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 (3 page)

BOOK: Bette Davis
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Betty, who felt abandoned by the sudden absence of her adored father, reacted to the unspoken new dynamics between her parents, and to the feelings of discord and disorder they entailed, by developing an obsession with neatness and cleanliness. Family records trace the beginning of Betty's monomania to the summer after her second birthday. Dirt or disorder of any kind began to provoke violent tantrums. Betty would start shrieking, and as Ruthie soon discovered, the child seemed unable to control her outbursts. More often than not, her rages were wildly out of proportion to the things that appeared to trigger them. When Betty noticed a small grease spot and some wrinkles in a dress Ruthie had just put on her, she began to sob. Only when Ruthie replaced the soiled dress with a ftesh one did the crying stop. There was no predicting when the obsessive thoughts associated with what Ruthie described as Betty's strange passion for order might overcome her. On a much-anticipated trip to the circus with Harlow, Betty suddenly noticed a crooked seam in the long green carpet that cut across die center ring. Immediately it was as if everything else had vanished for her except the terrible sign of disorder. The circus was forgotten. Not even the parade of circus animals marching the length of the carpet could distract her attention from the tiny imperfection that no one else seemed to see. Unable to put the senseless thought of it out of her mind, Betty spent the afternoon in a pout.

Lonely and depressed, and overwhelmed by Betty's violent outbursts, Ruthie tried to soothe her own agitated nerves by seeking a new outlet for her energies. If her husband was mostly absent from Ruthie's photographs in this period, something began to take his place: a newly discovered fascination with photography as a means of self-expression, which led her to experiment with light and pictorial composition as she had never thought to do before. Among the earliest of such images—perhaps the first of the many fantasy photographs Ruthie was to take of Betty in the years that followed— is one commemorating the child's third birthday, in April 1911. At a glance, the picture, which shows Betty posed on top of a table, seems like any other taken before it. Then one notices the way Ruthie has painstakingly bunched and arranged the curtains behind the child, pinning them every which way in an effort, however inept or unsuccessful, to manipulate light and shadow, to infuse her image with the lyrical atmosphere associated with the pictorialist photography of the day.

Ruthie had first encountered American art photography the previous summer in Maine, where she heard the Ohio-born pictorialist Clarence White lecture on photographic aesthetics. Along with such

American camera artists as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, and Eva Watson-Schtitze, White was a founder of the movement Stieglitz dubbed the Photo-Secession, dedicated to the critical and public acceptance of photography as a fine art. To Ruthie, White's lecture on the American pictorialists came as a revelation. The artistic poses and moods often discovered in their photographs connected them in spirit to the era's Delsarte-inspired interpretive dance, as practiced most notably by the likes of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. This connection suggests why, with her long-repressed background in Delsarte and all it had once symbolized to her, Ruthie would have been so strongly drawn to art photography as a mode of expression.

Increasingly on edge and distraught, Ruthie sought a direct experience of the art that she hoped would sustain and fulfill her. Shortly after Betty's third birthday, Ruthie and a companion, Alice Canning, made a pilgrimage to New York City. Grandmother Eugenia took charge of Betty and Bobby at home. The previous summer in Maine, Clarence White had mentioned"291," the vanguard New York gallery where Alfred Stieglitz had mounted boldly original exhibitions of pictorialist photography. When Ruthie and Alice Canning arrived at "291," instead of finding a photography exhibition, they discovered Pablo Picasso's first one-man show in America. The New York critics had been mainly hostile to the exhibit. The Globe's Arthur Hoeber, for instance, mocked the eighty-three drawings, watercolors, charcoals, and etchings on display as suggesting "the most violent wards of an asylum for maniacs, the craziest emanations of a disordered mind, the gibberings of a lunatic." But Ruthie seems to have been exhilarated, if pleasantly bewildered, by it all.

No sooner was Ruthie back in Somerville, however, than her crippling feelings of dejection and dissatisfaction resumed. On May 16, Betty had her tonsils removed. Ruthie's nervous debility kept her from escorting her daughter to Children's Hospital in Boston. Instead Harlow had to do the unthinkable: take the afternoon off from work. His attentions would have been a treat for the little girl, with whom he rarely spent much time anymore. When Betty awakened after the operation, at about five-thirty, Harlow lifted her into his arms, as he so often had when she was a baby, bundled her up, and took her home by cab. There Ruthie fretted over her during the five hours it took for the lingering effects of the ether to wear off and the resdess night that followed. The next day, Ruthie judged the weather warm enough to allow Betty to play outdoors. When the child caught cold, Ruthie held herself culpable.

