The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, a Personal Biographyby Charlotte Chandler
Even a short list of Bette Davis's most famous films -- Of Human Bondage; Jezebel; Dark Victory; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; Now, Voyager; All About Eve; What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? -- reveals instantly what a major force she was in Hollywood. Her distinctive voice, her remarkable eyes, her astonishing range and depth of characterization -- all these qualities combined to make Bette Davis one of the finest performers in film history.
Drawing on extensive conversations with Bette Davis during the last decade of her life, Charlotte Chandler gives us a biography in which the great actress speaks for herself. (It was she who suggested that Chandler write this book.) Chandler also spoke with directors, actors, and others who knew and worked with Davis. As a result Davis comes to life in these pages -- a dynamic, forceful presence once again, just as she was on the screen.
Though she owed everything to her mother, Ruthie, Bette Davis remained fascinated all her life by her hard-to-please father, who walked out on his family. She remembered the disappointment -- which never left -- over her father's lack of interest in her, and she believed that her resentment of him was probably a major factor in her four failed marriages: she kept putting her men in a position where they would eventually disappoint her. She spoke happily of her love affairs with Howard Hughes and William Wyler; she recalled her leading men, favorite co-stars, and unloved rivals; and she took great care to refute the persistent Hollywood legend that she was difficult to work with. Alone and ill, she faced her last days with bravery and dignity.
The Girl Who Walked Home Alone is a brilliant portrait of an enduring icon from Hollywood's golden age and an unforgettable biography of the real woman behind the star.
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"One must live in the present tense, but I have always lived in the present tensely," Bette Davis told me.
"I have few regrets, not because I've done everything in my life perfectly, but because my mother, Ruthie, instilled in me the idea that I should never think about what I've missed, only about what I'm missing."
From the time she was a little girl, Bette felt that life had something exceptional waiting for her, and that it would find her or that she would find it.
"None of us knows what our future will be, but you might say I was born with two crystal balls.
"I wanted the lioness's share. I had to be the best. I'm an overachiever. I always had the will to win. I felt it baking cookies. They had to be the best cookies anyone ever baked. But there was a price to pay.
"If a man is dedicated to his work, he's more of a man. If a woman feels that way, she's less of a woman. Those same qualities that women find so absolutely wonderful in a man, men don't find so wonderful in a woman.
"I'm the one who didn't get the man, which is the more interesting character on the screen, but in real life sometimes I wish I could just have been the girl who got the man, and kept him. I got four husbands and several lovers, but I didn't keep any of them. I was invited to the White House, but no man stayed to share my white cottage."
She enjoyed being Bette Davis but sometimes it was a burden. "People wished to see the character they saw on the screen, or there were looks of disappointment on their faces.
"They actually expect you to be certain characters they saw in the films. They think I'm a difficult person because of the parts I've played. They're disappointed in you if you don't say those lines. They don't want you to be out of character.
"I expect you to tell everyone that I'm not that person. Anyway, I'm not just that person.
"I feel your audience, if you are a star, comes to see you with certain preconceptions and expectations. They do not want you so predictable that everything you are going to do is predictable, but they do want you to be at least within fifty percent of the character they are expecting. Speaking loosely, I would estimate about seventy-five percent is generally good. The trick is to go as far as you can, but not too far.
"Of course, I understand that a public person gives up a certain right to privacy, but I never wanted to be in the 'slime light.' 'Press' is all too often made up of two words, 'pry' and 'mess.' They're too busy looking for 'bedlines.'
"No one has been able to get any headlines, or bedlines, from me, thank you very much. I've never been the kiss-and-yell type.
"I've never understood wanting to put public people under the microscope. I do not understand this celebrity culture in which we live. Why are we so fascinated with the private lives of public people?
"Why are we peephole people?
"I've always hated being gossiped about. When I heard that people were talking about me, I consoled myself with what my mother, Ruthie, used to say: 'Birds peck at the best fruit.'
"Sometimes I'm asked, 'Have you ever had a face-lift?' No. Isn't it perfectly obvious? Or, 'Is that your real hair, Miss Davis?' Yes, indeed it is. And these are my real eyes, my real teeth, and my real tits."
Despite the negative aspects of fame, Bette cherished and enjoyed her own celebrity. She felt she had earned it. "I'm proud to say that I've paid my dues," she told me.
