As the pouty-lipped, vodka-voiced tough broad Margot Channing in All About Eve, Bette Davis brandished her typical cigarette and sarcasm and delivered a now famous line: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” Offscreen, too, the demeanor and the sentiment characterize the legendary actress. Feisty and forthright in public, she has privately weathered four marriages, struggles with a retarded adopted daughter and, more recently, a mastectomy, stroke and broken hip. And she has always managed to come back and take on yet another role.
But now, in her 78th year, comes a devastating jolt from an unexpected direction: Bette’s only natural child, her daughter Barbara Davis (B.D.) Hyman, has written a memoir about her mother that is already being decried as a new Mommie Dearest. The book, My Mother’s Keeper (William Morrow & Company, Inc., $17.95), hits stores nationwide this week, just in time for Mother’s Day, and the publishing community is salivating over perhaps the juiciest entry on the spring lists. Meanwhile the author, steeling herself to face a hostile, disbelieving press soon on a 12-city promotional tour, insists that her opus is not really like Christina Crawford’s. “Joan was completely evil,” says B.D., who turns 38 this week. “My mother is not, though she certainly has the capacity to be very mean when crossed.”
Already, says B.D., Davis has shown her wrath over what is undeniably an extreme and puzzling act. “How dare you do this to me? I’m a very famous woman,” Bette repeatedly protested in letters and phone calls. She persistently demanded to see the manuscript and was told that she’d have to wait till the book was finished. (“I didn’t want interference,” says B.D.) At one point, while she was filming a TV movie, Murder With Mirrors, in England, the actress, according to her daughter, asked a doctor to call B.D. and report that Davis had taken to her bed and was in danger of another stroke. “Are you going to show her the manuscript?” he then asked. B.D. was unyielding. Nor was she cowed to learn that Bette had stopped payment on a $500 check earmarked for bicycles for B.D.’s two sons. Around this time Bette also reportedly demanded of her daughter: “Did you do it for the money?” The last communication was in December, and mother and daughter have not talked since.
Why this bright, self-possessed and seemingly guileless housewife would write such a book is the talk of Hollywood. To publicly malign a mother, let alone one of Davis’ stature, is a chilling act. To do so during her lifetime, some would say, is cruel and self-destructive. B.D. faces censure from her mother’s fans—not to mention the possibility of a lawsuit or disinheritance—but is undaunted. “If I could count the times Mother has said she hated me and didn’t have a daughter,” says B.D., “I’d be in the very high numbers.”
She stands to earn in the high numbers for her literary efforts (the advance was $100,000) but claims money was not a motive. “I wrote the book because I love her and I want to reach her,” B.D. insists. “I could have written the manuscript and sent it to Mother and not published it. She wouldn’t have read it. She won’t listen to anything she doesn’t want to hear. She hangs up the phone or walks out the door. So I went the only route I felt would reach her: the public forum. What is seen by the world is the most important thing to Mother. This is essentially a public letter to my mother.”
Out of this “desperate solution to a desperate problem” will come, she hopes, a reconciliation. “I believe Mother has all the love in the world. I think she can change and try and understand and rebuild a mother-daughter relationship.” She admits, however, that at first Davis will be enraged when—and if—she reads My Mother’s Keeper.
Her drinking had been pretty heavy for many years, but now [around 1973] it became really serious. She not only drank in the morning, she was actually drunk by 10 a.m.
Such incriminations contribute to Hyman’s portrait of Davis as a mean-spirited, wildly neurotic, profane and pugnacious boozer who took out her anger at the world by abusing those close to her. “Happy?” snaps Bette in the book. “Happy? I’ve never been happy…. All my life I’ve had to fight the world. Everyone has always tried to get me.” Men were especially threatening to Davis, says B.D., perhaps because Bette’s own father had abandoned her when she was 8 years old. Davis was married to her third husband, artist William Grant Sherry, when B.D. was conceived in 1946. Sherry later fell in love with B.D.’s governess and Bette with her All About Eve co-star, Gary Merrill, whom she married in 1950.
Gary would glare at me, face contorted into a vicious mask, and shout, “Get away from me and mind your own business, you little slut, or I’ll give you the same as your mother!…” and Gary would slap me across the face or knock me down and Mother would scream louder that I was making it worse.
The battles went on unabated, according to B.D., who began to suspect that if Bette really resented Merrill’s attacks, she would have done something about it. When the marriage broke up in 1960, Bette focused increasingly on her work and her family—B.D. as well as on Michael, now 33, and Margot, 34, the two children she and Gary had adopted. Margot, institutionalized since 1954, came occasionally for visits. “Mother always lost her temper with Margot. She would call her names like ‘stupid’ or ‘moron,’ ” says B.D. “She spanked her constantly for everything. She thought Margot should be treated with normal discipline.”
