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This 'n That
By Bette Davis
With Michael Herskowitz
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- ebook (Digital original) $4.99 $5.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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A woman of strong appetites and opinions, Bette Davis minces no words. In frank, no nonsense terms she talks about the stroke that nearly killed her, and inspires us with the story of her subsequent recovery from cancer–a lively and encouraging account shot through with the star’s unique blend of spunk and wit.
Davis was famous for being as unsparing of herself as she was of others. Among the “others” of this book are President Ronald Reagan, who was a contract player at Warner Bros. when she was; Joan Crawford, her costar in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; Humphrey Bogart; Marilyn Monroe; Elizabeth Taylor; and Helen Hayes, Bette’s costar in her first film after her illness, Murder with Mirrors. She also talks about her deep friendship with her longtime assistant, Kathryn Sermak, who nursed Davis back to health after her stroke and ushered her back into acting when Davis’s doctors thought all hope was lost.
As Davis says, “If everyone likes you, you’re doing your job wrong.” This is a unique and controversial book by one of the most incandescent and unconventional acting talents of all time, as magnetic and supremely talented as the lady herself.
THERE ARE MANY STORIES behind the writing of this book. Michael Herskowitz and I started working on it over five years ago. It was postponed twice. The first time, I took it away from our publisher because of artistic differences. At that point I decided to abandon the whole project. I was bored with books by Hollywood stars full of information that shouldn’t be read by the world at large. I would not even consider writing that kind of book. Anyway, what did I have to say at this time in my life to warrant a book of any kind?
The second delay was due to the fact that I had a mastectomy and a stroke. During my convalescence, another publisher asked me to write a book and it occurred to me that maybe now I did have something to write about. Perhaps the story of my complete recovery from these illnesses would help others, particularly those weak and helpless from strokes, to believe in the possibility of overcoming the inevitable handicaps. So, write a book I did—This ’n That is it.
Upon its completion my publisher decided not to print my book. After the many months of work my assistant for seven years, Kathryn Sermak, and I had a great affection for and belief in the book, and we were devastated at the publisher’s refusal.
Then I received another blow. I learned that my daughter B.D. Hyman had, without my knowledge, written a “not too nice” book about me. Interestingly enough, her publisher was the same one I had taken my book away from. In desperation I decided to advertise in Publishers Weekly that I had a book for sale. The result was the purchase of This ’n That by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, who published my first book, The Lonely Life, years ago, and it was in my contract that the book would be published exactly as written. I was overjoyed.
By this time B.D.’s book, My Mother’s Keeper, had come out. She wrote a letter to me in her book. I decided to write a letter to her in my book. This was the only change I made in This ’n That after reading her book.
I am still recovering from the fact that a child of mine would write about me behind my back, to say nothing about the kind of book it is. I will never recover as completely from B.D.’s book as I have from the stroke. They were both shattering experiences.
ON JUNE 9, 1983, at The New York Hospital, I had a mastectomy, followed nine days later by a stroke. My doctors felt there was slim chance of my making it.
During my many sleepless nights in The New York Hospital, my uppermost thought was: Would I ever work again? Would I be able to return to my series, Hotel? Why had all this happened to me? It didn’t seem fair. Over and over, lying there, I asked, will I ever be able to work again? Bette Davis and her career are one and the same thing. Acting had been my life. I wouldn’t want to live if I could never act again.
I was panicked at the thought that I might be an invalid the rest of my life. I would be a burden to my children, to myself, to those who cared about me. Over and over people kept saying how strong I was. Of course I would get well. Of course I would work again. Especially encouraging was my secretary, Kathryn Sermak, who assured me daily, almost hourly, “We’ll make it.” Kathryn lived in my hospital room with me all those weeks.
Many times I wasn’t strong. At seventy-five I probably didn’t have many more years to live anyway. What was the point of the long struggle ahead? To learn to walk again? To unknot my left hand so I could use it again? I gave up so often during those weeks.