"Joe Mankiewicz [writer-director of All About Eve] once told me, 'Bette, on your tombstone will be inscribed, "She did it the hard way."' When he said that, I took it as a very large compliment. I was totally flattered. Totally. I thought it meant I hadn't slept my way to the top, that I was a real actress. I liked that. Of course, I'm not ready for my epitaph, yet!
"Then, I rethought what Joe said. Now I think what he meant was that if there was a hard way to do something, I'd choose it -- for myself and everyone around me. But I had my standard for the film. Excellence. I couldn't let anything get in the way of that. I never made it harder for anyone else than I did for myself. You know, I'm not quite as feisty as people think.
"Someday I mean to call dear Joe and ask him what he meant. Joe is the kind of person who would do crossword puzzles in ink. One thing he was right about. I probably don't really enjoy anything if it's too easy. I enjoy challenges. When something is difficult, it doesn't stop me; it challenges me to go on.
"The one word I'd never want on my tombstone is 'quitter.'
"I still pray to God that somebody will send a good script my way. Every phone call, I hope. I wait for the mail. Today, in 1980, you have to be very lucky.
"It used to be that there were so many films, and writers thought about and wrote parts for you, and the studio bought properties for you. Now, you have to fit the part, a part that wasn't created for you that you can do."
On a day in March 1980, in New York City, my phone rang. I picked it up and I heard a distinctive woman's voice saying my name. The voice was one I had been familiar with all my life, though only from movie theaters and on television. It was Bette Davis. She explained that my number had been given to her by our mutual friend, publicist John Springer.
She said that she had read Hello, I Must Be Going, my recent book about Groucho Marx, and she wanted to know if I would be free to have lunch with her. She suggested we meet at her apartment, and then go to a restaurant.
The very next day I went to the Lombardy Hotel, on East 56th Street, just off Park Avenue in Manhattan. I took the elevator up to Bette's floor, the fourteenth, where the long hall leading to her apartment, 1404, was dimly lit. There, at the far end, framed in the proscenium arch of the doorway with the light behind her, was Bette Davis, a cinematic vision.
"This way. Here I am."
She leaned in a graceful pose against the door, her soft shoulder-length hair casually framing her face. Her black dress was not tight, but clinging softly, with a draped effect. Her skirt was knee-length, revealing shapely legs in ultrasheer nylons and black high heels. I had the illusion that I was walking into a 1940s Warner Brothers movie.
"I always like to have the door open and be waiting for the person who's coming so they don't have to arrive and meet a closed door. Don't stand there. Come in."
My attention was drawn to the slashes of bright red lipstick, but even more striking were her eyes. They were accentuated by blue eye shadow and layers of false lashes with brown, not black, mascara. It was the eyes that dominated.
I was to learn later that Bette customarily took this kind of care with her appearance when meeting someone for the first time. If for no other reason than that she had to put so much effort into a first meeting, she didn't have many of those. She shared with Mae West the belief that the first impression was the one that counted most and always remained. The next time, one met more of a private person and less of a star, someone who had put in fewer hours of preparation. By the third meeting, she could be quite casual, without her false eyelashes, without the carefully coiffed wig, but never without her bright red lips.
She insisted on hanging up my jacket, which I had left on a chair. "We don't want it to get wrinkled," she said. "What a beautiful Hermès scarf you're wearing. Absolutely beautiful."
Gleefully, she accepted the gift-wrapped box of Swiss chocolates I had brought her, tearing the paper in her haste to open the package, exclaiming, "I love gifts!"
The furnished hotel apartment would have seemed drab had it not been filled with small personal touches -- books, flowers, a music box, all of which she had added to create the ambience of a home. "As a child, I didn't have a secure home and possessions. We were always moving."
Being "a homebody," she immediately had to make a place into her own, wherever she was, even if only for a few days, to make it seem she lived there. "When I travel, I bring things from my home with me, so I can establish a familiar relationship with my environment.
"Playing house is a childhood game I've never put away. My home has always meant so much to me. It was my kingdom, though it turned out to be my queendom. William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon may have been the most famous house in America, a palace, but when I was invited to dine at San Simeon, there wasn't any soap in the bathroom.
"Wherever I am, I think of the place I'm in as my home, and I can't bear sloppiness or disorganization. I feel sorry for people who waste their time hunting for things. My father could go into his bedroom in pitch darkness and find his socks, always in a pair. I like order, but I'm not crazy-clean like Miss Joan Crawford. Miss Crawford couldn't even use a bathroom unless she'd gotten down on her knees and scrubbed it clean first.
"I like to dust. Have you ever noticed the objects look back at you in a different way after you've dusted them?
