The incomparable actress Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her parents divorced when she was ten years old, and from that point on she and her younger sister, Barbara, were raised by their mother, Ruth. In 1921 Ruth moved to New York City with her two daughters and became a portrait photographer, and it was there that Bette Davis’s acting aspirations began taking shape. While attending Cushing Academy in Massachusetts, she saw a production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which she credited with solidifying her aspirations into a total, heartfelt commitment.
After graduating from Cushing Academy, Bette auditioned for and was promptly rejected by Eva Le Gallienne’s Manhattan Civic Repertory—she was thought to be “insincere and frivolous.” She moved on to John Murray Anderson’s dramatic school, where she was a resounding success, and in 1929 she made her Broadway debut in Broken Dishes, followed by Solid South. It was in 1930 that Hollywood called, in the form of a contract with Universal Studios. The fact that her extraordinary eyes and highly distinctive looks didn’t fit the Hollywood mold was demonstrated by the studio representative who was sent to meet her train from New York, but left without her, because he couldn’t find any young woman among the disembarking passengers who looked like a movie star.
After nine months, six unsuccessful films, and mixed reactions to this unique newcomer (including a comment from one executive that she had “about as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville,” a pleasant but notoriously homely actor), Bette was released from her Universal contract. Warner Bros. signed her to a five-year contract thanks to her critically acclaimed performance in The Man Who Played God in 1932, and she often credited its star, George Arliss, who’d chosen her as his female lead, with providing her with her first real break in Hollywood.
She won two Academy Awards in the 1930s—for Dangerous in 1935 and Jezebel in 1938—but she ultimately sued Warner Bros. for refusing to let her out of her contract, believing she wasn’t being offered the quality roles she deserved. She lost the lawsuit, and the 1940s passed with a series of films that declined in success until her Warner Bros. contract finally ended in 1949. Her career jump-started again in 1950 with her brilliant Oscar-nominated performance in All About Eve, and that decade brought her a succession of films as well, but by 1961 the offers had tapered off to nothing. In response, she placed a “Situations Wanted” ad in the trade paper Variety, as a joke, she claimed, that read in part, “Thirty years experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway.).”
Kidding or not, Bette enjoyed yet another comeback in the 1960s, and in the 1970s she added a TV miniseries to her volume of work, won an Emmy for her appearance in Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter, and became the first woman to be presented with the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
More television projects followed until 1983, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within two weeks of her mastectomy, she suffered a series of strokes that left her partially paralyzed, from which she recovered with the help of extensive physical therapy. She was able to resume her career on a limited basis through 1989, when she gave her final performance, in the title role of Larry Cohen’s comedy film Wicked Stepmother.
She “retired” to a series of talk show appearances and was interviewed by everyone from Johnny Carson to David Letterman to Dick Cavett, and her career earned her such prestigious acknowledgments as the Kennedy Center Honor, the Film Society of Lincoln Center Lifetime Achievement Award, and France’s Legion of Honor. It was while receiving the American Cinema Award in 1989 that she collapsed and subsequently learned that her cancer had returned. She managed a trip to Spain to be honored at the International Film Festival there, but her health declined so quickly and severely that she was only able to travel as far as the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. She died there on October 6, 1989, at the age of eighty-one.
Her epitaph, “She did it the hard way,” applied as much to her personal life as it did to her career. Her four marriages and affairs that included director William Wyler and Howard Hughes seemed to bring her very little security or happiness. She had a daughter, Barbara Davis Sherry, by her third husband, William Sherry; and she and her fourth husband, Gary Merrill, adopted two children, Margot and Michael. Tragically, Margot was severely brain damaged from an injury thought to have occurred during or shortly after her birth, and she was ultimately institutionalized. Bette’s biological daughter, Barbara, in 1985, writing under her married name B. D. Hyman, published a very bitter memoir about the relationship between her and her mother called
My Mother’s Keeper, in which she portrayed Bette as an overbearing, abusive drunk. Following the release of the book, Bette disinherited her daughter and never spoke to her again.
In the end, with more than 120 film, television, and theater credits, two Oscars, ten Academy Award nominations, and dozens of other honors acknowledging her utterly unique style and talent—flaws, abrasiveness, and all—Bette Davis more than earned her status as one of the American Film Institute’s greatest female stars of all time.
All who witnessed Bette’s arrival described her emerging from the tunnel with a very apparent attitude of, “It’s about time!” She was tired of fighting her illness, tired of fighting in general, and had been looking forward to returning Home since the strokes she now says she found far more demoralizing than her breast cancer. “I never looked the same. I never sounded the same. I was more painfully aware of those facts than anyone, and I hated it. My themes were Infallibility and Winner. How could I not have hated it? I was just too stubborn to hide in my room like a self-pitying coward.”
She was greeted by an unusually large crowd of loving friends, many of them from her amazing fifty-six incarnations, and William Wyler and Howard Hughes in particular from what she calls “my best and my last lifetime.” She was completely overwhelmed by her reunion with William Wyler, a kindred soul from five of those past lives and one of her fondest companions here at Home. His death years before hers had devastated her, and they held on to each other for a very long time before Bette’s Spirit Guide, Remy, accompanied her to the Scanning Machine.
Reviewing her life left her satisfied for the most part—she was proud of refusing to be denied her great talent, “the finest gift I had to offer”—and she watched her performance in Dark Victory twice and was most proud of that.
Bette is extremely introverted and, as she always has, lives alone with her six cats, preferring to change homes often.
She has an overstuffed red velvet chair that she loves, and she takes the position that as long as she has her chair, she’s at home no matter where she is. She continues to express her passion for performing with an unending series of plays, particularly with her old friends Laurence Olivier and Carole Lombard, and she’s also returned to another of her passions: she’s one of our most admired Romance language teachers, specializing in classes for spirits preparing for new incarnations in which they’ve charted professorships on that subject.
She’s currently taking great delight in mentoring a playwright named Keller or Kellogg. He’s planning to incarnate in
2014 by your years, in northern Oregon, and will one day write and successfully publish a trilogy of plays called Houses of Glass,
on which he and Bette are currently working.
There is no one Bette visits on earth, and she adds, “There will be no further incarnations, thank you. I think that world and I have had quite enough of each other.”