Dancing with Bette Davis’s Daughter
Bette Davis was born in Lowell on April 15, 1908. She went on to a long and legendary career as one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses and an international star. Nominated for an Academy Award ten times, including a stretch of five consecutive years, she won twice. The family home, a handsome pink Victorian at 22 Chester Street in the Highlands, still stands and is accordingly marked. For more about Bette Davis and Lowell, check out this 2012 post by Marie Sweeney.
Dancing with Bette Davis’s Daughter
By James Provencher
Right away I wanted to quit.
What did a Westend streetkid like me think he was doing there?
That Christmas my aunt had good intentions I guess when she gave my brother and me a year’s course at Dorothy Mason’s School of Dance. We were to be polished up into gentlemen. Something that would not naturally happen on the wrong side of the tracks on the western edge of Portland, Maine.
The lines of class and wealth were sharply drawn. West of us was Libbytown and the Libbytowners were toughs who regularly beat the shit out of us along the border line between the Westend and the nether zones that quickly petered into jackbuilt shacks and finally ending in cinder-carpeted railyards and claypan hobo jungles. That was our playground where we hopped freights to Rigby Yard or listened to yarning bindlestiffs while they sizzled franks over sputtering fires and spooned beans cooked in cans they came in. In winter we rode ice cakes out into the stinking harbor on the quirky tidal currents of Fore River or skated up the Stroudwater on black pristine ice.
Down the tracks where switcher engines shunted boxcars, we built forts out of railway sleepers and smoked our first cigarettes, drained our first stubbies, and shared our first dirty jokes. And there we fought the Libbytowners who all seemed to shave and growl in deep voices. They did unspeakable things like setting fire to feral cats. We did our share of vandalism, but there were limits. They were unredeemable. Our parents and grandparents exhorted us to look east, become civilized, make something of ourselves. We had other priorities: defending our turf. The Libbytowners put glass in their apples and rocks in their snowballs. We countered with bamboo spears and iceballs hardened up in the kitchen Frigidaire. Our gang was called Nathan Clifford, after the local primary school. We made the papers a few times when we were misblamed for breaking the school windows, but we would never harm or vandalize our own area—anyone would know that! Or the fires set, being pyros, when they got out of control and burned down an old garage. That made the papers too. Robin Hood was our hero.
When I became leader of the gang, and mind you, this was a gang that had a thirty year pedigree, I negotiated a truce to broker a peace with the Libbytowners by arranging to settle our differences on the sporting fields that bordered our territories. We mediated our conflicts and vented territorial angst in fiercely fought footie matches, baseball and basketball games. The clashes that had regularly erupted were transformed into tests of skill with rules. On the local level violence as a means to resolve disputes had been abolished.
You have to know all this to appreciate where I was coming from when my mother said you and your brother will be going to dance school. You’ve got to be kidding. We used to hide and ambush Phil Simmonds when he came out of his weekly piano lesson because we saw him as a cultural traitor. His mother wouldn’t let him play football because he might injure the fingers destined to tickle the ivories. Later Phil was allowed to be the kicker—and a good one—on our highschool football team, but then he was an affront to our simplistic code. And yet we, unlike the Libbytown Tartars, were caught on the border, and we were being pushed over the line.
Over, under, around—that’s it, and pull tight, now that’s a perfect half-windsor, my father said. This was harder than learning to tie a bowline. Then came the loud sport coat you could play chess on and the freshly shined shoes you had to see your reflection in. The final touch: white cotton gloves, the kind museum archivists use, so as not to soil the girls’ taffeta. My brother and I knew it was to keep flesh from flesh exposed by backless gowns, the flesh we secretly wished to touch.
