By Bette Davis
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As Davis says in the opening lines of her classic memoir: “I have always been driven by some distant music–a battle hymn, no doubt–for I have been at war from the beginning. I rode into the field with sword gleaming and standard flying. I was going to conquer the world.” A bold, unapologetic book by a unique and formidable woman, The Lonely Life details the first fifty-plus years of Davis’s life–her Yankee childhood, her rise to stardom in Hollywood, the birth of her beloved children, and the uncompromising choices she made along the way to succeed. The book was updated with new material in the 1980s, bringing the story up to the end of Davis’s life–all the heartbreak, all the drama, and all the love she experienced at every stage of her extraordinary life.
The Lonely Life proves conclusively that the legendary image of Bette Davis is not a fable but a marvelous reality.
I attribute the enormous research, the persistence of putting together the pieces of this very “crossed”-word puzzle which comprises my life, to Sandford Dody.
Without him this book could never have been! His understanding of my reluctance to face the past was his most valuable contribution. We were collaborators in every sense of the word.
March 8, 1962
I have always been driven by some distant music—a battle hymn no doubt—for I have been at war from the beginning. I rode into the field with sword gleaming and standard flying. I was going to conquer the world.
When the war was won, I knew the triumph of standing victorious over my own dead body, for there among the vanquished, I found a woman lying at my feet. A gold band and a silver thimble on her left hand. Against my full regalia, she had been defenseless.
With my passion for order, I tidied up the battlefield and buried her with full military honors. I even wrote her epitaph. It is the most honorable I know. HERE LIES RUTH ELIZABETH DAVIS…1908–1961…SHE DID IT THE HARD WAY.
I’ve never looked back before. I’ve never had the time and it has always seemed so dangerous. To look back is to relax one’s vigil.
Any vogue has always bored me. I find no exception in the now stylish trip to the inner world of the psyche where Mama and Papa are the villains of one’s life. I could never afford this kind of vacation into self-pity and the transference of one’s mistakes to another. This is Pass-the-Buck-Land and it is a desert.
As I piece things together and see my life up to now, I refuse to yield to that vogue. Whatever I did, I did. My mistakes are mine. I, alone, am responsible.
If you hate your parents for willing you buck teeth, have them fixed or become a comic—only keep quiet about it.
My father’s cavalier disappearance from our home when I was a small child certainly has significance. Consider my quartette of marriages. But his hypothetical perfection as a father might have bound me to him and spoiled other men for me.
I only know that when Mother told me that Father was gone, I said, “Now we can go on a picnic and have a baby.”
But why waste time hating your father when he had a father who had a father? The die was cast when Daddy left us. My sister Bobby’s world went up in smoke. Mine shifted on its axis. It’s as simple as that.
At thirty I learned what it means to be responsible for the outcome of the show. You must set the tempo, chart the course. You are a star.
If you aim high, the pygmies will jump on your back and tug at your skirts. The people who call you a driving female will come along for the ride. If they weigh you down, you will fight them off. It is then that you are called a bitch.
I do not regret one professional enemy I have made. Any actor who doesn’t dare to make an enemy should get out of the business. I worked for my career and I’ll protect it as I would my children—every inch of the way. I do not regret the dust I’ve kicked up. I always fought people my own size and more often than not they were bigger.
My father is not the star of my drama—nor my mother, my sister, those brothers Warner or my husbands four. They helped and they hindered, but the spark that was Bette Davis was there from the beginning. It emerged in Lowell, Massachusetts, during a thunderstorm. It is true that the spark was fanned by events into something else—but it could never have been snuffed out.
How strange it is, writing this book and going back. Rushing past a cavalcade of Bettes, each younger, each surer of herself, each purer…simpler…a mist of blond puritanism…smaller…shyer…tinier.
It was true about the thunderstorm. Ruthie said the gods were going mad and the earth was holding its head in a panic. The offstage noises were deafening. Thank God, I didn’t have a line at my entrance.
I happened between a clap of thunder and a streak of lightning. It almost hit the house and destroyed a tree out front. As a child I fancied that the Finger of God was directing the attention of the world to me. Further and divine proof—from the stump of that tree—that one should never point.
My Episcopal Minister Uncle Paul detected a note of blasphemy in this conceit and my Baptist grandfather took to his bed; but I was undisturbed by the unanimous rejection of my fantasy. I always felt special—part of a wonderful secret. I was always going to be somebody. I didn’t know exactly what at first—perhaps the beautiful nurse in the Red Cross posters immaculately extending her hand of mercy to the world—but when my dream became clear, I followed it.