All the while, however, it was Ruthie's own health that seemed to have needed careful watching. Her wedding pictures of just four years before show a bright-faced, robust young woman whose years of Delsarte physical training have left her attractively poised and firm of flesh. Photographs from this later, troubled period reveal a depressed, stoop-shouldered figure with a haunted glint in her eye. On May 30, 1911, declaring herself miserable and in need of rest, Ruthie Davis checked into a sanitarium.

coil more and more deeply into herself. Finally, in the 1916-17 school year, seven-year-old Bobby, like her mother before her, seemed to experience a total mental collapse (as it happened, the first of many throughout her life), which forced Ruthie to withdraw her from the second grade.

Bobby's breakdown coincided exactly with a new source of turmoil in the Davis household: Ruthie's growing suspicions that Harlow had taken a mistress. "He had had a woman all that time, but I was the last to know," Ruthie would confide to a family friend, Ellen Batchelder, long afterward. The woman was Minnie Stewart, a thirty-one-year-old nurse who had been treating Harlow for asthma. The very existence of Harlow's mistress, let alone the fact that he eventually divorced Ruthie expressly to marry her, would long be the most deeply repressed aspect of Davis family history, especially as promulgated by Bette. Finding it far too painful to admit that her father had left them because he was in love with another woman, Bette always preferred to think of Harlow as someone incapable of love.

As was typical in the place and period, however, other family members would most likely have turned a blind eye to Harlow's extramarital liaison and encouraged Ruthie to ignore it as long as he was discreet and didn't ask for a divorce. Memoirs of the era suggest that even the most upright Yankee lady was capable of viewing an affair such as Harlow's "as unacceptable behavior, but j behavior that had to be accepted." Almost certainly his cousin Myron Davis and Ruthie's sister, Mildred, would have known about Minnie. And given all Harlow had done and continued to do for the Favors, what position could Dick or even Eugenia have taken if, as was probable, they were among those who knew about Harlow's illicit sexual relationship long before Ruthie did?

For everyone concerned, divorce would have posed the far greater threat, on account of the scandal it would heap upon them all. A divorced woman had no proper place in their New England world, where she might be derided as a "grass widow" (as opposed to a true or "sod widow," whose husband had died). In a small New England town where everyone knew her story, a grass widow faced the almost certain prospect of finding herself subtly ostracized, even by old friends. Since mistresses frequently came from among the ranks of local divorcees, were the Davises to be divorced now, it would be Ruthie, not Harlow, whom other women were likely to shun as a threat to their own marriages.

The widely held attitude that women were somehow at fault when their husbands left them is reflected in a 1907 essay by Anna A.

Rogers published in the Boston-based Atlantic Monthly, that most influential literary periodical of the New England Brahmins, of which Eugenia Favor is known to have been a longtime devoted reader. In "Why Marriages Fail," Rogers attributed "a marked increase in the evil of divorce in the United States'' to recent changes in the status and aspirations of women—in particular: "1) Woman's failure to realize that marriage is her work in the world. 2) Her growing individualism. 3) Her lost art of giving, replaced by a highly developed receptive faculty." According to Rogers, any modern wife who failed to accept that it was her responsibility, not her husband's, to make the marriage work had "the germs of divorce in her veins.'' And to all women, such as Ruthie Davis, who longed for some other form of fulfillment than marriage alone provided, the Atlantic Monthly author offered "the plain fact" that besides being a good wife, "no other work really important to the world has ever been done by a woman."

1 'I can only know how it affected me—it didn't,'' Bette Davis would insist years later when asked about her parents' marital problems. Her fourth-grade report card from the Winchester Public Schools for the 1917-18 school year, which she quietly preserved all her life, suggests otherwise.

