The Magazine

Miss Davis's Life

Fasten your seat belts, it was a bumpy ride.

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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The Girl Who

Walked Home Alone

Bette Davis, A Personal Biography

by Charlotte Chandler

Simon & Schuster, 368 pp., $25

There are two ways to assess Bette Davis's legacy. The easiest involves comparing her with today's A-list actresses. Try to imagine Julia Roberts or Nicole Kidman pulling off the famous smirk that conveyed both pleasure and disgust, usually accompanied by flashing eyes seen through a cloud of cigarette smoke. Or picture Lindsay Lohan playing the Southern belle Julie in Jezebel, or the vulgar cockney waitress Mildred in Of Human Bondage, and winning two Academy Awards--all by the age of 30.

The better way to make the case for Davis's legacy is to stack her up against her peers who emerged from the Hollywood studio system. She didn't have the astonishing beauty of other iconic actresses of the time like Ingrid Bergman, Rita Hayworth, Vivien Leigh, or Carole Lombard. As Davis's friend Joan Blondell would recall, "She had to take a lot of cracks about her looks."

She was never part of a legendary acting team, a la Lombard and Clark Gable; Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart; Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. It's unlikely she could have worked well with a partner. Nor did she have all those "independent woman" parts of the late 1930s and 40s to herself. Hepburn, too, dazzled when she played them. Hepburn also won more Academy Awards than any actor in history (four to Davis's two).

But no one had a greater depth and range, or did more to electrify audiences, than Bette Davis, who, over the course of a 59-year career, smoked, sashayed, seduced, and schemed her way through more than 100 films.

Her trajectory was far from standard. She began in Hollywood playing the plain sister and soon graduated to the passionate, Type-A ingénue. Her star continued to rise in the roles she got as the scorned and bitchy middle-aged diva who has been imitated by drag queens for half-a-century. And in later films she was a smash playing deranged hags and maniacs. As Leonard Maltin has written, "By the time she died Bette Davis had won a status enjoyed by no other Hollywood actress."

In The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, Charlotte Chandler, whom Davis contacted in 1980 after reading her biography of Groucho Marx, tells the story of Davis's legacy once again. This time Davis herself relates much of the narrative--"to set the record straight"--through a series of interviews with the author before she died.

Bette Davis grew up in Massachusetts, the descendant (she claimed) of a Salem witch. Even her entrance into the world was dramatic: "A bolt of lightning hit a tree in front of the house the moment I was born." Her father, a Harvard Law School graduate, spent much of his time away from home. The family suspected he had a mistress. Unhappy with her marriage, Bette's mother Ruthie briefly checked herself into a sanatorium, but quickly bucked up and threw herself into photography as a therapeutic hobby.

When Bette was seven, her father left the family for good, which put her on course to set up her relationships with men so they'd always disappoint her. Ruthie supported Bette and her younger sister Bobby with money she earned from photography and cleaning houses.

Bette found her inspiration to be an actress after seeing the plain-looking Peg Entwistle--most famous for leaping to her death from atop the 50-foot "H" in the famous Hollywood sign--star in a stage production of Ibsen's The Wild Duck. "Before that performance I wanted to be an actress. When it ended I had to be an actress," she said. Ruthie wrote to Bette's father to tell him Bette wanted to be an actress. He responded by saying that she would be a more successful secretary.

When Bette got out of finishing school--her mother paid the tuition by photographing the graduates--she drove to New York to enroll in theater school. Ruthie couldn't afford tuition, but talked the prestigious John Murray Anderson School of Theater into accepting her daughter anyway. (A classmate, Lucille Ball, was sent home for being too shy.)

In drama school, she learned to wring the thick New England accent from her voice and enunciate: "The first day in class I was given a sentence to read: 'Parker parked the car in Harvard Square.' The class would still be laughing if the bell hadn't rung," she remembered. Bette also learned how to sit, walk, and fall down a flight of stairs without hurting herself--a skill she believes launched her career.