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 (8 page)

BOOK: Bette Davis
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That summer in Ogunquit, even as Ruthie pored over advertisements and brochures for drama schools in hopes of finding one where Bette might obtain a scholarship, her elder daughter was quietly falling in love with a dashing Yale man—precisely the sort of fellow Harlow had in mind. Every afternoon, when Bette fin-

ished her chores at Mrs. Johnson's sedate establishment on the Marginal Way, Francis Lewis "Fritz" Hall, of Portland, Maine, would roar up on the motorcycle Bette called "the two-wheeled devil" to take her home. It seemed to Bette that in his rakish leather helmet, Fritz bore a remarkable resemblance to Charles Lindbergh. The aviator's solo flight between New York and Paris that May had made him something of an American Galahad, which accounts for the incongruous picture of "Lucky Lindy" that Bette pasted in her scrapbook amid the numerous photographs Ruthie took of Fritz in Ogunquit.

For much of the summer, it had hardly occurred to Mrs. Davis that Bette's romantic relationship with Fritz was considerably more serious than her prior attachments. Even when Bette and Fritz formed what they playfully called a "summer family" with a German shepherd puppy whom Bette named Eli (after Fritz and his fellow Yale boys, or "Elis"), Ruthie saw no cause for alarm. Then, one afternoon in August, Bette arrived home from Mrs. Johnson's with the news that Fritz had asked her to be his wife.

Ruthie appeared to be in shock as Bette reported Fritz's insistence that the time had come for her to choose between marriage and a stage career. In Fritz Hall's old-fashioned view, a woman could not possibly have both. By abandoning her theatrical ambitions, Bette would prove that she loved him all the more. In response to all this, Ruthie suddenly declared that Bette would have to think over Fritz's proposal at drama school. Mrs. Davis had located a scholarship at long last. She and Bette would be leaving immediately for New York. Bobby was hastily sent to live in Newton with Ruthie's sister.

dicate that Bette never even got to see the actress. It was Le Gallienne's secretary who promptly dismissed Bette after a brief, unpleasant exchange. When the secretary routinely asked Bette what she had read and how she had prepared to become an actress, Bette shrugged her shoulder and snapped that that was precisely what she was here to do: prepare. Bette's sharp tongue and presumptuous manner seemed perfectly normal to Ruthie; even in later years, the doting mother never really understood why Le Gallienne's secretary so swiftly sent them back to suburban New Rochelle, New York, where they had moved in temporarily with Ruthie's brother, the Reverend Paul Favor, on Westminster Court.

Ruthie had one other name on the list she had prepared in Ogun-quit: the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton School of Theatre and Dance, on East Fifty-eighth Street off Park Avenue. The school's dean was Arthur Hornblow, the distinguished editor and principal drama critic of Theatre magazine. The next day, Ruthie and Bette applied there, only to discover that in order to be eligible for a scholarship in the spring, Bette would have to enroll that fell at the standard five-hundred-dollar tuition. The sum was well beyond Ruthie's means. And as the Reverend Favor pointed out that night in New Rochelle, there was no guarantee that Bette would be awarded a scholarship for her second term.

Unwilling to return in defeat to Newton (where her sister, Mildred, had already been paid five dollars for Bobby's expenses that month), Ruthie secured temporary work as a photo retoucher in Norwalk, Connecticut, through a classified advertisement in the New York Times. Soon Bette was devoting hours each day to fren-ziedly scrubbing every inch of the tiny furnished room they had rented. The lonely, disappointed girl was repeatedly observed muttering aloud to herself on the streets of Norwalk as she carried on angry conversations with those whom she imagined to have thwarted her in New York.

Bette's sole consolation that September and eariy October was the proximity of her fiance, Fritz Hall, in New Haven. Fritz visited as often as he could and struggled endlessly to persuade Bette to give up what he called her "crazy idea" of becoming an actress. According to Robin Brown, Fritz was not alone in his objections to Bette's career. His wealthy family was adamant that Fritz's bride must abandon all thoughts of the stage.

