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 (7 page)

BOOK: Bette Davis
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More and more as she grew older, Bette would consciously prefer to identify with Harlow. She would openly share his "irritation," even "contempt," for Ruthie, especially in those periods when Bette most intensely blamed her mother for having abdicated the comforts and position life with Harlow would have offered. Feeling, as she did that winter of 1926, the vexing precariousness of her circumstances in contrast to Newton friends like Sister Koops (whose adoring father, a well-to-do widower, provided all that Bette might have had from Harlow), Bette can only have experienced a pang when in The Wild Duck Hjalmar promises his daughter: "Hedvig, I am determined to make your future safe. You shall live in comfort all your life." Almost certainly, however, the section of the play that would have spoken most directly to Bette was what Blanche Yurka (who portrayed Gina) described as "the big emotional scene where Hedvig weeps hysterically over her father's leaving her," as performed by the seventeen-year-old Peg Entwistie. "My heart almost stopped," Davis would write. "She looked just like me." If, by her own account, Bette anticipated and shared the character's every onstage emotion, it was because in Hedvig's screams as she clings to the departing Hjalmar—"Father! Father! No, no! Don't turn away from me. No, no—he will never come back anymore. Mother, you must get him home again! Why won't Father have anything to do with me anymore?"—Bette heard the cries of anguish she had felt, but for fear of seeming weak dared never express, over Harlow's repudiation.

Since the moment in 1918 when Ruthie declared that Harlow had left them for good, Bette had struggled to conceal her tempestuous feelings about her father behind the mask of indifference she had copied from him. Peg Entwistle's Hedvig suggested a new possibility, a new mask: speaking those very emotions at long last without the danger of having them attributed to oneself. And so it was that when the curtain fell on Act Five of The Wild Duck, Bette turned to Ruthie and solemnly announced, "Mother, if I can live to play Hedvig, I shall die happy!"

The doodles in Bette's class notes at Cushing Academy during the spring term of 1926 suggest that the prospect of pursuing a theat-

ileal career after graduation was suddenly much in her thoughts. In the upper-right-hand corner of a piece of lined notebook paper Bette has sketched a theater marquee:




In the lower-left-hand corner one discovers Bette's childish rendering of a chauffeur-driven limousine, with a stick-figure version of herself in the back seat, captioned:


Other significant fancies surface here as well, such as the Skid-more banner that Bette idly sketches, with reference to the college Sister Koops will be attending. In contrast to the theater marquee, the college banner represents what might have been in Bette's life: the road she probably would have taken had her parents remained married. If, of all the Newton girls, it is Sister Koops (certainly never her closest friend there) about whom Bette has chosen to daydream, it may be because, like Bette, she came from a single-parent home—except that to Bette's way of thinking, Sister had the correct parent, the father. Harlow was scarcely aware of his daughter's day-to-day life, but Sister's father showered her with attention that included the careful monitoring of her every activity, especially where boys were concerned. Which may be why, although one might not notice it at first, when Bette prints Sister Koops's given name near the Skidmore banner, she does it this way: "virgin/ ia?"

That term Bette landed the starring role of Lola Pratt in a student production based on her favorite novel, Tarkington's Seventeen. If there was any part the aspiring actress was particularly well suited to play, this was it. In the course of work on the production, Bette surprised classmates by embarking on a romance with Harmon Oscar Nelson, Jr., or "Ham," as everyone called this shy, lank-limbed, Ichabod Crane sort of fellow. Ham had been cast as one of Lola's suitors. Unaccustomed to being pursued by girls, Ham was hardly the glamorous figure at Cushing that Blake had been, but therein lay his appeal to Bette, who continued to feel upset and embarrassed by Blake's defection. She feared being rejected all over again should she take up with one of the fester, more popular

boys. Intent on having a steady boyfriend during her senior year, no matter who he might be, she invented the unlikely, unthreaten-ing Ham Nelson in the role. Ham's childish notes to Bette from this period (notes that, she confided to her journal, she found disappointing) suggest that he was bewildered and perhaps even a bit frightened by Bette's persistent advances. For her part, declaring it ' 'humiliatingly obvious'' that he was more interested in music than in her, Bette promptly involved herself in all of the school's abundant musical activities where Ham, a talented singer, was certain to be encountered: the Cushing Glee Club, the Music and Minstrel Show, and the Fireside Sing. Her single-minded pursuit paid off. By the time they appeared onstage together in Seventeen later that spring, Bette could happily note in her memory book that she and Ham were now considered every bit as much a couple as Blake and Marion.