"I don't like waste. It's my New England background, of which I'm very proud. I'm a Yankee. Even playing house as a child, I kept a very neat house.
"I'm always collecting things. I don't consider myself materialistic, but things do make me feel good. Reassured. It's easier to know them than people, because objects accept you as you are."
She introduced me to Sir Rufus, a rabbit music box, wearing a black velvet tailcoat lined with white satin. "Would you like to meet Sir Rufus? I love music boxes." She wound him up and played his tune for me.
"He's absolutely ready for a party, at all times," she said. "Do you recognize his song? It's Irving Berlin's 'Always,' my favorite. How I miss those sentimental melodies. We live in such an unsentimental time.
"I love the past, but I don't live in it. I have always thought about the ahead.
"The worst thing about the past is to lament the fact that today's so different, whenever it doesn't compare favorably...
"It's interesting how memories pop into your head as you get older, the little kind of vignettes that in the midst of washing the dishes come to you, so that they are not really in the past, but in the present, with us."
She was pleased that I had accepted her invitation so quickly, "without being coy or playing games."
Rather than going out for lunch, she proposed we have something in her apartment. She said she wanted a quiet atmosphere for our conversation, and she had prepared our lunch herself rather than having to wait for room service. Then she announced she was "absolutely starving."
As she moved toward the kitchen, I asked if I could do anything.
"Absolutely not," she called back. "Absolutely not!" I was later to understand that everything about Bette was absolute.
A few minutes later, she returned with a nicely set tray of bread, crackers, and assorted cold cuts. There were little porcelain dishes of butter, mustard, and mayonnaise. The paper napkins had something written on them.
"Usually, I have my own linen napkins," she said, "but for the moment, I only have these paper napkins. They say, 'Happy Hour, five to seven.'" She laughed. "Imagine scheduling a time to be happy."
She put the tray down. "I got all the food at a very nice deli down the street.
"If you're a movie star, people think you're very rich. And they expect you to pay accordingly and to tip accordingly. And you don't even know what tip they're expecting. I understand that, and I try to tip more, so room service isn't something I feel I can afford. Besides, I really would rather prepare our lunch myself."
The apartment had vases filled with fresh flowers. "Do you like flowers?" She didn't wait for my answer. "Of course you do. All of us women do." A gardenia was floating in a glass bowl. "I love gardenias. They're so sexy.
"I always liked men who sent me flowers, but I have to admit most of the flowers I've enjoyed in my life, I've bought for myself. A great many of them, I grew. I'm a country mouse, you see.
"I'm rather good at flower arrangement, if I do say so myself. I find flowers very calming. In my professional life, I've enjoyed some complications and challenges. Even chaos. But in my home, there I demand order. It's easy to achieve because the furniture never gets hysterical and seldom moves around on its own. If you have order in your home, it offers a refuge and helps you face disorder in the outside world."
After lunch, Bette served tea, meticulously prepared by her from loose tea leaves, not bags as she pointed out, with cookies, which she called "biscuits," a word she preferred after her several visits to England.
As we were having our tea, she suggested we "get down to business." Business, as it turned out, was a book she hoped I would write about her as I had written about Groucho and the Marx Brothers. If the idea interested me, which it did, she suggested our making a start on the project while she was in New York and "totally" available.
"Do you ever have writer's block?" she asked.
"No, never," I answered. "Only publishing block."
She said she envied my being a writer, because as such I was a "blank page" person and could write on it by myself, while she had to wait for a phone call in order to be able to perform. "A watched telephone never rings, you know.
"I can tell you I learned it well after my leaving Warner Brothers looked like a debacle instead of a triumph. I detest waiting for the telephone to ring. I still shudder when I think about waiting for Willie to call. That's William Wyler. He was the love of my life in case you don't know."
She said that she didn't believe in pretending. "The only limit is to stay within good taste; however, remember this is the '80s, not the '50s. I want to set the record straight. I don't want to seem namby-pamby. I've reached that time in life when I can afford to be more totally frank and forthcoming now that most of me is in the past."
She wanted a "summing up" in the manner of Somerset Maugham's The Summing Up.
"I read what I could of Maugham before I did Of Human Bondage. In those days I was too busy career-building to read much, but I've always liked reading, especially Maugham. Later when I was what you call between jobs, I read everything of Maugham. Everything." She believed that playing Mildred in Maugham's Of Human Bondage was "an absolute turning point" in her career, and that The Letter was one of her best films.
