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
Putting on plays, usually truncated melodramas, was a favored activity at Crestalban. Ten-year-old Betty, keen as always for attention, enacted her first dramatic roles there—but not to great effect, according to the school's director, Miss Margery Whiting. Miss Whiting later remembered Bette as • 'considerably more self-conscious than most children at that age"; the child had "a high squeaky voice that was definitely unattractive on the stage."
As it happened, in Betty's three years at Crestalban, her most successful, even legendary, performance seems not to have taken place on stage at all. By Christmas 1920, after two years as a nursemaid in Manhattan, Ruthie had moved to Millbrook, New York, to assume the position of housemother at Miss Bennett's school for girls. Her previous job had given Ruthie litde time off to be with her daughters and no proper place for them to visit her. Betty and Bobby had often spent holidays and even summers at Crestalban, endlessly exploring Lanesboro's marble caverns and underground passageways. This Christmas, however, Ruthie's new employer agreed to allow Betty and Bobby to pass the holiday in Millbrook, so long as Ruthie took responsibility for the handfiil of students at Miss Bennett's who would not be going home during the vacation. The night before the Davis girls were to meet Ruthie in Grand
Central Terminal in New York, Margery Whiting held her annual Christmas party at Crestalban. At the party, much as Harlow had always loved to do, Betty appeared dressed as Santa Claus to distribute the gifts under the candlelit Christmas tree.
Disregarding instructions to wait until the teacher returned, Betty excitedly reached into the pile for her own present. Either her sleeve or her collar brushed against a candle, instantly bursting into flames that, when she tried to put them out, quickly engulfed her Santa Claus beard. By then, however, Miss Whiting had thrown Betty to the floor, where she vigorously rolled her in a rug until the fire was extinguished. As Betty emerged from the rug, something told her to keep her eyes closed, as if to prolong the oddly pleasing sensation of being watched and pitied by all. I'll make them think I'm blind! was her first thought (or so she later admitted to Ruthie), as teachers and classmates cried for fear that it was true.
By her own account, Betty took similar pleasure the next day at Grand Central when Ruthie cried out in despair at the sight of her badly blistered face, flecked as it now was with cinders from the train trip. Horrified to discover that only some cold cream had been massaged into the child's burns the night before, Ruthie promptly conducted her daughters to a nearby emergency ward. A Japanese intern used a pair of tweezers to pluck the cinders from Betty's blisters and to peel away much of the burned flesh for fear that it had become infected.
Reports of the extent of Betty's burns have varied widely through the years (with most chroniclers repeating the most dire version, which has the child's entire face affected), but photographs taken by Ruthie at the time show that the damage was mostly limited to the area beneath the chin, around the sides of the face, and the forehead. In Millbrook, Ruthie shared her bed with Betty, whose hands she tied at night to keep her from clawing at her wounds. She attached a small bell to her daughter's wrist in case she managed to break loose. Ruthie set her alarm clock to ring every two hours through the night so that she could dress her daughter's burns.
Betty's scrape with disfigurement so terrified Ruthie that initially she vowed not to send the child back to Crestalban after the vacation. But her employer, Miss Bennett, persuaded her that it would be better to downplay the accident lest Betty make too much of it. Although Ruthie finally decided to allow Betty to finish the spring term at Crestalban, the accident and its aftermath remained a major turning point for both of them. As she tenderly greased and bandaged the child's face twelve times a day for weeks on end, as if by an act of contagious magic Ruthie seemed to transfer some of her
own long-thwarted dreams to her daughter. While the bums slowly healed, Ruthie encouraged Betty to believe that some special fate lay in store for her—that she was waiting for something. As with the always vague but no less ardent aspirations of Ruthie's own youth, precisely what the child was supposed to be waiting for remained unclear.
Late that summer of 1921, when Ruthie and the girls vacationed with Eugenia on heavily forested Mount Desert Island, off the coast of southern Maine, Betty's stomach swelled up hugely one day, as if she were pregnant.
Not long after they had arrived on the island, the lanky thirteen-year-old had developed her first big crush. The object of her affections was a handsome brown-eyed soda jerk named Francis Young. While walking her home one evening, Francis surprised Betty with a kiss on the lips. In the days that followed, Betty was torn by guilt that she had allowed herself to be kissed. She remembered that it felt not quite clean to her. As with those other maddening obsessions with dirt and disarray that she could never seem to put out of her thoughts once they had begun, all she could think about now was that the kiss would make a baby grow inside her. Soon,' 'quite like the false pregnancy of an animal," as she later described it, her worst fears seemed to have been realized.
