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The Return of Bette Davis

October 4, 2017 5:00 am0 commentsViews: 62

Kathryn-Sermak-MissDandMe-Book-Coverby Rebecca M. Alvin

“I’ve never been to Provincetown, but Miss Davis always spoke about it, and she loved Massachusetts; she loved New England,” says Kathryn Sermak, author of a new book about her relationship with Bette Davis as the Hollywood superstar’s personal assistant. Miss D & Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis chronicles Sermak’s years with Davis from 1979 until the actress’ death in 1989. Sermak came to work for Davis when she was called by Davis’ agent. She’d worked for Princess Shams Pahlavi, the sister of the last Shah of Iran, in her first post-college job, and came highly recommended. “Back then it was all word of mouth,” she explains.

You might say she went from working for a princess to working for the queen. She prepared for the interview by reading Davis’ first autobiography, The Lonely Life. “I read that book in one night,” she recalls. “And I was so amazed by this woman in the book, by her honesty, by showing the warts and all.” When she woke up the day of the interview, she says she just knew she had the job, instinctively. Davis met her at the elevator when she came for the interview later that day and asked her only two questions: “Can you cook a three-minute egg?” and “What’s your birth sign?”

Davis’ persona in the public imagination is one of a tough as nails actress who rose to great power in the Hollywood System. Her work in films like Jezebel, The Little Foxes, and of course, All About Eve, exemplify perhaps the greatest period in Hollywood as far as female leading roles go. The 1940s are considered the pinnacle of Hollywood cinema and Davis was at the top of her game then. And yet, when Sermak met her in 1979, she says she was not particularly familiar with the grande dame of movies. “I grew up in a very strict household, so movies were a luxury,” she explains.

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Bette Davis surrounded by celebrity friends at her birthday party, hosted by actors Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, California, in 1987. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Sermak.

She soon found out what made Davis the star she was, for it was not only her acting abilities, but her professionalism and commitment to her craft, as well as a well-formed understanding of how to cope with celebrity that allowed her continued success even in the final decade of her life when Sermak worked for her. Working for her, Sermak, now 61, says, was an incredible learning experience for a young woman in her twenties.

“She instilled great confidence [in myself] and the belief that absolutely, you don’t let a man tell you what to do,” Sermak says. Davis taught her everything from how to make a bed with hospital corners to how to behave on a film set so that your elders will respect you. But after Davis’ mastectomy and later her stroke, Sermak says the tables turned and she had to teach Davis how to move her arms again, walk, speak, etc. The book portrays a relationship that is, in this regard, symbiotic and never one-sided.

The recent FX series Feud chronicles the supposed interactions between Davis and fellow actress Joan Crawford. Their infamous rivalry has been a mainstay of Hollywood gossip and fan culture for decades, but Sermak says there is a distinction to be made between the public Bette Davis and the Davis—or Miss D as she called her —that she knew and loved, a woman who was also a champion of other women. “Women today, as she used to say, we need to bond together, not to fight one another, but like the old boys’ club. Guys help each other out,” Sermak explains.

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Bette Davis with then assistant Kathryn Sermak in Spain in October 1989. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Sermak.

Sermak is not only author of this latest book, but also co-executor of Davis’ estate and co-founder of the Bette Davis Foundation in Boston. She cites Davis’ love for New England and her history in Provincetown, where she performed summer stock before anyone knew who she was, as the reasons for doing a reading here this Friday, October 6.

“I chose that date because that’s the anniversary of her passing,” Sermak emphasizes. “That’s why, I thought, Provincetown, she always spoke of it… and it’s her book, too, so it’s like, ‘okay, here’s a little gift back to you.’”

Kathryn Sermak will be reading from Miss D & Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis at East End Books Ptown, 389 Commercial St., on Friday, October 6 at 6 p.m. For more information or to get your copy of the book, go to the store, call 508.413.9059, or visit eastendbooksptown.com.