Last Thursday Bette Midler's limo driver pulled up to my apartment building in New York and we conducted a private transaction at curbside that must've looked suspicious to onlooking neighbors as he handed me a white envelope and I gave him a chunk of gold.
I gave him the Emmy statuette that Bette Midler won in 1978 for best variety special "Old Red Hair Is Back" and he gave me a check from Bette.
I had purchased the Emmy in 2004 at a sale held by Hantman's auction house and have wondered ever since if something was shady about the deal. Why would Bette sell off – or give away -- the first of the three Emmys she's won over her career? Maybe because it was for a TV special that's relatively obscure today? The next Emmy she won in 1992 was her most famous victory – for singing "One for My Baby" to Johnny Carson upon his retirement from the "Tonight Show." She won again in 1997 for performing in the TV variety special "Diva Las Vegas." So maybe that first Emmy didn't mean so much to her anymore?
But there was another possibility too: Maybe it had been stolen from Bette. That fear has nagged at me for five years.
While dishing Emmys with Kathy Griffin via webcam last month, I had Bette's Emmy in the background behind me, pulled it off the shelf, confessed my guilty conscience to her and asked Kathy what she thought I should do about it. I knew that she and Bette were pals. Bette was appearing on "My Life on the D-List" the following week. Our mischievous chatter made for lively webcam dish and it got the ball rolling.
Afterward, I was in touch with Bette's PR rep Ken Sunshine and her lawyer, they conferred with Bette and, after several more back-and-forth discussions, we pieced together the mysterious history of the statuette after Bette won it.
For many years, Bette presumed the Emmy had been stolen when her L.A. home was burglarized during the 1980s. But that scenario didn't make sense to me. Those burglars swiped high-priced items that could be easily pawned. An Emmy is something that must be sold quietly, on the sly, years after a theft. It was clear to me when I purchased it that it had previously been owned by an obsessed Bette fan, who probably swiped it from Bette's house one day while being granted a visit. The auction lot included more than just Bette's Emmy statuette – it came with amateur photos of Bette taken at concerts, newspaper clippings, press photos, a rose pressed under glass against a publicity photo of her and more. I think there was even a cheesy, hand-written poem. I don't remember. When I acquired the lot, I threw out all of the creepy, fawning fan stuff, some of which you can still see in the photo here of her Emmy, which appeared in the auction catalog.
The auction sold off the private collection of a recently deceased business tycoon, Robert L. White, who wasn't known to be a Bette fan. He was famous for being a collector of JFK memorabilia and just so happened to have a few stray Hollywood items in his estate when it was sold off to the public. No one associated with the auction seemed to know how he came to own Bette's Emmy, but there was also another Emmy in his stash too – one of the statuettes won by Raymond Burr for "Perry Mason." Burr was my late mother's favorite TV star. It was his Emmy that I was after when I joined the auction, but someone else outbid me, so I settled for Bette's in consolation.
But, alas, it's finally back in Bette's possession. I gave it to her for the same price I paid and she was extremely eager to get it. Bette's performing in Las Vegas now. When I heard from her lawyer how anxious she was to have it returned, I offered to ship it to her in Nevada, but she didn't want to take a chance on it going astray again. Bette's assistant, I was told, was flying back to New York last Thursday and would arrange to have it picked up at my apartment. Moments after she landed, the assistant telephoned and asked if she could send Bette's driver over immediately. I said, "Of course." Also, I asked if she'd take a photo of Bette with the Emmy when Bette gets back from Vegas so I can share it with Gold Derby readers at the blog. She said, "Yes."
Photo: Hantman's Auctioneers