From the Archives: Bette Davis Dies in Paris at 81
Lavish tributes flowed Saturday in a worldwide eulogy for Bette Davis, the tempestuous actress whose fiery talent and celebrated toughness made her one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed and enduring stars.
Davis, whose career spanned a half-century of American film, died Friday night of cancer in a suburban Paris hospital. She was 81.
The two-time Academy Award winner, who began her career on the stage and later made the transition from movies to television, was in Europe to receive an award when she was admitted to a private hospital on the outskirts of the French capital.
The news of Davis’ death touched off an avalanche of praise from fellow actors and movie fans who called her a legendary figure in the entertainment industry.
Former President Ronald Reagan, himself a one-time actor who appeared with Davis in the 1939 film “Dark Victory,” described her as one of the “true greats” of the motion picture business.
“She gave us some of the most memorable moments in the history of film and touched us in a way few others have. For Bette, acting was more than a profession, it was an art,” Reagan said Saturday in a statement.
“What a loss,” echoed actress Olivia de Havilland, who worked with Davis in four films, including the 1964 “Hush . . . Hush Sweet Charlotte.”
“She was a remarkable person to work with, highly professional, innovative, brilliant and quick,” said De Havilland, who lives in Paris. “She was very well-disciplined. I thought she had some marvelous personal qualities, and I was very fond of her.”
During her career, the staccato-voiced Davis made 86 movies, won two Academy Awards as best actress and was nominated for eight more. Her last movie was the 1987 “Whales of August,” a film she made despite being in failing health after suffering two strokes and a bout with breast cancer.
When Davis arrived in Europe three weeks ago to receive an award at the San Sebastian Film Festival in northern Spain, news accounts said the actress gave a bravura performance at a news conference. Immaculate in a black dress and wide-brimmed hat, Davis even joked about her imminent death.
“If they had waited a little longer,” she said of the festival award, “I would not have been able to be here to receive it.”
Dies in American Hospital
Before returning home, however, Davis fell ill and was taken to the American Hospital in the Paris suburb of Neuilly. Her death was reported Saturday in a terse statement.
“During a trip to Western Europe, the health of Miss Davis deteriorated,” said hospital spokesman Philippe Duprat. “She was admitted at the hospital on Oct. 3. She died last night as a consequence of her illness.”
Her attorney, Harold Schiff, said in Paris that his client had died of cancer. And in France, where her work is adored, Davis’ death was front-page news.
In its Saturday afternoon editions, the newspaper Le Monde reported breathlessly that the “impossible has happened” and that “the screen bitch with the too-big eyes, the ambitious devourer of Hollywood, the she-wolf” was dead.
“One doesn’t cry for Bette Davis,” the newspaper continued reverently, “one salutes her.”
In 1977, Davis received what may have been her greatest salute. Still spunky and working at 69, she became the first woman to receive the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute.
“I suppose . . . they decided, ‘Let’s give it to a dame,’ ” she said with waspish delight upon receiving the honor.
Davis played them all, from the bitchy Southern belle in “Jezebel,” which won her a second Oscar in 1939, to the dying heroine of “Dark Victory” a year later, to the frumpy Bronx housewife in “The Catered Affair” in 1956.
But for many, she would forever be Margo Channing, the past-her-prime actress of the 1950 film, “All About Eve,” her 61st movie, with that line that glistens in the memory: “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Always in Control
Whatever the role, Davis was herself always in control, refining emotion with intelligence. But the persona was better than the sum of her parts. More than beauty, she had style, wit and a fierce, unrelenting independence.
Those penetrating blue eyes, the page-boy hairdo with the sharp slash of bangs, the ability to use a cigarette like a weapon or a scepter, and the flinty voice—these became her trademarks.
The breeding invariably showed, whether on screen in throwing aside a mink coat, or off, when she fought tigress-like with studio heads and directors, for good roles. In an era when studio executives behaved like Big Daddies, she achieved her own liberation..
“If you don’t dare to be hated,” she told Playboy magazine in a lengthy interview in 1982, “you’re never going to get there. Never!”
For Davis, her reputation was of an intense perfectionist who battled studio moguls and movie directors, survived mediocre films and spurned the glamour image that Hollywood often demanded of its actresses.
Instead, Davis relied on her craft and unflinching confidence to build a career playing roles from spirited heroines to tough-talking villains.
‘Tremendous Role Model’
“She once said to me, ‘The thing about us, we’re character actresses.’ She wasn’t a great beauty, and she knew that,” fellow actress Angela Lansbury said Saturday. “She was a tremendous role model for me. She simply encouraged my aspirations as also not (being) a great beauty.”
Despite four marriages—and romances with some rather distinguished men in between—Davis owned up in later years to being lonely.
“To be a woman all by yourself is absurd,” she said in 1982 when she was 74. “I didn’t intend to become one of those prim New England women who are afraid of sex, didn’t want to reach my present age and not have experienced everything . . . had a full life. Now I’m a virgin again but I guess I did all right for a little Yankee girl.”