A woman has to fly high and fight to reach the top. She tires and needs a resting place. She should travel light—unburdened—but I’ve always done things the hard way. If I fell in love, I married. Had I been a European, I would have managed things differently. The deflowering of New England was unthinkable to this passionate Pilgrim.
I wanted to be married. I wanted a home. Ruthie, Bobby and I hadn’t had one since I was seven years old. We were on the move for years—gypsies. Small wonder that when I could, I acquired houses as other women acquire jewels.
A nest was always being improvised. My dressing rooms in the theatre were immediately decorated. Pictures were hung and familiar sentimental objects were strewn about to give an air of continuity. My bungalow at Warners was a mansion. It had everything but a ghost and a six-hundred-year-old lawn.
Even on one-night stands, the pattern remains unchanged. Bits of fabric that “may brighten the place up”…dog-eared volumes I couldn’t possibly have time to read again…choice pieces of china and brass which only crowd the tiny rooms. Favorite cigarette boxes and ashtrays have followed me around the world. I am a nester—and I’ve always found myself out on a limb.
It all started when I was told that I had a gift. The gods are Yankee traders. There are no gifts. Everything has a price, and in bitter moments I have been tempted to cry “Usury!”
It is true that I have lived with nerves exposed. My pulse has raced in endless crisis. My gullibility has begged for treachery. But there is the positive side to the story. I have also marveled at life and exulted in struggle. I have never lost my initial wonder. To be aware that you’re part of the flow—part of the whole miracle—is overwhelming.
Obviously, I have lived in a permanent state of rapture. I was never able to share it with a mate. It exhausted them. I evidently drove them mad; but I was as helpless as they. Once you’ve heard the sound of that distant music, you’re deaf to everything else.
The Yankee in me is still appalled by my repeated attempts at marriage. Knowing that I failed at the impossible doesn’t help. My mistake was the repeated trying.
What can you do when newspapers call your husband “Mr. Davis”? How helpless and yielding can a woman be when her weekly salary exceeds his annual income? What Mrs. could I have been to avoid this?
It is true that I never should have married, but I didn’t want to live without a man. Brought up to respect the conventions, love had to end in marriage. I’m afraid it did.
Morality to me is honesty, integrity, character. Old-fashioned words straight from Emerson, Thoreau, my grandmother. There are new words now that excuse everyone. Give me the good old days of heroes and villains. The people you can bravo or hiss. There was a truth to them that all the slick credulity of today cannot touch. People love their mavericks in the grand manner. The blacks and the whites. How wonderful it would be to know again where we stand and which side we’re on.
The cornerstone of my career in films was the power for action with which all women identified. When I portrayed evil on the screen, the women of the world were purged of suppressed violence and sheer boredom. In Spain, I’ve always been known as La Lupe, the she-wolf. Evidently, I rivaled bullfighting as the national cathartic.
The newspapers of the Middle West voted me the Queen of films. I had the strangest consorts. One year, Mickey Rooney shared my throne. Immensely talented as he is, we were a strange couple. But my morganatic marriages were no less odd. Elizabeth Tudor was right. She ruled alone.
I’m afraid I am a Queen—with all the prerogatives of that station. All except one. With it, heads would have rolled.
It is fortunate for some that the laws of our land stayed my hand. Yes! A Queen I was. Ask any of my husbands. There wasn’t one who didn’t end up calling me one. Or was it Queenie? I’m not quite sure.
I suppose I’m larger than life. That’s my problem. Created in a fury, I’m at home in a tempest.
When I opened on Broadway in The World of Carl Sandburg, Walter Kerr asked when “someone would write Davis a piece of beefsteak she can dig her teeth into.” If no one ever had, I would always have managed to cook up something. At least three men would happily testify that I am difficult to live with. But the Four Horsemen didn’t kill me. I’m too ornery to die.
If I have survived the last ten years, I can survive anything. Mother Goddam—that’s me. I had the book thrown at me. Illness and defeat come hard to someone who has rarely known either. La Lupe only stopped to lick her wounds.
It is the end of a black chapter.
I am living alone for the first time. Alone without the love of a man I always wanted. I knew I would end up this way. I have always said I would end up a lonely old woman on a hill.
I’ve gone solo. Read your programs. Bette Davis in her no-man show!
At this point I wouldn’t change a thing if I could—even the death of that girl who wanted to be the wife. The cards were stacked against her anyway. She was naïve, sentimental, altogether too vulnerable. She was a Patsy.