The dance floor was a waxed sheeny parquet which mesmerized my eyes. I was glossed out by it and dreamed of chasing pretty pony-tailed girls and roller-rinking on it. But there we were meant to be proper dandies who bowed to seated ladies, politely requesting, May I have this dance. Problem was it was all a set up. We were partnered up by some Big Brother design from Dorothy Mason’s random shuffle. Occasionally we were permitted a view of the backwater goddess of dance. Her name was sculpted in 3-D gold-leafed letters in the iconic Greekish logo with trumpets and fig leaves. Like Mr & Mrs Arthur Murray who were the big TV dance host hits beamed into our black and white lives, Dorothy and her eponymous partner floated around like celestial beings. Her hair was bleach-blond and her body was more bangled than Cleopatra’s. Her visage was pulled taut with surgeon’s skill and her eyes bugged out like our 6th grade teacher’s when she was mad. I looked longingly at the dance teachers, grown women with curves who foxtrotted and rhumba-ed with élan. They were out of our ken and we were assigned pre-pubescent partners whose carriage pretty much resembled our own.
My partner like me kept her gaze averted, preferring the mantra of polished parquet. Shy. We had no choice. Of course we had up to then no choice anyway, no choice of who or where we were. What of it should we worry? Everything was to come. Or so we thought.
The first thing I noted was that she had hair on her arm—more hair than I had on mine. That fact scared and enticed me.
The reason you must wear gloves, gentlemen, is to keep your sweaty palms from soiling the girls’ dresses. I had to admit, looking at the hirsute forearm of my partner was making my palms sweat.
I made it through the first night okay. We learned the box step which allowed us to mechanically negotiate our way around the floor. The girls looked nice in their rococo-colored dresses and the boys looked sharp in their new outfits and crewcut flat tops. We didn’t fuck up as my Uncle predicted and we audibly phewed our way back home in the backseat of my aunt’s Chevy.
But then that’s when the trouble began.
Don’t you know, you were dancing with Bette Davis’s daughter!
Bette Davis! My aunt and mother were squealing in high-pitched laughter. Bette Davis! She’s a star, a Hollywood star. She’s married to Gary Merrill, the actor, and they live out on the Cape. They even bought the old Lighthouse at Two Lights. You were dancing with Bette Davis’s daughter!
My brother and I glanced at each other with a shoulder-shrugging look and dismissed these two women with tightly-curled permanents and puffing on menthol cigarettes as loonies. We were hoping to get home in time to catch the last half of the Red Sox game on the radio.
The next morning at breakfast father was slurping his percolated Maxwell House out of his big fat mug, his head buried in the sports pages of the Press Herald. My mother was dancing around the kitchen cooking up blueberry pancakes and sausages which we would smear with butter, drown in Log Cabin syrup, and garnish with brown sugar.
Walter, do you know that Jimmy was dancing with Betty Davis’s daughter last night?
Harumph. Burp. Gulp of steamy coffee. What?
Dancing. With Bette Davis’s daughter. Your son!
You better not step on her toes!
He’s going to be dancing with her the whole year! You should have seen Gary Merrill! Everyone saw him turn up. His hair was all over the place and he was unshaven, wearing an old wrinkled London Fog. He looked hungover. His eyes…
Give the guy a break. They just moved here. He went to Bowdoin. He knows the score. These people are open slather targets for everybody. So what.
He looked like a bum!
Good on him!
My brother and I liked Dad. He was no Puritan. He killed Japs on Iwo Jima and liked his grog and took us places we weren’t supposed to go and Mother wouldn’t approve of, especially given her new polishing campaign. When she hatched the gentleman-making regime to Dad, he just said leave them be, they’re just boys. They’ll grow up some day. Dad took us to the dark block-long bars around North Station in Boston after the ballgames where he flirted with waitresses who humored him. He took us to flat racing in the country where horses ran for their lives because next stop was the glue factory. He took us to Beach Ridge Speedway and demolition derbies where grown men in souped up machines tried to kill themselves. Dorothy Mason School of Dance wasn’t in his vocabulary. That’s not to say my father didn’t like dancing. He loved to dance. But not this white-gloved hothouse ballroom scene.
The next Friday night I screwed my courage to the sticking place and vowed to speak to my partner.
Stiffly, robotically, working our way across the floor, I murmured: What’s your name?
B.D. That’s what they call me at home. My real name’s Barbara.
The D stands for Davis, doesn’t it?
But my real name’s Barbara Davis Sherry. My mother’s divorced. She remarried though. I think my new step-dad’s trying to adopt me, but he said it’s going to cost him.
