However, the iconic star never found true happiness in her personal life and was married four times.
In her professional career, she won two academy awards and received a record ten nominations. She could turn her talents to many genres including contemporary crime, historical films, suspense and horror, melodramas and comedies, although her biggest successes were romantic dramas. Due to her great talent, she was able to speak her mind without losing roles.
One of the true greats from the golden era of Hollywood, Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in April 1908. Her parents separated when she was seven years old and she was sent to a strict boarding school.
Her real name was Ruth Elizabeth Davis, but she changed her Christian name to Bette, after a character in the Honoré de Balzac novel, La Cousine Bette.
In 1921, Davis’ mother, Ruth, moved to New York City to start a new career in photography. Davis, now aged 13, attended a second boarding school, Cushing Academy, where she became interested in amateur theatre.
At 18, she auditioned for Eva Le Gallienne’s Manhattan Civic Repertory, but Le Gallienne rejected the teenager, describing her as “insincere” and “frivolous”! However, she had more success with her next audition, winning a role as a chorus girl in the play, Broadway, with George Cukor’s theatre company in Rochester, New York.
Subsequently, she won roles in various theatrical productions in Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and eventually Broadway in 1929, at the age of 21. Making her film debut in Bad Sister in 1931, she played the younger sister of a woman who was duped by a con man.
Davis had met her future husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson, at boarding school, where they were sweethearts. They finally married many years later, in 1932.
Nelson, a dance band leader, was reportedly uncomfortable with the fact his wife earned more than him, as she had successfully auditioned for a contract with Universal Studios. They couldn’t get their first house until Nelson had earned enough money to pay for it, as he didn’t want to be seen as living off his wife. Davis’ career went from strength to strength and she had already won around 20 film roles in the first two years of their marriage.
Their romance appeared to just fizzle out and Nelson eventually applied for divorce in 1938, citing the fact they had little of the “close communion” one would expect from a husband and wife. Nelson claimed Davis’ work was “more important” than their marriage and said she read excessively, including reading manuscripts when he had guests.
She didn’t contest the divorce, although she later said that “other factors” had contributed to the breakdown of their marriage, adding they suffered an “emotional rift”.
Second husband, Arthur Farnsworth, was a dentist’s son from New England, whom she met in 1939. Described as having “an easy sense of humour” and “charm, Farnsworth was the assistant manager of an inn called The Lodge in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire. Davis loved going to the lodge, saying the “kind local people” welcomed her there as if she was “one of them”, even though she was a Hollywood actress.
Davis married Farnsworth in December 1940. They enjoyed a short but happy marriage, until tragedy struck when he died suddenly, at the age of only 35, in August 1943. It was reported that Farnsworth had fallen down stairs two months earlier at their New Hampshire home.
A blood clot, which had gone undetected, had been causing dizzy spells and on the day of his death, he had fallen on Hollywood Boulevard, fracturing his skull. He was found unconscious on the boulevard and later died. Davis was said to be “hysterical with grief”.
Davis said she was attracted to artist William Grant Sherry because he didn’t know she was a Hollywood actress and so wasn’t intimidated by her. They married in 1945 and two years later, when she was 39, Davis gave birth to their daughter, Barbara Davis Sherry.
In her memoirs, she said she became so absorbed in motherhood that she considered retiring from acting. However, she continued to make films and her relationship with her daughter reportedly suffered as a result.
Sadly, as her relationship with Barbara (nicknamed “BD”) deteriorated, Davis also began to lose popularity with cinema audiences. Her 1949 film, Beyond the Forest, was panned by the critics. Sherry, an ex-navy man, had a reputation as a hard-living womaniser. Even his own mother had warned Davis he could be “cruel”.
It was alleged he subjected her to physical abuse from the moment they were married. Sherry’s outbursts and violent temper worsened. Sometimes, he would become angry on her film sets and she began to fear for their daughter’s safety, as well as her own. Eventually, she left Sherry and filed for divorce.
Finalised on 3rd July 1950, the divorce included a clause in the legal settlement offering to pay her former husband alimony, on condition he stayed away from her and BD.
With her third marriage over and her career appearing to be on a downward spiral, some Hollywood insiders said this was the end of Davis. However, she proved everyone wrong. Later in 1950, she married her fourth and final husband, American film and television actor Gary Fred Merrill. They had starred together in All About Eve in 1950.
The film was nominated for 14 academy awards, including a best actress nomination for Davis. It signalled her comeback as an actress – and when Merrill formally adopted her daughter, BD, it seemed like she had finally found marital happiness. The couple adopted two children: Margot in January 1951 and Michael in 1952.
They starred together in murder-mystery film, Another Man’s Poison, in 1951. Davis had been in semi-retirement but threw herself into her work again after Margot became severely ill and was diagnosed with irreparable brain damage that had occurred at birth.
As she was too sick to be cared for at home, Margot had to live in an institution. Once again, Davis’ marriage began to crumble under the pressure and the couple began arguing more and more. It was reported Davis was again subjected to domestic violence and that Merrill was a borderline alcoholic.
The couple divorced in 1960 and Davis later said she had considered her fourth marriage to be her final chance to find love and happiness. However, it had turned into the “darkest years” of her life.
After the end of her fourth and final marriage, Davis continued to act and made one of the classic films of her career in 1962, the horror film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It was one of the year’s biggest successes and captured the same audiences who had flocked to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960.
Davis carried on working right up until her death, aged 81, in 1989. She loved her career so much she could never bring herself to fully retire. Just before her death from cancer, Davis was honoured for her lifetime career achievements.
She received the Kennedy Centre Honour, the French Legion of Honour, the Campione d’Italia and the Film Society of Lincoln Centre’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Inspiring generations of actors to aspire to achieve greatness, Bette Davis left the wonderful legacy of a lifetime of films.
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