March 27, 1989 12:00 PM

by Gary Merrill

Were Merrill—actor, former husband of Bette Davis and lover of Rita Hayworth—a greater gossip, a more mean-spirited man, he might have written a more interesting story. But now, at 73, he comes off as only a decent and dull fellow, and his virtue is fatal to his book. Merrill, who had appeared in supporting roles in such films as Winged Victory and All About Eve, married superstar Bette Davis. He was 35, she was 42; it was his second marriage, the fourth for the notoriously willful actress. Whatever his initial misgivings, they must surely have intensified a few months later. He was filming in Key West when Bette phoned him to announce, “You’re the proud father of a beautiful baby girl.” There had been talk of adopting, but she had then proceeded, without telling him, on her own. “Her high-handed way of doing it irritated me,” Merrill says, but “when I saw the baby, I melted.” Though he does describe a few epic tirades, for the most part Merrill’s account of his celebrated wife is amiable, and too admiring. His citations of her wit, for instance, do not suggest Dorothy Parker. Asphalt shingles would last a lifetime, a roofer once advised the couple, but wooden ones would go in 20 years. “As far as I’m concerned 20 years is a lifetime,” said Bette, opting for the wood. “A typical remark when she was in top form,” Merrill notes. “Bette is a very bright lady.” After 10 years Davis and Merrill divorced—”If it wasn’t [Bette’s] way,” he writes, “it was nothing … period.” He soon met Rita Hayworth, then also in her 40s and five times married. Describing this tormented woman, he is both banal and discreet: “She did what the studios asked, but…inside, quietly, she resented being perceived as a mere beauty with no real talent…. She was a lost beauty with a fragile psyche.” What ended their relationship? “The mysterious, vital ingredient necessary for real joy was no longer with us.” A later chapter in the book covers Merrill’s peculiar venture into Maine politics (in 1968, a wholehearted liberal, Merrill turned Republican to run for Congress, coming in a poor third with less than 6,000 votes). Merrill concludes with a pleasant account of his life today—a home in his beloved Maine, an ample income from TV commercial voice-overs, the joys of reading and devoted friendships. For devotees of happy endings, this might be a pleasant diversion. For those in search of another Mommie Dearest-Detours Holly-wood tale, this isn’t one of them. (Tapley, $18.95)

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