During those sleepless nights lying there, I remembered, often with affection, so many people I had worked with…sometimes funny incidents, sometimes distressing. I thought particularly about Dark Victory, and I felt a bond with my character, Judith Traherne, who faced death, gallantly. I was trying to do the same. I remembered particularly often the costar I worked with the most, George Brent.
His performance as the doctor in Dark Victory was superb. It made the film a far better one than it would have been without him. I had fallen in love with George during the filming of The Rich Are Always with Us, many years ago. He, in turn, fell in love with the star, Ruth Chatterton. They were married after the completion of the film and eventually were divorced. George fell in love with me during the filming of Dark Victory. During our romance, he gave me a charm bracelet with the letters B-E-T-T-E in diamonds. I was a little less enchanted when he said, as I was oohing and aahing over it, “I’m glad you have such a short name.”
George owned an airplane. When he had to play a part he didn’t like, he would often buzz the studio in his plane, stopping all work and losing money for Warner Bros.
Many guilts of mine came back to me lying there. My third husband, William Grant Sherry, and I had a daughter. We called her B.D. for the initials of her first and middle names, Barbara Davis. I did not give her a father she could adore. Sherry—hot-tempered, brutal—must often have frightened her as he did me. I should never have married him, in case we did have a child. Even more thoughtless to marry Gary Merrill, without being sure he loved B.D. He was anything but fatherly to her. I accept guilt for choosing both of these men as B.D.’s father. I finally admitted to myself that this is why she married an older man at such a young age. She was looking for a father. Jeremy Hyman was thirty when they married; B.D. was sixteen. All these many thoughts kept going back and forth in my head.
Thank God, quite by accident, I discovered the lump in my breast when I did. Any further delay and I might have been riddled with cancer. I thanked God over and over as I lay there, that I had no cancer left after the surgery. I had been lucky in my life. Now I was lucky again.
So many things came to mind as I lay there all those weeks, some of them for no obvious reason. When you are ill and can’t move around very much, it is unbelievable how your brain seems to work overtime. I remembered that during the filming of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Charles Laughton came to visit us on the set. He had given a superb performance as Henry the Eighth, the father of Elizabeth. I said, “Hello, Daddy,” and went over to where he was standing. I said, “I have my nerve playing Elizabeth at sixty years old—and I am only thirty.” He said something I never forgot. “Never not dare to hang yourself”—meaning to accept challenges in the parts I chose; even though they might not be my best performances, I would learn to be a better actress for attempting them.
I often remembered my last few weeks in Hollywood, when I received many awards involving dinners. Many of my famous costars came to those dinners to honor me. I knew that I had a mastectomy ahead of me, and it seemed as I received each award that Hollywood, unknowingly, was saying good-bye to me, wanting me to know I would be missed.
I thought very often of the last film I worked on, Right of Way, with Jimmy Stewart. I thought about a speech in that film, unbelievably prophetic, considering what was happening to me. It was to our daughter, begging her to understand her father’s and my determination to commit suicide.
Would you like to know what it is we want to spare you from? The doctors describe it as a kind of starvation death. Except every cell in my body is a stomach. The pain will be immense. I’ll lose all sense of who I am or what I am. [This is an exact description of me after the stroke.] I’ll lose my insides and I’ll lose my outsides. I’ll be half my size and weight. Or smaller. A tiny figure lying on a rubber sheet in some hideous cinder-block building they call a hospital.
In the hospital, day by day I was losing weight. Just the mention of any kind of food made me sick to think about it. I knew if I couldn’t overcome this loss of appetite I would never get well. The doctors had told me so, and finally they had to feed me intravenously. This was accomplished by putting tubes in the veins in one of my arms, which made it necessary for me to be attached to a large machine I called “Bertha,” a name I’ve always disliked. Bertha stayed with me for weeks. I couldn’t even lift my arm without being conscious of her. If I even tried to take a step out of bed, I had to pull Bertha along with me. She became a kind of jailer.
In Right of Way I also said to my daughter:
I will be a figure you won’t recognize. But also one you’ll never forget. And inside that figure somewhere will be me. The Miniature Dwyer [my character’s name] that will be remembered will be the one she never dreamt of. Or knew. Or cared to know. Or would let herself know.
