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The man Bette Midler just couldn’t love


Bette Midler

Was marrying Martin, Midler's best decision ever made?

It was meant to be a cosy chat ... two fabulously successful women looking back over past triumphs and philosophising about the future. It was then, in the middle of last year's peak-time Oprah Winfrey Show that Bette Midler burst into tears.

It was only a momentary lapse and soon the glamorous 68-year-old, renowned for her scathing wit, was back in full control and talking about her idyllic 28-year-old marriage to commodity-broker Martin von Haselberg. Was marrying him the best decision she ever made? "Absolutely," said the star.

It was what had happened before she met Martin von Haselberg that had caused tears when the memories came flooding back... Memories of a man who, almost single-handedly made the unknown girl from the Hawaii pineapple factory into one of Hollywood's richest and most successful stars.

He was Aaron Russo, an overweight over-confident New Yorker, convinced Bette Midler was superstar material who needed a new agent and manager. "I can't," he said, "think of anyone who could do the job better than me..."

Bette Midler was 27 and beginning to make a name for herself as a nightclub entertainer when Aaron Russo burst into her life in the summer of 1972. He was a 30-year-old agent and promoter who was looking for a way to become rich.

He saw Bette Midler on TV's The Tonight Show and realised his prayers had been answered. Here was a woman with real talent. Russo wasted no time. He went to a Midler concert, talked his way backstage and soon became part of Bette Midler's entourage.

Soon he had ousted the singer's management and was in sole control of her destiny. He recalled. "We both had the same goal — to make Bette the biggest comedy star in America." All her friends had warned Bette against getting involved with Russo. But no one could deny that he was quick, smart and got things done.  

He was also 200lbs and married. But that didn't prevent him sweeping Bette Midler off her feet. Within weeks he was running her life.

A friend of Midler's remembered: "He just took over everything and made virtually every decision, including paying her bills and negotiating contracts.

Not surprisingly his marriage was soon in ruins, but that didn't seem important. His whole life was devoted to Bette. He said he loved her and that one day she would realise that she loved him."

It was Russo who persuaded Bette, and her musical director Barry Manilow, to make an album — The Divine Miss M — followed by a frantic 30-city three month tour. Once again he was right — the tour was a sell-out and the album soared to the top of the American charts.

But the price Bette paid was high. Russo's passionate obsession with her made him determined to be the centre of her life whatever the consequences.   

But no-one could deny that Russo transformed Bette Midler's life and career during the first year of their relationship. "I sometimes don't know who I am any more," she said. I used to be just Bette Midler. Now I'm the Divine Miss M.

And while friends continued to think that Russo was bad for Bette — that no one person should have so much control of a star — she seemed to like it that way. "I am comfortable with Aaron in charge," she said. "I know I don't have to worry about a thing when he's around."

They were together for nearly seven years. Under Russo's guidance, Bette Midler had become a movie star and the toast of Broadway. He thought he was entitled to the ultimate reward.

On the opening night of her Broadway show, Clams, a resounding hit, Russo presented her with an enormous diamond ring and asked her to marry him. She refused and there was a violent row in the dressing room. Next day at rehearsals she lost her temper and ordered Russo out of the hall. "I don't need you any more," she shouted. "I'm big enough to pay my own bills!"

A month later, she fired him. Aaron Russo took it badly — almost fatally. He locked himself in a hotel room and took a massive dose of sleeping pills. Sensing something was wrong, Bette had the door smashed down and the unconscious Russo was rushed to hospital.

"The first words he said on regaining consciousness in hospital were: "I love you, Bette." "Maybe you do," she replied. "But you'll get over it."

It took her eight years to become involved with another man — in 1984 she married Martin von Haselberg and never spoke to Aaron Russo again.

Shortly before Russo's death from cancer in 2007 at the age of 64 he said he still regarded his time with Bette Midler as the high-spot of his life.

"She asked me to make her a legend," he said, "and I did. No-one, not even Bette, can take that away from me!"

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