Long before she became the "Divine Miss M," Bette Midler was a divine little girl with a divine love of nature. Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, she was surrounded in her childhood by military workers and sugar cane farmers with limited resources and meager homes. Yet even amid this poverty, the young Bette was quick to recognize the richness and beauty of her native state, intuitively grasping what Hawaiians call "ohana" -- the concept of family, and how it tied the people of her community to the splendor of their homeland.
Fifty years later -- after a career that has earned her superstardom in the recording studio, on television and in film, and in the vampy, campy, electrifying nightclub acts that would ultimately become her signature -- she has still held fast to "ohana."
In 1995, Bette returned to New York, the city where her career was born, only to be horrified by what she saw. "People were throwing their garbage out the window, leaving their lunches on the ground -- I was so upset I didn't sleep for a week," Bette told Good Housekeeping magazine. "Finally, I realized I needed to actually do something -- even if it meant picking up trash with my own two hands."
As part of our ongoing series, "The Givers" (which last month featured my interview with Michael J. Fox), I sat down with Bette to find out more about her remarkable efforts to restore the beauty of New York City through the organization she founded, the New York Restoration Project. Talking to Bette, I couldn't help but feel exactly as I do when I watch her on stage. I was swept up in her passion, and felt like dropping my pen and running outside to plant a tree. The only thing that kept me in my seat was my curiosity at how this outrageous show-woman had become such a no-nonsense activist. So that's how I began our interview. -- MT
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Marlo Thomas: I have to tell you, I was a little surprised to see a picture online of the Divine Miss M, wearing jeans and rolled-up shirt sleeves, and shoveling garbage to clean up my city. I was looking for your feather boa! One would expect an urban cleanup mission to be spear-headed by a born-and-bred city kid. But you grew up in Hawaii. Is this where your love of nature came from?
Bette: Absolutely. When I was there, Hawaii was still a territory, and everyone I grew up with was poor. Most of the families worked for the military or out in the sugar cane fields. But even though people were poor, when you walked out of your crappy house you were rich -- because the sky was crystal clear and the waters were full of these jumping fish and everyone had gardens. And people worked hard to make the land extraordinarily beautiful. The public trees were pruned regularly. Japanese gardeners -- fantastic artists with such brilliant eyes -- looked after everything. It was paradise. And you lived the way people try to live in paradise.
Marlo: Were there public campaigns to discourage littering like we have here?
Bette: No, no -- you didn't need them. It was already in your blood and in your bones. You grew up knowing that this was your land and that it was up to you to look after it. The motto was -- and I'll give you the English version -- "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness," which meant, not only are you fair to your fellow human beings, you are also fair to the land.
Marlo: That's so beautiful -- and wise. It sounds like Hawaii has influenced your life so completely.
Bette: Completely. It's unbelievable. Growing up with these images of swaying trees and flaming sunsets, of blue skies and colorful flowers and rich scents that filled the air, I just thought the whole world was like that.
Marlo: Until the little Hawaiian girl moved to the big city.
Bette: Oh my God, I was flabbergasted. And to this day, I still can't get over it.
Marlo: You can't get over what?
Bette: That the people who are out to destroy the environment think they're going to get away with it. Are they breathing different air than we're breathing? Are they eating different food? I mean, where do they think they're going to go? What do they think is going to be better than what they have destroyed? I just don't get it. We are all part of the ecosystem.
Marlo: Let's back up a bit. When did all of this begin -- when did Bette Midler, headliner, become Bette Midler, crusader?
Bette Midler: In 1999, I was living downtown in Tribeca, and everywhere you looked -- the West Side Highway, the piers along the Hudson -- was total disrepair. There were homeless people living in tent cities; plastic bags and litter everywhere you turned. You couldn't even walk out your door without getting hit in the face with a piece of trash! I remember driving my daughter up the West Side Highway to 92nd Street, where she went to school, and every day I'd think, What the hell is goin' on here?
Marlo: What the hell was going on?
Bette: New York was climbing out of a terrible, stressful time. Landlords were either fleeing the city or burning their buildings for the insurance. At one point, the city had 10,000 vacant lots and empty buildings that were being used as crack houses or drug dens. Then when [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani came in, he wanted to start selling these lots for development.
