Read Bette Davis Online

Authors: Barbara Leaming

Tags: #Acting & Auditioning, #General, #Biography & Autobiography / General, #Biography / Autobiography, #1908-, #Actors, American, #Biography, #Davis, Bette,, #Motion picture actors and actresses, #United States, #Biography/Autobiography

Bette Davis (10 page)

BOOK: Bette Davis
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"Now you must tell me what is the matter," implored Bette, essaying the role of Hedvig during her audition onstage at the Bijou. "Why won't Father have anything to do with me anymore?"

"You mustn't ask that until you are a big girl and grown up," replied Clovelly, as Gregers Werle.

"You are Hedvig!" Blanche Yurka shouted from the orchestra when Bette finished. She rushed onstage to offer Bette a contract to appear in the Actors' Theatre Inc.'s Ibsen program at a weekly salary of $75. Rehearsals were set to begin the following week in anticipation of Bette's taking over from Linda Watkins on April 3.

By the time Bette returned from the audition to her dressing room downtown at the Provincetown Playhouse, where she was due to go on that night in the role of Floy Jennings, she felt as if she were about to be ill. Her queasiness was badly exacerbated when a stagehand delivered a note. The familiar handwriting would no doubt have loudly and instantly spoken to her even before she read the words. The note was from her father. Without warning, he had come to New York to see her play. He asked, in an awkward,

strained manner, if he might see her after the show to congratulate her and take her to supper.

What thoughts may have raced through Bette's mind as, already feverish and covered with a pink rash, she stepped out onstage that Saturday night we cannot know. The Provincetown Playhouse, a former stable, was extremely small, which makes it likely that at some point Bette would at least have caught a glimpse of Harlow in the audience, nervously wondering if his daughter would agree to dine with him. His hesitation, his fear of rejection, was obviously based on all the times when Bette recoiled from visits to a father whom she correctly perceived to have rejected her first.

Although Harlow and Bette were alone together in her dressing room afterward, we may glean something of the tense, painful, largely unspoken back-and-forth that went on there from the evidence of a letter Harlow wrote to his daughter two days after his return to Boston. Known as a man who disclosed his feelings to few people, Harlow struggles, in his March 25, 1929, letter to say to Bette at least some of what had remained unsaid in die awkward, unsatisfying minutes they spent together. Besides telling her father that she wasn't up to dining with him, she seems scarcely to have talked about anything besides the impending Ibsen tour, while Harlow apparently praised every actor in the company but his own daughter. Monday morning, back at his desk at United Shoe Machinery, Harlow laments having seen her so briefly; her evident rush to get home on account of an illness he seems barely to believe in; his failure to ask her even half the questions he meant to, since, as he points out, he was counting on a long talk over supper. Lest Bette think that her father had merely dropped in at the theater that night because he happened to be in town on business, Harlow assures her that he came to New York solely to see her act. The man who once declared that she should become a secretary and give up all thought of a stage career reverses himself here. Harlow tells her how proud he is of her theatrical debut, how accomplished she seems, and (notwithstanding his failure to contribute money for tuition when she needed it—obviously a major sore point with Bette) how expertly taught she evidently had been at the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton School. Only for a moment, toward the end of the letter, does a harsher voice seem about to erupt, when, perhaps thinking of the nervous breakdown that once sent Ruthie to a sanitarium, Harlow suddenly warns Bette that if she fails to take care of herself now, she may crack up.

would only have intensified her psychic identification with Ibsen's Hedvig, who suffers from serious eye trouble. (Had Bette's extreme sympathy with the character gone so far as to make her virtually unable to read in the first place?) For all the personal reverberations Bette discovered in The Wild Duck, there is no evidence in anything Ruthie said or wrote to suggest that she recognized any of her own similarities to Hedvig's mother, Gina Ekdal. By the time Bette and Ruthie were finished with their ten days of rehearsal, however, as far as Bette was concerned Ruthie certainly had taken on important aspects of Gina's nature. On the eve of the all-important rehearsal with Yurka, Ruthie set the alarm clock for 7:00 A.M. That would give them more than two hours before Bette was due uptown. Unfortunately, Mrs. Davis neglected to wind the clock. They worked on Bette's lines long past midnight, and neither mother nor daughter awakened in the perpetually dark apartment until nine-thirty the following morning. What ensued then was the sort of shrieking and vituperation witnesses would often observe between Bette and Ruthie in years to come. While Ruthie searched frantically for a cab at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, Bette seems suddenly to have bitten her mother's shoulder, actually ripping through Ruthie's woolen dress with her teeth.