"I feel I have something to say that can be of use to other people, especially women, not because I did it right, but because maybe someone can learn something from my mistakes. I think it's possible to learn more from mistakes than from successes, but it's good if anyone can learn from someone else's without having to make them all for yourself.
"Do you want to know the secret of my success? Easy. Brown mascara. I always wear brown mascara.
"Fair actresses should never use black mascara if they want their eyes to show up. It's the opposite of what they think, that black mascara will make them show up more.
"Of course, there's nothing like blue eye shadow to show up blue eyes, but that's obvious. The secret is, if you are fair, black mascara and dark eye shadow will make you look like a clown, or a harlot.
"I feel a woman should write the book about me. No question about it." She said she wouldn't feel as comfortable speaking to a man. "No man has ever really understood me. Come to think of it, no man has ever even tried. Well, except maybe for the female impersonators. Physically and vocally, they studied me, outside-in."
Bette was a great favorite among impersonators who did impressions of the stars because she had such strongly individual characteristics. She considered their attention "a compliment, highly flattering." She particularly enjoyed Charles Pierce's Bette Davis, and called him "supremely talented."
"For a long time, the impersonators didn't do me. I was worried about it. It meant I didn't have a distinct style.
"People think I don't like those impersonators who do me. Well, they're wrong. I like it very much, as long they are very good. The only time I don't like it is if they aren't good, or worse if they're better than I am. I watch them to learn about myself. Until I saw Arthur Blake, I never knew I moved my elbows so much.
"Let me do an impersonation for you of an impersonator doing me."
She struck a characteristic Bette Davis pose and then spoke as a caricature of herself:
"And now I'd like to do a scene for you -- from all of my films."
Posing, she took a long drag on her cigarette, and then slowly exhaled the smoke.
Then, she turned to me and said, "So, what do you think?"
It was a rhetorical question.
Our many conversations occasionally took place at lunch in a restaurant, but mostly we met in her apartment, her preference because of the privacy it afforded. She felt we could get more work done there.
One day, as Bette and I entered the Lombardy, she saw Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal-MCA. Long before he became one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, he had been her agent, and had done much to shape her career. There was a warm greeting, an embrace, and then Wasserman went on his way.
Bette sighed wistfully and said, "He was such a beautiful boy."
While we were having lunch, she said, "I'm going to live a long, long, long, long time." Bette Davis was in good health, full of energy, though fearing her career was in decline. She was, however, optimistic and hoped that there was another All About Eve in her future. She described herself as "stoically optimistic."
"I was taught not to wear my heart on my sleeve, to keep a stiff upper lip, all that sort of thing, true to being a New England girl. Letting your emotions show, I was told, is like letting your slip show. I've always felt I had to wear a suit of armor in public, even if the label said Chanel or Orry-Kelly."
Orry-Kelly was the designer of her costumes at Warner Brothers. After Orry-Kelly, costume designer Edith Head worked on several of her films, including All About Eve. As we spoke, Bette arranged her dress carefully, to avoid wrinkling.
"This is one of my favorite dresses. Edith Head told me you owe a responsibility to a wonderful dress. Dear Edith -- how I miss her, and Orry-Kelly, too, although when we worked together, I didn't get along all that well with him. Would you believe Orry-Kelly was his real name? But without the hyphen. Well, why not? Who would make up a name like that? They understood that I was helped to find my character through the right costume. Of course, that wasn't all of it, but it was important to me.
"Edith even had me wearing the right underwear so I'd feel the character, though the audience was never going to see my underwear. Most important of all, she understood how I felt about brassieres. I, of course, abhorred them. It's something a man can't fully understand. Edith and Orry understood the art of camouflage. The truth is nobody's perfect. And nobody feels she's perfect. That's the truth. We can all see more faults in our bodies than anyone else can. We can get in closer for inspection and faultfinding."
From time to time Bette would take a lipstick out of her purse and apply it with three decisive slashes. She rarely used a mirror. "Even when I'm home alone, I wear my lipstick," she confided. "I feel naked without it."
Frequently she would retouch her lipstick when she finished a cigarette. As soon as she had retouched her lips, she was ready to light another cigarette, and leave her mark on it. Tennessee Williams, who knew her from his play The Night of the Iguana, and before, once told me he thought of the color of Bette's lipstick as "whorehouse red."
As I spent more time with Bette, and with Bette when she was with other people, I observed that when she showed pleasure she didn't genuinely feel with someone, only her lipstick smiled.