Although Bette had invited her father to attend her Cushing dramatic debut, he failed to appear. On opening night, Harlow sent his regrets and a bunch of sweet peas for good luck. When she wrote to thank him afterward, she made the mistake of mentioning her newly acquired theatrical ambitions. Bette's declaration plunged Harlow into a fit of agitation. Yearnings such as these had caused him to draw back from Ruthie when she experienced them, and now it was happening all over again with Bette. It seemed to Harlow that, like her mother before her, Bette failed to comprehend that her only happiness in life could be in marriage and motherhood. Unwilling to send her to college or to listen to any further talk of a stage career, Harlow instructed Bette to find work as a secretary until a suitable marriage proposal materialized.

By this time, Bette was preoccupied with the romance of her senior year at Cushing, and she seemed to give hardly a thought to the dilemma posed by Harlow's steadfast refusal to contribute to her boarding school tuition. While Bette talked and wrote of nothing besides the upcoming graduation festivities, at which she and Ham planned to outshine Blake and Marion as that year's golden couple, Ruthie faced the prospect of her daughter's being denied her diploma if Ruthie failed to pay her tuition in full. Harlow did not respond to his ex-wife's plea for funds, so Ruthie undertook to pay both daughters' Cushing bills by signing on as school photographer. Added to her already heavy work schedule, shooting and developing all the class portraits before June 11 was a formidable task for one person. But even if she had to stay up night after night developing the student pictures, it was worth it to Mrs. Davis to avoid disappointing and humiliating Bette. So long as Ruthie had

the pictures ready in time to collect her fees from the students, she could pay the final installment of Bette's tuition before the graduation ceremony, from which the anxious mother feared her daughter might otherwise be barred.

As Friday, June 11, approached, Bette, oblivious of her mother's ordeal, was all feverish anticipation of the Glee Club recital, set to launch the week's commencement activities. Watching Ham Nelson step out to sing a solo of' 'Moonlight and Roses'' would be his parents and his younger sister, Lois. With a teenager's all-consuming determination that everything be absolutely perfect, Bette could hardly keep herself from agonizing about what the Nelsons would think of her bohemian mother. When the big day arrived and, at the last possible moment, Mrs. Davis rolled into Ashburnham in her battered Ford to deliver the portraits, Bette was in agonies of embarrassment at her mother's appearance. Weeks of overwork and sleepless nights had shrunken Ruthie's frame to a mere ninety pounds. From a distance, she seemed haggard and oddly wraithlike as she frantically gathered the dollars for Bette's tuition. Only when Bette came closer could she make out the hideous rash that covered large areas of her mother's face, the effect of the harsh chemicals used to develop the school portraits. There could be no more tangible sign of the price Ruthie willingly paid to fulfill her daughter's dreams, but all Bette could think of for the moment was the appalling impression her mother would make on the Nelsons.

When Bette hesitantly presented her mother to the Nelsons at the Glee Club recital, they were charmed by Mrs. Davis, whose single-minded devotion to Bette they much admired. Ham apparently had told them about the deluxe engraved calling cards Ruthie had had printed for Bette's final year at Cushing and the array of party dresses she had made by hand for various senior dances and social occasions. Ruthie announced to Mr. and Mrs. Nelson that after paying off both daughters' tuition, she had even had a bit of money to spare from the photographic fees she had collected that afternoon. Hearing this, Bette went to work on her mother for one last necessity for the senior dance on Monday: a white satin evening coat like the one she had borrowed from a classmate earlier that spring to attend a campus party with Ham. For the rest of the evening, nothing could divert Bette from the subject. When no promise was forthcoming from Ruthie, her daughter suddenly announced plans for them to drive to the town of Fitchburg the next day for lunch.

