In 1984, Bette Midler and Martin von Haselberg spontaneously eloped to Las Vegas and wed at the Starlight Chapel. “My wedding was two people — my husband and me — and, of course, the Elvis impersonator that married us,” recalls Bette, who had only known Martin for about six weeks before they tied the knot. “I asked him!” she says. But when Bette married at 39, she was already an Oscar-nominated performer in the habit of making her own decisions and calling all the shots.
“We used to fight bitterly,” admits the star, 75, who says the birth of their daughter, Sophie, two years later helped change their priorities and put them on the same page. “We came to the conclusion that we wanted to raise a child. We never wanted to hurt that kid in any way,” she explains. “[So] we stayed together until it got better, and it did.”
The key, she and Martin, 72, have said, was putting family first. “There was a conscious effort to create exactly the life we have,” notes Martin, a former performance artist who quit his job as a commodities trader to support his wife’s career and help raise their daughter.
“My husband is probably the greatest father who ever lived. He taught her a foreign language. He taught her how to cook,” Bette says. She also praises Martin as a partner. “He has looked after me for many, many years. He’s sacrificed a lot.” Bette, meanwhile, learned how to compromise, something she’d never had to do before.
“Listening is very hard. And compromise. Compromise is the hardest of all,” she admits. When things go wrong, she came to understand how important it is not to take it out on your spouse. “The blaming, I think, is the worst part,” Bette says. “It’s because you don’t want to carry the burden yourself. You want to push it off on someone else. But honestly, you have to learn not to do that.”
Every marriage has its difficult moments, and Bette feels grateful that she and Martin worked on theirs instead of giving up at the first sign of trouble. “I think it’s [about] perseverance,” she says. “Continuing to put one foot in front of the other.” Today, the couple lead a peaceful life in Millbrook, N.Y., where they practice tai chi together and support the New York Restoration Project, which helps to create green, open spaces in New York communities.
They often like to curl up on the couch and reminisce. “We look back [at the difficult times] and wipe our brows and say, ‘What the hell was that?’ ” she confides.
One year ago, the couple’s actress daughter, Sophie, 34, married Harry J.N. Guinness in an intimate ceremony at their New York home. “They are very joyful together. So it gives me a lot of happiness, tremendous happiness,” says Bette.
And despite the lessons she has learned about marriage, Bette avoids offering the newlyweds any advice. “I think the best thing to do if you are a mother-in-law is to back off and let them have their lives and realize that you are not living their life,” she says. “You don’t have all the answers. It’s up to them to find their own life a d the answers.”