Thursday, November 2, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Bette's Hulaween

The Divine Miss M. with the cast of Hello Dolly! — Kate Baldwin, Will Burton, Taylor Trensch, Beanie Felstein, Jennifer Simard, Melanie Moore, and Gavin Creel — at the New York Restoration Project’s Hulaween 2017.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Bette's Hulaween — Saintly and Divine!

“IT’S self-centered to think that human beings, as limited as we are, can describe divinity,” said the American investor John Templeton.
The Divine Miss M. at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
JUST a minute there! I believe that self-centered human beings (and is that not most of us, one way or another?) can certainly describe divinity. 

The most recent opportunity this human had was attending Bette Midler’s fabled “Hulaween” event on Monday evening. The gala, thrown annually to benefit Bette’s New York Restoration Project, is the brainchild and labor of love for the once and eternal Divine Miss M.  This year, in a masterstroke, the fundraiser happened at the soaring Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Bette’s party has previously been held at the Waldorf Astoria, but the grand old hotel is undergoing a refurbishment.  However, from some of Bette’s onstage remarks, there might have been a bad feeling or two between Midler and the Waldorf that had nothing to do with a new paint job. On the other hand, Bette’s little digs might have been nothing more than her old anthem, “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke!” (Over the last decade or so, as the good/bad power of social media has risen, nobody can take a joke anymore. It’s simply not allowed.  One of many reasons I’m glad I’m the age I am, and lived when I lived. And can most definitely can still take a joke.)

By now you’ve seen all the photos of all the celebs in costume, although it was just plain folks who appeared to have planned their outfits for an entire year and were mighty impressive. I kept running into one young lady all done up like Scarlett O’ Hara in “Miss Ellen’s portieres” — the famous green velvet curtain dress, in which Scarlett attempts to convince Rhett Butler that all’s well at Tara. This girl appeared to know the book and/or movie very well; every time we passed, we ran lines. Fun!
But more than the costumes, more than the entertainment (more on that later) was the great vibe. Part of this surely had to do with the striking setting. The eye-popping Gothic cathedral is the perfect event space — mostly musical concerts over the years.  But given the naughtier aspects of Bette’s big night (many guests appeared to take inspiration from the church, and were in various ecclesiastic costume, enhanced, this way or that) there was a raucous frivolity and good humor unique even to this famously playful, boisterous (in service of a great cause) night. 
The scene of this year's Hulaween — the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
People just wanted to have fun.  I heard — thank goodness! — not one serious conversation the entire night.  Nobody talked politics, nobody talked sexual harassment. In fact, when Kevin Spacey’s name was broached briefly, somebody at my table put their hands to their ears and said, “No, no, no!  Not tonight.  We can all go back to the ruin of the world and careers collapsing tomorrow.  Let’s talk about Bernadette Peters' skin!”  (Miss Peter’s who will take over the role of Dolly Levi on Broadway when Miss Midler departs in January was on hand, gorgeous and age-defying, as usual.)
Bernadette Peters — age-defying, as usual.
The food was impressive — they served something that looked like rib of a prehistoric mastodon, a positively medieval portion — well, for those wealthy enough to hole up in their castles to wait out the Black Death, anyway. 
We were promised a performance from ecdysiast Dita Von Teese, but apparently there was a slip twixt the pastie and the g-string and Miss Von Teese was not allowed to take it off in a house of God.  (I’ve seen Dita do her stuff.  It’s a very classy act, and after all, everything’s she’s got, God gave her. Why not share it?) 
We did get Jon Bon Jovi, who came on to deliver a sensational finale to the evening.  Jon hid that famously toned body under a loose-fitting striped prisoner’s garb, with a matching hat obscuring his equally famous thatch of thick hair.  But, he let it rip vocally!  I don’t think Jon’s ever been given his proper due. Not as the tight-pantsed lead singer of his band — with those long, lusciously messy locks; or even as a tight-pantsed solo performer.  Too hot?  Too Jersey?  Too successful?  Who knows?  He’s not crying, and indeed he (and band mates) are front runner nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Still, when Jon tore into the Jay Hawkins classic, “I Put a Spell on You,” he was not kidding around!  He put a spell on the whole place, including Miss Midler, who says she wants to do an album of Bon Jovi songs!
Bette with (top to bottom) Sophie Von Haselberg; David Evans Shaw; Michael Kors; and Nicolette Donen and Clifford Ross.
OF COURSE Hulaween is held together by the passion and vivid life force that is Bette Midler.  To call her a genius or a national treasure is to vastly understate her talents, her great heart.  But of we’ll use those phrases anyway because it can never be said enough.

Bette’s one of those stars we’ve known since this column first appeared.  Back in the day, as a hot young thing, Miss Midler was not always happy to be the subject of gossip and speculation.  She’d been burned, like all stars, and she was not yet the fully formed multi-hued human she is today.  The vagaries of career — up, down and sideways ... the tumult of a “private” life that is often not, a successful marriage, a wonderful child, and an expansion of her world view, have deepened her as a person and as an artist.   Still, I  cherish in memory the day she called our office back in 1970’s and barked, “I don’t want to be in your fucking gossip column!!”  We laughed indulgently and assured her that she did, and kept right on writing about her.

The highpoint of Hulaween?  For me, it was standing to the side, watching Bette Midler on the red carpet.  Amused, amusing, marvelously matter-of-fact.  There is something so alert and precise and laser-sharp about her manner.  Despite an occasionally still salty tongue one does get the feeling this is not a woman who expects to be taken for granted or who allows liberties. 

The Divine Miss M. was her initial, fabulous creation — rowdy, cleavage-shaking, pricking the overinflated balloon of pomposity.   She’s still divine, but in maturity and experience she found a rare kind of dignity in her divinity.  Long may she reign.  And we breathlessly await her rendition of Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name”!

P.S. The New York Restoration Project raked in two million dollars on Monday night thanks to Bette and the organization's development team headed by Ronald G. Miller, and apparently Bette and company are negotiating to return to St. John next year.
Bette with Michael Kaplan and Brian Sawyer.
THE pleasure of Hulaween — the pleasures of enjoying life while you can — was made starkly, tragically clear the very next day, when eight people died in a terror attack on the streets of Manhattan.  Our prayers to the victims and to their families. And for a world always going mad, but always going on.  It must and we must. 

“We cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings.” Albert Einstein.

Photographs by Presley Ann/Patrick McMullan (Hulaween)

Contact Liz here.