I already had Bette Midler, cabaret showgirl, actress turned philanthropist on my list of portraits of Magical People, given my admiration for her work restoring green to NYC with her New York Restoration Project. She was in my “environmentalist category.” OK, clearly not her last act.
Just as I was about to draw Bette, suddenly her return to Broadway was announced. Bette Midler in the title role of Dolly Levi, in Hello Dolly!, the classic American musical about a socialite-turned-matchmaker. And chosen as a muse for Marc Jacobs SS2016 campaign the next week based on the 70's? Perfect! Seriously fun news.
Like a trailing showgirl feather boa, a little soulful match making unfurled as I began my research.
Matchmaking #1. Saturday mornings, circa 1970’s , after Soul Train. Living in the suburbs of Philadelphia in 1973, my red-headed, glamorous mother introduced my sister and I to Bette Midler through her first album, The Divine Miss M.
The cover illustration above (now in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery) of the red-headed beauty captivated me for its style, while Bette’s soulful, honest renditions of American classic songs inspired my mom, sister, and I to wave our arms and prance about singing, cutting the rug of our 70’s den. (after Soul Train) Here was this 5’1, incarnation of the early twentieth-century bawdy entertainers, brassy, honest, and busty. A free and anarchic spirit. A doll, a cheeky broad. A woman with a classic Jewish profile nose and sense of raw humor about love, sex and life...like us. Cool!
Matchmaking #2. Little did I know that the lineage of art and illustrations around both the Hello Dolly! play, the movie, and Bette turned out to be uncanny matches in connection to my choices for this illustration.
Bette’s first album’s cover art was created by Richard Amsel, a Philadelphia native. While he was just 22, his proposed poster art (above) for the 1969 film version of the Hello Dolly! musical starring Jewish, funny lady, Barbra Streisand was selected by 20th Century Fox for the film’s campaign after a nationwide artists’ talent search. The huge hat filled with flowers spoke to me of Bette’s work with nature.
Matchmaking #3. Amsel’s illustrations next caught the attention of Barry Manilow who was working with Bette, then a newly emerging entertainer in cabaret clubs and piano bars. Manilow played matchmaker, which led to Amsel illustrating the cover of Bette’s first album, The Divine Miss M. It proved to be a classic.
Matchmaking #4. I didn’t know this history when I decided to illustrate Bette! Of course, I knew the famous Al Hirshfeld drawings of Carol Channing as lead in Hello Dolly! on Broadway in 1964. (above)
In the film version, Barbra Streisand’s purple dress seemed to symbolize her matchmaking profession (a meeting or crossroads) and for me the meeting of these points in history. Above, Babs in a park, makes the match with Bette's love for NYC's green spaces!
Barbra as Dolly wears a huge Victorian hat as a circle of flowers and feathers, resonating with me as Central Park, the round reservoir of nature, which I always saw as the heart of NYC. Have you noted the sassy red-hair again? A bit referring to clowns, or even streetwalkers, it signals "farce" and playing, and so it was a must for my illustration!
Flashback to the inspiration stage. I had pulled this little stock illustration (above) as inspiration back in the “She’s an Environmentalist-in-the-City idea” stage. I've had this tiny talisman image for a long time even before I drew Bette, tacking it up here and there in the house as the simple integration of city and nature spoke to me. You can see how I ultimately worked this into her hat, adding the little buildings with shining windows.
Matchmaking #5. I also like the unadorned Bette, in the soulful lineage of Janis Joplin, followed for me by Amy Winehouse. Bette, in fact, played Janis in The Rose, reminiscent of both her own experience and Janis Joplin’s. Bette looks like my mother here, above, and I’ve been told I look like Amy Winehouse. Women turning their pain into art. Bette’s ingredient of humor sets her apart from Janis and Amy, a saving grace.
While in the 70's, men like my dad referred to some women in their social circle as broads, while it was somewhat derogatory, you could tell he really admired them for their smarts too. These were the loud, sexy, funny, and self-assured dames we thought were Goddesses! Words like broad and doll are now being reclaimed for a woman unabashedly creating in an expansive sense, and Bette has paved the way here!
My sense is that she will add a new depth to this "older dame" character, Dolly.
And the Marc Jacobs campaign? Marc Jacobs, born on April 9th, the same as me? And whom I ran into last year on our birthday? Uncanny!
And from that same humorous “Oh Baby, do ya wanna dance?” place, soulfully, my tiny lights are lit in my NYC apartment, way early in the morning or late at night, music on, singing, dancing, drawing…matchmaking the pulse of the city to the pulse of the green world...so happy!
My illustration of Bette Midler is available on the shop here.