Was that the way B.D. and my son, Michael, felt when they visited me after the stroke? Did I look so different and act so different that this is the mother they would remember, and not the mother they had always known? Since leaving the hospital Kathryn has told me many times about the way I looked. One of my oldest friends said, “The first time I saw you after the stroke, Bette Davis wasn’t in that bed. She was gone.” He was crying.
I remembered another speech Jimmy had in the picture. I now understood the meaning of it.
It happens that I am tired.…I am tired of my feet and my nails and my hair and my shadow. It happens that I am tired of being a man. I’m tired of living.…
I could not have said it any better. That is how I felt after the stroke.
What fun Jimmy and I had working together. He called the hospital one day. I was so happy he cared enough to call me, to see how I was, whether I was recovering. His name in the film was Teddy. He gave me a teddy bear after the film, made of mink. It was in the hospital with me. The nurses were fascinated by a mink teddy bear, but more fascinated that Jimmy Stewart had given it to me.
In 1938 Brian Aherne and I played Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota in the film Juarez with Paul Muni. One night in the hospital we saw Juarez on TV. I made Kathryn laugh by telling her that one day during the filming, when I was off camera and Brian was on camera, after the take I said, “You should always wear a beard, Brian.” I forgot how sensitive he was about his weak chin. He said, “You should always wear black hair.” I was wearing a black wig as Carlota. Later, in Brian’s autobiography, he said the only person who loved Bette Davis when she was a star was her mother. He had obviously not forgotten.
By living in my room during my stay in the hospital, Kathryn literally saved my life. It is important after a stroke not to argue with the patient. The patient can’t take it. Kathryn also knew my reaction to being given orders. She constantly tried to explain to the nurses that they should do what I asked because they were exhausting me by not doing so. Doctors and nurses are apt to take it for granted that stroke victims are not “with it,” that they misunderstand and don’t remember what has been said to them. I was fortunate to have Kathryn in my room when doctors told me I was confused, and they denied that they’d said it. Kathryn was there to remind them that is what they said; and they didn’t like it very much. I think they were the confused ones! Kathryn was not very popular with the doctors and nurses.
I realized, at some point during my stay in the hospital, that most doctors are convinced they are gods. Very often I felt that I knew more about my symptoms and my illness than they did.
My brain was in no way affected, nor was my speech.
One day in the hospital I remembered a party at my boss Jack Warner’s house. I seldom went to large Hollywood parties. One of the guests at this one was that unique human being and gifted actress, Tallulah Bankhead. Most of the guests had left. I was standing at the bar when up swept Tallulah. I was a bit anxious about what her behavior would be. Rumor had it that she felt my character Margo Channing in All About Eve was a likeness of her and was furious that she had not been asked to play it. “Dah-ling,” she said, “you’ve played all the parts I’ve played, and I was so much better.” “I agree with you, Miss Bankhead,” I said. She wafted quickly out of the room. She didn’t get the fight she wanted. The films were The Little Foxes, Jezebel and Dark Victory.
I had lots of doctors; all of them came to see me each day, some two and three times. They would say to me, “Smile…squeeze my finger…look at my nose.” Gawd, what noses! I was getting weaker each day from exhaustion. I finally convinced them that I did not require multiple daily visits. They ceased coming so often, thank God!
I also insisted they take me off so many drugs. I was woozy all the time. I had private-duty nurses around the clock. They were instructed, I presume by the doctors, to keep a record of everything I did, since they were constantly writing while in my room. They never took their eyes off of me. Every time I moved an arm, a leg, or even an eyelash, they made a note of it. I felt as if I were in prison! I wish I had kept a record on some of the nurses and given it to the hospital—they might never have worked again.
Often I sensed the joy that the nurses felt in telling “Bette Davis” what to do. Some victory! One nurse told me to say “please” when I asked her to do something. She should consider herself lucky to be in one piece today. Many times I had the impression I was a victim of something, rather than being ill. I did object when the night nurses snored and woke me up…at those prices! The morning I was scheduled to have my mastectomy, one-half hour before I went down to the operating room, the nurse on duty took my blood pressure and then said, “Your blood pressure is high. Are you nervous?” I said, “Nervous, I’m petrified!”