When the pair finally arrived at the Bijou Theatre, Cecil Clovelly was decidedly cool to them. "Why not think up a new one?" Clovelly snapped at Ruthie as she struggled to excuse their lateness with the story of the unwound alarm clock. Still weak from her illness and ten days with scarcely anything to eat, Bette let loose a barrage of invective at her mother. She ended with a loud command to get out and leave her alone. Yurka was intrigued and fascinated by this unexpected display of violent emotion—a display rendered all the more notable by its incongruity with Bette's extreme fragility and sickly pallor. While Yurka can hardly have imagined the source of all this pent-up resentment against Ruthie, she was nonetheless immediately aware that it could be put to splendid use onstage. Later, Yurka would remember this strange outburst as she encouraged Bette merely "to let herself go" in the scene in The Wild Duck where Hedvig breaks down because her father has abandoned her: a scene for which Yurka declared Bette would obviously need no rehearsal.

Ejecting her mother from the theater had been a major turning point for Bette. She had always privately blamed Ruthie for the loss of Harlow, and now she blamed her anew for the near sabotage of her long-awaited chance to speak to him through the character of Hedvig.

Anyone who doubts the immense personal significance that Bette's role in The Wild Duck held for both her and her father need only consult their uncharacteristically emotional correspondence on the subject that April of 1929, shortly after Bette turned twenty-one. For her birthday on April 5, Harlow had sent her an expensive suitcase to take on the forthcoming theatrical tour. The gift had mingled associations for both of them, since it came from a parent who had cruelly and unnecessarily allowed his daughter to travel about in poverty for much of her life. Having finally signed her contract with Blanche Yurka the day before, Bette would write to Harlow on her birthday to thank him for the luggage and to crow over her opening in The Wild Duck, scheduled for three days thence at the Boulevard Theatre in nearby Jackson Heights. After that, the troupe would go on to Philadelphia and Washington and then Boston, where Bette expresses the wish that she will see her father again.

Although Bette certainly mentioned the Ibsen plays during Harlow's visit to her dressing room on March 23, until this point he had expressed no special interest or alarm with regard to The Wild Duck. Now suddenly, on April 8—the very day that Bette had informed him she will be opening in the play—from his office in Boston, Harlow writes a letter whose barely suppressed frenzy about whether or not she has been cast as Hedvig suggests that in the interim he has read and been profoundly disturbed by the play that first caused his daughter to want to become an actress. All too obviously, he, like Bette, has instantly grasped the story's personal implications.

IWice in the course of five sentences, he begs her to tell him if she is indeed to play Hedvig. The repetition suggests Harlow's desperate need to find out whether his worst fear can be true: a need he struggles to conceal by transparently pretending to be interested in her other roles as well. Having written that he is especially anxious to know if she is to play Hedvig, on second thought he scratches out "if," replaces it with "whether," then adds "or Gina" to the end of the sentence. Ineluctably drawn to Hedvig's name when he goes over the sentence yet again, Harlow marks an "X" above it. The mark directs Bette to a scribbled footnote to the effect that, while he assumes that she has been cast as Hedvig, the part seems too wonderful for a newcomer (almost as if he is hoping against hope that somehow this may not be her role). Harlow is so anxious to get Bette's answer right away that, as he informs her, he has attached a stamped self-addressed envelope—something he has certainly never done before. Bette needn't even find a separate piece

of paper for her reply; Harlow has written his questions at the bottom of the page, with plenty of room left for her answers. Needless to say, his first query is about Bette's part in The Wild Duck; next he inquires about her roles in The Lady from the Sea and Hedda Gabler. That the first play is all that he really has in mind is suggested by his erratically, unconsciously altering his numbering system after referring to it. Thus, after a general heading asking her to identify her roles in the plays that follow, he writes ' '(a) Wild Duck,'' then suddenly ' '(2) Lady from the Sea (3) Hedda Gabler.'' And that Bette knows perfectly well what is principal in Harlow's thoughts is suggested by her boldly underscoring the name "Hedvig" when she writes it beside her father's entry for The Wild Duck— something she does not do for her roles in the other plays. Next, in a note to her father at the bottom of the page, Bette does something that she almost never did with anyone about any part she played; she enters into a heartfelt discussion of the rede of Hedvig, why it appeals to her and what satisfaction she gets from playing it. After praying that she will come to Boston so that Harlow may see her do Hedvig onstage, Bette focuses on the immense pleasure she derives from making everyone in the audience weep at her performance of the hysterical scene when Hjalmar walks out on her. Freely taunting Harlow with emotions that have long been pent up within her, Bette goes on to say that she doesn't blame people for weeping over poor, abandoned Hedvig, whose cruel mistreatment has caused her to suffer so.

"Even I was not prepared for the torrent of emotional intensity which racked that frail body as she lay face downward on the sofa, crying her heart out,'' Blanche Yurka would say of Bette's opening-night performance in The Wild Duck, on April 8, 1929.

