There is at least one man for whom Bette Midler harbors a certain amount of resentment, if not outright hostility: Paul Simon. The two met in 1975 while Simon was working on his Still Crazy After All These Years Ip and he invited her to sing along with him on a song he'd recently written called "Gone at Last." The track was cut different ways with the Tessy Dixon Singers and a group of Muscle Shoals session men but when the single hit the airwaves the finished track blaring out of a winter's worth of car radios bore no remote resemblance to the song Midler remembered working on. Why, the female lead wasn't even her but . . Phoebe Snow!
"That was a very strange event," Bette recalls candidly, "a very strange thing, and to this day I don't exactly know what happened. I don't remember how I met Paul but we hit it off very well, became friends, went out a few times and he played me this song. He asked me to be on it with him; I said that would be fine'.
"Then we got to the record companies and who was gonna get it; it got very ugly. Ahmet said one thing, the guy at Columbia said another thing. There was a lot of tension coming from a lot of places; from the record companies and at the session.
"Paul didn't like the track, I think, although he was probably too polite to say that he didn't. I think it just festered. He wasn't too happy with me either, I suspect. In any event, it all came to a head.
"I stopped hearing from him," she says with undisguised regret. "One day the record came out but I wasn't on it! And there had been a certain amount of advance publicity. I was very hurt; it took me a long time to get over it. I'm being very honest with you - no one ever asked me about this. In my inimitable fashion, I made a couple of scenes the next time I saw him; I was just awful.
"Paul's a very private person and he doesn't like airing his dirty laundry in public. In fact, I venture to say that he doesn't like doing his laundry at all - 'Oooh! Did she really say that?'
"He was the first person I ever met who I couldn't draw out of himself. I couldn't make it work. And like I say, I embarrassed myself and embarrassed him, once in a violent way."
Bette leans forward intently and recounts her public indiscretion with an odd mixture of delight and wine-enhanced remorse.
çš„ got very drunk," she says, ç”°ause I was real hurt - I shouldn't be telling you this - in the Hamptons one night. I went to watch a movie at someone's house and I didn't know I was gonna run into Paul and I did run into him. As soon as he came in the door I said, 'Get me another gin and tonic!' I must have put about six gin and tonics into my system and the more gin, the louder I got, until it came to a point where the evening was over and he came to say hello and goodbye. I said, 'Come on and we'll have a chat.' We went into the kitchen and it wasn't a chat for very long, I did all the yelling. . ."
Midler raises her eyes in abject mortification, but her beaming grin betrays her sense of triumph. "I haven't seen him in over a year," she allows with a catty flip of the palm. "Others have, however - ooh, hon-nee! You hang around, you learn!"
Baron Bruiso is likewise none too fond of Simon. His account of the abortive alliance expands pointedly on some of the themes at which Miss M only hinted.
"I think what it was, was that Bette was looking for a single and asked Paul to write something for her," he says coolly. "He came up with the song and called her and said, 'We'll do it together and we'll split it.' Then he had to start changing the deal around.... I think Paul got a little bit greedy and decided he wanted more money for it.
"I think Paul and Bette were having a little bit of-an affair," he suddenly discloses, "which didn't sit too well with me because Bette and I have had our own for long enough. I didn't care for that, I must say. But then I'm the jealous kind of man.
"I have no use for Paul Simon," Russo says. "The man is a great talent but . . . as far as I'm concerned, if I never saw him for the rest of my life it would suit me fine. He has a chip on his shoulder that is too much for me to deal with. He has such a complex about being short and his come-on is so obnoxious, I find him difficult to want to know, or to care to know. The lack of my enthusiasm in putting the [Simon-Midler record] deal together sort of killed it; it fell of its own weight."
When I questioned Simon last year about the convolutions "Gone at Last" underwent prior to its release, he was a model of gentlemanly composure. Asked if Bette Midler's no-show was the result of a personal falling out, he calmly stated, "It was not.
"I couldn't get the record companies to agree," he maintained. "And then it became so much wrangling and haggling that it just wasn't worth it. The version with Bette had more of a Latin, street feel, if you can imagine that. I changed the concept with Phoebe and tried a gospel approach because she was perfect for it.
"Bette and I have no plans to do any other work together."
And so Bette Midler remains suspended somewhere between her New York nexus and the deep blue Pacific. Many of her old associations are gone at last. There are fewer demons to deride her. But you've got to have friends, and at the very least she has an adoring one in Aaron Russo.