BETTE DAVIS: SPUNK, SASS, SMARTS, & TALENT

November 1, 2019     Updated February 3, 2022

bette davis

Bette Davis is Spunky, Smart, Feuds with Joan Crawford, Knows How to Use Those Eyes, Coins "the Oscars," and Has a Heart of Gold.

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Love her or hate her, Bette Davis is a classic star who evokes strong feelings.  I’ve never met a Classic Hollywood fan who feels ambiguously about the Davis.  But whatever your feelings about Bette, there is no question that she was a star in every sense of the word: talented, glamorous, temperamental, even thirty years after her last film and passing, Bette Davis remains one of the greatest symbols of The Golden Age of Hollywood.

Bette is almost as famous for the drama in her private life as she is for her consistently stellar film work.  I’m near convinced that Bette possessed some sort of gravitational pull that continuously brought chaos, cat fights, and various forms of abuse into her life.  Sometimes Bette was the victim, sometimes she was the offender.

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Bette Davis' Greatest Role

Bette Davis played some incredible characters over the course of her career, but Bette’s life, what she did and experienced off screen, topped anything she acted on film. 

So here are a few things about the spunky, controversial, and legendary Bette Davis you didn’t know:

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Even as a little girl, Bette's confidence and sass come through in this picture.

A Difficult Childhood Made Bette Davis a Fighter

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts on April 5, 1908, Bette Davis was a New Englander through and through.  Her father never warmed to Bette or her younger sister Barbara (known as Bobby). Harlow Davis was a cold man who did not allow his daughters downstairs when he was home, not even for meals: on Harlow’s orders, Bette and Bobby were forbidden to eat at the dinner table with their parents.

Ruthie and Harlow Davis divorced when Bette was ten years old.  Bette was always extremely close with her mother, but her relationship with Harlow was strained at best.  This was certainly not helped by the fact that, at their few meetings over the years after the divorce, Harlow  showed absolutely no support for Bette’s dreams of becoming an actress, insisting to his daughter that she would never be a success.

But her father’s overt lack of support only pushed Bette to accomplish her acting goals:  In Bette’s own words [aff. link]:

“He certainly inspired me no end to prove he was wrong.  He made me prove a lot.”

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Bette circa 1935.

She Trained with Martha Graham

Yes, Bette Davis was a dancer in her youth, and trained with the “Dancer of the Century,” Martha Graham.  Bette was so inspired by Graham’s free movements that Graham became the model on which Bette based her legendary walk.  As Bette’s former classmate Ginny Conroy shared,

“[Bette] exaggerated it [Graham’s walk] into a swivel and made it her own, a characteristic later beloved by her imitators.”

Those "Bette Davis Eyes" Saved Her Film Career

As a young contract player at Universal Studios, Bette learned that her looks were unconventional to most, and downright unappealing to others.  Having been voted the class beauty at her high school, learning that not everyone found her devastatingly beautiful was indeed a new experience for Bette. 

The way Bette first discovered she wasn’t  everyone’s definition of gorgeous was quite cruel.  On the set of her first film, The Bad Sister (1931), Bette overheard Universal Studios big-wig Carl Laemmle say that:

“What audience could ever imagine the hero going through hell and high water just to kiss her at the fadeout?”

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Laemmle almost dropped Bette’s contract, but her fate was saved by cameraman Karl Freund, who told Laemmle to keep the Davis girl on because of those luminous eyes.  Bette was grateful for the compliment and career save, but was also understandably hurt by the whole situation:

“While his [Freund’s] words saved my career, they were cruel as can be uttered about a girl who thinks that she is fairly easy to look at and who has the hope that somebody will regard her as a capable actress.”

But not being the most beautiful girl in the room ultimately had its advantages for Bette Davis.

The early realization that she could not succeed in Hollywood on physical beauty alone propelled Bette to develop her natural acting talents.  In the process, she became one of the best actresses of American cinema.

“Women’s Pictures”—films with strong female leads and storylines where the female protagonist is the center of the movie, often overcoming great obstacles (or dying tragically at the end)—became Bette’s specialty.

