Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Happy Birthday, Bette Davis

I’ll never forget where I was when I heard that Bette Davis had died. I had come to work early that Saturday morning so that I could get a workout in before my shift started and was, in fact, right in the middle of a set of chest flies. I remember that part because I started to cry as I finished the set, and tears rolled down the sides of my face into my ears. No one else was in the weight room that early, so it didn't matter.

I was into pyramiding weights back then and nothing could move me from my routine--counting my reps and controlling my breathing was one of the most reliable and solid things in my life. I was working sales at LeMaster’s Raquetball and Fitness Club, in Westchester, PA, which meant I gave tours occasionally, but mostly that I got a free gym membership. I also got plenty of time to read fitness magazines and write letters to my friends back at college. This wasn’t my real job; it was just what I did to make life a little more bearable the year I found myself stranded in Pennsylvania.

My real job was as a secretary at my father’s company—Pneumatics and Hydraulics, or P& H. Or at least I had been a secretary. Then I was the receptionist. Then I was the receptionist, a secretary and accounts receivable. Then I was the receptionist, a secretary, accounts receivable, and accounts payable. Soon I was also handling payroll, and health insurance. I don’t remember what my job title was then. By that time it was just me, my dad, and Bob, and it didn’t really matter what my job title was. Though I didn’t know it when I agreed to take a year off from college and work for my dad, his company was going bankrupt and as he let go of employees, I took over their jobs. It was never supposed to be a permanent situation, just a way of helping out my father and earning enough money to study in France my junior year. Back home my friend Berkeley, who, of all my childhood friends had stayed in Newport Beach, eschewing college for a real, paying job selling cosmetics at South Coast Plaza, had warned me that I couldn’t trust my father, and that this would be the worst year of my life. But Berkeley was the kind of friend that got you in trouble—talked you into going places and doing things that you just knew weren’t right, like sneaking into an R-rated movie, or sunbathing topless on her parents’ deck—and so I didn’t listen. But it’s more complicated than that, right? Who do you listen to? The father who’s always frightened you but who want to believe in or the friend who once talked you into using so much Sun-In that your hair turned glowing orange-ish-yellow just in time for church camp and ruined forever your chances of impressing Mark Craig? How do you even start the conversation where you ask your father for a written contract, as Berkeley had suggested?

But that October morning I still believed in P & H and in my dad and in the new self I was making during this year of exile, and so when one song finished and the radio d.j. announced that Bette Davis had died overnight in Paris before cuing up the next song, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” my sorrow was focused and pure.

I had loved Bette Davis since I was about ten. My love for her was originally contrived and circuitous; I didn’t even know who she was until I heard my grandmother saying that my grandfather liked her. and so I decided I did too. It seemed like a good way to make a connection, find some kinship with this silent, white-haired man who spent his days sprawled in a green velour recliner, listening to a baseball game on his transistor radio, while another flashed silently from the television set across the room, this familiar stranger who smelt of Listerine and whose cheek, when I bent to kiss him goodbye at my mother’s instruction, was rough and smooth, who rarely talked, except when he barked at us grandkids to “dummy up.”

We already had one good connection: I was left-handed. My grandfather wasn’t—no one else in the family was—but he had been in the minor leagues, or at least he could have been, my grandma often explained, and so he had always wanted a left-handed son, or grandson, someone with the potential to become a great baseball player. Since my sisters and I spent nearly every weekend with our grandparents, he had lots of opportunities to see me eat and our conversation was always the same. He’d look up from his breakfast—burnt toast and peanut butter—and see me eating a bowl of cereal and say, half announcement, half question, “So, you’re a south paw.” A little intimidated, but also secretly overjoyed to have been noticed by him, I’d look up and nod my head, “yep, uh-huhn,” before looking quickly back down at my bowl.

So once I decided I liked Bette Davis, I read every book I could find about her (my dad even got me a xeroxed copy of her July, 1982 Playboy interview), and memorized the important facts: her birthday (April 5, 1908), where she was born (Lowell, Massachusetts), her parents’ names (Harlow and Ruth Favor Davis), the order and length of her four marriages (Harmon Oscar Nelson, Arthur Farnsworth, William Sherry, Gary Merrill), the titles of her films and which hairdos went with which film. I got so good at Bette Davis that I could look at a picture and tell you the year just by the length of her bob.

Over the next decade she became one of the my main passions. Every time I drove over railroad tracks, or blew out the candles on a birthday cake, or blew away an eyelash I made the same wish: I hope I get to meet Bette Davis. I had had my Oscar acceptance speech planned out for years: thank you to my husband, my mother, my sisters, my director, my producer, my agent, etc. but most of all, thank you to Bette Davis, for inspiring me, for teaching me that smallness doesn’t mean weakness, for showing me that women can be strong and loud and stubborn. I hoped that she’d hear my speech and be so touched that she’d want to know me and that we’d become friends. I never doubted for a minute that the audience would understand my love for Bette and that, in that moment, my cultural capital would sky-rocket. They’d see me as not only beautiful and talented but intelligent, wise, even courageous.


Blogger Sfrajett said...

More, Margo! Write more! I want to know what happens next.

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How comforting it is to make those adult connections to childhood memories. You loved Bette Davis to connect with the man behind the barbed-wire whiskers, while I chose baseball. Maybe your choice allayed his fears for you. He could rest knowing that the "strong woman" identity you had adopted was paired with a knack for not faltering. I'd call it grace under pressure, but it reminds me always of our aunt, who is not. Not faltering, not crying, socking it to 'em and doing it with style. That duality women have, the edge that springs up between classy and Joan. :) pour toujours, Le petit Mindy

11:53 PM  
Anonymous Tom said...

Thanks, Margo. Suspected today was Bette's birthday and when I googled to confirm, came across your funny and touching message. As a Bay Stater (from Lawrence, MA - the next mill town over from Lowell) and Bette fan as far as I can recall (from tearing an image of "Jezebel" out of a library book and sending it to be made into a 2x3 foot poster for my bedroom as an 11-year-old to naming my new bro/sis kittens Davis and Bette, respectively, last summer)I cheer when Ms. Davis is acknowledged and appreciated for the powerhouse of a woman, Yankee and actress she was!

12:00 PM  

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