One morning a nurse came into my room and said, “Good morning, Mrs. Nixon.” I smiled and said, “I am not Mrs. Nixon. Mrs. Nixon is in the room across the hall.” As a dedicated Democrat, the last person I would want to be is Mrs. Nixon. However, having a surplus of flowers, I felt it would be nice to send her one of my bouquets. Kathryn asked one of her security men if he would please give it to her from me. Next morning the security man brought the flowers back to us, saying, “Mrs. Nixon thanks you but she is allergic to flowers.”
I couldn’t help but wonder, when Mr. Nixon was visiting her, if she had told him who the flowers were from. Maybe he was the one who was allergic to them.
The name Nixon made me remember many things about President Reagan. He was under contract to Warner Bros. at the same time I was. One of my vivid recollections was when he was the governor of California. A good-bye party was given for Jack Warner when he sold the studio to Eliot Hyman, the head of Seven Arts. All the contract players from the early years came to honor our former boss. Ronnie, one of the contract players, chose not to sit on the dais with the rest of us—Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Frank McHugh, Bogart, Bacall, many others. He decided to make an entrance as the governor of California. This necessitated our standing up for him as he entered. We all felt very silly getting to our feet for “little Ronnie Reagan.” I would have loved to know what Jack Warner was thinking as he rose to his feet. I thought Ronnie used bad judgment that night in not forgetting his position as governor and being just an actor with the rest of us. Even later, another mark against him, I felt, had to do with Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Hollywood. All orders for the dinner in her honor came from the Oval Office. Everything came from there except the occupant himself. No black-tie. We were furious—we felt like country bumpkins who didn’t know better. All of us bought white gloves. No receiving line. It was a huge disappointment that Ronnie, as president, hadn’t come to greet the queen in his own hometown. I was not the only one who felt this way.
The political history of President Reagan is an enigma to those of us who knew him then. He was a liberal Democrat for years. From the day he was hired as host for a TV series sponsored by General Electric, he became a staunch Republican. Prior to that Ronnie was president of the Screen Actors Guild and it was during his presidency that actors lost the battle to be paid residuals for reruns of all the many films we had made. This was unforgivable to all the members of the guild. Our films are shown over and over on TV, and now with the advent of video cassettes our loss is even greater. In light of today’s witch hunts, when all political figures are targets, it is amazing that President Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, does not have something in his past to be revealed. It must mean that he was as dull as his first wife, Jane Wyman, said he was.
When the National Enquirer wrote of my illness, they were hideous enough to print my room number at The New York Hospital. The hospital and I were equally alarmed that some danger might come to me, since it would not be difficult for anyone to come into the hospital and find my room. From that day until the day I left, the hospital gave me round-the-clock security guards outside my door. I will always be grateful to them for that.
Toward the end of my stay, the doctors kept asking me when I was going to leave. They seemed to be trying to kick me out of my room, which I could not understand. Wasn’t I paying my bill? My rather testy reply was, “I don’t know, and I am the only one who will know when I am ready to leave.”
I found out later that a very wealthy Greek shipbuilder named Stavros Niarchos had donated $10 million to the hospital, with the proviso that the room I was in and the room across the hall—Mrs. Nixon’s—were to be available to him anytime he needed them for himself or whomever he designated. Niarchos, having learned that Dr. Behrman, head of dental surgery at The New York Hospital, was a great friend of mine, called him. In no uncertain terms, he told Dr. Behrman to get his “G——d——ed actress friend,” Bette Davis, out of the room she was in. He needed it for his son who had broken his jaw in Italy. Dr. Behrman is the one who later told me the story.
Every day I realized more and more that Kathryn had to have a break from the pressure of the situation she was in. Her concern for me, added to the uncomfortable living conditions, was beginning to take its toll. The only thing that really saved her life was the telephone. She talked very often to her beau in Paris. He gave her lots of encouragement. My worrying about her was not doing me any good either. I urged her to take a break and go and see her beau in Paris.