It was not uncommon for her [Davis] to tiptoe in when I was taking a bath and giggle coyly while remarking on how amply endowed I was…
B.D. was the child who clearly got most of Bette’s attention. When she began dating at 13, Davis encouraged her to experiment with sex. “Mother was a virgin when she married and always resented it,” says B.D. “She wanted to live vicariously through me.” Once, after 15-year-old B.D. came home from a date with George Hamilton, Bette asked: “Well? Did he lay you?” B.D. shot back: “I never kiss and tell.” Snapped Bette: “Well, he better have.” Soon after, B.D. fell in love with Jeremy Hyman, a British film company executive 13 years her senior, foiling Bette’s hope that her daughter should remain always at her side.
“You don’t give a damn about me. All you care about is your precious little love affair. Well, let me tell you something, young lady…. If I wanted to, I could take him away from you right now.”
After some stormy scenes, Davis reluctantly agreed to the marriage. “She thought it would be a disaster, and I’d go running home to her, and she’d be proven right,” says B.D. “She thought she’d hold on to me through my misery.” But the union proved a happy one, and Bette retaliated, says B.D., by insulting Jeremy and telling his wife he was having affairs. (He wasn’t.) In later years, according to B.D., her sons Justin, now 7, and Ashley, 15, took their share of Bette’s abuse.
She only hit him [Justin] three times, but I know it was as hard as she could. The expression on her face was vicious. Justin screamed at the top of his lungs…
After reportedly walloping Justin, then 4, on New Year’s Eve in 1982, she shut the boy up in a dark room and told him that “he better damn well stay in there and not try to come out till he’d learned his lesson.” Davis also turned on Ashley after encouraging him to make his acting debut with her in the 1981 TV movie Family Reunion. When the show’s producer, Lucy Jarvis, asked Bette why Ashley should be given the part, Davis replied, “My dear, talent skips a generation.” But, as B.D. tells it, once they were on the set, Bette repeatedly shouted at Ashley, then 11, calling him “stupid.” Four years later Ashley says of the experience: “Grandmother made me crazy. I loved acting, but I wouldn’t act with her again if I could help it, unless it were the only way I could get into a picture.”
The first time Mother staged a mock suicide, I was eight years old and Michael was three…. “Neither of you cares a damn about me…. Well, we’ll just see how you feel about it after I’m gone.”
Davis, says B.D., had other quirks besides pretending she had done herself in with pills from empty Nembutal bottles. Once, at a family dinner, Bette had trouble carving a chicken. She flung the fork across the table, tore the bird apart with her bare hands and, “frequently licking her fingers,” presented the pieces to the astonished guests. She apparently attacked fish with the same gusto. B.D. quotes Davis as saying: “I like to rip the guts out of fish. I like to feel the goo and blood and think of all the people who’ve done me dirt.”
After digesting all this, readers will have good cause to wonder: Is it true? Davis herself could be enlightening on the subject, but so far has remained silent. “Miss Davis has been very sad about the whole thing,” says her lawyer, Harold Schiff. Davis’ son, Michael, a Boston attorney who is running for his second term as a member of the Brookline Board of Selectmen, fears that the book may be emotionally—and possibly physically—hazardous to his mother. He questions his sister’s veracity: “Whatever B.D. writes or says, Mother has been devoted to that family.”
The man who survived five tempestuous years, from 1945 to 1950, as Davis’ third husband takes a harsher view. William Grant Sherry, 70, a landscape painter in Mill Valley, Calif., succeeded Harmon Nelson, the band leader Davis married at age 24, and businessman Arthur Farnsworth, who died two years after their 1941 wedding. “Bette was not a natural mother,” recalls Sherry. “I never saw her hug or rock B.D. She’d visit with her for a while, then call over the governess.”
Sherry corroborates B.D.’s story that Bette imbibed heavily. “She could drink a bottle of Scotch a night and not show it at all,” he remembers. Davis, he adds, had to get all the attention. “Once a reporter wrote a very nice article about me, and Bette said: ‘How much did you pay him?’ She told me there was room for only one star in this family.” Perhaps inevitably there were bitter fights, and during one, Sherry threw a “small steamer trunk” at Davis. “This seemed to calm her down. She realized I wasn’t someone she could manipulate, although she never stopped trying.”