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Bette wins her first Academy Award on March 5, 1936 for Dangerous (1935). Bette coined the term "the Oscars" that night. Her informal, mousy dress caused a media ruckus.

Bette Davis and Oscar

Impressively, Bette was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar ten times, and won twice.  Her first win was in 1936 for Dangerous (1935).  At the time, no one called the Academy Awards “the Oscars.” 

Bette Davis changed all that. 

As Bette held her much deserved Oscar that night of her victory, she realized that the statuette’s rear looked strangely familiar…

In fact, it looked just like her husband’s. 

Bette’s husband’s middle name was Oscar.  And given the physical similarity, it just seemed like a fitting name for her new award.  So Bette christened her Academy Award “Oscar.”   

Obviously, the name stuck.  Thanks to Bette Davis’ astute observation and quick wit,  “the Oscars” and “the Academy Awards” are names used interchangeably to this day.

The Four Tempestuous Marriages of Bette Davis

Hollywood is a hard town to remain married in.  Bette’s natural need for chaos and attention, coupled with her superstardom by the late 1930s, pretty much guaranteed that none of her marriages would succeed.  Here’s a rundown on the four marriages and men who held the tile of “Mr. Bette Davis” over the years:

Bette with first husband Harmon Nelson.

Harmon "Ham" Nelson (married 1932-1938)

Bette, with her New England roots, was a virgin when she married her high school sweetheart, Harmon “Ham” Nelson in 1932. Ham found it exceptionally difficult to have a wife who brought in about 90 percent of the couple’s income.  When Ham found out that Bette was in the midst of an affair with Howard Hughes, he wired the bedroom with recording equipment to catch Bette and Howard in the act.

He succeeded. 

Bette and Ham divorced shortly after.

Bette with husband number two, Arthur Farnsworth.

Arthur Farnsworth (married 1940-1943)

Farnsworth was a former WWII pilot.  Soon after the marriage, Bette discovered that her new husband was an alcoholic.  By this time, Bette was known to throw a few drinks back herself, and the two argued incessantly during long, boozy nights. 

Farnsworth died from head injuries after a fall on the streets of Hollywood just before his divorce from Bette was finalized. The circumstances surrounding his death are still a mystery.  Some even suggest that it was Bette who pushed Farnsworth to his death (not intending for him to die, just another one of their arguments.)

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Bette with third husband, William Sherry.

William Grant Sherry (married 1945-1950)

Another WWII vet and artist, Sherry gave Bette her only biological child, Barbara Davis “B.D.” Sherry.  Though Bette encouraged Sherry to be the homemaker in their relationship and to not find work for income tax reasons, she also berated him for “mooching” off her. 

After the divorce, Sherry married Marion Richards, whom Bette herself had hired a few years previously as her daughter B.D.’s caregiver!  This just may be the first instance of a Hollywood nanny ending up a part of the family.

Incidentally, Sherry and Marion remained married until his death in 2003.

Bette and final husband, Gary Merrill, in All About Eve (1950).

Gary Merrill (married 1950-1960)

Bette met Gary Merrill, also an actor, on the set of her comeback film, the classic All About Eve (1950).  Merrill and Bette were arguably both alcoholics by the time they married, and confused the characters they played in All About Eve with real life.  The marriage to Merrill was probably the most volatile of Bette’s unions.  It’s pretty safe to say that Gary was physically abusive, and that Bette goaded him on.

Bette and Merrill adopted two children together, Margot (named after Bette’s Eve character) and Michael.  When Margot was a toddler, it was discovered that she was mentally disabled.  Doctors said Margot’s disability most likely stemmed from some sort of head trauma sustained either during childbirth or shortly thereafter.

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A facade of domestic bliss, Bette and Gary with children B.D., Margot, and Michael.

Two staff members in the Davis/Merrill home at the time, Margot’s nurse and the family housekeeper, are of the opinion that Bette or Merrill, with their short tempers and alcohol consumption, were in some way responsible for Margot’s mental handicaps…we’ll never know for sure.

