My seatbelt was fastened....and it was a bumpy ride!
Bette Davis is my all-time favourite actress. I have seen every movie, TV show and interview she ever did. I have read and re-read every book written by and about her. The first piece of "art" I ever put on my wall was the poster from Jezebel. I couldn't get enough of the Ryan Murphy mini-series "Feud: Bette and Joan", and spent countless hours discussing each episode with my friends. Quite simply, I love Bette Davis.
So you can imagine my thrill when I landed an interview with the one person who knew Miss Davis better than anyone during the last decade of her life - with the possible exception of her children. That person, of course, is Kathryn Sermak, Bette Davis' personal assistant and author of "Miss D and Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis".
Kathryn Sermak - or Kath, as everyone calls her - was a naive 21 year-old college student in 1979, hoping to make enough money to spend more time in France, a country she had fallen in love with. Through a less-than-reputable agency which lied to Miss Davis about Kath's age, she was hired by Miss Davis after only 1 interview. Kath didn't even know who Bette Davis was! After an initial shaky couple of weeks, during which Miss Davis was obviously training and testing her (this part of Kath's book is quite amusing), the relationship began to evolve from employer-employee to mother-daughter. Kath became her beloved "Miss D's" closest confidante.
When Kath took the job in 1979, she couldn't possibly have predicted that she would have to see Bette Davis through the worst times of her life. In 1985 Miss Davis got breast cancer, and almost immediately after the mastectomy, she suffered a debilitating stroke. During the lengthy rehabilitation period during which Miss Davis was slowly regaining the use of the left side of her body, she fell and broke her hip. Through it all, Kath stayed firmly by Bette Davis' side and cared for her in every way imaginable.
Then, the unimaginable happened. In 1987, when Bette Davis was physically at her most vulnerable, and to her shock and horror, her daughter, B.D. Hyman published a vicious "tell-all" book entitled "My Mother's Keeper", which trashed her mother mercilessly. Once again, Kathryn Sermak had to summon all of the energy and courage she could muster to console, support and advocate for Miss Davis through the public humiliation of this ordeal.
Kath worked with Bette Davis on film sets. She took care of daily appointments - interviews, travel to awards shows (including the Kennedy Center Honors) and numerous film festivals, and a myriad of other details in the life of an astonishingly active (given what she'd been through) movie star who loved to work and to keep busy. It was Kath's idea that Bette Davis should write her 1987 book "This 'n That", which includes a fascinating chapter setting the record straight, once and for all, about what Bette Davis REALLY thought about Joan Crawford.
And, sadly, it was Kath who stayed by Miss Davis' side right to her last breath. Miss Davis made Kath promise that one day she would write a book about their relationship. It took Kath 30 years to fulfil that promise. But the book was worth the wait. After reading it, I felt like I had been there, with the two of them, going through all the ups and downs of Miss Davis' tumultuous last decade. The book allowed the fans to get an "up close and personal" look at who Bette Davis really was, and how she approached every aspect of her life - her family, her work, her colleagues, her likes and dislikes - in a word, everything.
At Kathryn Sermak's request, the interview was held back and released on April 5, 2021, which was Bette Davis' 113th birthday. Kath wanted this interview to be a special gift to the fans.
I have already received mixed reaction to the interview. Some people felt that I didn't ask the questions THEY wanted me to ask. Trust me, folks, I did my research and tried my very best. Some people were dissatisfied with Ms. Sermak's answers. Well, here's the thing: I ask the questions, and I can't control what the guest says or doesn't say. It's an interview, not a cross-examination - although, trust me, I often have to bite my tongue to keep from descending into a past life - and if you know me well, you'll understand why I say that.
The challenge of being a good interviewer - which I strive to be - is to do my homework, ask the best possible questions, and then hope the interviewee will be forthcoming and candid. Obviously, some interviewees are more detailed and focused in their responses than others. And the challenge of being a good audience member is to try to get an essence of who the person is and what they are really trying to convey: read between the lines, read the body language, try to decipher the chemistry between the interviewer and interviewee. That's what has always fascinated me about watching interviews.
So, the bottom line is this: if you are a serious Bette Davis fan, you're going to love this interview, because the penultimate thing that shines through Ms. Sermak's presentation is her obvious love, admiration and respect for her beloved Miss D. Thirty years after Bette Davis' death, Kath spoke about her as if she was still with us - in fact, on numerous occasions she actually referred to Miss Davis in the present tense. We should all be so lucky to have such a loyal friend, caregiver and confidante in our final years.