Davis, Bette (1908–1989)

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Davis, Bette (1908–1989)

Two-time Oscar-winning actress known as "the first lady of the American screen." Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts, on April 5, 1908; died of cancer on October 6, 1989, in Paris, France; second of two children of Harlow and Ruth (Favor) Davis; sister of Barbara ("Bobby") Davis; married Harlan (Ham) Nelson, in August 1932 (divorced 1938); married Arthur Farnsworth, on December 30, 1941 (died August 1943); married William Grant Sherry (an ex-Navy man), on November 29, 1945 (divorced); married Gary Merrill (an actor), on July 28, 1950; children: (third marriage) Barbara Davis Sherry (called "B.D."); (fourth marriage) adopted two children, Margot and William.

Enjoyed first public exposure in summer repertory performances (1927), followed by Broadway appearances (1929–30); after a screentest with Universal, embarked on a 55-year film career (1931–86), with more than 80 films; awarded Oscar as Best Actress (1935 and 1938); was the first woman awarded the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award (1977).


Bad Sister (1931); Seed (1931); Waterloo Bridge (1931); Way Back Home (1932); The Menace (1932); Hell's House (1932); The Man Who Played God (1932); So Big (1932); The Rich Are Always With Us (1932); The Dark Horse (1932); Cabin in the Cotton (1932); Three on a Match (1932); 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1933); Parachute Jumper (1933); The Working Man (1933); Ex-Lady (1933); Bureau of Missing Persons (1933); Fashions of 1934 (1934); The Big Shakedown (1934); Jimmy the Gent (1934); Fog over Frisco (1934); Of Human Bondage (1934); Housewife (1934); Bordertown (1935); The Girl from Tenth Avenue (1935); Front Page Woman (1935); Special Agent (1935); Dangerous (1935); The Petrified Forest (1936); The Golden Arrow (1936); Satan Met a Lady (1936); Marked Woman (1937); Kid Galahad (1937); That Certain Woman (1937); It's Love I'm After (1937); Jezebel (1938); The Sisters (1938); Dark Victory (1939); Juarez (1939); The Old Maid (1939); The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939); All This and Heaven, Too (1940); The Letter (1940); The Great Lie (1941); The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941); The Little Foxes (1941); The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941); In This Our Life (1942); Now, Voyager (1942); Watch on the Rhine (1943); Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943); Old Acquaintance (1943); Mr. Skeffington (1944); Hollywood Canteen (1944); The Corn Is Green (1945); A Stolen Life (1946); Deception (1946); Winter Meeting (1948); June Bride (1948); Beyond the Forest (1949); All About Eve (1950); Another Man's Poison (UK, 1951); Payment on Demand (1951); Phone Call from a Stranger (1952); The Star (1952); The Virgin Queen (1955); Storm Center (1956); A Catered Affair (1956); (cameo) John Paul Jones (1959); The Scapegoat (UK, 1959); A Pocketful

of Miracles (1961); Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962); The Empty Canvas (Italian, 1964); Dead Ringer (1964); Where Love Has Gone (1964); Hush, Hush … Sweet Charlotte (1965); The Nanny (UK, 1965); The Anniversary (UK, 1967); Connecting Rooms (UK, 1970); Bunny O'Hare (1971); Madame Sin (1972); Burnt Offerings (1976); Return from Witch Mountain (1978); Death on the Nile (1978); The Watcher in the Woods (UK, 1980); The Whales of August (1987).

One afternoon in 1931 in Hollywood, on the Universal lot, a young actress nervously waited for the screening of her first film. Before the film was half over, she ran out of the darkened theater in tears. She hated her performance, hated what she looked like, and hated herself for giving up what had been a promising career on Broadway for the movies. The producer Carl Laemmle seemed to confirm her feelings when he remarked to an associate that the new young actress had "as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville," comparing her to a gawky vaudeville comedian then appearing in slapstick comedies. But more than 50 years later, Bette Davis would be the reigning queen of American cinema, known for her portrayals of strong-willed females capable of overcoming tragedy and outwitting domineering men. Her career would be declared over at least twice, but Davis would fight her way back with such fierce determination that film critic E. Arnot Robinson would note, "I think Bette would probably be burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago."

