Read Bette Davis Online

Authors: Barbara Leaming

Tags: #Acting & Auditioning, #General, #Biography & Autobiography / General, #Biography / Autobiography, #1908-, #Actors, American, #Biography, #Davis, Bette,, #Motion picture actors and actresses, #United States, #Biography/Autobiography

Bette Davis

BOOK: Bette Davis
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PROLOGUE

Three days after Christmas, on the evening of December 28, 1961, a buzz of tense anticipation filled Broadway's Royale Theatre as the curtain went up on the ramshackle, moldering tropical veranda of the Costa Verde Hotel, where Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana takes place. The time was the summer of 1940, the place Maxine Faulk's crumbly Mexican inn perched on a jungle-covered hilltop overlooking the sea at Puerto Barrio. Suddenly the theater erupted in whoops and whistles of delight as, with a flash of ketchup-colored hair, Bette Davis's slatternly widow Faulk swaggered onstage, fresh from a sexual encounter with one of the handsome young Mexican workers who double as her casual lovers. Everything about her—the cocky, flat-footed walk, the blue work shirt brazenly unbuttoned to the waist of her hip-hugging jeans, the patch of middle-aged flesh disclosed—quickly, silently established the unabashedly arrogant attitude of this female Stanley Kowalski, who apologized to no one for seizing her pleasures like a man.

Tb Bette Davis's fens, who filled the Royale on opening night— especially the cheapest balcony seats, where the loudest whistles, foot stamping, and shouts of approval and encouragement could be heard—the actress's entire career seemed to have led to this triumphant moment, as the queen of the Hollywood cinema stepped out before them to conquer Broadway. Before she had uttered her first word, the ribald, forthright figure of Maxine Faulk seemed like a composite of all the daring, exuberant, rapacious, demanding women Bette Davis had portrayed on screen since the thirties. In

the widow Faulk's insolent air one caught a glimpse of Davis's castrating virago Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage, of the predatory bitch-goddess Julie Marsden in Jezebel, and of die jealous murderess Leslie Crosbie in The Letter. Here, too, were intimations of Davis's nobler, finer, but no less resolute creations, the Judith Trahernes and Charlotte Vales, who, in signature films like Dark Victory and Now, Voyager, bravely reached out and grabbed more than life had seemed willing to give on its own.

Although other first-nighters in the audience briefly joined in the applause, they soon sensed that there was something exceedingly odd about the delirious ovation Bette's admirers persisted in giving her, long past the point where convention dictated that they ought to have stopped. Unlike the regular theatergoers who had come to see the newest drama by America's greatest living playwright, the large Davis claque who had lined up on West Forty-fifth Street the week before to purchase tickets for her Broadway opening were here for one reason only, to pay tribute to the fifty-three-year-old film star and the enduring power of her legend.

"Bette!" someone called from the balcony, whereupon the actress seemed to lose concentration, slip out of character, and survey the crowd, whose cheers grew the more vociferous and disorderly, her attention having been caught. Director Frank Corsaro watched, transfixed and appalled, from his orchestra seat as Bette's eyes lit up, her chest swelled, and her lips curled into a tiny satisfied smile. To actor Patrick O'Neal, although only seconds had passed since the mad ovation had begun, it seemed like an eternity. He was waiting in the wings in fearful anticipation of his entrance as the defrocked Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon—if Bette ever got back on track and delivered his cue, which she ought already to have done. Far from returning to the text, however, Davis suddenly broke her position and strutted down to the footlights, where she clasped her hands above her head, waving her arms at the audience like a punch-drunk pugilist.

The prizefighter's victory gesture was strangely appropriate, suggesting as it did "Battling Bette," the quarrelsome, contentious, uncompromising female synonymous with the Davis image. This was the Bette Davis who, throughout the Depression and World War II, had inspired America with exhilarating on-screen depictions of a woman's capacity for far-reaching self-transformation and bold, independent, efficacious action. This was the Bette Davis who, in the thirties and forties, had waged war against the all-powerful Hollywood studio system; the short, scrawny, self-proclaimed Yankee dame who, legs spread wide, arms akimbo,

and head held high, had publicly and repeatedly stood up to the studio bosses and their teams of lawyers, to directors, writers, and other actors—to anyone, in short, who had the audacity to foil to see things her way. And this was the Bette Davis whose matchless gift for expressive gesture and movement had allowed her to give several of the most lucid and compelling acting performances ever recorded on film. Her stardom had allowed her to realize the long-frustrated personal ambitions of her famously devoted mother, Ruthie Favor Davis, who had once sacrificed every hope of her own to Bette's career and happiness.

