The Present Is Perfect!
THE GARRY MERRILLS recently moved into a new house, Though still not settled, the place gives a feeling of home. A large dog lifts sad eyes, wheels into reverse and presents his back for scratching From nowhere a small gray mop bounces into your lap, turns out to be a poodle and curls up to snooze. This seems natural enough. Dogs have always been Standard equipment with Bette Davis. Go-carts and playpens haven’t been. But they are now.
In his favorite beachcomber’s outfit, Gary lopes down the stairs, sticks out a genial hand and leads the way to his wife, who’s in bed with a cold but not sick enough to have lost much energy. As always, her effect is like that of a window thrown open—a sudden rush of invigorating air.
“Don’t come near me, it’s catching. Shove that monster off and I think you’ll be safe there on the couch.”
The monster is a woolly innocent, stuffed firmly into pajamas, wearing a look both rakish and wistful under the moth-eaten hood that flops over one eye. B-D, as Barbara’s called, comes in for him. Fairhaired and almost five, B-D has the face of a storybook child. “He’s a lamb,” she explains, “whose mother didn’t have enough milk, I’ve got to feed him now. All I do is hold the bottle. He eats by himself. Would you like to see my brother? He’s new.”
Through the adjoining bedroom with its fourposter and crib goes B-D. “Margot sleeps here with me since my brother came. That’s her bed, this is mine,” She proceeds across the hall to where a pink smidgen of four weeks lies on top of a bathinette, enjoying a rubdown. “This is Woody. Later on we can see Margot. Right now she’s having a little moment alone with a graham cracker.” Her grave face breaks into a smile. “That’s what Daddy said.”
Adjusting your mind to Davis as the mother of three, you wander back and decide that on her, multiple maternity looks good. Except for the poodle cut, she might be the gal of ten years ago. The strained lines of Margo in “All About Eve” were either etched in by makeup or they’ve vanished. Certainly there’s no trace of them in the fresh and blooming phiz of Mrs. Gary Merrill.
Her career used to regulate Bette’s actions. Now it’s more likely to be her husband or youngsters. The move into town was on B-D’s account. Bette and Gary would have stayed at the beach forever. Margot and Woody were too young to care. For that matter, B-D wasn’t worrying either, happily unaware of her deprivations. But the absence of children during the winter months troubled her elders.
“For us it’s enough to look at the water,” said Bette. “For her it’s unsocial. She needs sidewalks where she can ride her trike and roller skate with kids of her own age.”
“She needs birds and trees,” said Gary. “It’s sad for a child to grow up without birds and trees.”
In an old section of Hollywood where the trees have had time to soar and spread, they found the kind of house people used to build for generations to live in. It has a two-storied hallway and a staircase straight out of Longfellow. Its timber is seasoned, its proportions beautiful, its rooms high-ceilinged and spacious, its atmosphere one of mellow serenity. Says Bette, “If I’d found it twenty years ago, I’d have been in it for twenty years.”
Shunning verbal sentimentality, she can’t douse the gleam of delight as she talks of her brood. “The gang,” she calls them, all but smacking her lips over the word. “I always thought B-D should have a gang. Gary thought so too, which was fortunate. Very little children can have marvelous times with their parents. But the minute they’re out in the world, they start looking around and wondering why they’re alone.”
So the Merrills adopted Margot, now a vivid-looking charmer of fourteen months. It was Gary’s idea to name her after the character in “All About Eve,” adding a t. It was B-D who staked out a claim to her from the first. “Close your eyes,” said Bette. “Here’s a present for you, here’s your sister,” and laid the little thing into B-D’s lap. From then on, she’s been the baby’s “mother.”
“If the younger kids play it smart,” observes Gary, “they’ll never have to turn a hand for themselves.”
When Bette told a famous woman, nameless for our purposes, that she and her husband were in the market for a third, the lady said, “You’re crazy!”
