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.
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.
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:
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.”
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?”
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.
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…
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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:
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.
Bette and Ham divorced shortly after.
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.)
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.
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.
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!”
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 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.
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.
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.
More Bette Davis
That wraps up my introduction to Bette Davis.
Read the rest of my Bette Davis series in the articles below:
All About Eve (1950)
Pocketful of Miracles (1961)