Beneath the toughness there was vulnerability. She felt “All About Eve” saved her life, “professionally and personally. When I made it I had been hit by a truck, the same truck that hit Margo Channing . . . that I was 40. And I know Margo felt every one of those years hitting her.”
In her heyday—from the mid-1930s to the close of World War II—Davis was the highest paid woman in America. She was called “the first lady of the screen” and the “fourth Warner brother” and she was a regular on Oscar night. She was nominated as best actress in 1939 (“Dark Victory”), 1940 (“The Letter”), 1941 (“The Little Foxes”), 1942 (“Now, Voyager”), 1944 (“Mr. Skeffington”), as well as in 1950 (“All About Eve”), 1952 (“The Star”), and 1962 (“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”).
Had Some Regrets
Despite numerous triumphs, she had some regrets—the missed Oscars and roles. She had wanted her first Oscar for the part of Mildred, the cruel waitress in Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” (1934) but instead won it as a consolation the following year for “Dangerous” in which she played a not-so-nice actress.
She wanted one for playing Judith Traherne, the dying heroine in “Dark Victory” who falls in love with her doctor, but 1939 was the year of “Gone With the Wind,” and she had won her second Oscar only the year before. Her lifelong regret was that she could have been Scarlett O’Hara but refused the role in a dispute with her boss, Jack L. Warner.
Davis would have killed, she said, to have gotten the lead in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or to have been Anna in “The King and I.”
When she returned to Broadway after 22 years in 1952, it was for “Two’s Company,” and then, more notably, “The Night of the Iguana” in 1961.
In the 1970s, she turned to television and garnered showcase roles, more than holding her own with a newer generation of actresses. She won an Emmy in 1979 for “Strangers,” playing the mother of an estranged daughter (Gena Rowlands) who has come home to die.
She Had Endured
By then everyone knew Davis was more than a mere survivor. She had endured.
In her last years she combined her two personal worlds. She lived in a large condominium in West Hollywood which, except for its wide-screen view of Los Angeles, could have passed for a cottage in Maine. She was surrounded by artifacts of her movie years, as well by pottery, pewter and porcelain. As her adopted son Michael W. Merrill once said, her heart really belonged to New England, where she began.
Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Mass. She was named for her mother, whom Bette in later years called Ruthie. Her daughter would later say that Ruthie was her dominating influence, at least through a first marriage.
Her father, Harlow Morrell Davis, had been a patent attorney. The parents were divorced when Bette was 7. She had a younger sister, Barbara.
Despite the rigidity of a strict New England upbringing, hers was a relatively happy and comfortable childhood, and she wrote of “those biting cold white days when Bobby and I would slide down the hill behind our house on our backsides without our sleds . . . the kitchen shiny and busy and expectant with custards and fruit pies.”
In later years her kitchen became her solace, her refuge, and she was remembered by her friends as a wonderful cook.
She and her sister were sent off to boarding school while her mother worked as a photographer. At 16, Bette entered the prestigious Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., where, after participating in school theatricals, she decided to become an actress.
After graduation in 1926, she was taken by her mother to New York where she met Eva LaGalliene, then a reigning stage presence. LaGalliene was unimpressed. She told the aspiring actress that her attitude toward the theater was “not sincere. You are a frivolous little girl.”
Trying to negate that judgment, Davis enrolled at a dramatic academy in New York and also worked briefly in Rochester in a play called “Broadway.” The director was George Cukor, soon to become another Hollywood legend. He fired her.
From the Cukor company Davis went to the Provincetown Players, an off-Broadway company in Greenwich Village. There in 1929 at age 21 she had a starring role in “The Earth Between,” a drama, improbable for those days, about incest on a Nebraska farm. Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times: “Miss Davis, who is making her first professional appearance, is an entrancing creature who plays in a soft, unassertive role.”
Coveted Ibsen Role
Next she sought the coveted role of Hedvig in Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck.” Davis failed to get the part and was relegated to the role of usherette. But she persisted and during the next two years, she was in more than half a dozen plays.
In 1930, Hollywood beckoned. Universal became her first Hollywood studio. In a little over a year she made a half-dozen forgettable movies—three for Universal, three for other studios to which she was loaned out—but nothing really worked for her. The studio moguls decided she had “the sex appeal of a string bean.”
Davis might have returned to the stage for good had not George Arliss, a leading actor of the period, telephoned. He was to be the lead in “The Man Who Played God,” and he wanted her to co-star. He had seen her on stage and liked her work. On the strength of that 1932 movie Warner’s signed her to an 11-year contract.
In the next two years—until “Of Human Bondage"—she did 14 movies but only a few gave her the chance to display her talents. It was then that she began her fight for good scripts, good parts and a good cast. For, as she later wrote, she realized early on that she needed good people to play against.
Indeed, she got the “Bondage” role because she persuaded a bright young director named Pandro S. Berman, who was working for RKO, to take her on.