What’s your name?
I was looking at her forearm and feeling the beginning of her breasts brush against my chest. My palms were definitely starting to sweat under my still-pristine white gloves.
My name’s Jimmy. That’s what they call me at home. You can call me Jim. I didn’t really want to come here. My aunt made me. It was a Christmas present. I wouldn’t normally be doing this.
They made me come too. I guess we’re where we’re supposed to be. You got to do this stuff to grow up. Do you think we’ll ever get to the jitterbug?
Nah, it’s like we never get to World War II in history. We never get to the best part. We got stuck in Egypt and Greece almost the whole year. I liked the Spartans though.
Where do you go?
It’s over in the Westend.
I go to Wayneflete. Up on the Western Prom. -4-
I thought, jeez, that’s where we steal bikes and pull our favorite capers like making a dummy, tying a rope to each arm, laying it in the road at night and hiding in the ditch where we wait for a car and then pull it up suddenly from each side, scaring the bejesus out of the driver and giving him a heart attack.
The Prom, yeah.
I have a pony.
I had a goldfish once, the kind you bring home in a Chinese takeaway container and put in a bowl with some gravel and plastic ferns in the bottom and it dies in a week and you flush it down the toilet.
Where do you ride.
Just around Cape Elizabeth.
Where do you live?
Which way what?
Which-Way, that’s the name of our house. We used to live in Butternut in Malibu. That’s in California. Mum gives names to all our houses. My mother said she called it Which-Way because a witch lives there. She’s the witch.
She’s not a witch, she’s a movie star.
She’s a witch. I don’t like her. I don’t like my new dad either. I like Which-Way though.
My house doesn’t have a name. Maybe we should give it one. My grandfather built it. My grandma makes bread for the corner store. My grandfather delivers ice and grows his garden out back. He still uses horses. Sometimes he gives us a ride on his rounds.
I think this dance is over.
How old are you?
Well, I guess I’ll see you next week.
You will. We’re partners.
Barbara! Barbara Davis. Barbara Davis Sherry. Bette Davis’s daughter. I’m dancing with Bette Davis’s daughter…
There’s my mum, got to go.
I looked where she was looking. Her mum didn’t look anything like mine. I mean her hair did, the same sculpted permanent hairdo. She had on what today would be called a dowdy
drawn-in-at-waist dress, the obligatory pearl necklace accentuating the V-neckline, the heavily made-up face scrimmed and half-hidden by a fishnet veil attached to an impossibly floppy hat.
But the face, the face was not like my mother’s. My mother’s face was warm, kind, open. Everyone loved my mother, all the children of the neighborhood flocked around her. She threw them fresh-baked treats from the kitchen window and then shooed us away saying, go play! No, this woman, this Hollywood icon, her face was a cold, horridly stiff mask. She stared out of it with blank doll eyes. Maybe she was a witch, for she looked like old Mrs. Dandeneau across the street whose windows we soaped at Halloween and who took revenge on us by offering us on pie plate tins heated in the oven pennies that scorched our eager fingers. She cackled at our howls of pain. My mother wanted to call the police; my father said it served us right.
Everyone, all the parents, were stealing glances at Bette Davis just as they had at Gary Merrill the week before, only there was more whispering.
I hear she screws like a mink.
It was my father, after supper, in the kitchen, talking to my mother. Lingering in the dark of the next room like little boy lost, I listened.
She was in court on a drunk driving charge last week. She got off.
The cops were out to the house on a domestic violence call but she wouldn’t press charges. She charmed them with some smart remarks. They said she was smoking and drinking champagne as if nothing had happened. She had a black eye. The kid was crying upstairs.
The little one, B.D.’s half-sister’s retarded. I heard Bette was drunk and dropped her on her head.
They shouldn’t have moved here. What were they thinking? Everyone knows everybody. It’s a fishbowl.
Gary walks around half-naked most of the time. That’s what they say. He plays hockey with a kilt and no underwear. He drinks martinis for breakfast.
He’s an eccentric. You know how these people are. They don’t have to conform.