In Bette's Modern Library edition of the play, one discovers that she has underscored the stage direction indicating the loudness of her screams when she pleads with Hjalmar not to leave. She has scratched out the line "I think this will kill me!" presumably intending to communicate wordlessly the all-important foreshadowing of Hedvig's final decision to kill herself in hopes of retrieving her father's love.

Once again Bette accepted as well-nigh inevitable the adoring reviews she received for The Wild Duck. As predicted, her hysterical outburst in Act Four was especially relished for the "wistful charm and natural emotional ability" that led one critic to dub her "Bette Davis of the soulful eyes."

"I've read sufficient interviews given by prominent personages

of the stage to have a comprehensive idea of the information you desire," Bette told her first interviewer backstage in Jackson Heights. "Some of my ancestors were prominent in the theatrical world-—a feet that might be some justification for my stage tendencies. In any event I Ve always been filled with the lure and glamour of the theatre and determined to break into its ranks at the earliest opportunity.''

She also remained determined to marry Charlie Ansley, who drove her from Jackson Heights to Philadelphia, where the Yuika company was set to open at the Walnut Street Theatre. Charlie had escorted Ruthie to at least one performance of The Earth Between in New York (on opening night he had sent his usual flowers from Rochester). All seemed to go well during his brief visit in Philadelphia; but hardly had he returned to Rochester when he stunned and angered Bette by following his father's advice to break off their engagement on the grounds that they were too young.

Bette promptly contacted Fritz Hall at Yale to invite him to her Wednesday matinee.

After Washington, D.C., where Bette cannot have failed to be struck by the irony of one critic's comparing her to Eva Le Gallienne, the Yurka company landed at the Plymouth Theatre in Boston at long last. There on May 13, with Haiiow, Ruthie, and several of the Newton girls watching from different parts of the theater, Bette faced what she described at the time as the most terrifying night of her life. This was why she had decided to become an actress: to speak to her father through Hedvig's voice.

The personal resonance of the evening may be gauged by the especially revealing collage of newspaper clippings and accompanying notations in Bette's scrapbook. Here one finds the Boston press notice of The Wild Duck that apparendy means more to her than all the others because, as she records, it comes from Harlow's paper and identifies her (as she has almost certainly never been identified before) as "Miss Bette Davis, daughter of Harlow M. Davis, 204 Washington Avenue." And here is Bette's record of those members erf her Newton set in attendance on opening night; although several of the girls are said to have been present, she mentions only Sister Koops by name, suggesting precisely who among her old friends Bette longs most to impress. And here, after years of dreaming about the comfortable Boston life that should have been hers instead of the impoverished bohemian existence she led with Ruthie, Bette has preserved an item from die society columns describing a fashionable dinner party given' 'in honor of Miss

Bette Davis of Boston, Mass." Beside the clipping, Bette has registered her horror and embarrassment over the tasteless costume her mother wore for the occasion: a notation whose cruelty is felt all the more deeply when one recalls that, anxious to savor her daughter's triumphs, Ruthie regularly and repeatedly perused Bette's scrapbook.

In November 1929, Ruthie's mother, seventy-four-year-old Eugenia Favor, traveled to New York to witness her granddaughter's Broadway debut. Following the Yurka tour, Bette had been cast in Broken Dishes, a comedy by Martin Flavin. Although the tiny white-haired grandmother is reported to have applauded Bette's performance as eagerly as Ruthie did, the situation in which Eugenia now found herself can only have seemed strange and perplexing to her.

This was hardly the life Eugenia had planned for her daughter and granddaughter. Long ago, Eugenia had worked relentiessly to curb Ruthie's youthful ambitions and suppress her expressions of discontent with her lot as a woman. All of Eugenia's efforts had been designed to prepare Ruthie to assume the role of wife and mother. It had been Eugenia's firm expectation that Ruthie in turn would someday shape a similar future for her own children. What can Eugenia possibly have made of the unanchored, itinerant life in the theater that Ruthie had chosen instead? In New York, Bette's spirited performance in the Flavin play as the rebellious and outspoken child of a domineering mother struck the Favor family matriarch as every bit as strange and exotic as Ruthie's flamboyant Delsarte recitations had seemed in 1897 in Ocean Park, Maine. Afterward, a deeply perplexed Eugenia returned to Massachusetts, where she was to die five months later, on April 20, 1930. While Eugenia had known from the first that Ruthie's theatrical aspirations were doomed to amount to nothing as long as she remained in their close-knit religious community, it now seemed evident that Ruth-ie's dreams for her daughter were already (perilously?) close to fruition.