The instant Kath left my room for the airport, the atmosphere in my room changed. The nurses and doctors watched me even more than usual, and seemed to think that I would be unable to keep my sanity without Kath. I would never have given any of them the satisfaction that this was the case. I talked to myself many nights, saying, “Hang in there, Davis, hang in there.” Every day for the six days Kath was away, a gardenia from her was brought to my room, each with a different note in her handwriting—these helped me so much in getting through the ordeal of “no Kath” each day. She also telephoned me from a pay phone in Brittany, as she was on an island in that area and the house where she was staying had no phone. It usually took two hours to get a call through to me. What a friend Kathryn was and still is. To say I missed her is the understatement of the year. But I made it, and Kath came back refreshed and able to tackle the hurdles that were still ahead of us!
WE’LL MAKE IT
THE DAY CAME WHEN I WAS READY to leave The New York Hospital. After nine weeks, the distance from there to the Lombardy Hotel, where I would begin my convalescence, was measured in more than city blocks. It was like moving to another orbit.
The morning of my departure made me think of the day I arrived at the hospital, wearing a beige suit, blue straw hat and high-heeled pumps. I left eight pounds lighter, in a green striped pantsuit and low-heeled shoes, and in a wheelchair. Some of the nurses and student doctors came to say good-bye. Among the many good wishes from my doctors was the hope that I would have no need to call them—for my sake if not for theirs. In the following weeks while we were at the Lombardy, I prided myself on not sending for any of them. They wound up calling me to see how I was.
Driving back to the hotel, seeing people on the streets again, seeing trees getting ready for fall, and inhaling fresh air, I marveled at how easily we take for granted nature’s blessings. During those nine weeks I had so often wondered if I ever would be back in the outside world again. Everything seemed to be going by so fast. All of this brought tears of joy to Kathryn and me. We entered the hotel through the back door to avoid any possibility of photographers. The back door was where deliveries were made. I was being “delivered.”
We had been given a suite of rooms new to us. After the dull greenness of the hospital room, it was a thrill to know we were once again in attractive, comfortable surroundings. Just to have nice walls to look at, room service, privacy and no doctors popping in on us unannounced was a joy. There was a terrace I knew I would enjoy in the weeks to come—To be able to be outside, probably potting plants and possibly getting a suntan.
During our stay at the Lombardy, every now and then I invited friends to come by. To one old and close friend I confided, “After a stroke you have a very ‘short fuse’ with people.” My friend said, “Bette, you’ve always had a ‘short fuse’ with people. Don’t blame it on your stroke.”
I have been asked many times who was my favorite actor to work with. Without hesitating I always say Claude Rains. We worked together in three films, Mr. Skeffington, Now, Voyager and Juarez. Claude played the king of France in Juarez. I was very nervous the day I was to do my first scene with him because I had always been in awe of his great talent. The king of France wanted Maximilian and Carlota to step down from their positions in the government of Mexico. Carlota had come back to France to plead with the king not to do this to them. Claude was very harsh with me in his role as the king in the scene, I mistakenly thought that was how he felt about my performance. This, of course, was not so—He was only playing the part. Later in my career, actors were terrified of me in my different characters. They took it personally also. Richard Todd was cast as Raleigh in The Virgin Queen. For the first week he had great difficulty with his lines because of my appearance in the role of Elizabeth. One day, realizing this, I explained that underneath my appearance was a most sympathetic person who thoroughly approved of his performance as Raleigh. It helped him a lot during the entire film.
Claude Rains honored me very much by being my great friend eventually, and I his. He was married many times. One year he married twice. The wedding invitation he sent me to the second marriage said, “We printed this in the cellar.” His second wife died that year of cancer. He never really recovered from her death. They loved each other very much. The real love of his life was his daughter, Jennifer, from his third marriage. I have seen her from time to time, and her likeness to her father is extraordinary. I will always miss Claude, as a friend and as a coworker.
- On Sale
- Apr 4, 2017
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Hachette Books