This time Ruthie did not make the same mistake she had made in Ogunquit, where she seriously misjudged the threat Fritz posed to her long-range plans for her daughter. In mid-October, when Bette gave every sign of preparing to accept Fritz's marriage pro-

posal with all its conditions, Ruthie quietly slipped into New York to work out a deal with the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton School. Classes had already been under way for three weeks. The contract Ruthie negotiated at the last minute shows that she persuaded the school to cut its tuition to $340, which she agreed to pay in three installments. On October 24, 1927, Bette excitedly moved into the school dormitory on East Fifty-eighth Street, while Ruthie repaired to Burlington, New Jersey, where she had secured low-paying but steady employment as a housemother at St. Mary's School. It hardly mattered to Ruthie that this was precisely the sort of unsatisfying work she had done years earlier, before training in photography at the Clarence White School. Bette's career was all that counted now.

"Remember that voice a month ago? Well, listen to it now!" the school's director, stage designer and impresario John Murray Anderson, said of Bette late in November of 1927. He had singled her out for praise to the elocution class, which she had entered several weeks before, affecting a faint Southern accent copied from her best friend, Robin, to mask her own distinctly Boston-flavored speech. Bette had come to drama school with much the same' 'high squeaky voice" that had irritated Miss Whiting at Crestalban nine years before. In her elocution class in New York, Bette would discover the' 'lovely, low voice'' that she is recorded to have possessed at the end of four months.

Bette made other major discoveries in her dance studies with part-time instructor Martha Graham. Graham, then in her mid-twenties, was already a charismatic figure, whose daunting manner and evangelical tone caused one awestruck teaching colleague to compare her to John the Baptist, while others whispered that, like a heretic, she fascinated merely ' 'by her contrariness.'' The dancer had apprenticed with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn before joining John Murray Anderson's Broadway revue The Greenwich Village Follies. At the Anderson-Milton School, Graham liked to tell her barefooted pupils that she had learned her own first lesson in the dance from her father, Dr. George Greenfield Graham, whose work in a mental institution near Pittsburgh had led him to pay less attention to what his patients said than to how they moved. In girlhood, when Martha lied to her father, all he had to do was watch her body as she spoke to know that she wasn't telling the truth. As Dr. Graham told his daughter, "Movement never lies." Whereas at length Dr. Graham's dictum sent Martha in quest of her own "truthful" dance language ("There is no American actress more

sincere than Miss Graham," wrote the dance critic Edwin Denby in 1945), its long-term implications would be very different for her student Bette Davis, some of whose most affecting moments onscreen would play precisely on the dissonance between word and gesture. Like one of Dr. Graham's patients, Bette's most finely wrought characters might find themselves saying one thing with words while communicating quite another message with their bodies.

"Project beyond perimeter!" Graham directed her students. "Take in space! Reach out! Complete every gesture down to the fingertips!" She told them that an artist must be in competition with only one person, himself; that to the artist, freedom can mean only one thing, discipline; and that she would do anything for her art, "evenmarry."

For Bette Davis, it was beginning to look as if she would have to do quite the opposite to become an artist: not marry, at least not marry Fritz Hall, who continued to demand that she give up her dream of a stage career. As proof that Bette would not be the first woman to make this choice, Fritz sent her a newspaper article about the young actress Katherine Wilson, who had abandoned her career to marry actor Richard Barthelmess. Bette saved the article in her scrapbook but declined to follow its example. Although she finally agreed to wear Fritz Hall's engagement ring that fall of 1927, she suddenly tore it off and returned it to him within three days.

The spurned fiance had some rather formidable competition in New York. Besides falling under Martha Graham's powerful spell, Bette experienced her first sustained—and formative—exposure to the Broadway stage. An abundance of exceptionally fine actresses dominated the American theater of the period. According to Robin Brown, who frequendy attended the theater with Bette in New York (where more often than not the only tickets they could afford were in standing room), the stage actresses who came to matter to Bette in the mid-twenties included Lynn Fontanne, Ruth Gordon, Pauline Lord, Laurette Taylor, and, most especially, Katharine Cornell. That fall, the nineteen-year-old Bette Davis returned again and again to Cornell's controversial performances in W. Somerset Maugham's The Letter, at the Morosco Theatre. At length, Bette had well-nigh committed to memory the dark-eyed actress's every ardent gesture and darting glance. "He tried to rape me and I shot him," Cornell's brazen murderess Leslie Crosbie lied nighdy— "perilously well," wrote one critic—betraying herself by turns with her eyes, her voice, her hands, and, most strikingly perhaps, with the incessant, obsessive lacewoik that seemed to absorb her so.