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I don't take the movies seriously, and anyone who does is in for a headache.

—Bette Davis

Even Davis' childhood seemed fraught with dramatic overtones. She had been born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts, on April 5, 1908, the eldest daughter of Harlow and Ruth Davis . Harlow had been smitten with the artistic, dreamy Ruth Favor as soon as they had met at a Baptist-run summer camp in Maine at the turn of the century. All went well with the marriage while Harlow went to law school and Ruthie raised their two daughters (Barbara, or "Bobby," had been born in 1909). But when the girls were barely out of grammar school, Harlow and Ruthie became estranged and, by 1918, divorced. Ruthie blamed Harlow's philandering for the separation, while Harlow disapproved of Ruthie's flights of artistic fancy, from dance to drama to painting to poetry. Whatever the reasons, Davis would later say she couldn't remember even a moment of affection between her parents. Bette and Bobby found themselves the talk of Lowell's conservative Baptist community, in which divorce was rare.

In 1921, Ruthie, no doubt anxious to leave her gossiping neighbors behind, decided her future lay with photography and enrolled in a course offered in New York City, taking her two girls with her. Davis hated the dirt and grime of the city, but she said later that she learned her first important lesson there—how to play to a camera. Ruthie's assignments for her photography classes continually demanded a model, and she chose Bette as her favorite. Bobby was told to sit quietly in a corner while her mother and her sister worked. It was during their time in New York that Davis, enamored of Balzac's Cousin Bette, changed the spelling of her name from Betty to Bette. When Ruthie's money ran out, the girls were taken back to Massachusetts and entered in Newton High School, where Bette was noted for her poise, self-confidence, and for the scandalous fact that her parents were divorced. No one seemed to take much notice of Bobby.

By 1927, Ruthie was becoming alarmed at reports that her eldest daughter was "boy crazy," and endeavored to harness Bette's energies with dancing and drama lessons. A trip to Boston to see a production of Ibsen's The Wild Duck inspired Davis to be an actress. She would, in fact, appear in a production of the same play on Broadway a few years later. Despite Ruthie's efforts, a young beau of Bette's, Harlan (Ham) Nelson, asked for Bette's hand in marriage. Ruth's answer was to wrangle a scholarship at the John Murray Anderson School of Drama in New York, where Davis was sent to study under a youthful Eva Le Gallienne . While she was still in school, Davis successfully auditioned for a part in a production of Virgil Geddes' The Earth Between, then being mounted at The Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. The show's opening was delayed, however, and in the interim Davis took a job with The Temple Players, a repertory company rehearsing for its summer season in Rochester, New York, under the direction of George Cukor—later one of Hollywood's most successful directors. Cukor was not impressed with the willowy young woman from Lowell and fired her. Fortunately, The Earth Between was now ready. Davis' reviews were respectful and, in light of her later career, ironic; she was cited for her "soft, unasserting style." Summer stock and her first Broadway appearance in a play called Broken Dishes followed, along with her work in The Wild Duck.

Hollywood, meanwhile, had come to Broadway. The studio system that would rule the movie industry for the next four decades needed a constant supply of young contract players, and the legitimate stage was a fertile hunting ground. By 1930, Davis had become sufficiently noticed in New York for several of the studios to invite her to screentest. Her first test, for Sam Goldwyn, was a failure, but Universal offered her a three-year

contract, at $300 a week, a considerable increase over what Davis could make on the stage. Ruthie urged her daughter to accept.