Moved Into Front Rank
With “Bondage” and “Dangerous,” her first Oscar, she moved into the front rank of Hollywood actresses, but she was never of them. At first, directors wanted to make her over, even to change her name. Bettina Dawes was suggested; Davis resisted. “I refuse to be called ‘Between the Drawers’ all my life,” she said.
At 5 feet, 3 inches and 112 pounds, she was certainly not a long-stemmed blonde bombshell beauty, although in the beginning they lightened her hair. Davis had a more subtle sexuality. Of the Crawfords and the Shearers and the Dietrichs, she wrote: “Part of me envied them. They were so beautiful. I knew it was possible, with my ambitions for acting rather than for glamour, that I might never equal their popularity. But I was I.”
She also noted that over the years she drew more people into movie houses “than all the sexpots put together.”
Davis was married four times—to Hamilton O. Nelson, Jr., a prep school sweetheart, in 1932; to Arthur Farnsworth, who ran a New England inn, in 1938; to William Grant Sherry, a former prize fighter-turned-Laguna Beach artist in 1945, and to actor Gary Merrill in 1950.
She had three children from those marriages, including a daughter, Barbara Davis or B.D., who was born in 1947.
Davis’ other two children were adopted. Daughter Margot was discovered to be severely brain damaged and had to be sent to an Upstate New York institution for the mentally retarded. Later, there was a prolonged custody battle with Merrill over their adopted son, Michael.
Through it all was her craft. Work was her “steadiest friend.” In interviews, in her frank 1962 autobiography “The Lonely Life” and in the biography she co-authored in 1974 called “Mother Goddam” (a sobriquet for one of her characters that she took as her own), that was her theme.
“My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist,” she wrote in 1962. “Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.”
For more than a decade, from the time she received her first Oscar, she fought, even scratched for good parts. Consider that “Of Human Bondage” was her 22nd role, “Dangerous” her 28th and “Jezebel” her 36th.
After “Dangerous,” when she was again being offered what she felt were minor-league roles, she accepted an offer from an English film director and Warner’s smacked her with an injunction. She had “no right to strike” a studio, or to be a free agent, as baseball players were to become many years later.
There followed a long legal battle that Davis lost—"It was Bette against Goliath,” she opined dramatically. But in a real sense, she won the war because Warner’s brought her back to better roles. In 1939, all four of her movies were critical and box office successes.
Breaks With Warners
In 1948, she broke with Warners for good. During the next decade, she appeared in 10 films but her career appeared to be faltering. Davis, however, revived it with a couple of popular horror films including 1962’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” where she played a demented one-time child star.
Altogether Davis made nine movies in the 1960s and five in the 1970s, as well as starting a new career in television. One of her last TV movies was “Right of Way” made for Home Box Office, in which she co-starred with James Stewart—the first time these movie greats had played together.
“She seemed to me to be an ideal motion picture actress,” Stewart recalled Saturday, calling Davis “this wonderful, wonderful talent.”
Yet, there was always a touch of the irreverent, the unexpected, about Bette Davis.
She became the first woman president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1942 and thereafter insisted that she had played a prime role in the naming of the little statuette given out each year for film achievements.
“The rear end of it looked like my first husband’s, Ham Nelson’s, bare behind.” Nelson’s middle name was Oscar.
Story Is Pure Davis
If the story was apocryphal it was also pure Davis.
She shunned Hollywood parties. She twitted her own movies calling the horror film “Baby Jane” “pretty funny.”
“I suppose the dead birds with mayonnaise were kind of unattractive. And the dead rat.”
She also chided the male ego which she felt “with few exceptions . . . was elephantine to start with. Add to it a movie contract and it soars through space into eternal orbit around itself.”
But mostly she had the capacity to laugh at herself. One night at a one-woman appearance in London someone in the audience rudely called out: “Is that your real hair, Miss Davis?”
Without missing a beat, Davis, who was wearing a wig that day, called back: “Yes it is. And these are my real eyes, my real teeth and my real tits.”
But the icy irreverence could also thaw.
In 1942, she helped organize the Hollywood Canteen, which became a refuge for servicemen stationed in Southern California.
An animal lover, she was founder and president of the Tailwaggers Club, which looked after stray dogs. A resident of Laguna in the late 1950s, she participated in the Laguna Festival of the Arts. As with other volunteer residents, she did the grunt work, sticking numbers on the backs of seats.
But first, as always, she served her talent. Into the so-called retirement years she was still perusing scripts, still demanding that her name be placed above the title. She did the TV talk show circuit, ever entertainingly blunt.
When she was nearly 75, a TV producer approached her for an appearance on something he was preparing called “The Golden Years of Hollywood.” Davis, probably as representative of those times as anyone, declined.
As she told a close friend over dinner: “There is no such thing as ‘the golden years.’ Why look back?”
The golden years, Bette Davis told her friend, were in the present. And she still had work to do.
Times Staff writer Rone Tempest contributed to this story from Paris.
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