Marlo: So how did everything turn around?
Bette: Giuliani decided to sell a package of 114 community gardens to developers -- plots of land that had been squatted on by gardeners for over 20 years. So these gardeners decided to take action. They dressed up as lady bugs and birds, and then they perched in the trees down at City Hall. It was a real embarrassment for the city.
Marlo: But these gardeners didn't technically own the land, right?
Bette: Right -- but they had squatted on the land and cultivated it, and the gardens themselves had become amenities for the neighborhood. Some were even a source of food for the neighborhood.
Marlo: So enter Bette Midler...
Bette: Enter Bette Midler...
Marlo: ...and through your newly formed New York Restoration Project, you saved the gardens from destruction. But your work didn't stop there.
Bette: Right. By that time, I had finally gotten so upset about what had happened to my city that I decided to put together a little crew and do the cleanup myself! That's our mission: to clean and green New York City -- one block at a time.
Marlo: How many people were in your crew?
Bette: I think about six.
Marlo: Really? Six? That's barely enough to play a decent game of charades. Shouldn't New York be paying for this kind of work?
Bette: Well, the Parks Department has only a certain amount of money -- and there's a lot of acreage to cover. Unfortunately, every time there's a budget crunch in New York, the Parks Department is usually the first to be cut. So they need all the help they can get.
Marlo: What was the first thing you and your crew tackled?
Bette: Fort Tryon Park, which is at the top of Manhattan, in Washington Heights. I took one look and couldn't believe my eyes. It was a dumping ground. People would come from all over the tri-state area and dump their trash. There was drug-dealing and prostitution. Car thieves would drive their cars into the park, strip them and set them on fire. I vividly remember people sitting at the bus stop outside the park, and the garbage was literally two feet high around them.
Marlo: Oh, my God.
Bette: And no one would ever pick up a piece of garbage! It drove me nuts, mostly because I knew it was symptomatic of a much bigger malaise. It was like this all along upper Manhattan -- 200 acres! -- and no one would go in there to fix the problem! Not the cops, not the Parks Department -- it was just too dangerous. I thought, What ever happened to the American can-do spirit?
Marlo: So you and your six-person posse began to dig in.
Bette: Right. We started in Fort Tryon. I said, I'm going to clean up this motherf***ing park if it's the last thing I do!
Marlo: As only you can. And before long, Mayor Giuliani caught wind of all this.
Bette: Yes. He joined me for a photo op in Fort Washington, under the George Washington Bridge. We had just pulled seven cars out of the river.
Marlo: Good God. So the Mayor was on your side right away?
Bette: Totally on my side. He was basically saying, "I got the message. You can do anything you want. If you want to clean up this mess, be my guest. But don't ask me for any money."
Marlo: That's always nice -- you had the approval but not the cash. So where did you get the money.
Bette: I started with $300,000 of my own, which I used to pay my six people a standard wage with decent benefits. And we started cleaning up Fort Tryon and Fort Washington parks.
Marlo: Everyone said it couldn't be done.
Bette: ...and we did it! It took us about four years, but we turned that land around and made it visitable -- places where people and families could come in and not be afraid.
Marlo: I've been to your fundraisers, and you're never shy about expressing outrage that people don't do more to help. Is this outrage what keeps you going?
Bette: Yes. And, you as you age -- and don't make me cry now -- but as you age, feelings do diminish. So what I truly hope is that my passion for this does not diminish. Because without passion, the powers-that-be can run roughshod over you.
Marlo: So how do you instill the spirit of little Bette -- the one who grew up loving her land -- in children today? What do you say to kids in urban areas so that they'll feel more a part of nature?
Bette: We have a program called "What's Good in My Hood." It's a workbook that Scholastic just picked up. It basically explains to kids, "Even though you're living with brick and mortar and asphalt and fumes, nature is all around you. Yes, there are bugs and there are the pigeons and other predators, but you shouldn't be afraid of them, because this is how nature works.
Marlo: I read that you've planted 500,000 trees. You couldn't have done that with a crew of six!