She sometimes changed her mood within a sentence as she relived memories. When the telephone rang a few times, she would answer simply, "Yes?" She was aware that it was rather abrupt, explaining to me, "I can't abide wasting time on the phone.
"I am the most notoriously rude person on the telephone among my friends," she told me. "Not for years was I ever conscious of it, but I didn't have time to sit and chat for ten hours. So I would answer the phone, 'Yes?' Whatever had to be said was said, then, half the time, I found myself hanging up near the middle of it. 'Good-bye.' Slam! I'm always saying good-bye when they're saying a long good-bye. I say a quick good-bye."
She was rarely without a cigarette. "A lot has been made," she said, "of the part smoking has played in my roles. There are some who said my cigarette should have received an Oscar. Well, that's an exaggeration. Maybe a best supporting Oscar. I have to admit, I did use smoking to good effect.
"The way I see it, in my films, drinking is the action and smoking is the reaction."
Bette had celebrity license, and she didn't hesitate to exercise it. "Being hysterical is like having an orgasm," she said. "It's good for you." There were probably some who didn't feel it was so good for them.
Bette said her favorite subject for conversation was work, and her second, men. "As for the men in my life, I couldn't select my father. That was my mother, Ruthie's, doing. But I could select my husbands, and I was a four-time loser. For this, I received a life sentence, a life of loneliness without possibility of parole.
"In selecting husbands, I confused muscle with strength. They didn't look alike, but in many respects, they were the same man. All my husbands were canaries. Tweet, tweet, tweet!
"I was never the owner of my own feelings. Perhaps it's that little edge of danger that makes passion possible, or anyway more glorious.
"I was a person who couldn't make divorce work. For me, there's nothing lonelier than a turned-down toilet seat.
"Wishful thinking is an important element of happiness. It has to do with looking forward. Part of happiness is being able to look forward to future happiness. It's why men find us so foolish when we women ask them to promise that the passion and bliss we feel now will be mutually shared for years to come.
"The only man who can give you such an assurance would be a romantic who is as much of a fool as you are, or a liar. The latter is easier to find.
"Feelings can't be promised. Actions can be promised, but not emotions.
"At a certain point, after my marriage to Gary [Merrill] ended, I knew I could never marry again. I had to face it. I was over-the-hill, that proverbial hill. I had to face that no man would want me for the reasons I wanted him to want me. I had to recognize a man wouldn't want me for my old body. The greatest turn-on for me, with a man, was his desire for me. I always believed it was his desire only for me, when I suppose it was just a matter of convenience, and there I was, at hand. Men never wanted me, or seemed to want me, for my mind. They didn't pay much attention to my mind. That was hard on a person who was as brain-vain as I.
"When they did pay attention to what I said, I wasn't one to mind my p's and q's, whatever those are. We certainly use some strange expressions without questioning them.
"I wasn't rich enough for a man to want me for my money, although there were men poorer than I, and I was assumed to be much richer than I was. Sometimes I myself got confused and assumed I was much richer than I was. And I felt I could always work. I was, after all, a star.
"Certainly a great deal of money has passed through my fingers, but I never counted. For me, money was taking care of my responsibilities, and I had plenty of them. I couldn't afford to be poor.
"I never begrudged the money to any of them. Well, anyway, not too often. The best thing about money is when you have enough of it not to have to think about it, to just take it for granted and have something left over for the people you care about. I would never want to spend my last penny and leave them without anything. Personally, I didn't want bigger houses or fancier dresses, but I like freedom from economic pressure. I've lived as if old age was something for other people. I could never imagine myself being old, never -- even after I already was."
On one occasion, when I arrived at her apartment, Bette greeted me, saying, "Welcome to the lioness's den!"
"I have been called fearless. Well, I am pretty much. I like to think of myself as a lioness, a lioness who couldn't find a lion, as it turned out. I was doomed to live without a real mate in my empty den, though I always was protective of my cubs.
"There are many things in my life of which I am proud, but my greatest joy is in my daughter, B.D. She has grown up to be a wonderful person, beautiful and strong, and honorable. She is the person in the whole world I know I can trust."
Sometime later, Bette asked me if I'd heard the story about "Miss Crawford" beating her children with wire coat hangers, and she asked me if I thought it was true. I told her what Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., had told me when he heard this story about his first wife. Referring to Joan Crawford by her real name, he said, "It couldn't be true. Lucille would never have permitted any wire hangers in her closet. She always insisted on having only covered hangers."
