Birth: April 5, 1908
Death: October 6, 1989
Bette Davis was born as Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908 in Massachusetts. Bette was the first child of newlyweds Ruth and Harlow Davis. Harlow was still going to law school and was not happy about being a father so soon. He felt the same way when Bette’s sister Bobby was born a year later. He was cold towards the girls and their mother tried to make up for it by showering Bette with attention and affection. In 1915, Ruth and Harlow divorced and the two girls would rarely see their father again. Money was tight after the divorce and Ruth took on odd jobs to sent her daughters to good boarding schools.
When Bette was eighteen, she saw the Henrik Ibsen play The Wild Duck and was mesmerized. That’s when Bette knew she wanted to be an actress. She enrolled in the Anderson/Milton school of Theatre and Dance. Although she loved it there, she left school to be a part of George Cukor’s stock theatre company and become a working actress. In 1929, Bette made her Broadway debut in Broken Dishes. It didn’t take long for Hollywood to notice her: in 1930 she was offered a contract by Universal Studio. Bette and her mother, who went everywhere with her, moved to Los Angeles. But the studio did not know what to do with Bette since she didn’t look like the standard glamorous actress. After a year and small roles in six unsuccessful films, Universal did not renew her contract.
Then actor George Arliss called and offered her the female lead in his film The Man Who Played God. She happily accepted and signed a contract with big-budget studio Warner Bros. So naturally she was disappointed when Warner Bros. put her in B-movies that weren’t very successful. Her personal life was looking up though: her high-school boyfriend Harmon ‘Ham’ Nelson had moved to California and they had started dating again. On August 18, 1932 the two were married. But her career took precedence and she reportedly had two abortions during her marriage to Ham, because she was told a child would damage her career.
Bette’s real break-out as a star was her role as Mildred in Of Human Bondage in 1934. Bette’s next film Dangerous was a big hit as well. But Bette’s marriage was unravelling at this point. Ham struggled with the fact that Bette made more money than him and he felt that she had changed since becoming a star.
While her personal life was faltering, her career was going better than ever. In March 1936 she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Dangerous. But Warner Bros. still put her in mediocre films, so she accepted an offer to appear in two films in England, without Warner Bros. consent. The case was brought to court in England and Bette hoped to get out of her contract. She lost the case, as well as a lot of money on legal fees. Surprisingly, there were no hard feelings: Warner Bros. even gave her a raise when she came back for work. They also signed her up to star in a good quality film: Jezebel. She thrived under director William Wyler’s direction and subsequently began an affair with him. She later called him the love of her life.
Jezebel was a huge success and earned her another Academy Award. Bette was now one of the top box-office draws in the country. Her affair with William was tempestuous though and they broke up after filming. She quickly fell for another man: the infamous Howard Hughes. But this time her husband found out and he used his evidence of her affair to file for divorce. She was emotional about the end of her marriage and threw herself into her work, as she always did. Her next film Dark Victory was another success and the first of four box-office hits Bette had in 1939. By the end of the year, Bette was exhausted and depressed. She went to Massachusetts, where she had grown up, to recover. There, she met innkeeper Arthur Farnsworth and the two began dating. She went back to work with new vigour and her next movie All This, And Heaven Too was another success. In December 1940 Bette and Arthur got married. Bette now split her time between her farmhouse with Arthur in New Hampshire and Los Angeles. Soon after the wedding, Bette started shooting Little Foxes with old love William Wyler. But this time they clashed tremendously and William vowed never to work with her again. In 1942 the attack on Pearl Harbour shocked America and Bette spent months selling war bonds and performed for the black regiments as the only white performer in an acting troupe. She went on to film Now, Voyager, which became another big hit. She was now one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. But her most important project was the founding of the Hollywood Canteen, where Hollywood stars entertained servicemen. Bette made sure there was a big Hollywood star every night and the Canteen was very popular among servicemen. She later revealed that it was one of the accomplishments in her life that she was the most proud of.
Meanwhile, her marriage to Arthur was not going well. Arthur turned out to be an alcoholic and Bette was so busy with filming and the Canteen, that they rarely saw each other. Bette tried to fix their marriage by spending more time in New Hampshire, but the couple fought a lot. In August, 1943 Arthur was in Hollywood walking along a street, when he collapsed. He had suffered an untreated skull fracture some weeks earlier, which caused his collapse. He passed away two days later.
In 1945 World War II ended and so did the Hollywood Canteen, which had entertained hundreds of thousands of service men. In the meantime, Bette had met William Sherry at a cocktail party and the pair soon got married. Still, Bette went right back to work after the wedding. She filmed The Corn is Green, A Stolen Life and Deception back to back. But Bette stopped working for the first time in a long time, when she found out that she was pregnant. On May 1, 1947 she gave birth to Barbara Davis Sherry. The baby was named after Bette’s sister, but would always be called by her initials B.D.
Bette went back to work a few months later and Warner Bros. offered Bette a new contract that paid her $10,000 weekly. She was now the highest paid woman in the United States. But Bette was furious when, once again, she did not get to pick her own films and was cast in another failure, Beyond the Forest. She was released from her contract at her own request. To her great dismay, she did not receive much film offers as a freelance actress. Meanwhile, her marriage to William had been crumbling since B.D.’s birth, with William claiming that Bette was not interested in him anymore and Bette claiming that William had become violent and abusive. In 1950, she filed for divorce.
