Bette Davis’ white-hot hate for Joan Crawford did not diminish with the death of her reviled “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” co-star.
A snarky anecdote detailing the post-mortem feud appears in a delightful new book by Davis’ one-time assistant, who recounts other untold tales from the Oscar-winning actress’ free-wheeling final years.
“Miss D & Me” details the sweet and deepening bond between the much-feared actress and a timid, young Kathryn Sermak — a pairing set against a steady drumbeat of menace.
In 1985, Davis’ beloved daughter Barbara Hyman, known in the family as Bede, published a book of vile accusations.
On Mother’s Day, no less.
“My Mother’s Keeper” was so vicious that Davis’ doctors feared it might kill her. She was 77 and already at death’s door after barely surviving a stroke.
Hyman describes Davis as an alcoholic specializing in emotional abuse — even staging fake suicides to traumatize her kids. Davis’ cruelty continued with the next generation when she supposedly beat her grandchildren.
But Bede’s own friends called Bede out as a liar. In their recollections, Bede was a spoiled celebrity daughter whose mother needed to tell her “no” more often.
The coming betrayal looms as Sermak takes her job with the famously difficult actress in 1979. Sermak was 22, and their bond grew so tight that Sermak became almost a stand-in for Bede.
Sermak fails to make the obvious connection, but the source of Davis’ fractured relationship with her daughter is obvious to readers: No one alive could meet her impossibly high standards.
As the young assistant was soon to learn, it isn’t easy being loved by Bette Davis.
Two days into her new job, the actress informed Sermak that her handshake was lacking. She ordered the new hire to extend her hand and barked commands to shake firmer and with confidence, again and again.
Davis didn’t let go until Sermak got it right.
At a hotel in Dover, England, the two had only just escaped their room after a fire alarm sounded when Davis ordered Sermak to go back in.
Davis had forgotten her cigarettes.
Sermak performed every task as asked but Davis still toyed with firing her. In the end she decided to school her instead.
Sermak was taught to walk with her pelvis tilted forward and to step as if she had a third leg between her two.
It seems that’s how confident actresses strolled.
Davis gave her voice lessons and worked to improve her diction. A butler was hired to serve them as Davis instructed Sermak in formal table manners.
Those were but a few of many things Davis found to correct in Sermak.
But, as with her daughter, Davis was also loving and generous with Sermak. Celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber, who later became Davis’ friend, was brought in to give the pretty young woman a new look.
Davis had the buyer at Neiman-Marcus pull together an expensive wardrobe for Sermak, including “dressy dresses.” Davis even hired a French seamstress to whip up a gown when Sermak’s new beau asked her to a ball.
The inevitable ensued: A rivalry between Sermak and Bede.
Sermak saw how devoted Davis was to Bede, even though she loathed her son-in-law Jeremy Hyman. Davis had fought the marriage — Bede was 16 and Jeremy 29 — but her daughter threatened to elope.
Now Bede and Jeremy lived on a Pennsylvania farm with their two sons. Davis called frequently and sent checks almost as often — and did so happily.
Still, relations were fraught.
Tensions boiled over when Davis invited Bede and Jeremy to join her one Fourth of July at her home on Long Island. Her son Michael Merrill, who shared a more distant relationship with the star, would be there too.
When they were alone together, Davis and Bede shared loving conversations. But Jeremy would find ways to taunt Davis, coaxing her loathing into the open.
Matters were not helped by Davis’ intake of vodka and painkillers throughout. At one point, Jeremy thrust a pail of clams at Davis and told her to clean them.
Davis tearfully raged that she wasn’t his servant.
In 1983, Davis underwent a mastectomy to remove a cancerous tumor at New York Hospital — and several days later suffered a devastating stroke. Davis was 75 and not expected to live.
But she fought back magnificently, though there were many setbacks in her long, hard battle.
There was the night Davis triumphantly hosted a dinner party for celebrity friends including Eber, Robert Wagner and his wife, Jill St. John.
The festivities coincided with Sermak learning news that made her fear for Davis’s life.
Davis’ attorney, Harold Schiff, had heard Bede was about to publish an expose filled with vile accusations. Joan Crawford’s daughter Christina made a fortune from her 1978 book “Mommie Dearest.”
But she’d waited until her mother was dead before she published it.
Sermak listened as Schiff pleaded with Bede to at least delay publication until Davis was stronger. Bede insisted she planned to surprise Davis with it on Mother’s Day.
Her mother would grow to love the book, she claimed.
Davis’s doctors told Schiff and Sermak that Davis was still too frail to withstand the news.
Davis saw her daughter briefly before leaving for England to film “Murder with Mirrors.” Bede showed up at her hotel room with a Bible, lecturing Davis about the actress’ sinful life.
Davis was polite, but understandably confused and concerned. She didn’t quite grasp that Bede had become a born-again Christian.
By the time Davis reached London, her Bede and Jeremy had disappeared. Schiff was able to track them down in the Bahamas.
Davis was in her dressing room on set when the lawyer called and broke the news about Bede’s book. The actress fell apart, shouting that Sermak betrayed her by keeping news of a book a secret.
Told the director wanted a re-shoot, Davis sobbed that she couldn’t perform. But moments later, Bette Davis the actress emerged and calmly rehearsed her new lines.
Months later, after the book was published, Davis and Sermak set out on a once-in-a lifetime, madcap road trip through France. Davis was still putting together the true extent of her daughter’s betrayal.
She asked if Sermak thought it possible Bede had signed the publishing contract right after the doctors told her Davis had only a week to live.
But Davis already knew the answer to that.
Still, the betrayal seemed to fuel a feisty good time. Davis remained every inch an icon, but ready to play in a new way. One day she togged herself out in tight-fitting leather pants and a leather jacket topped by a leather cap.
Sermak turned around at one point to see the 77-year-old striking a pose behind a Harley-Davidson motorcycle parked in the town square. Davis cocked her hip and the locals stood to applaud.
After her initial reading of “My Mother’s Keeper,” Davis faced each day with dread, never wanting to see anyone again. She was terrified that her fans believed the worst.
But now, traveling across France, she could see how much she had to live for.
Davis even enjoyed a catty moment and a giggle at Crawford’s expense while sitting at a bistro table under a Coke umbrella.
“No, Joan,” she cracked. “No Pepsi for me.”
Crawford, by then dead eight years, famously married Pepsi-Cola Co. chairman Alfred Steele and later served on the Pepsico board of directors.
Sermak and Davis returned to France in 1989, desperate to reach Lourdes and beg for a miracle. Davis’s cancer had returned. She was too sick to make it to the blessed grotto.
Davis, 81, died in Paris on Oct. 6 with Sermak at her side. The faithful assistant fulfilled her promise to make Davis look her best in death.
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