Yeah, Bette, she’s the queen of the vixens, combs her hair, lights up a carton of cigarettes, snaps her fingers, bites her consonants, like a night club impersonation of an actress is what she’s become.
‘Present is Perfect,’ the article in the paper said. What goes on behind closed doors, well Peyton Place comes home to roost. I feel sorry for the children though. That girl Jimmy has to dance with every week, she looks so sad.
The whole thing’s sad, gone to smash. It’s the way they live.
It’s me again. Same time, same dress.
Same white gloves. Ha. Is it the foxtrot this week?
I think so.
Is your mum coming to pick you up?
That’s all they ever are about, my mum. I dunno—whoever’s not too drunk.
Your dad’s coming then?
He’s not my dad. Not yet. But maybe the adoption’s coming through. He gave them five grand.
That’s a lot. I guess it must be worth it.
Worth it? You don’t know anything. My mum only spanks me twice a year, like clockwork. When she loses it. But my dad…
These dances are old fashioned.
You got to know them like in order or something.
I hope we can get to the jitterbug.
I just hope I can make it to December.
How’s your horse?
It’s me again.
Is your mum coming to pick you up tonight?
My mum, my dad, who knows. They’re drunk. Maybe they’ll send the cook.
My dad would never come. But my mum likes it, the dancing and all. She says my brother’n me will be gentlemen by the end of the year.
They just send me here to get rid of me so they can fight. Mum starts going off at Dad, why I don’t know because she knows how it will end up. Pretty soon he’s beating up on her and then the broken glass, drinks on the floor, cops even came the other night.
I know. It was in all the papers. I suppose we’ll be moving again. I might not make it to the jitterbug, let alone the twist. I bet we’ll be going back to the West Coast. Despite everything, my mum likes it here, the fireplace, steamers and lobster cooked down on the beach, the old lighthouse.
Yes, it’s neat, like a castle inside. Have you ever gone to Whale’s Cave at Two Lights? It’s the best rock-skimming beach. The rocks are smooth as saucers. Knock them together, they make a hollow clink! They’re not too heavy, the shape of old handsoap. You can make them skip a mile. They just go like sixty. The foghorn, when it blows, you just jump. The sound gets inside you. When you can hear the foghorn on a winter morning you know it’s going to be a snowday, no school.
I’ve never been down there.
You should go. We go there all the time.
She’s spoiled rotten. Simply runs wild. Behaves like a pig.
They treat her like a doll. You should see when Bette picks her up, she smothers her as if she hasn’t seen her in years and hustles her off to the car. The driver just waits, keeps it running.
I think Gary’s looking worse. What’s the matter with him? He had that TV show, but he hasn’t made a film in years.
You don’t see either of them much anymore. It’s the cook or nanny that picks her up now.
This is my last time.
Are you moving away?
Back to California. There’s a problem.
My dad. I’m officially adopted now. My dad…
My Dad came home and he hit my friend and then he hit me. I wasn’t supposed to have anyone over. He got out of it, but we have to leave. My friend’s parents dropped the charges. Dad said it cost him more than the adoption. He said not to tell.
I won’t tell.
I got a bruise. That’s why I got a different dress on. My mum, she’s lost it. She’s committing suicide about once a week just to get Dad to love her again. He just hits her. She hits him. I think they like it. I’ll miss Dorothy Mason though.
Dorothy Mason, she’s an old cow!
The dancing, I mean…
I’m not very good. I’m pretty good at football but that doesn’t count. I need to work on the foxtrot.
It’s not just the dancing.
It’s not just the dancing.
Years later, much later it seemed, I happened to open a copy of Look magazine and there she was, old B.D. A big photo layout. It was 1962 and she was sixteen. She was in a movie with her mum, something called Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Something happened to B.D. She was beautiful.
I was in highschool, stumbling through my awkward existence as best I could. My girlfriend came from Libbytown. She lived in a house that used to be a corner store. She was Portuguese. Her surname was Vespucci. My parents hated her and said she was a hussy. I had to look the word up in the dictionary.