“Maybe. But you might as well have three as one to tie you down. Because even with one your entire life changes. You’re never free in the way you once were, nor do you want to be. So it’s nice to have three to show for that loss of freedom. Or six or seven or eight. Only three’s our limit.”
They wanted a boy the first time. Rather, Gary did, and not so he could take him fishing. “Men,” he said, “feel a special tenderness for daughters, women for sons. I think Bette ought to have a son.” Since more daughters than sons were being born at the time, they took what they got. With Margot safe in the fold, they could afford to wait for a boy, and a few weeks ago Michael Woodman Merrill came home. Woodman is a Merrill family name, and they call him Woody. Michael, explains his mother, is an ace in the hole. “If he grows into a big tough character and thinks Woody’s too elegant., he can be Mike.”
An added reason for the third child reflects her fairmindedness. “Two adopted to one you’ve borne is a good proportion. If the day ever comes—mind you, I don’t believe it will but how can you be sure?—if the day ever comes when B-D says, ‘Pooh, you’re adopted and I’m not,’ then Margot will have an ally in Mike. One against one is apt to be a rough deal. If we weren’t in the public eye, I’d be tempted never to tell them. I loathe this business of ‘her own and the two that aren’t’.” The blue eyes flamed. “They’re all our own!”
It took more than children to shift life’s center of gravity for Davis. For a year and a half after parting company with Warners, she sat in Laguna and ate her heart out. Here was a woman to whom acting was vital, who’d worked for eighteen years under the contract system that lines up your next picture before your last one’s finished. Studio contracts with their fettering shalls and shall-nots can hogtie, enrage and frustrate you, but they have one saving grace—you know you’ll work.
Breaking free of the shackles had been her own choice, but she’d made it, as an actress with her record has the right to do, hopeful that good Scripts would come along. Those that came fell painfully short of her standards and as time wore on, she grew increasingly frantic. Idleness was the one thing she hadn’t reckoned with, and idleness was murder. “I might add,” she volunteers with her usual candor, “that there’s also the ego in you. You feel, ‘Well, of course, I no longer mean anything,’ and it hurts.”
Eventually you have to earn a living. Though it was nothing to shout hosannas over, she made “Payment on Demand” for RKO. One day a message came from Darryl Zanuck. “There’s a script I want you to read, but I won’t send it unless you promise to start work as soon as you finish over there.”
It was “All About Eve” and she’d have promised her right arm for it. Colbert had been set to play Margo. They’d leased San Francisco’s Curran Theatre for two weeks. It was the only theatre that looked like New York and it was tied up for the balance of the year. Colbert hurt her back, making it impossible to work during the crucial two-week period. So Davis got the job. “Rotten luck for her,” says she, ‘‘and freak luck for me.”
Call it freak luck, destiny or accident, something was at work. In the picture, Gary Merrill made love to her with intelligence and charm. One may hazard the guess that similar qualities marked his off-screen courting. Uncommunicative about her personal affairs, Bette breaks through her natural reticence to say, “This is the only marriage I’ve ever had.”
Any criticism implied is largely self-criticism. With her New England conscience, Bette’s incapable of taking marriage lightly. Her failures have tormented her. To a wise woman friend she once unburdened herself on a note of despair. “Nothing I do works out. There must be something wrong with my judgment.”
“There isn’t,” said her friend. “The pom* is, some people have to keep on trying for happiness, others are fortunate the first time.”
She’s found happiness with Merrill. Their basic interests are the same—family and work. “The last thing I’ll ever do,” she used to say, “is marry an actor.” She’s lived to learn that actors can be people, and that it helps to have a man around who understands your professional problems without having them spelled out.
still more relevant is the fact that Gary confines his acting to the job. He’s an adult who puts first things first, and whose attitude toward non-essentials is relaxed. Good grooming, except when you’re in front of an audience, ranks as nonessential. Playing the lead in “Born Yesterday,” he showed up at the theatre one warm day in a pair of Army suntans, hacked off above the knee. “At least,” pleaded the wardrobe woman, “let me hem them for you.” He’s averse to shaving or getting his hair cut, looks upon ties as a form of strait jacket and attributes these idiosyncrasies to nothing more romantic than laziness. In an effort to reform him, Kurt Frings, Bette’s agent, appeals to his business sense. “You get better parts when you’re better dressed.”
