DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There aren't many people who could get away with singing this on stage in Germany.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BETTE MIDLER: (Singer) Hitler had only one big ball, Goering had two but they were small...
GREENE: Bette Midler did it. She sang this tune about (clears throat) a certain part of Hitler's anatomy during a world concert tour nearly 40 years ago. When Bette Midler sat down with us in our New York studios, I asked her to read a passage she wrote recently, remembering that trip.
MIDLER: (Reading) Long, long ago - around 1980 - through a veil of hot, briny tears, I seem to recall that I toured the world with my show for the first time, and lived to tell. I was 35 years old, cute as a button, and excited beyond belief. I was going to see the world, and the world was going to see me.
GREENE: This is from the new introduction to Midler's book, "A View From A Broad." It was originally published back in 1980, and there's a new edition out today. The book takes us to a time before Bette Midler was in movies like "Beaches" and "Down and Out in Beverly Hills." The younger star would wear masks and costumes on stage, playing scantily clad and scandalous characters like a wheelchair-riding mermaid and, of course, the Divine Miss M.
MIDLER: I had just come off a picture. That was my first movie - "The Rose" - and we went right into rehearsals for the world tour. And I was completely discomboobriated(ph). Half the people that I usually worked with, I didn't have, so I had to - I was like, pulling people from, you know, hither, thither and yon; and some of them were a little crazier than others. And so the adventures that we had on the road were really much more extreme than they usually are.
GREENE: And they were some adventures. I mean, there was...
MIDLER: And they were some adventures. There's a lot of embroidery in this book, I have to say.
GREENE: There is?
MIDLER: Oh, huge. It's all lies except for like, 10 percent of it, which is the truth.
GREENE: You embellish a little bit.
MIDLER: You have to embellish a little. Come on, some sequence of beats.
GREENE: But the life on the road, I mean, that is accurate.
MIDLER: The truth.
GREENE: I mean that was...
MIDLER: Yes, the truth of the life of the road is...
GREENE: There was alcohol, there were late nights, there was some of your dancers getting into trouble in different European cities.
MIDLER: Yes, not just them. I mean, everyone got into trouble. I mean, there was lot of bail bondsmen lurking around our venue.
MIDLER: It was fun. It was youth, you know. Youth, youth, youth.
GREENE: Now, among all the outrageous costumes Bette Midler wore on that trip, one stands out. There's a photo of it in the book. Tell me what we're looking at here.
MIDLER: Well, this a picture of me in a hotdog suit.
MIDLER: And one of the tragedies of it was that they did not give me a way to get out of it. I could get in, and then they Velcroed me up. And then I couldn't get out. So the first night that I wore this hotdog suit, they literally had to lay me down on the ground and rip open the Velcro. (Makes ripping noise) You know that horrible sound Velcro makes?
MIDLER: And then I stepped out. I forget what I was wearing underneath it. I must have been wearing something. But it was an idea whose time was not quite - it was half-baked, as they say.
GREENE: A half-baked hotdog.
MIDLER: So a half-baked hotdog. (Laughter)
GREENE: Well, let me have you read because there's this one moment - I mean, your writing is hysterical. I was laughing reading this thing.
MIDLER: OK. (Reading) It's funny, you know, the things that go through your mind while you're waiting to suffocate inside a foam rubber wiener. Things like, what the hell am I doing here? What was I thinking of? And the inevitable, I deserve this.
GREENE: You know, the hotdog suit reminds me, I mean, what were you doing by trying to become a different persona when you were performing?
MIDLER: I think I'm doing what all the girls do - now, that's what they do; they didn't used to - but I was trying to hide. I was hiding. I was entertaining, but I was also serving myself. I didn't have to give too much of myself because I was busy creating another character.
GREENE: Well, what were you hiding from?
MIDLER: Well, I'm not the kind of person - at the time, I wasn't the kind of person that really just wanted to stand there and sing with the band. I didn't really think it would put people in the seats. Why would they go to hear a singer who's - it was a good singer, but not a - you know, I'm no Whitney Houston. I mean, I'm a good singer.