But also like those other strange obsessions of hers, this one came at a moment of disorder in Betty's life. A difficult adjustment faced both Davis giris directly after the vacation. Instead of resuming the healthful outdoor existence they had known and loved for the past three years at Crestalban, they were to move with Ruthie to a furnished tenement apartment on West 144th Street in New York City. Ruthie had left her position at Miss Bennett's. With the money saved by not sending Betty and Bobby back to Crestalban, Ruthie enrolled for the fall term at the Clarence White School of Photography.
Founded in 1914 to promote the aesthetic potential of the medium, White's New York academy boasted among its alumni such distinguished American photographers as Margaret Bourke-White, Anton Bruehl, Laura Gilpin, Dorothea Lange, Paul Outerbridge, and Doris Ulmann. (The presence of so many women on the list was no accident; from the first, the American pictorialists had gladly received women photographers into their ranks.) To Ruthie, signing up with Clarence White was the end of a journey that had taken her a little over a decade to complete. It had been White who first
inspired her to experiment with picture-taking as a means of self-expression.
Except for her role as Ruthie's principal photographic model in New York, almost everything about their new life there was repugnant to Betty. Her loathing of dirt and disorder made her a less than ideal candidate for tenement living in one of the poorer parts of the city. Nor did she relish her new school, badly overcrowded P.S. 186 (with classes of fifty pupils each and a student body of three thousand). Great numbers of boys and girls pressing in on all sides of her filled the child with dread.
But all that would instantly be expunged from her thoughts whenever she sat for her mother's daily picture-taking assignments. This soothing ritual—methodical, precise, repetitive—appeased what Ruthie had called Betty's passion for order. Disoriented by so much else in her life at the time, Betty throve on the long hours and repeated exposures it required for Ruthie to emulate all those idealized camera portraits of' 'enigmatic'' women, dramatically posed, lit, and costumed, that were by now scarcely more than pictorialist cliche.
Long before she even dreamed of becoming a film actress, Betty, in these posing sessions with Ruthie, learned how to anticipate in her mind's eye how she might look from this angle or that; to visualize herself in terms of a larger pictorial composition. She struggled with showing ideas and emotions to the camera; with reinventing herself in front of it. One wonders whether, had Ruthie Davis succeeded as a camera artist in New York, had she joined the first rank of students at the Clarence White School, her daughter Betty would ever have become an actress at all. But unremarkable, even mediocre, photographer that these often hackneyed images proved her to be, Ruthie more than ever now would have to pin her hopes on Betty.
Or "Bette," as a neighbor on West 144th Street, Myitis Genth-ner, had proposed that they call the girl from now on. The neighbor apparently thought the French spelling (borrowed from Balzac's Cousin Bette) more appropriate to the figure of vague female longing Bette regularly became in Ruthie's increasingly rapturous photographs of her. The pictures may have been of Bette, but their sense of yearning was surely Ruthie's: conveyed as much in the romanticizing pictorialist haze she routinely cast over them as in the wistful attitudes and off-camera glances that evoked the Del-sarte poses of her youth.
In New York, while Ruthie focused almost all her attention on photographing Bette, twelve-year-old Bobby would disappear to
Myitis Genthner's apartment in the same building, to play the piano for hours on end. By now, as Bette's daughter B.D. Hyman explains, Bobby had fallen into being Bette's shadow. And according to Robin Brown, Bette's closest friend of more than six decades, Bobby was always the secondary daughter, who looked on quietly as Ruthie concentrated everything on Bette. For the younger and less caressed of the Davis sisters (both of whom had studied music at Crestalban), the discovery of Miss Genthner's piano offered what solace there was for such indignities as having to share a bed with her mother (the single spare cot went to Bette, of course) and finding herself suddenly two grades behind in school.