“Who sees me here? Even business men like to be sloppy round the house. I work less of the time, so I’m sloppy more of the time. So I won’t be in Esquire.”
Frings turns to Bette for support. She considers her husband. “I think his hair looks kind of cute when it’s long. Starts curling a little. You know something, Kurt? If he wants to look like a tramp, let him. It couldn’t bother me less.”
Thus encouraged, Gary continues cheerfully unshaven and unshorn. Without encouragement, he’d doubtless be the same.
On the surface, they’re both casual, and react alike to any suggestion of stickiness. “Are you sweet and wifely when you get home from work?” asked an interviewer.
She controlled a grimace. “I don’t think I’m ever sweet and wifely. It has nothing to do with getting home from work. However, the only person qualified to know is Mr. Merrill.”
“She’s as sweet and wifely,” Mr. Merrill confided, “as I’m sweet and husbandly.”
The newshound departed. “Kid,” Gary announced, “I’ve become Dean Acheson.”
“Then Acheson, kid, is a charming man to live with.”
Gary’s tough-minded and soft-hearted. Though he shares Bette’s love for animals, he’s less emotional about them. Klaus, the big Rottweiler, was prowling sick and lost round an airport when Gary spotted him, took him home, advertised for an owner who never showed up, and thus came into possession of his first dog. Later, Bette thought a toy poodle would be nice for the kids. Gary agreed on one condition. “No clipping. I won’t have any lahdidahs round the house. Let it look like a bum.”
“Fine,” said Bette. “Then there’ll be two of you.”
Out of a litter, they picked the underprivileged one with the limp, and named her Gimpy. Through B-D’s influence, she’s now known as Tinker Bell. Tink’s a character. Klaus is a wanderer. Whenever he takes a powder, Bette loses her mind. “You ought to watch him. You ought to keep him in.”
“I won’t tie a dog to a rope,” says Gary, hotfooting it out in search of his runaway. Should the worst happen to Klaus, Bette would be crushed. Gary would keep his composure, but in his own quiet way he’d be beating himself.
He gives his wife’s clothes as scant attention as his own. If she wore something he couldn’t stand, he’d let her know it. Or the sixth appearance of an outfit might inspire him to comment, “New, huh? Very attractive.” For the most part, though, he’s oblivious to what she has on. But about gifts, he’s a perfectionist. Bette’s the kind who can’t keep a gift to herself. “Your package is this big and it’s not gold but something like it and I refuse to give you a single hint except it’s useful for shirts.” Gary’s of the opposite school. Keeps mum as an oyster, sheds help, advice or suggestion, roams highways and byways to find the rare and arresting. In London, Bette had a birthday. She thought he’d forgotten it till he came up with an exquisite pin of topaz and ruby-colored stone. He takes the same pains with the kids’ birthdays and Christmas. Unless it’s a surprise and he digs it up himself—preferably with sweat—it’s a dud to Gary.
Long ago his father said, “You show your likes and dislikes too plainly. If you want to get on with folks, you’ll have to change your ways.” He’s learned to be more diplomatic, but not to pretend. In this, he’s akin to Bette, who applauds his honesty even when it’s aimed at her. He’s rather rude, for instance, about her Oscars, up on a mantel for all the world to see.
“I think they’re flattering,” she contends, “and I’m certainly going to have them around. Besides, you protest too much. You get one some day and see how you react.”
“I’d say, ‘thank you very much,’ but I wouldn’t put it on display.”
He’s from the New York stage, and Oscars loom less dazzlingly there than in Hollywood. Which isn’t the whole answer, since even Broadway actors paste up scrapbooks. Merrill doesn’t. His stepmother does, however. At his father’s one day, Gary leafed through it. “You see!” crowed Bette. “You are interested!”