Davis' first assignment for Universal was the movie that so upset her at the screening—a film called Bad Sister, based on Booth Tarkington's story The Flirt, which opened in 1931 and was poorly reviewed. One critic called her performance "lugubrious." Davis announced her intention to break her contract with Universal and return to New York and the stage. But her sister Bobby had begun to display signs of emotional disturbance, perhaps exacerbated from the constant strain of living in her sister's shadow. (Bobby would recover, however, and settle down to a quiet married life.) Her medical bills demanded the steady income provided by Davis' contract, and there followed a string of mostly forgettable roles in Universal's "B" films. But Davis was getting exposure and experience and soon came to the attention of Jack Warner, who bought out her Universal contract and signed her to appear in Warner's 1932 production The Man Who Played God. It was the beginning of a long and stormy relationship with Warner Bros., but one that would ultimately bring her international stardom. This was also the year of Davis' first marriage, to none other than the young beau whose intentions back East had propelled her into a film career. Harlan Nelson had followed her to California, and the two were married in August as Davis was shooting The Man Who Played God.

Davis was convinced she was better than the roles Warner offered her, but it took her four years to win the first part she felt suited her talents—the role of the mean-spirited Mildred in Of Human Bondage, which was released in 1936 and was the first film that made the critics take notice. Her work was solid enough to convince Warner to cast her in the lead of the melodrama Dangerous, a tearjerker that proved immensely popular and won Davis her first Oscar as Best Actress. But it was her next film that would make her a star.

Director William Wyler had been assigned a script called Jezebel and was casting the lead role of Julie Marsden, an antebellum vixen who wreaks havoc in the lives of several lovers. Wyler and Davis had met six years earlier, at Universal, when he was still directing screentests. On that day, wardrobe had given Davis a low-cut blouse to wear to one of the endless tests she had to endure under her Universal contract. Just as she entered the studio in the revealing top, Wyler happened to ask an associate, "So what do you think of these dames who show off their chest and think they'll get jobs?" Mortified, her screentest was a disaster. She reminded Wyler of this first meeting when she tested for Jezebel. "I'm nicer now," Wyler said, and proved it by giving her the part. Even though Davis would later claim that Wyler was demanding and often rude, the two became lovers during the filming, no small contribution to the budget and schedule problems that plagued the production. The strain on Davis was intense, especially when she discovered she was pregnant with Wyler's child. Rumors began to fly, and Warner was forced to put out a press release when shooting finally wrapped, saying Miss Davis would be taking time off due to a nervous collapse from the stress of a particularly difficult role. Davis quietly disappeared and had an abortion.

Jezebel opened in 1938 and won her a second Oscar as Best Actress. But the conflicts of the film's history were not yet over. As Davis was being acclaimed Hollywood's major new discovery, Harlan filed for divorce on grounds of "cruel and inhuman treatment." He told friends that Davis had continually criticized him for what she perceived as a lack of ambition and had flaunted her infidelity. The divorce was finalized later that year.

For the next six years, Davis would work constantly, sometimes appearing in as many as four films a year, many of them to become classics, and many marked by rumored affairs with her leading men. In later life, she would often cite 1942's Now, Voyager as her favorite film, one that combined all the right elements of script, cast, and director (Irving Rapper). It is the film in which her co-star, Paul Henreid, chivalrously lights two cigarettes at once and proffers one to Davis. Three of the films in this period (Mrs. Skeffington, Now, Voyager, and Juarez) included Claude Rains, the man Davis called her favorite actor; and it was during the shooting of 1939's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex that Charles Laughton wandered over from another sound stage and gave her the advice she said ruled her career from then on: "Never stop daring to hang yourself." She fought continually with Warner over everything from working conditions to wardrobe, and even sued the studio for holding her to her contract when she announced her intention to appear in two European films (she lost her case). By the beginning of World War II, Davis had become the most popular, respected, vexing, fearsome, and successful female star in Hollywood.

In 1939, exhausted after completing The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Davis took a much-needed vacation in her beloved New England. At a New Hampshire inn, she met Arthur Farnsworth, a handsome scion of a wealthy New England family. "He was as removed from the theater as anyone could be," Davis said later, "and had no interest in competing with me in any way." She married "Farney" on December 30, 1941, and he became her anchor in the sometimes tempestuous seas of a Hollywood career. But the relationship came to a tragic, abrupt end in August of 1943. Farney collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage on Hollywood Boulevard and died the next day. It would be the last stable relationship Davis was to know.