She made the mistake of fighting like a lady.
The Davises of Marlborough, Wiltshire, bore arms with a golden stag on a red shield—the seal of an ancient Welsh tribe. We derived our name from St. David, patron saint of Wales, and first appeared in England in 1276.
The Pilgrim, James Davis, of Marlborough, came to America and was made a freeman of Newbury, Massachusetts, on March 4, 1634. He and eleven others cleared the forest at the Indian village of Pentucket and founded the present city of Haverhill, Mass. A selectman and representative of the general court, he was a Puritan and accused one John Godfrey of witchcraft. He would have dropped dead had he foreseen “La Lupe” lurking in his loins.
No doubt he would disassociate himself from any responsibility. It is true that there is, as usual, another side to my story. The Keyes family, which arrived in New England the same year from England, intermarried eventually with the Favors, Huguenots who settled here in 1688 and helped found New Rochelle. They then moved on to the shores of the Merrimac River, first at Bristol Hill and then, permanently, in Lowell, Mass. The Favors (Le Fievre) were French and perhaps more than titularly feverish. They were collaterally descended from Jean Jacques Le Fievre, who was court chaplain to Margaret of Navarre and an archenemy of the Conservative Catholics. Through the Queen’s agency he was a friend of Martin Luther, who gave him asylum in Strasbourg.
The historic drive that propelled both Davises and Keyeses to establish churches and industries, administer colleges, captain clipper ships and fight both Indians and English was blended with the more sensual and esthetic impulsions of the Favors, who have also sprinkled France with actors and musicians. This mixture created the powerhouse I knew as my grandmother, Eugenia Favor.
She was five feet of T.N.T. Handsome, imperious, she ruled her house by divine right. Blood-proud and deeply religious, she saw herself as a bridge between two generations of a royal line—dedicated to the Victorian concept of decorous accomplishment. There were daily lessons of Industry, Obedience and Enterprise. There were never idle hands or brains in her manse. She was going to equip her children for a life of personal fulfillment and public service. She did.
Her love of music chained her children to the piano from the age of seven through high school; but through the miracle of her happy tyranny they came—after a cowed apprenticeship—to love it. Discipline and habit became voluntary and enthusiastic practice. So with their studies, their household duties, and their required reading of Emerson, Whittier, Wordsworth and, of course, the Bible. Grandmother Favor believed in example, not preachment. Her unfailing attendance and involvement in the work of Lowell’s First Baptist Church made piety unnecessary in the home. Not at all strangely, the disciplines proved—according to Ruthie and Uncle Paul—not austere but warming in their rewards in achievement and approval. Her refinement of nature and spiritual elegance were not difficult to take. Evidently, her force was, in all ways, irresistible.
Her penchant for china painting has enriched our cupboard with exquisite heirlooms. Her worship of nature was bequeathed to us along with her will and her complexion. I feel her presence in my home today at the sight of any flower.
Straitlaced and florid, she buried her own grandmother, Harriet Keyes Thompson, in Lowell, and had carved on the headstone—BEARING THE WHITE LILY OF AN UNSULLIED LIFE. Harriet’s mother, in turn, had been a Hamlin and first cousin to Lincoln’s Vice-President, Hannibal Hamlin. Each woman had used her drive and talents to enrich her children. Ladies were still using their power exclusively in their own domain. But these ladies ruled. Their homes were truly their castles.
Grandmother Favor’s house on Chester Street in Lowell was a maple-shaded palace. Her motto was “kind hearts are more than coronets and simple faith than Norman blood.” This was more an admonition against pride than it was a directive against ambition. Grandmother Favor had no objection to that. She was a Yankee Sovereign. The matriarch to end them all.
My mother, Ruthie, didn’t tumble far from the tree. She inherited Eugenia’s energy and taste plus talents she relinquished in favor of her firstborn. At the age of eleven, Ruthie was a sensitive tomboy who, on summer vacations, wore Uncle Paul’s clothes and insisted on being called “Fred”; but she starred in school theatricals, edited her high school magazine, painted and sketched with great delicacy. She exploded in all directions. She was Miss Alcott’s Jo.
Mother studied elocution and dramatics with Miss Porter in Lowell. From the record, she astonished her audience at the Temple, Chautauqua’s auditorium in Ocean Park, Maine, with a reading of Lew Wallace’s “Tamerlane” from his Prince of India. Yes, Ruthie was always an actress. Till the day of her death at seventy-six, she still was the star of the family.