“Sure,” he agreed equably. “Enough to look at it every two years. That’s hardly worth the upkeep.”
More important to him than Oscars are fairly good notices, so he can go on working in his chosen profession. Bette understands this, just as he understands that without acting, her life would be unrounded and unfulfilled. “Eve” should have brought the plums pelting into her lap. Inexplicably, it didn’t. Again she sat through a year professionally barren. Then came “Another Man’s Poison,” no worldbeater, which they made largely for the sake of going to England. That wound up almost a year ago. Since then Hollywood’s only job for Davis was an incidental role in “Phone call from A Stranger”—so incidental that no one would have had the crust to offer it to her. Because Gary was doing the picture, she read the script. “I’d like to play a woman like Mrs. Hoke. But you can’t write a whole picture round such a woman, so I’ll never get the chance.”
Negulesco was trying in vain to cast the part. One day he groaned, “Oh, let’s get Bette over here,” as you might say let’s get the man in the moon.
“She’d like to do it,” said Gary.
The other glared. “Don’t toy with me, Merrill. I’m a desperate man.”
So Bette did it for two reasons, neither of which involved her husband. It was a good part and she wanted to work.
Under business arrangements recently concluded, she looks forward to working more consistently in the future. This fall she’ll be in a Broadway musical, “Two’s Company.” “But never again,” she vows, “on the old treadmill. For nothing on God’s green earth would I go back to that fifty-two week stretch. In some ways, though, I must be a creature of routine. I want to know what’s ahead. It’s uncertainty I hate, and in freelancing, that’s the one great adjustment you have to make. Whether I work next week or next month doesn’t matter, so long as I know that six months from now or even twelve, there’s a picture waiting. Meantime George Brent and I do “Woman of the Year” for radio. We record it and have a perfectly wonderful time. That takes one day a week, and I’m the kind of woman who has to keep busy. So I’ve invented a new job for myself. I always did like new jobs.”
It’s an age-old invention that consists of looking after children. Not that she ever turned them over to a nurse and said, “You bring them up.” Not Bette, whose sense of responsibility is all but a religion. When her working schedule made a nurse imperative, she kept a close supervisory hand on the helm, Now there’s no nurse except Woody’s, and she’ll be gone in a month.
What non-career women take as a matter of course meant a whole new pattern of living for Bette. She laid her plans before Gary. “Children in homes that can’t afford nurses,” she informed him, “are twice the children. These are statistics. all doctors tell you this.”
“Who needs doctors? It stands to reason that a nurse has her own ideas, which may not be yours, and you don’t know what the dickens goes on with your kids. Stick close, and you find out little things every day that point to other things. You get to know your children.
“Then, instead of sitting and waiting for parts to turn up, why don’t I take them over and have a busy day? It’ll fill my life. It’ll be good for them. When I work— which will be only now and then—I’ll get someone in to help.”
“Amen,” said Gary.
Ask what she does with the children and out comes a hoot, derisive, incredulous, yet somehow jubilant. “What mothers all over America do with children. Get them up, bathe them, feed them, dress them, take them to the bathroom, play with them, nurse them when they’re sick, comfort them when they’re hurt, fix formulas when they’re tiny, answer dozens of questions as they grow older, listen to problems, solve ’em or help them to find their own Solutions—it’s a big deal, believe me. Exhausting, but I love it. Especially with Gary around. I marvel at Gary’s wisdom with children—his enormous patience, his tact, his humor. He could run a big fat orphan asylum and have every child in the place tagging after him. He’s a Pied Piper.
“Not bad,” he concedes modestly. “Married less than two years and I’ve got three kids. How much better can you do?”
Their household is flexibly run. Bound to necessary routines at the studio, they hoist the flag of the free at home. In Bette’s flat statement, “You want nobody to tell you you have to do anything.” So no martinet rules in the kitchen. Everyone cooks—Gary, Bette, both maids or a combination. The children eat at fixed hours as children should. Bette and Gary eat when they’re hungry, which is never at mealtime. If they want a snack, they forage and nobody sulks and nobody’s schedule is ruined.