The next Mr. Davis, Michael’s father, Gary Merrill, is slightly more sympathetic to Bette—though not to Sherry. “That shmuck! That’s where B.D. gets it,” he complains. Merrill, who is now 69 and does voice-overs on IBM and Volvo commercials, considers B.D.’s writing of My Mother’s Keeper “reprehensible. I mean, here is a woman who took care of her and gave her money.” As for the accuracy of the book, he says: “There are kernels of truth in it, but multiplied. Bette and I were both big drinkers, and sure I slapped her and B.D. We had physical fights, but not much more than the average family. Usually Bette pushed me first or something. I’m a lazy slob. I wouldn’t start a fight.”
He denies certain anecdotes in the book, such as the one in which he slashes wildly at B.D.’s horse, Sally, with barbed wire. “They got Sally after I left,” he insists. Nor does he remember calling B.D. a “little slut,” as she writes in the book: “Christ! She doesn’t have enough gumption to be a slut.” In fact, in a number of cases he challenges the reconstruction of often profane dialogue as not sounding like him or Bette. “Where does she get this stuff?” he asks. “She didn’t keep notes like those guys at the Pentagon. So you have to ask how and where memory enters in.”
Indeed, the notion that a child not yet 12 could remember such specific conversations defies credibility. Similarly, it’s difficult to believe, say Davis’ friends, that she is a domestic Medusa. “She is a kind of genius—an extraordinary woman,” says her old chum Olivia de Havilland, Davis’ co-star in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. “She loved her daughter and was immensely proud of her.” Geraldine Fitzgerald, Davis’ Dark Victory co-star, found Bette to be extremely devoted to her family. “I cannot say I saw anything but love on Bette’s part.” R.J. Wagner, who produced and starred in Madame Sin with Bette, observes that “motherhood was her thing. She couldn’t have been more generous or caring.”
The dynamics of mothering are of major interest to B.D., who sees My Mother’s Keeper as a kind of self-help volume—along with everything else. “Despite mother’s extremism, there are so many relationships like this. Some mothers feel it’s their right to dominate, push and pull. I’ve met so many people who hear a little about the book and say: ‘That’s my mother! That’s me!’ I hope my book will become a loving study of a mother-daughter relationship.” She seems to mean this.
The idea for the book, according to B.D., came after a visit with Bette in September 1983. Struck anew by her mother’s pugnaciousness, she returned to her 38-acre farm in rural northeastern Pennsylvania and decided to write a memoir. Husband Jeremy, who has had various jobs over the years, including running a hay-trucking business and trading commodity futures on the Chicago board, agreed to act as informal editor. B.D. proceeded to write, but, perhaps for obvious reasons, she questioned whether she really wanted to publish.
Then, one snowy January night in 1984, a man came to their door selling coupons for the local chamber of commerce. He turned out to be a born-again Christian and introduced B.D. and Jeremy, both agnostics, to Pentacostalism. Soon, all four Hymans had embraced the religion.
By the fall B.D. had also embraced the idea of publishing her book and had sold it to William Morrow. “After I found the Lord, I realized there was a chance of a miracle in the literal sense with Mother,” says B.D. “For Mother to change, she has to discover God through facing herself in this book. I want her to go to heaven.” Around this time B.D. even discussed her new beliefs with Davis. While on the subject of heaven one day, Bette reportedly asked: “Jeremy’s become a Christian, too, right? That means he’ll go to heaven, too, right? Well, if that bastard wants to be there, I’m not going!”
On earth, at least, Jeremy and his mother-in-law are now many miles apart. Last November, eager for a new life, the Hymans sold the farm and moved to the Caribbean. They selected Freeport, Grand Bahama, because of its Pentacostal Church and good private school. Living the island idyll in a simple, furnished, four-bedroom apartment, B.D. and Jeremy spend the hours after school snorkeling and spearfishing with the boys. Cryptic about their income, they say it comes from investments and business interests. The money from the book will not be unwelcome, but B.D. claims a good portion of it will go to the church.
For the next year or so, B.D. and Jeremy plan to devote themselves to a second book. Proceeding without a contract, they are chronicling the events in their lives during and after the writing of My Mother’s Keeper.
One incident that stands out in their minds is the mystery of how the epilogue of the book came about. A final plea to Davis to listen, it grows increasingly religious near the end: “Regard this, Mother, as my cry in the wilderness, to prepare the way and make straight your path.” Curiously, neither B.D. nor Jeremy recall actually composing these words. “Some people have a ghostwriter,” says B.D. “We have a Holy Ghost writer.”
As they face the future, they may need a guardian angel. “The first precept of any religion is honor thy father and mother,” says Gena Rowlands, who played Davis’ daughter in the 1979 TV movie Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter. Readers may loudly echo that sentiment. Yet Bette Davis’ bold, possibly foolhardy daughter insists she has carried out “a Christian act, not a betrayal.”