When asked towards the end of her life which of her husbands Bette liked best, she responded with classic Bette Davis wit:

“Obviously I had no favorite since I dumped them all!”

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Putting on a happy face. Bette and Joan Crawford really did hate each other.

YES, the Feud with Joan Crawford was Real

Bette actually got along with very few of her female costars.  Male costars were seldom a problem for Bette.  But the females!  Bette engaged in cat fights with just about every single one, from Miriam Hopkins to Susan Hayward.  (Olivia de Havilland and Anne Baxter were the only two female co-stars who remained on friendly terms with Bette.)  But the most notorious Davis feud of all was with the equally legendary Joan Crawford.

The feud started back in 1935, when Bette made Dangerous with Franchot Tone.  Bette had an affair with Tone, who at the time was engaged to….Joan Crawford!  At that point in her career, Bette was more than a little jealous of Joan, who was a big star at MGM–getting plum roles and the royal treatment–while Bette was stuck in “B” pictures at Warner Brothers, despite her greater acting talent.  It’s likely that Bette knew exactly what she was doing when she chose to pursue a relationship with Tone.  Obviously, this made Joan mad, and so the lifelong cat fight began!

Bette and Joan in the grotesque What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). It was their first and only film together.

Bette Davis & Joan Crawford: The Constant Cat Fight

By the time Crawford and Bette signed on to make What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), both actresses were experiencing career and financial low points.  Absolutely nothing else would have motivated them to work together.  Constant fighting and vicious words prevailed on set, and the cherry on the cake was when Bette received a Best Actress nomination for her work on the film.  Joan did not. 

So what did Joan do?  She contacted all the other Best Actress nominees, and offered to accept the Best Actress Oscar on their behalf should any one of the nominees win and not be able to attend the ceremony.

Joan posing with the Oscar winners of 1963. Joan accepted the Oscar on behalf of Anne Bancroft. The opportunity to taunt Bette was too delicious to pass up.

As it turned out, Anne Bancroft won that year for The Miracle Worker (1962).  Joan had the time of her life waltzing past Bette with a gentle “Excuse me” to accept the coveted Oscar. 

These two never quit!!!

A Heart of Gold

Bette Davis was certainly a little rough around the edges.  But underneath that tough exterior, Bette had many admirable qualities and characteristics, including a heart of gold. 

With John Garfield, Bette founded the Hollywood Canteen in 1942.  Bette and Garfield envisioned the Canteen as a club where WWII soldiers could come to relax, mingle, and dance with beautiful celebrities.  By pooling their respective talents and resources, Bette and Julie made the Hollywood Canteen a reality.

Guess who was at the Hollywood Canteen nearly every night after long days at the studio to serve the soldiers food, dance, and converse with them?

Yep, Bette Davis.

And as many soldiers and fellow celebrities observed, Bette was the most popular actress at the Canteen.  It didn’t matter that she wasn’t the most beautiful or the best dancer: soldiers flocked to Bette because of her stimulating conversation, vivacity, and seemingly boundless energy.

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Bette helps out at the Hollywood Canteen, a club for soldiers she founded during WWII with John Garfield.

Bette also supported both her mother Ruthie and her sister Bobby financially from the time she became a star until their respective deaths.  This included buying her mother nice homes in the Hollywood area, indulging Ruthie’s extravagant lifestyle, and footing the bills for Bobby’s frequent stays in various mental institutions.  Bette Davis clearly had a big heart and great loyalty to the people she loved.

Celebrate Bette Davis with Me!

And that wraps up my introduction to our Star of the Month, Bette Davis.

Come back next week for all about the film that brought Bette her first Oscar, 1935’s Dangerous.

bette davis

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Rhoda

    Wow- there’s some interesting stuff here! Thanks for sharing!☺️👍

    1. Shannon

      Thank you so much for reading, Rhoda! Isn’t Bette fascinating??! Definitely an original.

  2. Ian

    THE greatest start Hollywood ever produced.