A recent outcry protests the de-glamorization of movie stars. They’re not like the people next door—so runs the pitch —or they wouldn’t be stars. To which the Merrills say, “Bunk!” Whatever magic they may project on the screen, their domestic activities happen to be as unspectacular as those of the Smiths or the Joneses. At the moment, they’re busy with the house, furnishing without benefit of decorators (and with stuff which, according to Bette, “we’ve both had for over a million years.” Gary likes golf and skating but, moderate in all things, makes a fetish of neither. He would really rather lie in the sun, being a constitutionally lazy man except when he’s working. While Bette feels that his gift for laziness is beyond her, it still acts as a tranquilizing influence on her dynamic nervous system.
Their evenings are quiet. B-D’s bedtime is storytime, with Bette or Gary or both
as storytellers. Even here, however, they avoid rigidity. Should they happen to be unavailable, B-D understands. After the story, she and Bette sing Margot a lullaby. Right now they’re stuck with “Rockabye Baby,” but they’ve learned the first two lines of the Brahms and, once they master the rest, plan to alternate for a change of pace. Finally comes the prayer which B-D, rapt as a Madonna in miniature, says for Margot because Margot’s too little to say it for herself:
“Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing
Thank you, God, for everything.”
With the children tucked away, their evenings are quiet. Unlike his body, Gary’s mind doesn’t care about loafing in the sun. He’s an avid reader, with a sharp awareness of what goes on in the world and of his own responsibilities to it. Bette’s right up there with him. Agreement on basic principles still leaves plenty of room for what she calls enormous discussions, enormous being Davis for terrific, and discussion meaning exactly what it says. Too intelligent for the I-think-what-you-think-is-heaven routine, they’re intelligent enough to keep their differences on a grownup level. “Heckle Gary, and he’d walk out,” says his wife with the air of one who’d consider him justified.
For these enormous discussions they find no end of food, ranging up and down from Korea to the children to whether or not they’ll get to Maine next summer. Both find the Atlantic more alluring than the Pacific, a thing they keep mum about, since you don’t have to explain it to easterners, and to westerners you can’t. As a kid, Gary spent his summers at Prout’s Neck just south of Portland—a rockribbed paradise of beach and woods and crested blue breakers and little sailing places and clamflats where you dig your own. New Hampshire used to be Bette’s Shangri-la. Gary found it a cinch to wean her away to Prout’s Neck. So long as it’s New England, it’s home to her.
Marriage to Merrill has brought more vital changes. In the old days Bette was a stay-at-home, almost a recluse. Apart from her family and a couple of intimates, she knew nobody. Work was her life, draining time and energy, leaving nothing over for the social whirl she didn’t want anyway. She still doesn’t want it in the Hollywood party sense. “But what I have now,” and her face lights to radiance, “that’s different. Through Gary I‘ve inherited a whole group of people. People from the New York theatre mostly, and they’re wonderful—alive, many-sided, stimulating, gay without being shallow, and thoughtful without being self-important. They exhilarate you and they keep your brains on tiptoe. A few friends like that, and the world’s under your roof.”
To call her a new woman would be to repeat a tired platitude that was meaningless to begin with. Nobody’s new, except a fresh-born babe. Like any actress with the true fire in her veins, Bette Davis will want to act until she dies. But never again will work be everything—or even the main thing. New human values have stretched her horizons and enriched her life. You used to think of her as a lonely person. No more. Now there’s a lean-faced guy, whose mind is his own but who talks her language. Now there’s Margot, laughing her head off in the playpen while B-D parades Tink on a red leash. Now there’s a fuzzy-headed tyke in the nursery who, as Mike or Woody, will grow up as her son. Now there’s a house whose warmth is like a welcome. If Bette’s been tops with you for more years than you care to remember, you go away feeling good
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE OCTOBER 1952