Later that year, I read in the paper a small article tucked away in the back blocks of the news, that Barbara Sherry Davis had married a man twice her age whom she had met at the Cannes Film Festival. Her mother was quoted as saying, “It won’t last six months—I hope!” Gary Merrill, her adoptive father, it was reported, gave his daughter black silk sheets for her wedding night. She was sixteen and Mr. Jeremy Hyman was old enough to be her father.
The marriage did last more than six months, but Mr Hyman turned out to be a bankrupt who had to be bailed out more than once by Bette’s fortune. That year also, Gary Merrill, Bette’s fourth husband, divorced her.
Years later, in 1985, B.D. would write a vengeful, mean-spirited memoir entitled, My Mother’s Keeper. It was a bestseller. In it B.D. shocked the celebrity-thirsty world with harrowing tales of domestic violence, alcoholism, and the suffocating prison of twisted mother-love. Mother and daughter never spoke again. One quotation stood out: “Mother always said I was the one thing in life she loved most—the operative word there was ‘thing.’” That accurately catches the tone of the book.
There were Bette’s defenders. One said: “B.D. had a mouth on her, a mouth like a truck driver.” Was it that mouth I had wanted in my boyish dreams to kiss? Was it that mouth that said these things? Bette refused to read the book, but when she did, she cried. As she said, for the only time in her life. Everyone said she was tough as nails, that she didn’t have a maternal bone in her body. The only thing that mattered was her career. She nearly carked it on stage in her last public appearance at the Oscars. Wasted by cancer and a stroke, she had to be carried off. She died the next day. I guess she was always a fighter. You had to be a fighter if you were an intelligent woman is what she said when accused of being abrasive.
Gary Merrill, who still lived in the lighthouse, picketed the Portland bookstore when B.D.’s book came out and took out an ad in the New York Times, saying: “Don’t shell out $20 for this book.”
D.B., it turned out, had become a Born-Again. She needed something. She also, it turned out, never found a cure for her kleptomania, being constantly picked up and arrested on petty shoplifting charges. By 1985, her strikingly wholesome good looks had faded, a change that could not be airbrushed away in her book jacket photograph.
My second love did not come to be. My parents forbid our relationship and refused to have her in the house. She was west of Westend. Eventually, what young love we had withered in the face of narrow-minded hypocrisy.
Just about everyone’s dead now. My brother’s memory of that year is just a blip. If I start telling someone the story, they laugh dismissively and say you’re telling porkies again, Jim. Still it hurts my heart when I remember. When I look back, I miss everything, even the dancing.
Thanks to regular contributor Dave Daniel for bringing us this story by his friend Jim Provencher. Here’s what Dave writes about James:
I met James Provencher at Ft. Hood, Texas, in 1970, where we were both assigned to the Public Information Office as army journalists; we have been friends since. He grew up in Portland, Maine, went to Dartmouth, where he played football and worked in the dining commons and delivered newspapers. After some years of vagabond roaming worthy of Kerouac, another Franco-American working-class son of New England, Jim wound up in Australia, having gone there “for love.” He lives in Sydney and has had a distinguished career as a writer, teacher, and photographer.
Of this memoir piece, James says: “My brother got me into it when he talked about living next to Grace Metalious, author of Peyton Place, and we were trading old tales from the 50s and started yukking about having to go to dancing school and the usual rites of passage crap we had to endure…and up came the Bette Davis’s daughter bit, something I just never thought of, but I do vividly recall how astounded I was by her beauty when she appeared in Look magazine (or Life?) and how we had this little fling thing back in 1956-57….”
Note: Grace Metalious (nee Marie Grace de Repentigny) continues the Franco-American working class writer theme, having been born in Manchester, NH.
2 Responses to Dancing with Bette Davis’s Daughter
I’m not surprised that Jim has had a distinguished career. This is a hell of a piece of writing from the Portland boyhood through the B.D. episodes to the final reflections.
Jim’s brother, Mike, sent me this great article. A fine piece of writing. As Jim’s and Mike’s and neighbor and classmate at Nathan Clifford School, I can confirm the accuracy of all “West End” and Libby Town references. Coincidentally, my brother married the daughter of one of Dorothy Mason’s instructors who went on to become a Radio City Rockette.
University of Southern Maine