We movie stars all end up by ourselves. Who knows? Maybe we want to.
— Bette Davis
In those long, mute nights following my father’s sudden death, when I was 11, I often sat with my mother in the living room of our small ranch house in a suburb just north of Washington, D.C., watching old movies on our Dumont TV. We both loved movie stars, especially those who’d been popular when my mother was still young — Joan Crawford, for instance, and Loretta Young, Joan Fontaine and Gene Tierney, who had what my mother described as “Spanish eyes,” just like her own.
Those were special nights, just me and my mother, and no father to remark upon what he had termed my “girlishness” when he caught me playing school or skipping rope with some of the neighbor girls. She’d put down whatever thick paperback she was reading — “Marjorie Morningstar,” perhaps — to tell me which of the clothes the stars were wearing were almost identical to those she had also once worn. Other nights, however, when she was lonely and scared and angry, she’d deride almost everything — me, our little house, our dull neighbors — including even the movie stars she said she adored. Once, when I told her that I thought Barbara Stanwyck was a great actress in “Stella Dallas,” she said everyone knew that Barbara Stanwyck was really nothing more than “a poor man’s Bette Davis.”
Among all the stars, there was only one whom she considered beyond reproach: Bette Davis herself, “The First Lady of the American Screen,” so powerful, strong-willed and magnificent. Together, and largely in silence, like the mournful, invalided congregants one could see each Sunday morning on “Mass for Shut-Ins,” we watched as many of her movies as we could find as reruns on late-night TV.
It was at this point that my life turned inward — and deep within, even though I knew at least in some small way that I was playing a kind of make-pretend, I began to feel different from the boy I appeared to be to others — a pudgy, pleasant boy, praised for his manners and his Catholic piety; an anxious swain, escorting his mother to dinner at the Hot Shoppes. The more I watched Bette Davis, the more I became like Bette Davis herself, and, as her, I managed to walk with a bit less fear as I went down the junior high school corridors where the hoods and louts were always loitering, waiting to whisper words like “flit” and “faggot.” Deep within, I could imagine I possessed the great, hard dignity of Elizabeth I, as Bette Davis played her in “The Virgin Queen,” and possessed as well Elizabeth’s power to calculate and execute a hideous revenge for anyone who crossed her.
Is it any wonder, then, that as soon as I saw Bette Davis’s 1962 autobiography, “The Lonely Life,” in a bookstore at our local mall, I shoplifted it? Or that I went back to shoplift also “The Films of Bette Davis,” a compendium of all of Davis’s movies, complete with plot summaries and more than 200 black-and-white photo stills. Sometimes, at night, when my mother went out to smoke and play cards with her Catholic widow friends, I flipped through the stolen books, and it was on one of those nights that I got the idea to write to Miss Davis directly.
I recall, word-by-word, how the letter began: “Dear Miss Davis,” I wrote. “I want to tell you that I consider ‘The Lonely Life’ a masterpiece. The only fault I could possibly find within it is that you take entirely too much blame upon yourself for the failure of your four marriages.” I went on to assure her she’d been right to sue her former studio, Warner Brothers, for better parts, even if she’d lost. I then briefly described myself as a 14-year-old fan and member of the school drama club, working to earn sufficient points for induction into the International Thespian Society. I ended by asking her which of her movies was her personal favorite — “Dark Victory,” perhaps, or “Now, Voyager”?
One afternoon, maybe a month after mailing my letter, I came home from school to find in the mailbox a manila envelope, with my name and address written in large letters across the front. I recognized the handwriting at once — the blocky cursive; the oversized letters, drawn with what looked to be a hard and definitive hand; the penchant for fat dots suspended above the i’s and dramatic underscorings.
“Dear Master McCann,” it read. “To receive a letter from a young man of your years, with its many perceptive remarks, is quite an experience. ... You talk of how much blame I put upon myself in my book. That was necessary, I felt, in order that I would not appear to be too pleased with myself to the reader.” I knew right away what she meant, of course — the blame had really belonged to others. “That you admire my performances,” she wrote, “makes me very happy and proud. ‘All About Eve’ is, of course, one of my all-time favorites. Most sincerely, Bette Davis.”
As I lay on my bed, reading the letter over and over again, I felt a sudden, wild glee that Bette Davis, the great Bette Davis, now knew my name and address and that I was alive in the world, just like her, even though I knew myself to be unremarkable and really not too much of anything.
I went right back to “The Lonely Life,” underlining passages that I might ask her to explicate more fully. To these questions, I added an occasional opinion with which I felt sure she’d fervently agree, telling her, for instance, that Joan Crawford was essentially talentless, as well as too broad-shouldered and mannish. In this way, our letter writing went on, back and forth, though, I am sorry to report, I lost all of Bette Davis’s letters to me except for the first and the last. There were only maybe four rounds of letters, and here’s how the last one ended: “If you ever find you’re in a city where I’m making a movie, please be sure to ring through to the set to arrange a visit.”
Ring through to the set, I remember thinking. Ring through to the set. I was sure I had never before heard anything quite so sophisticated as that.
Inspired by Miss Davis, I went on to acting school, though I didn’t last long there. In fact, I barely completed the first semester. I wondered why no one could see who I really was inside; had I not been born to become a great tragedienne? But perhaps, it occurs to me now, the problem was not that I went unseen; perhaps the problem was that I was all too disquietingly visible — this heavy, oddly genderless boy who waved his hands about too much as he spoke, his laughter always a bit too eager, too shrill and calculated.
Of course I didn’t know, when I dropped out of drama school, that I’d find myself hanging with what was then called “the druggy crowd,” a mixture of hippies and petty criminals and artists, or that eventually I’d be hanging with the dealers themselves, getting stoned and watching old horror movies on a portable Philco TV. In time, they asked me to join them on a 1,800-mile drug run all the way to Albuquerque, where they knew a guy who smuggled bricks of weed up north from Mexico.
And then I was there, in Albuquerque, having breakfast with the guys one morning at a diner, when I noticed a news item in the Albuquerque Journal: Bette Davis, 63, had just arrived to make a movie with Ernest Borgnine about a pair of senior citizens who robbed banks while disguised as hippies.
Bette Davis, I thought. Bette Davis.
Then I remembered what she had told me in the last of her letters — that if I were ever near any location where she was making a movie, I should ring through to the set and arrange a visit. Ring through to the set, I thought. Ring through to the set.
For a moment, I wanted to tell my buddies how the great film star Bette Davis had once said this phrase to me. I wanted to ask one of them for a lift to the set, wherever that was, so I could finally meet her — just for a laugh, of course, just for a laugh at the old lady. But I already knew there was no way that I could say these words, not at least to those gathered at our Formica-topped table.
The guys were finishing their breakfasts, pushing the last of their home fries into the small puddles of ketchup left on their plates. Suddenly, the one who called himself Danny said, “Hey, let’s score some psilocybin. I know a place in the desert where we can get some.”
Then he turned to me and asked, almost as if daring me, “What about you? You coming, too?”
“Of course,” I said.
And before long, we were all driving down some sunbaked desert highway in an old, crapped-out Buick Caballero, the windows open and some song by Cream blasting from the AM car radio. It was then that I began to live what was to become for a long time my version of the lonely life.
Richard McCann is the author of “Mother of Sorrows,” a collection of linked stories. This essay is excerpted from his contribution “The Lonely Life” in “ Crush: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush .” The anthology’s editors, Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton, will appear at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on April 19.
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