Bette would have far preferred to do the sort of material she associated with Katharine Cornell's "loose, dissolute women," but her role in Flavin's well-received and successful comedy soon resulted in a first screen test. Samuel Goldwyn's assistant Arthur Hornblow, Jr. (son of her former dean at the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton School), saw Bette at the Ritz Theatre and wondered whether she might be right for Raffles, the story of a gentleman thief, to star Ronald Colman. Despite Bette's fears about a screen test, at Ruthie's instigation she accepted Hornblow's sum-

mons to the Paramount Studio in Astoria. The test was a failure. For all her experience posing for Ruthie's pictorialist camera portraits, it seemed to Bette that her apprehension caused her to freeze in the face of her first motion picture camera. She managed to project only tension and discomfort.

There was also considerable tension in Bette's personal life in this period. Fritz Hall's visit to Philadelphia had aroused new hope that he might finally accept her on her own terms. Bette declared herself still very much in love with him. Then suddenly, that January of 1930, she was plunged into a fit of shrieking despair by the news that Fritz had married a girl named Alice. Bette clipped an article about the wedding and the new Mrs. Hall's picture from the society page. In her scrapbook, she somewhat oddly juxtaposed them with a dramatic drawing of herself as she then appeared onstage in Broken Dishes—as if to underscore the choice she had made between marriage and a career.

While Bette failed to discover the acceptance and understanding she desired, her roommate and closest friend, Robin, was a good deal more successful with the man she fell in love with: Arthur "Bunny" Byron, Jr., a handsome newspaper artist, who had been crippled by polio at the age of twelve. Bunny, the son of the eminent actor Arthur Byron, who had played opposite the likes of Maxine Elliott, Maude Adams, and Mrs. Fiske, had no objection to her continuing her acting career after marriage. When they eloped, in February 1930, the couple made their vows at the Municipal Chapel in time for Robin to head uptown for a rehearsal. After learning the news from Bette, an anxious Ruthie turned up suddenly in her "Southern daughter's" dressing room to fulfill a mother's role, telling Robin the facts of life.

At twenty-two, Bette was in a wistful mood when she agreed to return to the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, to do Broken Dishes in summer stock. More than ever now, Bette feh strangely out of place in New York, where it seemed that she would need the cleverness and wit of a Ruth Gordon to shine in the theatrical circles to which Robin, by virtue of her marriage, now had entree. Although Bette continued to tell herself that instead of trifles like Broken Dishes she longed to do the sort of dramatic roles that might establish her as a great actress, something mysteriously caused her to falter when, on the basis of her Hedvig, the distinguished producer Arthur Hopkins (known for serious and important work on Broadway with the Barrymores, Alia Nazimova, Pauline Lord, Laurette Taylor, and others) asked her to come see him before she left for the summer.

Instead Bette went directly to Cape Cod, where by chance she found her old Cushing beau Ham Nelson, who was playing the trumpet at the Old Mill Tavern to help pay his tuition at Massachusetts Agricultural College, in Amherst. Four years earlier, Bette had embarked on a romance with Ham after Warren Blake abandoned her for another girl. And now—as Bette spent most mornings swimming and sunbathing with Ham, or driving about the Cape with him in her mother's Ford—it seemed to the ever-watchfiil Ruthie that her daughter was merely repeating the pattern in the aftermath of Fritz's marriage.

Back in New York that fall, Bette made her second appearance on Broadway, again in a comedy. This time she played a Southern belle in Lawton Campbell's farce Solid South at the Lyceum Theatre. The play starred Mariarden faculty member Richard Bennett as Major Bruce Follonsby, a julep-swigging, pistol-packing son of the Confederacy. Although the production was a failure, Bette's appearance in Solid South resulted in the offer of a second screen test.

In mid-October, Universal Studios' New York talent scout David Werner invited Bette to test for the role of Isabelle Parry—a Southern belle—in a film version of Preston Sturges's hit comedy of the previous Broadway season, Strictly Dishonorable. After the test, Werner offered Davis a three-month contract that included roundtrip train tickets to Hollywood for her and her mother and a weekly salary of $300. Bette and Ruthie failed to realize that the contract contained no written guarantee that she would actually get to do Strictly Dishonorable.

"It's obvious you're not the kind of person who's usually in pictures; you don't look like any actress I've ever seen," Werner suddenly told Bette, the moment after she had signed her first Hollywood contract, in his Fifth Avenue office that November. Bette had always thought of herself, and been treated, as an enchanting beauty. Her Pre-Raphaelite looks had appealed as strongly to the New York drama critics as to her long list of lovesick suitors, starting with Gige Dunham. Thus she was more than a little disconcerted by the talent scout's remark. It was Bette's first indication that by Hollywood standards, her appearance was decidedly unorthodox. Still, the contract had already been signed, and the nettle-some remark glided quickly past, followed by chitchat (most of it apparently directed at Ruthie) about the prestige pictures and great sums of money Bette would no doubt make at Universal.

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