It had not yet been six months since her mother's death when Bette stepped forward to acknowledge the ecstatic applause of her fans at the Broadway premiere of The Night of the Iguana. Although Williams's awarding her the role of Maxine Faulk seemed like a fitting culmination of all her many struggles through the years, Bette had no qualms about derailing the play like this, momentarily leaving the text and the other actors far behind. Let Patrick O'Neal linger frantically offstage, waiting to hear his cue; let Tennessee Williams continue to pace back and forth, anxious for New York's response to his latest major effort; let Frank Corsaro, recently expelled from the production at her behest, go on staring daggers at her from his orchestra seat. As Bette Davis faced her legion of admirers, she felt that she had more than earned this glorious moment, earned the validating shouts of praise and approbation that had always meant more to her than anything else. O'Neal had nearly despaired of being summoned onstage, when suddenly, at long last, he saw Bette step back, reenter the world of the fiction, and cry out lustily, "Shannon!' '—the signal that the drama was about to begin.

Will Baptists from New England who timed their vacations to correspond with the evangelical camp meetings at Saco Bay.

Sadie Porter's much-attended classes in the Delsarte art of expression urged the Baptist daughters to liberate their bodies through gesture and dance, to express their souls. "Gesture corresponds to file soul," declared the French elocutionist and dramatic coach Francois Delsarte (1812-71). Delsarte 's arcane theories of how the spiritual is communicated through the physical enjoyed an immense vogue in 1890s America that is difficult to conceive today, when his name is scarcely remembered. But as the nineteenth century drew to a close, impassioned disciples across the country heeded Delsarte's call. Self-anointed Delsartists echoed with varying degrees of accuracy the master's Law of Correspondences: "To each spiritual function responds a function of the body." And throughout America, their followers replied with the dramatic gestures and statuelike poses, the spiritually uplifting "aesthetic gymnastics," outlined in Delsarte manuals, including one published by the Chautauqua movement in 1892, expressly for use in classes such as Miss Porter's.

Coundess young women like the pastor's daughter had been attracted to the Delsarte system of relaxation exercises, calisthenics, and expressive movement for its curious intermingling of the spiritual and the sensual, which allowed them to cultivate an intense new awareness of their own bodies while remaining confident that it was really spiritual improvement they were so ardently seeking.

And for an eleven-year-old tomboy who had insisted on dressing and being addressed as a male, the Delsarte drills taught by Miss Porter would have given form to as yet vague longings for breaking loose from what Ruthie already knew were the constraints of her sex. Although Francois Delsarte had hardly intended his system for this purpose, to a great many American women of the day Delsarte-style poses and gestures had mysteriously come to symbolize something like a new awakening.

Ruthie Favor's Prince of India recitation was greeted in the temple by thunderous applause that became family legend. At season's end, William and Harriet Eugenia Favor, with their two sons and two daughters, left the beach cottage owned by William's mother to return to Lowell, where he worked in the mill town's Office of the Civil Engineer. Ruthie, the older girt, was determined not to allow the strange and romantic new sense of herself that Miss Porter had roused to slip away with the summer. Although for as long as Ruthie could remember she had seen Miss Porter every Sunday at the Free Baptist church, suddenly the pastor's daughter seemed to

her to have acquired an almost mystical allure. No sooner had the school year begun than Ruthie secured her mother's permission to enroll as one of Sadie Porter's proteges in the expressive movement and elocution classes that she had conducted in Lowell since the mid-1890s.

For all Sadie Porter's influence on Ruthie's thoughts and dreams, there is no question that the dominant figure in her life (as in the lives of her sister, Mildred, and her brothers, Paul and Richard) remained her mother, known by her middle name, Eugenia. Eugenia's driving force, one son would fondly recall, was to dominate her children's lives for their own good. Her own mother having died when Eugenia was two, the child had been raised by her grandmother Harriet Keyes Thompson, on whose tombstone she would inscribe, in 1876: "Bearing the white flower of an unsullied life." Two years later, when Eugenia married William Aaron Favor, she made it known that her single most important reason for living was to bear children whose destinies she would direct. So now let Sadie Porter fill little Ruthie's head with romantic notions of self-expression and feminine awakening; Eugenia's task, as she saw it, was to equip her daughter with the spiritual refinement and vigorous Christian character needed for an unsullied life as a wife and as a mother who would someday do the same for her own children.