Fairbanks was Bette's co-star in one of her early films. "What a handsome boy he was," she said. "How could he have married Miss Crawford, even when he was too young to know better?"
The one thing in life she knew, Bette told me, was that her children would never write such a hateful book about her.
She believed parents had to be firm, because only through imposing a strict code of values would your child know you loved him or her. "Until your children hate you, you haven't been a good parent." She said this to me only a few years before her daughter B.D. wrote My Mother's Keeper, a book Bette later referred to as "a hateful indictment."
She went on: "Your children are there but a few short years. They grow up and leave you, but the power they have over you lasts a lifetime.
"From eighteen on, the parent has done most of what they can do. Parents certainly make mistakes. They're human beings. They do the best they can. And if from eighteen on, you're still blaming your parents, it's a complete cop-out. This is ridiculous. You can take over your own life and undo what you think your parents did that was wrong. Of course, we're not talking about horrible extreme abuses. We're talking about the average child growing up today. We're talking about the child who says when I was seven my mother said or did such-and-such to me, or she didn't say such-and-such, and it ruined my life.
"I feel today parents aren't saying enough. And I feel strongly there has to be some fear in education. My Latin teacher, Mrs. Greenwood, I never forgot. We were petrified of her, but we learned Latin. Constructive fear. Your children, sometimes you have to put the fear of God in them. You must!
"I've always thought every time we finished a film or a play, whatever, it's just like giving birth to a child. 'There it is, ladies and gentlemen. This is my baby. You may like it, and you may not.' And you have to learn to take it, whether they like it or they don't. And everything you do is not going to be liked, and everybody who sees it is not going to like it. As a matter of fact, if everyone said, 'What a good actor!' and there were never any people who hated that actor, you have nothing. You have exactly nothing. You don't cause any controversy. You should have more people for you than against you, but you must have people against you. Or you're not even interesting.
"And this is true socially. If every time you went into a room, everybody smiled and said, 'Oh, my.' No! Some of the people are going to say, 'Oh, Lord. What a person!' Always at every party, anyway with me, as a famous woman, there's always one man who decides to get you mad. He's going to get you angry. Number one, he resents you. That you're famous and successful. It's kind of a war.
"The men who do this I wouldn't want. And you can spot them in about ten minutes. Usually across a room looking at you. So they have to get a few more drinks to get brave enough to have the war.
"You know what I think is the best age for a woman? Thirty-five," she said, changing the subject. "No question about it. At thirty-five, a woman's old enough to know the score, but still young enough to be in the game. Only I didn't know it when I was thirty-five.
"But I must tell you, I was very old at twenty. Very old. My father handed me my family to support when I was nineteen, the assumption being, I suppose, that I was now old enough to become the man of the house.
"Well, I've never been so complimented in my entire life! A real challenge. Even so, I don't think I'll ever be what I call a very 'mature' person. For my age, I mean. I can't picture myself as the proper grandmother, sitting very peacefully and probably knitting, saying, 'Yes, yes, darling.' But what is mature?
"My daughter B.D. once told me she thought I was permanently fourteen. Actually, I liked that.
"Somehow, though, I always ended up as the man of the house. At Christmas, I was Santa Claus. Not Mrs. Claus, but Santa himself! As a matter of fact, I was an all-year Santa, a Santa for all seasons. What nobody understood was that inside the grown woman, Bette, even inside Bette grown old, was the wide-eyed child, Ruth Elizabeth, my childhood name, who was herself waiting for Santa Claus.
"What I wanted was a man, and the way life cast me, I had to be the man. I had to seem strong and tough because I didn't have a man to stand up for me, and I didn't want the world to know I was really soft and vulnerable.
"Men are not allowed to show weakness, and women are not allowed to show strength.
"I never wished I'd been a man. I always felt like a woman and wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be fulfilled professionally and personally, as a woman. There are some who might say I had penis envy, but I only had penis admiration.
"It seems to me that life must be easier for a woman who doesn't really like men, doesn't need them. She can keep her head and connive to get what she wants. Because I've always liked men, my emotions tripped me up. But pretend? That, I never did. Well, except the one time with Willie [William Wyler] when I tried to make him feel I wasn't overanxious when I was. I always had a deep belief that people should know me exactly as I am, especially if someone was going to marry me. I found that men, more than one, pretended to be something they were not -- till they got you! I think men pretend more than women. There really is a rude awakening when that wonderful beginning is over, and at some point, a great horror that you didn't see it.