    1. Shannon

      Thanks for reading Ian! Bette is the definition of star, no doubt about it.

  3. hector

    back on the 1960’s I saw a picture of bette davis and alan ladd or glen ford were she play as something to do with apples , I think it was annie apple, and back them I remenber reading that she posted an add in some newspaper that read something like an old movie start looking for job with 30 years experience , and that’s when she got that film , anyway it will be kind of interesting to hear what you girls have to say about this things. thanks and regards. hector

    1. Shannon

      Hi Hector!

      The film you’re remembering is Pocketful of Miracles (1961). Bette played Apple Annie opposite Glenn Ford’s Dave the Dude. I’ve actually written an article about the film, which you can read here. Lots of drama behind the scenes on that one!

      Ah yes, the infamous Bette Davis ad! So Bette actually didn’t place the ad until September of 1962, just after filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) (which you can read about here) completed that summer. Here’s the script of the ad that Bette placed in The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety on September 21, 1962:

      “Situation Wanted, Women:
      Mother of Three—10, 11 & 15—divorcee. American. 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.) Bette Davis c/o Martin Baum, G.A.C.
      References upon request.”

      Bette later said the ad was meant to be “tongue in cheek,” but as Baby Jane still hadn’t been released, it’s possible she was still not fully confident that the film would set her career back on track. Although, Jack Warner was confident enough in the film’s earning potential to give Bette a $75,000 loan to buy a house in Bel Air.

      Regardless of whether Bette placed the ad truly believing her career was in jeopardy, the $500 she spent on it brought her truly priceless publicity!

  4. Denise

    I always love to read about Bette Davis. There are always so many misconstrued stories made about her. I have heard her say many times on Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett and others, about her life and husband as well as her children. Even B.D., she changed her story when she put out that book. Ham was jealous and insecure of her and her money, embarrassed. She got bored with him and had a couple affairs to spice up the marriage. Farnsworth, she loved and said would of worked. He fell down the stairs and later fell in Hollywood. She wasn’t around when he fell, she was working. Sherry, was and abuser and beat her constantly. He was sleeping with the nanny and Bette knew about it. She filed for divorce. She fell in love with Merrill on the set of All About Eve. When divorce was final, they both got married to their lovers. Merrill was an alcoholic and also beat her. B.D. Acknowledged the beatings of the husbands but changed it about Sherry her father in the book and made up different stories about Bette. I heard the stories from her own mouth giving different accounts. B.D. WS the love of Bette’s life. Bette gave her everything. She bought her farm in Pennsylvania, homes in Connecticut, etc… her husband was a loser and never had any money. He hated Bette because of that. The different stories that B.D. gave were different. She said her mother never left her alone and had to write the book to tell her things. That’s not why she wrote the book. She got everything she wanted for her, her kids, etc… Michael can vouch for that. She was jealous of Kathryn Sermak. She wrote the book for the money. She thought Bette was dying and would never see the book. Her brother Michael told her not to write the book but she had to because she already received $100,000 in advance. He told her to give it back but couldn’t because they spent it. When the book came out, B.D. and family were in the Bahamas. She couldn’t face anyone especially her mother. No one told Bette for fear of hurting her. Bette said she could of stopped it, even if no one else could. She was Bette Davis and had connections. She was devastated and really was broken hearted over her daughters betrayal. She saw her once in the hospital and never again. There are other stories about the husbands and B.D.’s many conflicting stories that I heard. I won’t go on but it’s sickening what she did. Bette was a very generous and kind person. She was a loyal friend. Rude, yes at times but her mind went a million miles a minute and had to get everything done and didn’t like to waste a second. She was a jokester and people took her seriously when she was having fun. People do mistake self confidence for being a Bitch. Sorry, I will stop. You do a great job and thanks for letting me put in my 2 cents. Fantabulous actress and an amazing woman. Keep up the great work.

    1. Shannon

      Thanks for reading Denise! Excellent points, and perfectly said about people unfortunately misconstruing Bette’s confidence. She was a complex woman who deserved her success, and deserved to be treated better by the people she loved.

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