In later years, Ruthie's brother the Reverend Paul Favor liked to reminisce about the example of Christian zeal and evangelical devotion that Eugenia had set for her children, in whom she instilled the principle: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." By contrast with Eugenia's other children, however, Ruthie Favor, as she grew into her teens, seemed more and more to be developing the wrong vision. Under Sadie Porter's tutelage she had begun to harbor vague aspirations to a future on the stage, although precisely what she planned to do there remained unclear, even to Ruthie. By the time Ruthie had entered high school, the Free Baptist community in Lowell had come to associate her with the artistic recitations and Delsarte pantomimes she performed regularly in church and school auditoriums. Even the pious older brother whose shirts and trousers Ruthie had once borrowed spoke openly of his sister's theatrical possibilities.

But possibilities they were to remain: ambitions thwarted, dreams unrealized. From the first, Eugenia had known (and even Sadie Porter would have agreed) that anything so alien to their tighdy circumscribed existence as a theatrical career was inconceivable as long as Ruthie remained among them. Whatever the heights to which Sadie Porter encouraged her young proteges to soar, she beat

her wings strictly within the confines of her father's church and with its blessing—and expected others to do the same. As Ruthie was soon to discover, in their world the only new awakening a girl really had any right to expect was beside a new husband, the morning after shed been married.

Bora in 1885 in the state capital at Augusta, Maine, Hariow Morrell Davis was the cosseted son of Edward and Eliza Davis, Free Baptists who lived in a big, comfortable Victorian house in Augusta and a vacation cottage at Old Orchard Beach on the southwestern tip of Maine, close to the camp meetings. Until he died, in 1903, Edward Davis operated a successful men's clothing store on Water Street in Augusta, where he served as a deacon of the Baptist church. The year of his father's death, eighteen-year-old Harlow entered Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, a small coeducational institution founded as a Free Baptist seminary a half century before. At Bates, Harlow distinguished himself in scholarship and debate, and at length as valedictorian of the class of 1907: the most brilliant student of his day, according to Harlow's friend of many summers, Ruthie Favor's brother Paul.

The sole blight on Harlow's college years was the persistent ill health of his mother, Eliza. In the aftermath of her husband's death, the fragile, dark-haired young widow, of an almost ghosdy pallor, had clung all the more tightly to her son, who doted on her whenever he could break away from his studies. In May of 1906, a month past Eliza's fiftieth birthday, Hariow was finishing his junior year at Bates and preparing to spend the summer with her at the shore, when he received word from Old Orchard Beach that she had died of pernicious anemia.

Paul Favor, then a student at Andover Theological Seminary, knew Harlow Davis as someone who, like many a Yankee, with that breed's penchant for masquerade, disclosed his feelings to few people. Harlow's mask of indifference notwithstanding, the Free Baptists in Ocean Park were well aware of the depth of his feelings for his mother, and they did what they could to assuage his loneliness. At the Favor cottage especially, the cautious, solitary Davis was a frequent dinner guest that July and August. In the beginning, he seemed to come there principally as Paul's intellectual friend, but before long it was clearly Ruthie he kept coming back to see.

It had been fourteen years since Harlow caught his first glimpse of Ruthie. He was seven and she six when they met at one of the open-air gospel services the Free Baptists would hold on the windswept seven-mile-long beach they called the Grand Strand. Since

both the Favor and the Davis families were members of the same close-knit religious community, united in their opposition to the dominant predestinarian Baptist theology of the period, Harlow was probably in the audience five years later when Ruthie recited and gestured to Prince of India at the Free Baptist Temple. In the course of many an idyllic summer at Old Orchard Beach, where once an apple orchard had stood, they had come to know and grow fond of each other, but only now in the season after his mother's death did romance flourish. By contrast to the solemn persona Harlow typically showed most people, the bouquet of love poems he composed for Ruthie in the months that followed suggested a hidden, more ardent side to his nature.

BOOK: Bette Davis
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