By the time she appeared as the final guest of Johnny Carson’s 30-year career on The Tonight Show and brought tears to the unflappable host’s eyes with an emotional performance of “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road),” she was an established star of stage and screen—a Tony winner, an Oscar nominee, a Grammy winner and a multimillion-selling recording artist. It would be difficult, however, to imagine a more unorthodox path to mainstream stardom than the one followed by Bette Midler—”The Divine Miss M”—who was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on this day in 1945.
Equal parts Judy Garland and Ethel Merman, Bette Midler early on set her sights on making it in New York City. Arriving in New York in 1965, Midler soon tried out for the national touring company of Fiddler On The Roof only to land the role of Tzeitel (and the job of singing “Matchmaker” eight times a week) in the Broadway production instead. After several years of singing in various Manhattan nightclubs on the side, she got what would prove to be the most important gig of her career, singing poolside nightly at the fabled Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse/cabaret in the basement of the Ansonia building on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. It was there, in collaboration with a young pianist named Barry Manilow, that she fully developed her “Divine Miss M” stage persona—a brash, campy interpreter of numbers ranging from “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Leader Of The Pack” to “Superstar” and “Delta Dawn.” It was at the Continental Baths that Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun discovered Midler and signed her to record the album that made her a star: The Divine Miss M (1972). That album, which made an unlikely pop hit out of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (Billboard #8, June 1973), earned Midler the Best New Artist award at the 1973 Grammy Awards.
Though she would remain a beloved favorite of a significant fan base over the next decade or so, her only pop hit during that period was the theme song from the 1979 movie The Rose. In 1986, however, her flagging Hollywood career was revived by a comic turn in Paul Mazursky’s Down And Out In Beverly Hills. Two years later, she would earn a Record of the Year Grammy and her first and only #1 pop hit with “Wing Beneath My Wings,” from the 1988 movie Beaches, in which Midler co-starred alongside Barbara Hershey.