When the war came to Hollywood, Davis was instrumental in creating the Hollywood Canteen for GIs on Sunset Boulevard, calling it one of the few things in her life of which she was truly proud. But the war changed Hollywood, and Davis' career. Now, it was patriotic war stories the public wanted, while the melodramas and so-called "women's films" of the '30s became less popular. While Davis had done ten pictures between 1937 and 1939, she appeared in only five between 1945 and 1948 and did not work at all during 1947.

Another factor in the downturn in her career was her marriage during this period to a husky ex-Navy man named William Sherry. Sherry had a reputation as a hard-living womanizer, and Davis was warned about him, even by Sherry's own mother, who said her son was cruel. A detective's report on Sherry commissioned by Bobby confirmed the mother's statement, but Davis refused to read the report and became Mrs. William Grant Sherry on November 29, 1945. The physical abuse began on their wedding night, when Davis claimed Sherry threw a suitcase at her. The marriage produced a daughter, Barbara Davis Sherry , whom Bette always called "B.D.," but Sherry's outbursts of violent anger, some of them on the sets of her films, grew worse. Davis began to fear for her daughter's safety, not to mention her own. She left her husband and filed for divorce, even agreeing to pay Sherry alimony if he'd stay away.

Hollywood insiders claimed that Davis' career was over. But Bette did not agree and knew exactly the role she wanted to use for her comeback. When Claudette Colbert injured her back and had to withdraw from the Darryl Zanuck film she had been working on, Davis mounted a successful campaign for the role of Margot Channing in Zanuck's All About Eve, the story of a reigning actress who is brutally shoved aside by the ambitions of a younger woman, Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter . The film, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, opened in 1950 and was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, including Best Actress nominations for both Baxter and Davis, though neither won. During the shooting, Davis began an affair with the film's leading man, Gary Merrill; when her divorce from Sherry was finalized, she and Merrill were married on July 28, 1950.

"I considered Gary my last chance at love and marriage," she wrote in her autobiography, This 'n That. But the ten years with him, she said, were the ten darkest years of her life. Professionally, she was out of work for three of those ten years because of health problems, and the pictures in which she appeared when she was able to work were poorly received. Personally, the marriage was a troubled one. The studio public relations department depicted them as a happy new couple, especially when they adopted two children, Margot and William. But privately, Davis claimed Merrill was "mean and cruel" to her own daughter, B.D. There was further anguish when Margot was later diagnosed with a severe learning disability and was institutionalized. Perhaps as a diversion from these troubles, she and Merrill kept up a frantic social life that began to take its toll. Although Davis had called Merrill "a good drinker," he was rumored to be a borderline alcoholic, and the couple's raucous parties became the talk of Hollywood. The strain finally became too much, and a divorce was announced in July of 1960. "Divorce is failure," Bette said. "But it is better to fail than to continue in an unhappy marriage." She listed four reasons why marriages fail: money, having only one bathroom, an inability to communicate, and sex—the last of which she called "God's joke on human beings."

