Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content
Join Now
PetHero: Save 25% at the vet; get toys, treats and a 24/7 lost pet conciergeLearn More


Grand Dame, Grande Dame

Posted on

Bette Davis is no longer with us and there’s some uncertainty about where she’s going—but there’s no doubt at all about the quality of her exit as a piece of theater. It was spectacular. Dying of cancer, barely able to stand, she summoned her last strength and flew 6,000 miles from Los Angeles to a film festival in San Sebastian, Spain. They wanted to give her an award, and she wanted to take it. She longed to stand there in the limelight one last time and see the world at her feet, longed to feel those big warm surges of adoration thunder toward her. She wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, and she did. Reporters swarmed, photographers jostled, dignitaries hovered Andrei Konchalovsky, the renowned Russian director (Runaway Train), knelt at her feet. The days flew by like butterflies as she marinated in adulation. Until suddenly she was profoundly weary.

Bette was flown to Paris and died there three days later. The pain was stronger than any medication could control, but she stood up to it, lucid to the end. She lived her death as she had lived her life, with ferocious will and flamboyant originality.

Without that steely determination and flaring ego she could never have survived in an industry obsessed with busts, buttocks and bucks. Runty, fidgety, with eyes like poached pears and a voice like a gasping lawn mower, she defied all preconceived notions of beauty and decorum to establish herself as one of Hollywood’s sacred monsters: Garbo’s replacement, Hepburn’s peer, the supreme dramatic actress of her era in film. Like Garbo, she could smolder mysteriously but more often her energy blazed outward. “She entered a room,” wrote critic Walter Kerr, “as though she were slicing it in half with a knife.” Bette accepted the compliment “I guess I’m larger than life,” she once mused. “That’s my problem.”

She had more vexing problems than that. At her worst she parodied herself indulging in actressy tics and tricks. At her best she brought to her roles a bracing honesty and realism that blasted some of the tinsel off Tinseltown. She didn’t give a damn how she looked—she shaved her skull to play Elizabeth I and shambled around in rags as Apple Annie in Pocketful of Miracles. She was a character actress cast as a leading lady, and she liked vinegar and venom better than sugar and spice. She created some of the most fascinating bitches in movie history—aging prima donna Margo Channing in All About Eve (“All playwrights should be dead for 300 years!”), wandering wife Rosa Mo-line in Beyond the Forest(“What a dump!”), brazen flirt Madge Norwood in Cabin in the Cotton (“I’d love to kiss you, but I just washed my hair”). Overwrought overemphasized, overblown, but somehow true to life—at least to Bette’s life.

Was Bette a bitch? Yes and no. On the one hand she had a warm heart and a trusting nature. On the other she could be a cold careerist. If she didn’t feel threatened, she could be delightful. If she did, she could be a ring-tailed snorter. Trouble was, she felt threatened much of the time. Jack Warner threatened her because he had control of her career, so she fought fiercely to erode his control. Her directors threatened her because they could tell her how to perform, so she constantly skirmished around their authority. Joan Crawford threatened her because the woman openly despised her, so Bette returned the favor.

Power was the issue, because power meant control, and Bette thought she wanted control—but she didn’t. What she really wanted was attention, and to get it she went to brilliantly imaginative and pathetically self-destructive lengths. She became an actress to get attention, and most of the sorry dramas of her private life were devised, consciously or unconsciously, to put her in a position where she could not be ignored.

Drama was Bette’s element from the instant she was born, on April 5,1908, in a fanfare of thunder and lightning. She was christened Ruth Elizabeth Davis, and over her cradle savage domestic scenes were played. Father Harlow, a young lawyer in Lowell, Mass., was furious when his bride became pregnant, informed her they couldn’t afford a child and insisted that she give the baby away. Mother Ruth stood up to him and defended her cub like a tigress. Earnest and remote, father never felt at home in his family, which by 1909 included daughter Barbara. All through Bette’s childhood, he ate at a separate table and had little patience with his lively daughters. Mother hovered protectively and infused Bette with her own theatrical dreams. Overstimulated by one parent, resented by the other, Bette grew up in a world of fire and ice—the elemental extremes she expressed so magnificently in her art.

By the age of 4 she was a full-blown prima donna and when her father left home in 1915 dramatic opportunities multiplied. Ruth hired out as a cleaning woman to enroll Bette and Barbara in a New England boarding school. There, dressed up as Santa Claus for a Christmas pageant, she acquired the celebrated Bette Davis pallor when her beard caught fire and singed off a superficial layer of skin, permanently altering her complexion.

In her middle teens, huge-eyed and ethereal, Bette glowed like a nymph in a pre-Raphaelite painting. But she loathed her looks and behind every boy she glimpsed the specter of her disapproving father. She had an Electra complex, a terrified fascination with strong males that became more acute as she grew older and kept her wavering in their presence between fight and flight. Usually she fought and they fled, leaving her to make do with agreeable nobodies she soon learned to bully and despise. She found one in prep school, a shy young musician named Harmon O. “Ham” Nelson.

