Our perceptions of famous women still rest largely on narratives written by men. As evidence, look no further Hollywood legend Bette Davis. The life of the two-time Academy Award-winning actress, known for her fortitude and resilience as well as her enormous eyes and idiosyncratic smoking habit, has been primarily scripted by men—in biographies, in documentaries, and in the recent FX series, FEUD.
Now Bette Davis has gotten a new treatment—this time, by a woman. Kathryn Sermak, the woman who spent a decade alongside the star, first as a personal assistant and then as a friend, has written an extraordinary memoir, Miss D & Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis, co-authored by journalist Danelle Morton. Sermak documented their life together through a decade’s worth of scrapbooks, datebooks, photo albums, and audio cassette tapes. Sermak was the only person with Davis when the curtain fell on the actress for the last time, holding her hand when she died in at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, on October 6, 1989.
Davis fans have waited decades for this memoir—a true glimpse of the star’s life. But something greater is presented in Miss D & Me: In narrating her life story with Davis, Sermak shows the vital importance of female mentorship in women’s lives. It is a feminist message not generally associated with Bette Davis, whose cultural narrative and public persona have long been crafted by men invested in portraying the icon as a megalomaniacal and cutthroat actress.
Take FEUD, which has given Bette Davis a cultural renaissance by presenting her to new audiences through the vision of Ryan Murphy. The Bette Davis of FEUD is all camp: a bitchy diva and drunk narcissist who unrepentantly tears down other women who threaten her status. In both fiction and non-fiction, women are too often only deemed worth watching when they are cutting each other down. This is all too true for Davis—better known in the popular imagination for her Queen Bee role of Margo Channing in All About Eve than for playing Kit Marlowe, the epitome of the loyal female friend, in Old Acquaintance.
This is not the Bette Davis on display in her personal writing and public appearances, nor in her critical work at the Hollywood Canteen during World War II. In her writing, Davis comes across as tough, independent, and unflappable—neither a victim nor a bully. “I could never afford this kind of vacation into self-pity and the transference of one’s mistakes to another,” she writes early in her 1962 autobiography, The Lonely Life. “This Pass-the-Buck-Land and it is a desert. As I piece things together and see my life up to now, I refuse to yield to that vogue. Whatever I did, I did. My mistakes are mine. I, alone, am responsible.”
Sermak’s memoir cements the image of Davis as a strong-willed proto-feminist. She was the unflappable actress still fighting for great, substantive female parts well into her 70s, decades after suing Warner Bros. for the right to access better roles. And she took care to help Sermak grow professionally as well: Sermak recalls how Davis “increased my duties or taught me a new skill that might be useful out in the world” when the star thought the younger woman might be getting bored.
What else did Sermak—a 22-year-old woman when she met Davis, fresh out of college with a degree in clinical psychology—learn from the 71-year-old Hollywood legend? When I speak with Sermak over the phone, she explains that Davis taught her how to live as a strong, independent woman “in a man’s world.” This type of education is not afforded in schools; it is only available through a kind of feminist mentorship in which an older woman imparts the wisdom she has gained through a lifetime of experiences.
In her memoir, and throughout our interview, Sermak notes the various ways in which Davis taught her the art of self-presentation. The star showed her how to improve her speech, training her to stop using rhetorical tics. She offered advice on handshakes: “You can tell a worthwhile person by the firmness of their handshake,” Davis said, “and, as you will be representing me, I would like yours to be a bit firmer.” Davis even warned the younger woman away from uncouthly cutting her salad:”It’s simply bad manners.” These tips were all aimed at helping Sermak appear more authoritative, both on and off the job. “She had shaped my sense of what was right and proper,” Sermak writes in her memoir.
Davis also instructed Sermak on how to gain the respect of men on film sets as a young woman. For example, Davis taught her not to talk with anyone the first couple of days, because, if she came across as chatty and friendly and then try to give them orders, the men on the set would not respect her.
“You can learn from the elderly,” Sermak says in our interview. “[Davis] taught me how to fight, how to stick up for myself—[to fight] for quality—because you want the best.”
Structure, guidance, exposure, experience—and love. Bette Davis provided all of this to Sermak. “No one understood my dreams the way she did,” she writes in her memoir. “She had been with me as I matured from a young girl to a young woman, and she had witnessed me imagine the future I was claiming now. She wanted all of it for me, even more than I could imagine.”
Sermak, in turn, took care of Davis through her most challenging decade—which included breast cancer and a mastectomy; a stroke, which happened while she was in the hospital recovering from her mastectomy; a broken hip; and a broken heart, the consequence of her daughter Bede’s tell-all, My Mother’s Keeper. Sermak wasn’t just Davis’ assistant; she was Davis’ confidante, companion, and friend. Her affection for Davis is apparent on the memoir’s every page.
What happens when women have the chance to tell stories about other women, whether on the page or on the screen? They reveal that women are wonderfully complex characters rather than reductive, misogynistic stereotypes. Women turn toward one another, without male mediation, and are finally able to see one another clearly. Sermak’s memoir reveals a Bette Davis who believed in women’s empowerment and helping women get ahead—while also teaching them the skills to stand on their own. That is one form of feminist mentorship. Another form is writing all that wisdom down, so that young women who never had the chance to meet Davis in person can learn from a legend.