Maugham's "thriller" had opened in London the previous March, with Gladys Cooper as the married Englishwoman who kills her lover. From the time of its American premiere, on September 25, 1927, the play had had a good many detractors. Most vocal were those in New York theatrical circles who argued that, by regularly choosing to appear in such melodramatic "rubbish," Katharine Cornell was unforgivably dissipating her gifts. To which Cornell replied that for a serious actress, Leslie Crosbie and the other innately unsympathetic characters she played throughout the twenties ("the loose, dissolute women," as her detractors called them) afforded "extraordinary acting opportunities."

While in years to come this lesson would by no means be lost on Bette Davis, for the moment she had to content herself with lighter fare: the mainly comic one-acters—Bertram Bloch's Gas, Air and Earl, Essex Dane's Happy Returns, and Alice C. D. Riley's Their Anniversary—m which she was to appear at the end-term performances of the junior dramatic class. Bette regarded these two nights as a nightmare. They would be the moment of truth when the faculty decided whether to award her a scholarship for the following term.

Dean Hornblow did indeed mark "Full Scholarship" on Bette's second contract with the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton School. But by the time the spring semester began, on February 6, 1928, at Ruthie's urging Bette had accepted an offer of professional employment from one of the faculty members, director James Light. On the basis of his work with her on a student production of The Famous Mrs. Fair, Light invited Bette to make her professional acting debut in The Earth Between at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Rehearsals for the new, O'Neill-influenced play by Virgil Geddes would preclude Bette's return to drama school. In large part, Bette had been cast as the seventeen-year-old innocent Floy Jennings because of what people had started to call her delicate "Burne-Jones looks."

That February, while they waited to hear from Light about the date when rehearsals for The Earth Between were to begin, by way of preparation Bette and Ruthie attended performances of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, which had opened the month before at the John Golden Theatre. Although Bette scarcely understood what was going on most of the time, she was enthralled by Lynn Fon-tanne's bravura performance as Nina Leeds (reputedly the longest role ever created for an actress). Bette watched Fontanne almost as if her performance were detached from the rest of the recondite nine-act drama that Fontanne's husband, Alfred Lunt, had dubbed

a "six-day bisexual race." Not to be outdone, Alexander Woollcott called Strange Interlude "a play in nine scenes and an epicene."

Like Bette's teacher Martha Graham, O'Neill was fascinated by those situations in which what we say is not the same as what we think or feel: hence the soliloquies in Strange Interlude, which allow characters to speak aloud the thoughts they can't, or won't, express to others. In contrast to Graham, O'Neill intended these asides to replace the actors' expression of inwardness through gesture. But if O'Neill held most actors in scant regard, Fontanne showed barely more respect for his text, which struck her as verbose and inelegant. "His speeches are clumsy, stilted," she complained publicly. "It's literary dialogue, not theatre dialogue." TWenty-five years before this, the great mentor of her youth, Ellen Tferry, had provided what Fontanne would always call "the key to acting." "Think of the meaning of what you are saying," Terry had counseled, "and let the words pour out of your mouth." This was precisely what Fontanne did in Strange Interlude, so that even a bewildered nineteen-year-old like Bette could somehow appreciate and enjoy the fervent passions behind her words.

By March, Bette was still waiting to start work at the Province-town Playhouse, when she and Ruthie paid a triumphant visit to Newton. The ostensible reason for the trip was to see Bobby play the role of Phoebe in a student production of James Barrie's Quality Street at Newton High School. Now in her senior year, Bobby had received a scholarship to attend Denison University in Ohio, where she hoped to emulate Bette by studying interpretive dance. After a few days of lording it over friends and family with Bette's impending professional stage debut (talk of which eclipsed Bobby's appearance in the Barrie play), Bette and Ruthie returned to New York to discover ihatThe Earth Between had been postponed, probably until the fell. While the crestfallen Bette ranted on about how she should have gone back to drama school that term, Ruthie more calmly considered their options. She instructed her daughter to contact Frank Conroy, who had predicted such great things for her at Mariarden. Conroy passed Bette on to director George Cukor, then in search of a young actress to fill out his cast for the one-week Rochester, New York, engagement of Philip Dunning and George Abbott's popular melodrama Broadway.

BOOK: Bette Davis
12.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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