Bette started out a long way from the starry world she now inhabits. Her hometown is Honolulu, where she grew up in a poor family (with two older sisters, one of whom was killed in a car accident in 1968, and a younger brother, born mentally impaired). Her mother, Ruth, a homemaker, and her father, Fred, a housepainter, gave the kids the best life they could, sending the message that hard work and discipline were necessary to survive. These lessons weren't lost on Bette—on her way up, she worked in a pineapple cannery in Hawaii, as a go-go dancer in a New Jersey club, even as a hatcheck girl and glove saleswoman at Stern's department store in New York City.
There's probably a lot of her parents in the private, real-world Bette I've come to talk with—the self-described homebody with a 14-year-old daughter, Sophie, whom she adores, and a 16-year marriage to commodities trader turned performance artist Martin Von Haselberg, whose calming presence is her anchor. We have an exotic Turkish lunch and, later, we drink a champagne toast. After a good long look at the dazzling view of Central Park, Bette and I settle in her living room. She is a woman of verve, charm, and chutzpah who combines the very best of herself and the Divine Miss M. When she tells me about her passions and priorities—cleaning up cities and parks through the New York Restoration Project, an organization she founded six years ago; making sure she doesn't miss out on her daughter's teenage years; using her sitcom to demystify stardom— it's obvious that time and age have brought her clarity.
Five years ago, when Bette turned 50, she made a conscious effort to pause and examine her past. "I recommend that for everybody," she says. "It's a chance to look at what your life has been about." Here's what the years have taught her—and what matters most in this new episode of her life.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Bette Midler
Note: This interview appeared in the January 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.