Ruthie first met my father in Ocean Park, when she was seven. They came to know each other well in the succession of summer vacations both families enjoyed at the popular resort. In 1905, Mother was a beautiful young girl—accomplished, gay, graceful and filled with the joy of life. She was a painting by Mr. Sargent. With an appropriate stroke of humor, nature gave her one blue eye and one hazel.
Harlow Morrell Davis was a brooding, Roualt clown. Tall, gaunt, with a bulging forehead, rimless glasses and a Phi Beta key straight from Bates College. He was four times president of his class, champion debater, and head of the Athletic Association. He had been accepted at Oxford, but declined when he discovered that he had to give up cigarettes. He was soon to enter Harvard Law School where he could smoke his brilliant head off. He was already considered a young man of remarkable intellectual gifts. Although his father was Deacon of the Baptist Church in Augusta, Maine, Father was a nonbeliever. He approached life as if it were a soluble problem in geometry. His logic was glacial; his snobbery solely intellectual. His grandfather, the Reverend A. H. Morrell, was one of the founders of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, the first Southern school for the advancement of colored people after the Civil War. Of extremely serious mien, Father had—early in life—an apparent hankering for fast horses and the beauty of Ruthie.
Father courted Mother with a flattering persistence that aroused interest if not love. But Grandmother Favor, after a discreet investigation of the Davis exchequer, wielded her scepter and decreed that it was a good match. Mother was friendly with Mrs. Davis, who frankly confided to Ruthie that her son was brilliant and utterly disagreeable. She warned Mother that the alliance would destroy her spirit—“He will make your life miserable, my dear”—but as usual, things were decided in Grandmother Favor’s favor.
On their wedding day, immediately after the ceremony, some happy things in white eyelet and wasp waists happily threw confetti at the bride and groom, laughed gaily and in time-honored custom threw fistfuls of rice. Harlow Morrell Davis turned to them in high dudgeon and said, “God damn you, I’ll get you for this!” A rather startling reaction for a bridegroom. The new Mrs. Davis’ heart sank.
After their honeymoon, they moved into Grandmother Favor’s house on Chester Street in Lowell. Daddy attended Harvard Law School. They had been married on July 1st and, much to Father’s distress, I was born the following April 5th. Interestingly enough, Ruthie died on July 1st on her 53rd wedding anniversary.
I understand to some degree my father’s distress. He was a student whose preoccupation with the laws of the land and the universe made him impatient with Ruthie’s lesser gifts as a homemaker. Efficient and esthetically developed, Ruthie—on the face of it—was the perfect wife. She ran the house beautifully. She aimed to please. Father would mull over an unbelievably prophetic paper on China’s eventual place on the international scene and Ruthie would excitedly decide to have his study chair reupholstered in green leather.
This counterpoint might have strengthened his own image of the Olympian intellect dallying with a lovely mortal. It might not have displeased him for the first months of the marriage. But with parenthood, this was changed.
They had not planned a family so quickly and Ruthie’s “inefficiency” was a demerit. The first of many. Her inability to share his intellectual life became a source of irritation. Ruthie’s naïve enthusiasm for life in general and the baby in particular was beyond his ken. Father’s wit was a knife. He sharpened it on Mother.
Surprisingly, I was an ingratiating infant. I toiled not, spun not—but neither did I cry. I was a minimum of trouble. I was trying. Wreathed in smiles, a picture of amiability, I looked around my world in constant wonder. I discovered my feet on the 12th of August, laughed out loud—according to my baby book—and immediately decided to go places. I learned I had to crawl first and got around like mad, harming absolutely no one. Whenever I disappeared, I could be found on Father’s leather couch in his study.
My first word was “Papa.” I called to him. He was studying for an examination. My first sentence was, “Papa forgot his rompers—he catch cold.” A manager already.
We moved to Winchester, Mass., and Mother compounded her felony by giving birth to my sister, Barbara. I was eighteen months old and stayed, it seems, with Grandmother Favor. On my return I was ecstatic with my new “doll” for a day. I then, incredibly, removed Bobby from my crib and placed her face down on a chair nearby. When Mother and our nurse, Rose Worthington, discovered Bobby, I explained, “I don’t want Dolly here.” A few years later I cut her hair in scallops. Even though we are different as night and day, Bobby and I have always been great friends.