But her luck was changing: she was offered the role of Margot Channing in All About Eve. The film came with an added bonus: she fell in love with her co-star Gary Merrill. The pair got married on 28 July, 1950, but Bette later admitted they had fallen in love with each other’s characters in All About Eve, rather than who they were in real life. Still, Bette was determined to make this marriage work. Professionally, she was basking in the glow of the success of All About Eve. The film was seen as a masterpiece and received fourteen Academy Award nominations. It was the movie that saved her by now faltering career and cemented her status as a Hollywood icon. In January 1951, Bette and Gary adopted a baby girl they named Margot, after Bette’s character in All About Eve. In January 1952, they adopted a baby boy they named Michael.
But Bette’s next films were not box-office hits and her career began to falter once again. In 1952 she signed on to do the Broadway show Two’s Company, for which she was ill-equipped. It was a rough time for Bette all around: she was hospitalized with a bacterial infection in her jaw and at the same time her daughter Margot’s behaviour became increasingly erratic. A doctor diagnosed her with brain damage and told Bette and Gary that she would never have an IQ over 60. They eventually placed her in an institution. The fights between Bette and Gary continued and their drinking habits did not help. Bette sought refuge in work again and made The Virgin Queen, Storm Center and The Catered Affair back to back. None of them were big hits. Her marriage was over by this point and Bette filed for divorce in 1960. Followed by four years of court battles over his visitation rights. Meanwhile, Bette’s mother Ruth became sick and passed away. This devastated Bette who, despite frequent fights, had always been close to her mother. She became introspective and looked back on her life when she released her memoir The Lonely Life in 1962. But court battles, supporting her mother and sister, a luxury lifestyle and private schools for her children had left Bette struggling financially. So she took on a supporting role in the Tennessee Williams play The Night of the Iguana. She hated performing on Broadway again and was a bundle of nerves every night, while alienating the cast and crew with her attitude. She left the show after four months.
When Bette received the script for the horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, she liked it immediately. It was mostly the money that made her sign on though, since she wasn’t keen on working with her nemesis Joan Crawford. The atmosphere was frosty on set, but What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? became a big success and Bette revelled in the renewed attention. Sixteen year-old B.D. was also feeling good: she had fallen in love with producer Jeremy Hyman, aged twenty-nine. Initially Bette was not happy with B.D. being with a man nearly twice her age, but she agreed to pay for the lavish wedding the pair had in 1963.
Baby Jane had been such a hit, that Bette and Joan were cast together in another horror film: Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. But tensions ran even higher this time around and Joan withdrew due to stress and exhaustion. Olivia de Havilland replaced her and the film became another hit. Though film offers were scarcer then she anticipated, Bette did star in The Nanny, The Anniversary and Connecting Rooms between 1965 and 1970. Meanwhile, she had become a grandmother when B.D. had her first child. The relationship between Bette and B.D. was a strained one though. Bette did not like her son-in-law and still had to support the couple financially, while B.D. felt that Bette interfered in her life too much and was manipulative. With her son Michael having found love too and her sister Bobby moving to Phoenix to live with her daughter, Bette was now living alone. She toured Australia and England with a show called Bette Davis in Person and on Film. She was considered a Grand Dame of cinema around the world now and she enjoyed that status. Still, she was lonely and often found herself depressed. So she accepted an offer to star on Broadway once more, in spite of her earlier disappointments there. But when Miss Moffat was torn apart by critics, she left citing a back injury. She went on to star in the films Burnt Offerings and The Disappearance of Aimee, but was difficult on set and later complained about the ‘TV-mentality’ of ‘The New Hollywood’.
In 1977, Bette got a Lifetime Achievement Award. She was incredibly honoured and also happy that it caused a resurgence in her career. Bette had moved to Connecticut to be closer to her daughter, but their constant fighting and her new film offers caused her to go back to L.A. In 1979 she hired Kathryn Sermak as a personal assistant. It made her feel less alone and they would be close until the end of Bette’s life. In that same year, her sister Bobby passed away, which saddened her deeply. Again, she threw herself into work and she earned an Emmy Award for her work in the TV-movie Strangers and played opposite fellow Hollywood legend James Stewart in Right of Way. Her name became well-known with younger audiences thanks to the hit song Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes, for which she was grateful.
In 1983 Bette was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Just as she was about to be released from the hospital, she suffered four strokes, which left her partially paralyzed. Recovering was agony for Bette, who yelled and cursed at the hospital staff. But she slowly learned to use her muscles again. She even worked again, appearing in a small role in Murder with Mirrors, but she was shocked to see how old and frail she looked in the film. Her daughter B.D. and her husband anounced that they had become born-again Christians, which stunned Bette. But she was in for a bigger surprise when her daughter released My Mother’s Keeper, a tell-all book about their relationship. Bette was portrayed as an overbearing, selfish and manipulative alcoholic. She was absolutely devastated and many people were outraged on her behalf that the book was published just when Bette was so frail. Bette would never speak to B.D. again and she started working on her own memoir This ‘N That. The last years of her life, she went on talk shows and travelled to accept career achievement awards, which she loved to get. On September 22, 1989 Bette collapsed while accepting a award in Spain. She was taken to The American Hospital in Paris, where they found out the cancer had returned. She passed away there on October 6, 1989. Bette was buried next to her mother and sister and her tombstone read ‘She did it the hard way’, as she had requested.