might encounter them together is if they all tromped through your dreams after a night spent eating too much garlic. Joey Fatone is there, as are Siegfried and Roy. Alan Thicke is telling Bruce Vilanch what to expect from knee surgery, and recent N-word-scandal-tainted Dog the Bounty Hunter is conspicuously shooting the breeze with a black man, as his wife, Beth, slowly navigates her gargantuan, prowlike chest through the crowd. The predictable old friends and collaborators have come out West, too: Marc Shaiman’s there, as is Jann Wenner, who says Mica Ertegun and “a planeload of people” came from New York.
Midler is being pulled this way and that by a surrounding throng, like a Frito plopped into a koi pond. She looks, well, alarmingly hot, with a couple inches of décolletage appearing above her ruffled, silver Badgley Mischka dress and her blonde hair piled casually atop her head. I compliment her diamond chandelier earrings. “I think they came from Canal Street,” she says, smiling girlishly and wagging them at me. When the D.J. puts on “Lady Marmalade,” Midler frees herself from the scrum, grabs her daughter, Sophie, and with arms waving in the air, dances down the stairs and into her public. Until the stroke of midnight, when she will disappear, the Divine Miss M remains on the clock.
Upstairs, in the VIP section, von Haselberg is sipping a glass of Champagne while keeping an eye on his wife. He tells me that she has breathed air outside of the hotel exactly one time in eleven days, so consumed has she been with this show. Still, in the opening-night excitement, he says Vegas is growing on him. “I’m beginning to like it here,” he says. “I was gone for three days and I started to kind of miss it.”
The next day, I mention to Midler what her husband had said about their not being real Vegas types. “He can speak for himself,” she says a little tartly, as if she’d prefer to unpack her bags before she starts shitting on her new hometown. “This is a resort. It’s great when you’re really tired and you don’t want to think about the weighty things in life and just want to be a little mindless and veg. You know, I’m not going to put resorts down. I’m sure I’ll find a way to put them down eventually, but right now, well, I’m tired.”