Daddy believed that children should not sit at the dining room table with grownups until they were able to conduct an intelligent conversation. We were allowed to have dinner on Sundays, however, with the family. We were always banished in tears for some impropriety or lack of wit. Bobby and I were treated by Daddy as a necessary evil. Daddy’s mind was original and his only descent into banality was his sampler, “Children should be seen and not heard.” If it had been up to my father, I could only have made my name in silent pictures.
Since it was impossible to reach Daddy, I had to furnish my own bridge. Once, when Mr. and Mrs. Brown—neighbors—were having Sunday breakfast with Mother and Daddy, I brought a dead rat to the table. (I planned no such entertainment after that, believe me!)
Bobby spent every waking moment trying to please Daddy. I somehow knew it would never work. I simply kept out of his way.
In a supreme effort to make up for Daddy’s boredom with us, Ruthie showered us with love. Mother was sunlit—Daddy the dark cloud. I cannot recall one moment of affection between my parents in our home.
Daddy, however, had another dimension. He was very generous with gifts to Ruthie. When Grandmother’s fortunes ebbed, he put Mother’s brother Richard through Harvard and invited him to live with us. He helped to support others as well. Daddy cared nothing for the opinions of others—was solely prompted by his own code of ethics, which was very high. Preoccupied and unamiable, Daddy lived in his own world. Yet it is so difficult to label people. Christmas should have exacted a loud “bah humbug” from Harlow M. Davis. It was Daddy’s favorite holiday.
He personally decorated the tree every year. Christmas Eve was his night. He was our Santa Claus. What a thrill those Christmas mornings were. One would have thought the Magi had visited us from the shower of gifts that spilled into the hallway. There was an entente cordiale in the family—peace on earth, good will toward children. Christmas! With Daddy towering over everyone—all 6 feet 2 of him—the happy inventor of the happiest day.
I remember receiving one skate from Uncle Myron and bravely hiding my disappointment. How could I wait a whole year for the other? I smiled bravely—and then the other skate was retrieved from its hiding place in the closet. How everyone roared! Christmas was the only time I remember the whole family’s laughing together.
My impression of my early childhood is a happy one—due completely to the efforts of my mother. There is a quick succession of bright moments. Aunt Mildred’s wedding at our house on Cambridge Street in Winchester. Bobby and I were flower girls and Ruthie the matron of honor—Japanese lanterns hung from the maple trees transforming our lawn into a fairyland. Those biting, cold, white days when Bobby and I would slide down the hill behind the house on our backsides, without our sleds. The swing near the kitchen which I strained to help me touch the sky. It got even by tripping me up and knocking the wind out of me. The kitchen, shiny and busy and expectant with custards and fruit pies. The flowers in the woods nearby and our vegetable garden in the summer. The fresh colors and tastes of that garden! The first Cadillac Daddy brought home. The family outings on Sundays. Grandmother Favor would hang out of the car and shriek, “Harlow, stop!”
The brakes would screech.
“What’s the matter?”
“Children—look at those apple blossoms. Ruthie, we simply have to take home some apple blossoms.”
The Cadillac would look like a hearse on our return.
I was always happiest when I was outdoors and wandering through the woods. One day a pack of dogs chased me and I started running. One of them caught hold of my long, yellow hair streaming behind me. What a horror it must have been as a spectacle and what a terror it was for me; but I kept running as I screamed and my endurance proved greater than his and he let go. I still am terrified of police dogs.
Life was a constant source of excitement to me. I remember when I discovered a summer night. I sat in a reverie staring at the stars. The sky was silver with them. I was bewitched. Daddy was sitting with me. He broke the spell.
“Do you see all those stars up there?”
My heart beat expectantly. The riddle would be solved. After all Daddy did know everything.
He continued, “There are millions and millions of them. Remember that always and you’ll know how unimportant you are.”
Daddy in his infinite knowledge always saw the roots and not the flowers. He took all the watches of the world apart and never knew what time it was. I never heard Daddy enthuse about anything or anybody except the singing of Mme. Schumann-Heink, the great contralto. In Hollywood many years later I was introduced to Schumann-Heink and was photographed with her. Had Daddy been alive to know, he would have believed I had finally “arrived.”
If I could never win my father, I completely conquered Ruthie. I became an absolute despot at the age of two. Partly to compensate for Father but mostly through sheer terror, Ruthie surrendered. I sensed her weaknesses early and pounced on them. The tantrum got me what I wanted. My demands were frightening and unusual. My passion for order and perfection were unheard of in a child so young. An untied lace on a shoe, a wrinkle on a dress, drove me into a fury.
- On Sale
- Apr 4, 2017
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Hachette Books