"You know, it's really a joke on all of us -- those wonderful beginnings, which of course are wildly involved sexually. It's really a glandular disturbance. That's the Big Masquerade, isn't it?
"Then comes the unmasking. When the sex goes, you look at the person, and suddenly everything is different. You say to yourself, 'I don't believe it! That's what he was always like.' Or she was always like. You can't begin to imagine what possessed you. Sex is the Big Masquerade.
"When I was young, I could see a man who looked beautiful to me, and I could fall in love at first sight. When I met someone, I'd say it was his 'personality,' his 'sense of humor,' but it was always really his looks. I was a fool about men. Was! Why do I say 'was'? Before I was thirty-five, I didn't understand about that physical thing. I confused it with love. After that, I understood, but I was still a fool. I would imbue this 'man of my dreams' with every other quality I imagined I wanted in a man. Later, I started to see him the way he really was. Suddenly, I could see all of his faults. There he was, the same face and body that had appealed to me, but with none of the other qualities I required. He became like a store dummy, only one that talked and said the wrong things. Or drank too much. Some of them certainly did that.
"I learned this from lines in a film I made called Mr. Skeffington: 'When I was young, I believed a woman is beautiful only when she's loved. But I found a woman is beautiful when she goes to the beauty parlor.'
"There are four major reasons marriages fail: money, sex, intellectual incompatibility, and only one bathroom. I think bathrooms, or lack of them, is one of the major causes for divorce. Men are more vain than women. It's not a criticism, just an observation. I mean, if there's only one bathroom, God help you! So, it's everyday annoyances and disagreements -- the little things -- that cause a bitterness that makes even sex difficult. Or, anyway, good sex.
"They talk about friendly divorce. If you're so friendly, why get a divorce? I had three divorces, and none was friendly. I don't believe any divorce is really friendly. If Farney [Arthur Farnsworth] hadn't died, perhaps our marriage could have been successful, and I would have been spared two of those divorces. Perhaps not. Probably not. You can live with someone and not really know the other person. You only think you do.
"A man only knows that part of you he brings out. He never knows the rest of you, the secret you, the woman you might have been -- with another man. And the worst of this is, he doesn't even care! Love is not as necessary to a man's happiness as to a woman's. Women need a man all the time, and men only want a woman some of the time.
"Someone who knew Marilyn Monroe once told me she really didn't like men and sex all that much, because she was tired of men always trying to get her into bed -- theirs or hers. Lucky girl. Secretly, I would like to have been a femme fatale.
"My favorite sexual fantasy used to be to make love on a bed covered with gardenias. I told this once to a man I was currently in love with, Johnny Mercer. So, one weekend, he reserved a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, and when I arrived, the bed was covered with gardenias. I wonder what the maid thought the next morning? All those wilted and crushed gardenias. One thing it accomplished was I never had that fantasy again. There's nothing that finishes a fantasy as surely as its becoming a reality.
"Now, I'm going to tell you something I've never told anyone. For years I've had this other sexual fantasy -- unfulfilled, of course. It was to make love to a regiment of men, just like Catherine the Great. I mean one at a time, of course! In John Paul Jones, I had the opportunity to be Catherine the Great, at least briefly. So much for that sexual fantasy!
"I must admit I absolutely never saw a casting couch, was never invited to lie down on one, and if I had been, I would have left the room without even deeming it worthy of saying no. I could never have imagined being with a man only to advance my career.
"Of course, there are some roles that got away, parts I would like to have played. One of the characters I always wanted to play was Helena Rubinstein. She fascinated me because she made a vast fortune in cosmetics and reached hundreds of millions of women. But mostly I identified with her very strongly based on a story I'd heard about her. When she was very old, an armed burglar entered her bedroom and demanded she open her safe and give him her jewels. This was at gunpoint. As he leveled his revolver at her, she said quite calmly, 'Shoot me! What do I care? I'm ninety-four, and you'll go to the electric chair.' What a scene!"
A part Bette would have loved was that of Anna in Anna and the King of Siam. "Fox wanted to borrow me in 1945 to play opposite Rex Harrison. What a pair we would have made! I don't know if I liked him more as a man or as an actor. Both equally, I suppose. Unfortunately, I didn't have an intimate experience with him in either way.
"They called him 'sexy Rexy,' you know. I had to content myself with watching him on the screen. Irene Dunne had the part that was made for me, Anna. I did meet him, of course, a few times, but that's all. He was as great on the stage in My Fair Lady as he was in the film, and vice versa. No question about it."
