Friday, April 5, 2013

The Story of a Divorce

Today marks what would have been the 115th birthday of the "benevolent volcano," Miss Bette Davis.  In the process of thinking about this august anniversary, I believe there's a chance I may have uncovered a little bit of a mystery, which I've found rather amusing.

In 1950, Miss Davis's birthday must have struck the actress as something of a mixed bag.  She was turning 42, not the easiest of ages for a lady of that era, especially one whose meal ticket depended - even though she was never technically a glamour star - on her appearance.  She was working, true, but for the first time away from the familiar waters of Warner Bros; The Story of a Divorce was her first go at being a freelancer, and she must have found the comparatively modest scale of RKO rather a change.  At home, her always rather inexplicable marriage to artist William Grant Sherry was foundering; she had filed for divorce the previous fall, but the couple had since muddled through.

As her birthday approached, the cast and crew of the movie threw her a birthday party in the studio commissary, an event extensively covered by Life lensman J.R. Eyerman.  She received a couple of odd gifts:

I do not see Bette Davis carrying a wicker purse.

Was there some sort of vogue for ostrich eggs in the latter part of the Truman era?  And why does this snap remind me so much of Divine's birthday party in Pink Flamingos?

It all looks festive enough, but by all accounts it was the end of her marriage to Sherry.  And here's where things get more interesting.  Most published accounts, including Davis's own in the bio that she quasi-authored, Mother Goddam, say that the party happened on her birthday itself, and that after it was over Sherry came and found her in her dressing room, where they had a final dust-up.

Somehow though, I came across this clipping, which tells a rather different story:

 From the Sydney Morning Herald of Thursday, April 6, it's a wire service squib dated to the previous day (Bette's birthday), saying that the party happened on Monday (which would have been April 3), and that Sherry actually appeared at the party and caused a ruckus.

In the photos above, Bette (for Bette) looks pretty festive; even, by her standards genial.  But then...

She receives an embrace that one could argue she looks rather startled by.  The gentleman behind her looks apprehensive.

Coming out of the hug, she moves from startled to what could be the start of full-on glare.  That's not a look I'd care to be the object of.  Note that the bystanders have mostly skedaddled.  I think what we see here is the very moment that the Davis-Sherry ménage ceased to be.  I think he actually did show up at the party, and that he wasn't expected, and Eyerman happened to catch it all.

Even by the time the star regained her composure and sat down with her gifts for a bite in a commissary booth, she wasn't a happy lady:

Either moments earlier or moments later, she gives a look of absolutely Tallulavian disdain:

Sherry wasn't photographed all that much (his stint as Mr. Bette Davis, 1945-50, being pretty much his only time in the public eye), but he was handsome in a bland and very period sort of way, and the hugger/booth partners looks like him.  I think that's Davis's co-star Barry Sullivan on the right, standing, but there's a resemblance between the two that, not having seen Payment on Demand (the only middlingly successful movie that Divorce turned into), that means I don't know quite certainly. That could be Sullivan in the booth.  What do you think?

The one thing that isn't a mystery about all of this is that it was right about the time of this party, when, with her marriage falling apart and her current movie, whatever the merits of the earnest script, rather a comedown from her days as Queen of the Lot, Davis might have been justifiably feeling rather blue, she got some marvelous news.  Claudette Colbert had injured her back and was dropping out of a film, which meant that Davis could sail from the dowdy of set of Divorce/Payment and the dubious charms of W.G. Sherry right into the arms of 20th Century Fox, All About Eve - and Gary Merrill.  Of course, that started her down another matrimonial trail of tears, but that, as they say, is a whole 'nother story.


  1. Love this! Just the story I needed with my office cup of joe!

  2. Miss D. is my idol. Reading "Conversations with Bette Davis" this week.