She was wild about Ham, but wilder still about the theater. At 17 she auditioned for Eva Le Gallienne, the famous actress-teacher. Reaching for the moon, she fell flat on her prat. When she giggled nervously, the grande dame sniffed: “You are a frivolous little girl. Good day.” Raging and desperate, Bette was rescued by Ruth, who wangled her admission to New York City’s John Murray Anderson Dramatic School. “She had control, discipline and electricity,” said Martha Graham, her dance instructor. “I knew she would be something.”

Four years later, at 21, Bette arrived on the New York stage. As Hedvig, the unwanted child in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, she played with a passionate pathos that stunned her audiences. Bette could hardly wait to get her father’s reaction. “You would make a very competent secretary,” he said frigidly. Directors, however, lined up to work with her. “My God!” gasped one, “she’s made of lightning!”

Sam Goldwyn got the word and suggested a screen test. When he saw it, he was appalled. Tiny, scrawny, stagey, pop-eyed, Bette looked more like a cartoon character than a movie queen. “Who,” Goldwyn roared, “did this to me?!” But when Bette did a test for Universal, she was offered a $300-a-week contract. With exactly $57 between them, mother and daughter took the coach to the Coast, on a lark they never expected to last a lifetime.

It almost didn’t last a day. Aghast at the unglamorous object they had purchased, studio bosses ordered a total make-over. The Bette that emerged looked like a cut-rate Carole Lombard doll, and Universal nervously buried her debut in a routine loser, 1931’s Bad Sister. But canny old matinee idol George Arliss spotted her talent, spirited her off to Warner Brothers, and co-starred her in The Man Who Played God (1932). Impressed with her power, RKO cast her as Mildred, the scheming vixen in Of Human Bondage (1934). She narrowly missed the Oscar and won it the next year for Dangerous. Suddenly she was a superstar, queen of the Warner lot.

As success escalated, so did problems. Mother Ruth demanded diamonds, furs, cars and a house three times as big as Bette’s. Bette gave her all she asked for, supplied Barbara almost as lavishly and paid all the hospital bills for her sister’s frequent mental breakdowns. And then there was Ham. She was 24 when they married in 1932, and to the end of her days she insisted proudly that he took her virginity on their wedding night—”and it was hell waiting!” Though he made a decent salary as a club musician, Ham also took his share of the goodies her income supplied, at the same time resenting the long hours at the studio that prevented her from being a full-time wife.

More and more jealous of her job, he fell to whining and weeping and finally to hitting her. Yet when she got pregnant, he insisted she have an abortion so as not to interrupt her career. And in 1936, when she flew off to London in a dramatic attempt to break her contract with Warner Brothers, he abandoned her on the eve of an agonizing trial for breach of contract and fled back to California—on a ticket she had to pay for. The marriage was now just a scrap of paper; Bette was ready for the first and most passionate of her extramarital amours.

William Wyler was a master director (Dodsworth) and a masterful man. Recently divorced from Margaret Sullavan, he found himself powerfully attracted to the brilliant, tormented young woman he was assigned to direct in Jezebel (1938). Bette seconded the emotion. Wyler’s will and intellect thrilled her, yet at the same time she was terrified of his power. So she fought him. He told her to play a scene one way; she played it another. On and on went the battle of wills—10, 20, 30 takes before she finally admitted he was right. Wyler sculpted her style, taught her to moderate her excesses and vary her intensity.

Before long, she gave in to him sexually too. “He was the only man strong enough to control me,” she once said. “I adored him!” But she also feared him, and she kept looking for ways to escape. Multimillionaire Howard Hughes offered what seemed a harmless distraction, and she let him visit her at home when Ham was at work. In Bette: The Life of Bette Davis, celebrity biographer Charles Higham purveys a version of the melodramatically violent affair that was described to him by her frequent co-star, George Brent. Hughes confessed that he was impotent, and Bette offered to help him overcome the problem. Ham meanwhile found out what was going on and hired a private eye to bug the bedroom. After listening to the lovers in a sound truck parked nearby, he burst into the house. Bette screamed. Hughes swung and missed. Ham threatened to release his recordings, then ran out.

Later, he decided to blackmail Hughes, who promptly hired a gunman to erase the threat. But Hughes called off the hit when he discovered that Ham had told the police to go looking for the amorous moneyman if anything happened to him. In the end, Hughes paid Ham $70,000, and Bette watched her husband smash the recordings. As a matter of honor, she took out a loan and repaid the entire $70,000. Hughes was cheap enough to accept the payment, and tasteless enough to send Bette one red rose every year on the anniversary of the incident. Ham for his part happily pocketed $70,000 and, when he and Bette were divorced, half of her holdings.