"The reason most people look back on their youth as the best time of life is because a blank page looks better than one that is filled out and not according to our youthful dreams. Personally, I'm proud of the way I've filled out the pages of my life, anyway my professional life. I'm enjoying my life as Bette Davis now, since I won't be around to read about it when it appears in the obituaries. When I am honored at a tribute, I think of it as part of my living obituary. More fun that way.
"When I was born in the early part of the twentieth century, doors were held open for women. Now, doors are open to women.
"In my day, and less in my mother's day, women were not prepared to have careers and to be able to support themselves. When my father left us and my parents were divorced, my mother had to find her way. Fortunately for our little band of three, she did. She became a brilliant photographer, but when she couldn't support us with her talent, she didn't let pride stand in her way where we were concerned. She took housekeeping jobs. Ruthie had the kind of pride that counts. Even when she was a housekeeper, she always did her best.
"I am a great believer in girls being prepared for life with an education and a way to take care of themselves, just as boys are. If they marry and have children and all goes well, then what they have learned is not wasted because they will have an inner security and independence. Many women will find themselves victims of divorce, as men, ever hunters, find younger women. Some of the fortunate women who do find a partner for life and a happy marriage will outlive their spouse. So say the insurance companies, and they may be left alone or with children, and perhaps parents to support. I reiterate, every girl should be taught as soon as possible skills that will enable her to take care of herself in the world, and of others, too, if need be.
"I think every one of us has something to give, and, man or woman, we should all think about what that is, something in our power to do.
"I'm sick of people who say they're for humanity. It's easier to talk about humanity than to do something for one human being. It costs money and effort to give a meal to a starving cat.
"I saw a bag lady in New York City living in the street in the winter. Unimaginable. What would it be like not to have a home? My own home means so much to me. She was going through garbage, but she wouldn't accept charity.
"I thought of her when I played the television part of a bag lady, in White Mama, and she helped me feel my character. But more important, the part made me able to feel how a bag lady feels, and really, it could happen to anyone."
When Bette mentioned my book on Groucho, I told her about an occasion when Groucho took both his friend Erin Fleming and me to a party. Someone there asked Groucho, "How come you bring two girls to a party?"
Groucho responded, "I hate to see a girl walk home alone."
Bette laughed. "That's been the story of my adult life. I was always afraid of walking home alone. And it's not only my story, but it's true now for so many women. Many girls and women will walk home alone."
I asked her if she liked the title The Girl Who Walked Home Alone for my book about her. "Absolutely," she said. "I want that title. That's me."
As we spoke about her life, she said that she wished she had done more self-exploration when she was a young woman, because speaking about her life, thoughts, and feelings helped her to understand herself better. "Too much of my life has been squandered fighting self-pity, a battle which I should have won easily, but instead lost.
"I've always been put off by people who want a shortcut to knowing you. Questions and answers, rather than conversation. That makes me peevish. I detest it.
"I will have to do a catch-up on my life for you, you know. One can't keep one's memories in an orderly way."
Copyright © 2006 by Charlotte Chandler
Meet the Author
Charlotte Chandler is the author of several biographies of actors and directors, including Groucho Marx, Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, and Mae West, all of whom she interviewed extensively. She is a member of the board of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and lives in New York City.
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This book was Awesome with a capital 'A'. As a Bette Davis fan, this was quite a treat. I couldn't put it down! Right on the money. I bookmarked about a zillion pages just so I'd be sure to record some of the hilarious quotes by and about Bette. While it didn't get too carried away with the 'Bette vs. Joan' stuff, there's certainly enough there to make the reader smile. After finishing this, I had an entirely renewed respect and admiration for Bette Davis. Like she says right off, 'I'm no glamour puss.' She's an icon because she was a great ACTRESS. The fact that she was a star as well is simply coincidence. I love her because she tells it how it is.. no sugar-coating. VERY rare for Hollywood actresses.
Posted 02/16/09: I didn't consider myself a Bette Davis fan exactly, but I was curious about her, and this book left me with a compassion and admiration for her. She was a straight-shooter and a great actress, and it was so sad that her daughter stabbed her in the back when she was most vulnerable. I'm so glad she had Kathryn Sermak as a substitute daughter. I ended up also buying Bette's autobiography, "This 'n That," but this book was the perfect foundation for it. Really enjoyed it.
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I loved this book. I could see and hear Bette Davis running through all the pages. Wonderful read.
Bettie is awesome and this book made me love her even more