While scant attention seems to have been paid to Bobby's musical talents that year, everything changed the following summer. Ruthie had completed her studies and found employment as a photo retoucher in New York City, and she sent the girls for the summer to Camp Mudjekewis in Fryeburg, Maine, where an ancient Indian village had once stood. Up to this time, Bette had always been the family star, but now suddenly it was Bobby, whom the camp's co-director, Miss Perkins, anointed her musical protege. After she had showered Bobby with unprecedented praise and attention throughout the summer, Miss Perkins told Ruthie that the young pianist had great things in store for her. Miss Perkins proposed taking Bobby as her private pupil at her studio in East Orange, New Jersey, beginning in September.
That fall of 1922, on the day before the school term was set to begin, Ruthie and the girls transported their possessions across the Hudson. They moved to the attic of a boardinghouse in East Orange, where Bette quickly grew sullen and withdrawn. Bette's jealousy of her sister did not have long to fester, however. Shortly after Bobby began lessons with Miss Perkins, Ruthie developed osteomyelitis of the jaw, a painful inflammation of the bone, which kept her from commuting to her job at Pierie MacDonald's portrait studio in Manhattan. To make matters worse, on her way home from surgery to relieve the condition, Ruthie passed out on the street, while the girls waited at the boardinghouse alone. Ruthie was sick and disheartened, terrified by what might have become of Bette and Bobby had anything more serious happened to her and fearful of what would become of them all if she was unable to return to work soon. She took the girls to stay with her sister, Mildred, in the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts. Mildred and Eugenia (who lived with her daughter and son-in-law) could provide the comfort and support Ruthie so desperately needed now.
According to Davis's 1962 autobiography, The Lonely Life, Ruthie
abandoned New Jersey not because she was sick and afraid—Bette neglects any mention of her mother's ill health—but because Bette had been miserable there: "Mother, realizing how desperate I was with my existence in East Orange, New Jersey, made plans to 'unstick' me." Inaccurate as the statement may be, it bears witness to what were still, many years later, Bette's strong feelings about a period in which, however briefly, she exchanged positions with Bobby and became in effect the secondary daughter.
Indeed, of the three Davis women, only Bette was beside herself with unalloyed happiness about returning to Massachusetts. Although in Newton Bobby would finally be able to proceed to the seventh grade, the thirteen-year-old was understandably distressed about quitting Miss Perkins and the only morsel of triumph she had ever known. Ruthie also experienced mixed emotions about taking up residence in the white clapboard house, at 37 Beaumont Avenue in Newton, that Mildred and Myron Davis had purchased upon moving from Augusta, Maine. Myron's cousin Harlow and his new wife, Minnie, also lived in the Boston suburbs, which made it likely that at one point or another Ruthie would encounter them. And much as Ruthie longed to have her mother and sister near, she knew that by returning to their world she became a grass widow again: a | difficult adjustment after New York, where no one in Ruthie's artistic set would have cared that she was divorced.
take a streetcar into Boston to see their father who had abandoned them.
Bobby was always anxious to spend time with Harlow and could scarcely wait to get dressed and leave for their all-too-brief monthly meeting. By contrast, Bette's friend Margaret "Miggie" Fitts recalls that Bette repeatedly searched for excuses to avoid seeing Harlow. "Do I have to go?" she would groan to Ruthie. "I don't want to!" The reason she usually gave for preferring to remain at home was that the complicated trip required her to change streetcars, which she claimed to detest doing. Bette's real motive for wanting to avoid her father remained unspoken but painfully obvious: the powerful resentment she had begun to feel about the impoverishment and humiliation to which his remarriage had condemned her.
To the Newton girls, most of whom had never even been to an apartment, a visit to the Davis flat, where Ruthie had set up her photographic studio, was a rare treat. As Virginia "Sister" Koops recalls, Bette's fiercely independent mother seemed so much more original and exciting than die rather sedate, conventional parents to whom they were accustomed. But there remained the scandal of Ruthie's divorce in a time and place when, as Sister Koops says, divorce was still "whispered behind the hand." Although Bette scrupulously avoided mentioning her unhappy family history to her new friends, Ruthie's shameful status as a grass widow was well known in Newton. The subtle ostracism that Ruthie might have encountered in almost any New England town of the period infected Bette as well. Ruthie's divorce caused at least one prominent Newton family to discourage its daughter from becoming too friendly with Bette. Sister Koops recalls that, much as her family liked Bette, they preferred that Sister keep her distance on account of the Davises' "family situation."