Wyler meanwhile, driven up the wall by Bette’s instability, had begun to see a beautiful, sensible young actress named Margaret Tallichet, and the moment came when he had to decide between the pussycat and the hellcat. So he sent Bette a hand-delivered note. Angry with him for something or other, she disdained to open it. A week later she relented. The note said that unless she agreed to marry him immediately, he would marry Margaret Tallichet the following Wednesday. She went cold all over as she realized that she was reading the note on the following Wednesday. She had lost the great love of her life.

For three days Bette shut herself up in a darkened house. Then she did what she always did when life became too grim. She went to work. In Dark Victory (1939), portraying a young woman who accepts with dignity her approaching death, Bette’s eyes at certain moments look like open wounds—in no other film has she so powerfully expressed pure, intolerable pain.

After Wyler, Bette had many affairs and three marriages. Her second husband, Arthur Farnsworth, was an aircraft engineer who came to a strange end. One day, while walking through Beverly Hills, he suddenly fell backward. Several days later he died, and an autopsy indicated that he had been struck on the back of the head a number of hours or even days before he fell. In the end the truth came out. About a week before Farnsworth’s death, a colleague had caught him in bed with his wife and struck him on the back of the head with a lamp. Death came as a delayed reaction to the blow, but by the time the case was solved, the killer too was dead, a victim of an airplane crash.

As Bette told it, her third marriage was a reign of masculine terror. Her ex-husband described it as a failed attempt at castration. Bette met and married William Grant Sherry, a muscular ex-Marine and landscape artist, just after World War II. The violence began, she said, on their 1945 honeymoon, when he threw a trunk at her. Sherry was forgiven when Bette became pregnant, but she gave up on the marriage, she said, when he winged an ice bucket at her while she was holding B.D. (for Barbara Davis), her 6-month-old daughter—an allegation Sherry denies. In a 1987 memoir, This ‘n’ That, Bette accused Sherry of plotting to kidnap B.D. and hold her for ransom. Sherry also denies that charge, but this much is certain: He fell in love with the baby’s nursemaid, married her after his divorce from Bette, fathered her two children and now, at 73, still lives with her.

Bette’s fourth marriage, to actor Gary Merrill in 1950, was the most exuberantly messy of all, a middle-aged folie à deux. Co-starred in All About Eve (1950), Bette and Gary fell in love, got married, adopted two children, Margot and Michael, and moved with B.D. to a farm in Maine. Putting her career on hold, Bette plunged into an orgy of rural domesticity, but before long all was not well at “Witch-Way.” Margot, braindamaged at birth, had to be sent to a home for the handicapped. And Gary, according to B.D., was nasty when he drank. She claims he wandered around in the buff, insulted people at parties and battered Bette. Seeing in Merrill her “last chance at love,” Bette said she put up with the situation for “10 black years.” In 1960, convinced at last that “I am obviously a complete failure as a wife,” she gave Merrill the gate.

In 1962 Bette co-starred with Joan Crawford in Hollywood’s camp classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Playing a child star transmogrified by time into a demented crone, she pulled off one of Hollywood’s grandest grotesques. Yet inside this horror comic sight gag, Bette finds a touching and tragic character. No small achievement, given the tensions on the set.

Baby Jane was a hit, but it brought few film offers to Bette’s door. Chin up, she turned to television, and in her 60s and 70s built an impressive new career starring in made-for-TV movies (Strangers—The Story of a Mother and Daughter, Little Gloria…Happy at Last) and guest-starring on night-time series. She worked hard and won an Emmy, but the strain took a toll. She fainted with worrisome frequency, but she refused to let up. With her daughter married and her son in law school, work kept the walls from closing in.

Then, in her mid-70s, fate dealt Bette four hammer blows. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she had a mastectomy. Nine days later she had a stroke. Three months after that she fell, broke her hip and once again underwent surgery. Tiny and frail—at one point, she weighed less than 90 lbs.—Bette fought her way back with a will that amazed her doctors. In 1987, co-starring with Lillian Gish in The Whales of August, she gave a harsh, spare, beautiful portrayal of an old blind woman raging against the dying of the light.

Bette herself had something to rage against. By then, B.D. had published My Mother’s Keeper, a 347-page diatribe in which Bette is showcased as a ruthless egomaniac, a human wrecking ball who smashes the lives of everyone within range. There was truth in the book, but there was also malice, and the malice devastated Bette. More in sorrow than in anger, she chided B.D. for “a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life you have been given,” and resolutely went on living what was left of her life.

There was very little left, but with the help of Kathryn Sermak, her gentle, loyal secretary and best friend, she made the most of it. She showed up at tributes and bathed in the last, wonderful waves of applause. She was saying goodbye to all of us, goodbye to glory, goodbye to the cancer that was eating away at her body, goodbye to the long, terrible struggle to be Bette. That struggle ended Oct. 6 in Paris, and the world is now a quieter and less interesting place. Years ago, her housemaid—whom Bette loved to quote—said it best: “It’s nice and peaceful when Miss Davis isn’t around. But I kind of miss her disturbances.” Won’t we all.