The thing that I have that a lot of people don't have, is that I can communicate the essence of song's lyric. You can go so far with who you are yourself, but then you think, oh maybe I'll be too dull. Let's spice it up a little bit with her. You bring in another character.
GREENE: Give me an example in your career.
MIDLER: I'm a very - I'm shy. I'm a shy person. I was born sort of shy, and I don't really like to be on all the time. One of the things that used to distress me about the situation that I found myself in, once I became well-known, was that when I would go to a social gathering, people would expect me to be that person that I was on the stage - you know, that kind of loud-mouth, brassy, in-your-face, that girl who was, you know, would flash you. And I didn't want to be that, in a social gathering. I wanted to be the lady that I am.
GREENE: You do get into a bit of your childhood in this book. You grew up in Hawaii, and you described yourself as a worthless dandelion lost in a garden of orchids.
MIDLER: Yeah, well, that's how I felt.
MIDLER: Well, you know, we were a very quiet family. We were very isolated. In my school, my sisters and I were the only white kids. I just kind of got by, by staying out of the way, keeping my head down and just minding my own business. But it was very hard. You never felt like you had any value.
GREENE: And what did performing give you? Did it give some sort of opportunity for this little girl who felt...
MIDLER: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. It was moment to be in the limelight and a moment to say, you thought I had no value but look. Look what I can do.
GREENE: And in this book she wrote over three decades ago, Bette Midler wrestles with how to define herself as a performer, often using humor. She jokes about what the headline of her obituary might read - perhaps Diva Dies in Hotdog Mishap, or simply Bette Dead. But the second line is always the same: Began Career at Continental Baths. She did find fame performing at a gay bath house in New York City and she says for years, reporters would ask the same question.
MIDLER: What was it like to be in a bath house? And it's like, if you're so desperate to know what it's like to be in a bath house, go to a bath house. You couldn't get them to stop asking that question. So I sort of sent it up in the book.
GREENE: So in 2014, what's the headline you would sort of joke about, would be how you're going to be defined?
MIDLER: I think it would be that I made a difference in parks and gardens.
GREENE: And we should say, you run an organization cleaning up parks and gardens in New York.
MIDLER: I do. Yes, yes, yes, and I think I would say she planted a million trees in New York City - she helped plant a million trees in New York City; that's what I would like it to say. She raised a good child. She had a good marriage. And she was liked.
GREENE: This is a very different person, compared to the Divine Miss M.
MIDLER: (Starting to cry) I know, it's so sad.
GREENE: (Laughing) Were you tearing up jokingly, or was that...
MIDLER: No, no, I tear up - I'm like, I really - I truly, I cry at traffic lights.
GREENE: I apologize for thinking you were joking.
MIDLER: Oh, no, no, no. It's all right.
GREENE: What struck you there, when I asked you about the Divine Miss M?
MIDLER: Oh, any old thing. No, the idea of the obituary, you know. It's so - um, let's move on from death, shall we? Let's talk about life.
MIDLER: Miss M, God bless her, has been very, very good to me. And I'm grateful for her. I'm glad I thought her up. I'm glad my hairdresser gave me the name. I miss my hairdresser. He was great. There's a lot of people that I miss.
GREENE: I just wonder, is there a song that you feel like connects us to the real Bette Midler, the real you?
MIDLER: So many wonderful songs, so little time. Well, there's "Some People's Lives," which Janis Ian wrote; which I really, really love. There's "Hello In There," that John Prine wrote, that I still sing. In fact, it's a song about old people and when I started singing it, I was very young and now, I'm one of the old people. But it's mostly the ballads, I'd have to say. The ballads, I think, really represent who I am.
GREENE: Bette Midler, thank you so much for coming in and visiting us. We really appreciate it.
MIDLER: Oh, it was my pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO IN THERE")
GREENE: Bette Midler's book is called "A View From a Broad." It's a remembrance of her 1978 world tour, and it's just been reissued.
This is NPR News.