That fall, when Ruthie finally confronted Harlow with her suspicions, things came to a violent head between them, as reflected in their nine-year-old daughter's mounting absence record: eight and a half days for the report period ending November 9; thirteen and a half days for the next, ending February 15. Whereas nothing in the small, neat, precise hand with which Harlow signed Betty's report card for both periods betrays him as a man whose wife has just given him an ultimatum, the scribbly parental signature for the two periods that follow indicates his response. The signature is Ruthie's. Her husband has left her.

In the third report period, between February 15 and April 18, Betty's teacher, Miss Elizabeth Hopkins, recorded her as having been absent for twenty-one days, more than four full weeks of school. During this time, Ruthie took the girls to St. Petersburg, Florida, to give Haiiow an opportunity to move out of the house.

Only when they returned to Winchester, in time for Betty's tenth birthday that April, did Ruthie tell her daughters that Harlow wouldn't be living with them on Cambridge Street anymore. Bobby, who was repeating the second grade that year, was made miserable by the news, while Betty astonished her mother by blithely declaring, "Well, anyway, now we can go on picnics and have a baby

sister!" In the fourth report period, ending June 29, Betty's absences would dramatically diminish to two and a half days. Betty had spent a good deal of die 1917-18 school year literally worrying herself sick, but now that Harlow was gone for good, the child made a great point of mimicking his Yankee mask of indifference. Betty had come to associate her father's indifference with strength, in contrast to Ruthie's long-established weakness.

The shabby bungalow court where Harlow had arranged for his family to stay in Florida in the winter of 1918 presaged the reduced circumstances in which the grass widow and her girls would thenceforth be expected to live on their unvarying $200 monthly stipend (while Harlow continued as before, with a new Mrs. Davis). At the end of the school term, assisted by Kathleen Campbell, the devoted young Irish nursemaid who had accompanied them to St. Petersburg, Ruthie moved their possessions to a smaller, more modest house, on Hancock Street in Winchester, where she had resigned herself to remaining, the scandal of her divorce and her mother's terror of that scandal notwithstanding.

Hardly did they settle in, however, when all three of them— Ruthie, Bobby, and Betty—were stricken with the then-rampant black flu, a virulent strain that claimed as many as five hundred thousand lives in the United States and almost twenty million worldwide. By the time they began to regain their health, many weeks later, Ruthie had acceded to Eugenia's persistent urgings that for their own good, the girls be sent away to boarding school.

Significantly, the school chosen, health-minded Crestalban, situated among white marble caves and prehistoric boulders in the Berkshire Hills village of Lanesboro, Massachusetts, was what Sadie Porter would have called a "breathing resort." Here students spent some eighteen hours a day out-of-doors, in accordance with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dictum: "He lives most life whoever breathes most air.'' Ruthie had just emerged from her sickbed (and, on a deeper level, from the years of poor health associated with her marriage), and thus she was thrilled to learn that even in the bleakest New England winters all thirteen of Crestalban's hearty students regularly studied and slept on a healthful open-air porch. The students often enjoyed nude snowbaths in the morning and partook of that species of physical culture popularized by Dr. Lennox Browne as "lung gymnastics," In the winter of 1918, Ruthie made a preliminary visit to the rustic white farmhouse, large red barns, and brown-shingled schoolhouse that made up Crestalban. Afterward, she explicitly echoed the language of her old chautauqua Delsarte

manual when she enthusiastically declared Crestalban "a school of expression, not repression." Her comment suggests the extent to which sending her daughters there resuscitated for Ruthie long-buried ideals of women's fitness and fulfillment.

Following her recovery from the flu, Ruthie boldly changed her own plans as well. Instead of remaining in Winchester, she would go to New York City, where her older brother, Paul, having recendy completed his doctorate at the University of Dublin, was now assistant pastor at St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue. Ruthie knew that, unlike her two well-educated brothers, she was miserably unprepared for the working world. At least she could stay with Paul until she managed to turn up a job, possibly as a domestic.

But first, as she outfitted the giiis with the sleeping and sitting bags and warm under and outer garments they would need for their new open-air life, it seemed to Ruthie that in the excitement of the moment, neither Betty nor Bobby quite grasped the finality of their departure from Winchester. Nor, \^hen Ruthie returned there alone afier depositing her daughters at Crestalban, did she have a concrete idea of the life that faced her as she put most of their possessions in storage in anticipation of closing the house and driving to New York.

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