A glance at the Cushing schedule for Saturday indicated a full

day of activity for Bette: chapel in the morning, a baseball game that afternoon, and later that evening the senior play, in which Bette was set to appear. Still, the next morning Ruthie did as her daughter insisted. They drove to Fitchburg, where Bette dragged her immediately into a clothing store. As Ruthie might have expected it would be, a white satin coat was on prominent display. Mrs. Davis protested that the tiny sum left over from the portrait fees was hardly enough to pay for such an extravagance. Her daughter, whose self-centeredness she had nurtured and encouraged through the years, angrily refused to leave the shop until Ruthie, worn out and embarrassed, relented.

Bette received her Cushing diploma Monday afternoon, and that evening at eight she was wearing the white satin coat when Ham picked her up for the senior dance. At the dance, precisely as Bette had envisioned, she and her beau were widely regarded as the class of 1926's premier couple-—or so Bette noted afterward when she pasted a satin swatch from the coat into her memory book as emblem of the evening's triumph.

After graduation, in open defiance of Harlow's wishes, Ruthie and Bette repaired to a one-room fisherman's shack at Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine, to plan Bette's next moves in pursuit of a theatrical career. Back in Boston, the exasperated Harlow secredy drew up a new will, which left his entire estate to his second wife, Minnie, adding: "This I do to the absolute exclusion of my children, Ruth Elizabeth Davis and Barbara Harriet Davis."

Even as she was being excluded from her father's will, presumably on Bette's account, Bobby had been shut out of the cedar shack in Ogunquit. Ruthie declared it far too small for the three of them. Determined that Bette must have a restful summer at the shore before embarking on her stage career, Ruthie sent Bobby to work cleaning and fetching in a friend's lakefront house, where as many as fourteen guests were known to spend the weekend. The lonely child cried for days at a time when her employers scolded her for clumsiness. Finally, Bobby broke down under the strain and was shipped to Ogunquit. Bobby can only have been startled to discover that her mother had invited Bette's new best friend—whom Ruthie had taken to calling "my Southern daughter"—to live with them.

Although eighteen-year-old Robin Brown (then known as Marie Simpson) had turned down Ruthie's offer to move in, she was a frequent visitor to the fisherman's shack at Perkins Cove, where she and Bette (to whom she bore a marked physical resemblance) shared their dreams of a stage career. The absolute certainty with which Robin spoke about becoming an actress transformed Bette's

hitherto vague fantasies into something almost palpable, almost real. Bette's painful sense of alienation from the Newton ghis and the directions their lives had taken drew her all the closer to Robin, who shared her lack of money. Raised in West Virginia by the widowed mother of six children, Robin was a scholarship student at Hood College in Maryland. She and five other Hood giris had taken summer jobs as waitresses in the brown-shingled old Spar-hawk Hotel overlooking the ocean in Ogunquit, where Bette had already made quite a sensation that summer as the only girl to take and pass the lifeguard's test.

At the end of August, when there was still no concrete plan for launching Bette's career, Ruthie proposed that they move back to Newton. If Bobby went to public school instead of returning to Cushing, perhaps they could save enough money to make the big move to New York die following year. At Thanksgiving, when Robin came to stay with them briefly on Cabot Street, Bette seemed lonely and depressed. Her old Newton friends seemed to have dispersed. When a friend of Ruthie's arranged for Bette to pose for a wealthy Boston sculptress, Bette leapt at the opportunity. The artist promised to send a limousine for her, and Bette hoped that if their neighbors saw her being whisked away by a chauffeur, they would think that Bette Davis had gone on to better things.

At Ruthie's suggestion, Robin met them in Ogunquit the following summer of 1927. They all shared a rustic cottage, while Robin and Bette worked two or three hours every afternoon at what Robin described as "a cinch job," serving tea and cinnamon toast on the porch of Mrs. Johnson's Tea Room. Shortly before leaving Newton, Ruthie had appealed to Hariow to provide the additional ftmds necessary to send Bette to drama school that fell. As might have been expected, he angrily refused on the grounds that Ruthie would do their daughter a far greater service by encouraging her to marry as soon as a suitable husband could be found. This, of course, Ruthie could not accept. As a woman who strongly perceived her ambitions to have been defeated in marriage, she was hardly about to urge the same fate upon her nineteen-year-old daughter. Ruthie's motives were not entirely selfless, however. In Bette's artistic fulfillment Ruthie clearly sought recompense for her own bitterly unrealized dreams.

BOOK: Bette Davis
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