Bette: [laughs] No, no -- we're working with the City Parks Department and with the Department of Transportation. We get them from nurseries, and then we organize with places like Home Depot and Costco, and school yards and churches, to give them away. We have a huge giveaway planned for this year. We hope to plant one million trees by 2017.
Marlo: It's so exciting to listen to you -- you make me want to run outside right this minute and plant a tree! Tell me, what are some of the unexpected obstacles you've run up against in this work?
Bette: That's a really good question. The hardest part has been working on places that have been abandoned for so long that, culturally, it's very hard to change people's attitudes about public space.
Marlo: You mean, even if you clean it up, people will still throw garbage in it?
Bette: Yes, there's that. But there's also the fact that you can't just have a clean public space -- you also have to have people willing to use it, and something that will draw them in.
Marlo: Give me an example.
Bette: Well, take High Bridge Park, which has the bones of an extraordinary park. It was used a hundred years ago as a viewing place for people to watch horse-and-buggy races at the Harlem River Speedway. Well, there is no more Harlem River Speedway because people don't race buggies anymore! So what are you going to do with a park that's basically built into a cliffside? People are afraid to use it.
Marlo: So the bottom line is...
Bette: The bottom line is, you want to bring something into the park -- like rock climbing or biking or fishing -- that the population wants to do. I've learned a little bit about urban design and urban planning through this project. Not a whole lot, but enough to know that bringing the population's culture into the plan really counts.
Marlo: How can other people get involved? What would you say to a group that wanted to start this kind of work in their own neighborhood?
Bette: I think the best way to do this work is with friends. And friends of friends. And relatives. And people who owe you things, and people you love, and people who are fun to be with -- like-minded people who love the planet. It's important that you all agree on what the parameters are and what you can accomplish -- and not get pissed off or beat yourself up for what you can't accomplish.
Marlo: When our Facebook community learned that I was going to speak with you, we were deluged with questions -- they completely adore you! Shall we take some of these questions?
Marlo: One person asked, "When did you realize you had a beautiful voice? Did your mom tell you? Did you sing as a little girl?"
Bette: What a sweet question. Yes, I sang as a little girl -- I sang carols at Christmas. And in first grade, I sang "Silent Night" at a school assembly, and they applauded for me! But I was afraid to tell my mom because Jewish girls weren't supposed to sing Christmas carols! But I've always loved them -- they have such beautiful melodies.
Marlo: What about your funny bone? One person asks, "Were you funny in school?"
Bette: In the fifth grade, my girlfriend and I did a skit and we got big laughs, right out of the box.
Marlo: That's always dangerous.
Bette: Always dangerous! Your eyes light up and you think, Wow! They're laughing. Holy cow, maybe there's something in this!
Marlo: Another Facebook question: "What's the secret to happiness?" I'd like to know that too, actually.
Bette: [laughs] Well here's one: If you pick up a ukulele, it will make you unbelievably happy.
Bette: Absolutely. It's a really simple instrument; but it will give you hours and hours of joy. And it will help you to stay joyful.
Marlo: It's officially on my shopping list -- along with my new shovel. Final question from Facebook, and it's a wonderful one: "What song of yours would be the perfect theme song for your cause?"
Bette: What song of mine? I guess it would have to be "The Rose."
Bette: Because it's about rebirth. And restoration. And regrowth.
Marlo: It's been a while since I heard it -- remind me of that opening lyric.
"Some say love it is a river
that drowns the tender reeds.
Some say love, it is a razor
that leaves your heart to bleed.
Some say love, it is a hunger,
an endless aching need.
I say love, it is a flower
and you, its only seed."
Marlo: Such a beautiful lyric.
Bette: A gorgeous lyric by Amanda McBroom -- we're to give credit where credit is due!
Marlo: Absolutely. And you're right -- it does capture the essence of your work with NYRP.
Bette: Exactly. What's so great about the song is that it's about regrowth and the seasonal cycle, and that everyone is part of this cycle -- everyone goes through their winters and springs, and their summers and autumns. And when it's time to shuffle off this mortal coil, you leave your ashes to be composted.
This is what's going on, this is the way life is. And it's not so bad. In fact, if you get it, it's kind of fabulous.
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For more information on the New York Restoration Project, visit their website.
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