By the time of her divorce from Merrill, it was again being said that Davis' career was over. There were few parts offered her now, and during the last years of her marriage, she had even placed advertisements in trade magazines offering her services. But she found yet another "comeback picture"—1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The Henry Farrell novel was brought to her by Joan Crawford , Davis' contemporary, who was also having difficulty finding good parts. The book, with its story of two middle-aged sisters with a decidedly bizarre relationship, had possibilities. Director Robert Aldrich saw its potential and took the project to Seven Arts Films, which now owned Davis' old studio, Warner Bros. Shooting began in mid-1961. The stories told of the shoot are legion, especially the maneuverings and plottings of its two stars, but there is little doubt that Davis was the driving force behind the production. She considered it a revolutionary breakthrough in feminine drama, a startling next step from her "women's" pictures of the '30s and '40s. She insisted on doing her own, clown-like makeup, a parody of her glamorous image of 25 years before, demanded that the film was shot in stark black and white, and even took a lower salary in exchange for a percentage of the film's profits. The picture was shot for well under a million dollars and grossed well over that figure in its first two weeks in theaters. Davis was once again nominated for Best Actress but lost the award to Anne Bancroft in what Bette claimed was a campaign against her mounted by Joan Crawford. Even so, at 54, Davis had a new career. She teamed up again with Aldrich for the camp classic of Southern Gothic, Hush, Hush … Sweet Charlotte, released in 1965. Crawford was to have played in the film, too, but withdrew because of illness after only ten days of shooting and was replaced, after personal pleas from Davis, by Olivia de Havilland . Once again, in an eerie imitation of real life, Davis played a woman disturbed by her past who triumphs in the end.

For the rest of her life, Davis worked fairly regularly, lending prestige to a string of otherwise mundane pictures in the U.S. and Britain. She was quick to seize on television as another provider of steady work, appearing on talk shows and everything from the "Andy Williams Show" to "Perry Mason." The American Film

Institute recognized her perseverance and her contributions to the industry by making her the first woman to receive its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1977.

In 1983, Davis suffered two more setbacks. The first was a book published by B.D., My Mother's Keeper. In the tradition of Christina Crawford 's Mommy, Dearest, B.D.'s book professed to reveal the "truth" about her famous mother, although it contained none of the devastating revelations of the sort that filled the Crawford book. Instead, it attempted to portray Davis as a power-driven, ambition-mad mother who had little time for her family except when publicity demanded it. B.D., who had married, raised a family, and distanced herself from Davis over the past 15 years, now wrote, "Mother was a destroyer, and the thing that amazes me is that I wasn't destroyed." According to friends, Davis had doted on B.D. and never stopped talking about her even when the two women became estranged. She claimed to have had no inkling of her daughter's plans and was deeply hurt by My Mother's Keeper.

Not long after the book was released, Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Complications from the operation led to a stroke. Once again, it seemed that she would never work again. But in 1986, Davis gave a luminous performance in what would be her last film, The Whales of August, in which she starred opposite the venerable Lillian Gish . Even at 78, Davis found it hard to let go of her former glory days, demanding that her trailer be turned to face away from everyone else's and trying to tell the film's director, Lindsay Anderson, just how a scene should be played. When the two elderly stars were required to play a scene on a ledge some distance down a cliff on the rocky Maine coast, 88-yearold Gish allowed herself to be carried to the location while Davis stubbornly insisted on getting there on her own, slipping and hurting a hip in the process. Lillian Gish, who had been playing in silent films when Davis was in grammar school back in Lowell, remained aloof. Her only comment about Bette was, "She must be a very unhappy woman."

In 1989, Davis was invited to open a film festival in Spain, but during the ceremonies she began to feel unwell. She was flown to the American Hospital in Paris, where it was discovered that the cancer of six years earlier had reappeared and spread throughout her body. She died on October 6, 1989, at the age of 81. With her at her death was her secretary and traveling companion, Kathryn Sermak , who summed up ten years with Davis by simply saying, "She inspired pride in everyone." Despite her tumultuous, sometimes controversial life, it was Davis' pride in her work, and the power she wielded in a male-dominated industry, for which she is ultimately remembered. "I have decided," Davis wrote not long before she died, "that work is the one great hope, the one anchor, for a satisfying life."


Davis, Bette, with Michael Herskowitz. This 'n That. NY: Putnam, 1987.

——. The Lonely Life. NY: Putnam, 1962.

Leaming, Barbara. Bette Davis: A Biography. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Stein, Whitney. Mother Goddam. NY: Hawthorne Books, 1974.

suggested reading:

Spada, James. More Than a Woman: An Intimate Biography of Bette Davis. Bantam, 1993.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York