MY MOTHER'S KEEPER. By B. D. Hyman. Morrow. 348 pp. $17.95.
SHE MADE over 80 films including Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, Dark Victory, All About Eve, and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The pop eyes, swinging hips, ever-present cigarette, that sudden intensity and energy sweeping everything else away. Bette Davis -- her name conjures up at least a thousand images.
Forget them. You'll have only two left when you finish My Mother's Keeper, B.D. Hyman's shocking account of life with mother. The first is of the whining supplicant who allowed her booze-swilling fourth husband to beat her up. The second is of the snarling, neurotic, alcoholic harridan who tried to destroy her daughter's marriage, abused her grandchildren and her own mentally-ill sister.
Most fans who followed movie folklore were aware that Bette Davis was a bitch to work with. True, some of her professional problems were the result of physical infirmities and illness. But whether she was in good physical shape or bad, as Charles Higham chronicled in his copiously researched 1981 biography, The Life of Bette Davis, working on a Bette Davis production almost always proved traumatic for all concerned. Higham, however, recorded only in general terms the turbulent conditions of her life and four marriages, and was extremely circumspect in his final assessment of her as an explosive personality who was, nevertheless, a concerned daughter, sister, mother and grandmother.
While Hyman's portrait contains many of the same elements, the final picture she paints of her mother is more like that of Dorian Gray. Actually, for the most comprehensive view of Bette Davis, the two books probably should be read in tandem.
Bette Davis was almost 40 when B.D., Davis' first and only biological child was born to her and her third husband, William Grant Sherry. According to Hyman, she was named Barbara Davis Sherry because of her Aunt Barbara's pleas for a namesake. Davis, however, detested the name Barbara -- "Christ, what a horrible name! Those dreadful nicknames are even worse. Babsy. . . . No one in their right mind would call their daughter Barbara. We'll call her B.D."
The question arises, when reading this book, as to how many conversations can be etched upon the brain without the aid of a tape recorder, especially if one is only about a week old. But though most of the conversations are, no doubt, reconstructed and filtered through many layers of memory -- perhaps even the memories of second and third sources -- many do have the shock and immediacy of truth. After all, if you were 15 and your mother was Bette Davis and she pounced on you after your date with George Hamilton -- "Well? Did he lay you?" -- you'd probably remember it too.
In her own idiosyncratic way, and in between the many cross-country dislocations caused by her career, Davis did try to give B.D. and Michael a "normal" upbringing. (Michael and Margot were adopted by Davis and Gary Merrill. But Margot, discovered to be brain-damaged, was placed in a small private residential school for retarded children.) While there is relatively little in the book about Davis' films or stage roles, Hyman describes in loving detail their various homes, especially Witch-Way in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where for the first time she experienced a normal family life, and also her love of horses which, several years later, helped cement her relationship with her future husband.
BUT THE main thrust of her story is the destructive passion of Bette Davis. There is her violent, five- year marriage to Gary Merrill -- "I would scream, 'Don't hurt Mommy anymore! Don't hit her again!' and Gary would slap me across the face or knock me down and Mother would scream louder that I was making it worse. . . . Whenever we were all in the same place at the same time, it was the same story: fights, beatings, curses and screaming. If Gary was there, the rest was sure to follow." But Hyman finally realized "that if Mother had minded Gary's attacks and all the violence, she would have done something about it." Deciding to stay clear of their fights from then on, she would escape, to one of several outdoor hiding places where she slept all night until Merrill had gotten over his alcoholic rage.
Hyman does not discuss her Aunt Bobby's bouts of mental illness. But she does recall a "typical donnybrook" over a standing rib of beef which Bobby, their housekeeper-cook, had prepared for dinner. Davis immediately began complaining, "Bobby has ruined this gorgeous piece of meat. None of you cares how I slave my guts out to buy you this fabulous food. It costs a fortune! . . . I can't eat any more . . . It's too horrible to swallow." Moments later, after sending Bobby crashing to the floor, Davis stood over her and shouted, "You have no idea what it's like to earn a living! You've sponged off me your whole life and you'll damn well take whatever I dish out. Don't you dare tell me to stop it. Don't you dare tell me anything."
Hyman dealt with her mother's outbursts, irrational dictums, and drunken harangues by trying to figure out the cause, work around it, and at all costs, avoid confrontation. This became more difficult when, at age 16 she fell in love, at the Cannes Film Festival, with Jeremy Hyman, a 29-year-old British film executive. Davis' monumental jealousy and hostility to Jeremy Hyman, attributed by B.D. to "her basic hatred of men," and her anger at losing the daughter she had envisioned as a life-long companion, persisted not only throughout the elaborate wedding preparations, but seemed to be exacerbated by their long happy marriage. According to Hyman, her attempts to break up their marriage included promoting an affair for B.D. and, when that didn't work, warning her that Jeremy was cheating.
While not a particularly well-written book -- the style ranges from conversational to pompous and stilted, and unfortunately it lacks an index -- My Mother's Keeper is an incredibly sad book. The hurt cries out from almost every page. Nevertheless, one cannot help wondering why Hyman wrote it -- especially now, since her 77-year-old mother recently has suffered through a mastectomy, four strokes, and acute alcoholic withdrawal and since all her life Hyman has tried to avoid the notoriety of being a "famous daughter." She chose marriage over a show-business career and settled down as a traditional wife and mother on a farm in Connecticut. Nor do the revenge or profit motives jibe with the personality that emerges from these pages.
Hyman claims that the only way to reach her mother, and to establish a normal relationship, is by the one method her mother understands and appreciates -- fighting back. And so she has written a public plea for Davis to accept the reality of her daughter as an ordinary wife and mother, rather than the fantasy daughter she yearns to own. She also challenges Davis to accept her daughter's husband and children as having an important, loving place in her life, rather than being competitive obstacles she must destroy.
Someone once described Hollywood as the place where "they eat their young." More and more it seems, the young are biting back. Whatever the reasons Hyman had for writing this memoir, the saddest part is that it sounds true.