Miss D & Me: Life with The Invincible Bette Davis by Kathryn Sermak is a tale of two women. The relationship morphed from that of employer-employee to mentor/protégé to mother/daughter ending up as the best of friends.
Bette Davis is regarded as one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood history. She had more than 100 films to her credit along with television and Broadway roles. There are many firsts including being the first actor, male or female to receive ten Academy Award nominations, winning two, and she became the first woman elected as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The author, Kathryn Sermak, while in her early twenties, was hired by this Hollywood icon to be her personal assistant. But she also became a loyal and loving buddy, a co-conspirator in her jokes and schemes, and a support system as Miss D struggled to overcome physical ailments of cancer, a mastectomy, a stroke, and a broken hip, as well as the betrayal by her daughter Bede. Readers will take a journey into the last ten years of Davis’ life where these two, generations apart, from different backgrounds, were able to relate to each other on so many levels.
Elise Cooper: What was your initial meeting lik
Kathryn Sermak: I was supposed to be her Girl Friday. I really did not know who she was, since I was twenty-two and she was seventy-one. The year was 1979 and as I entered her premises she was a mere five feet two inches but had the presence of someone much larger. After a few questions, she hired me and told me she had a hunch about me.
EC: You tell of how she mentored you?
KS: She taught me how to shake someone’s hand, explaining “You can tell a worthwhile person by the firmness of their handshake, and, as you will be representing me, I would like yours to be a bit firmer.” Then she showed me how to use the different utensils when eating, pointing out the proper salad fork. As with the firm handshake, she expected that her personal assistant should speak with authority and coached me how to project my voice. Next on her list was fine-tuning my appearance. Miss D wanted something more polished and asked a designer hairdresser to come to her house to cut my hair. After the voice and hair, she worked on my posture and movement. She had me walk with my shoulders back, tilted pelvis, and movement of my hips, as she told me “the foundation of a graceful walk is a graceful posture.” She always told me don’t make the same mistakes twice. This was part of the job and I knew if I did not like it, I could leave and not work for her.
EC: She also asked you to change the spelling of your name from Catherine to Kathryn?
KS: She explained that people would remember me. They would associate me with that person whose name begins with “K”, not “C”. I thought she probably spelled her name, ending with an “e”, not a “y” for the same reason. Because at that time everyone spelled the name in that manner, and it is not distinctive. She advised me, “one of the big battles in life is to stand out from the crowd.”
EC: How would you describe her?
KS: Her official name was Ruth Elizabeth Davis. The initials spell RED which represents fire, like her personality, which was a spit fire of one. She was the most honest person I had ever known. She was strong, sharp, and powerful for the first five years I had known her. But the public humiliation by her daughter at first sapped her strength. I think the dominant quality of Miss D was independence and she conducted her life with a strict set of rules.
EC: Would you also say she was a survivor, having to overcome so many physical ailments?
KS: Yes. A lump was found in her right breast in 1983. We arrived at the New York hospital in a room on the seventeenth floor, a huge suite. I had not seen her this frightened before, but she had the foresight to tell the surgeon, that if he found a malignant tumor, she wanted him to perform the mastectomy immediately. After she came out of recovery she was chatty with incredible energy. On the ninth day of recovery, Miss D opened her mouth to speak, but only a small sound found its way out. I could tell something was terribly wrong and I shouted to call the doctor. At that moment Miss D collapsed, but when she awoke, her spoken words were mangled and unintelligible. After finding out she had a stroke affecting her left side, we also were told by the doctors she had only three weeks to live. But she was a fighter and at the age of seventy-five she re-learned to walk and talk again. Her speech came back first, and then four months later she was able to move her pinky finger to touch her thumb. She lived another six years, most of the time very spunky.
EC: She saw her daughter’s book as a betrayal?
KS: Her daughter, Bede, had written a tell-all memoir in the style of Mommie Dearest, published on Mother’s Day in 1985. Miss D could not believe she did this. She cried and felt she could never get over what was written. It was as if a sword had been thrust into her heart. To get her out of her melancholy, we flew to France to take a road trip around the countryside that would end up in Paris. She cried, would not eat, and was depressed. Her battle to recover after the stroke had been fueled by pride, a test of her will, and she had not been defeated. But this time seemed different. I was able to pull her out of her darkness by resurrecting that Yankee in her, who believed that is was distasteful for those that wallowed in their defeats. Slowly she began to eat and take walks, chatting about the gorgeous ocean view in France. While driving one day she told me, “Kath, bad beginnings always make for good endings.”
EC: In the book you speak of your boyfriend, Pierre?
KS: He was a playboy. I was naïve and did not realize this, but Miss D did see through him and she had his number. After I complained to her that I felt he looked upon me as his housekeeper she gave me sound advice. I was tired of picking up after him. She told me to gather all his clothes and put them in a corner of the room on the ground. Then said, ‘do not say anything to him.’ She was right because within a week he cleaned up after himself.
EC: How would you describe your relationship with Miss D?
KS: She was my rock. She shaped my sense of what was right and proper. I knew her almost as well as I knew myself, but she was the one who gave me the language to describe it, the manner to endure it, and the grace. We completed each other’s sentences and knew what each other was thinking. I am so thankful to her for opening the door to me of a whole new world.
Miss D and Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis
Miss D and Me is a story of two powerful women, one at the end of her life and the other at the beginning. As Bette Davis aged she was looking for an assistant, but she found something more than that in Kathryn: a loyal and loving buddy, a co-conspirator in her jokes and schemes, and a competent assistant whom she trained never to miss a detail. But Miss D had strict rules for Kathryn about everything from how to eat a salad to how to wear her hair…even the spelling of Kathryn’s name was changed (adding the “y”) per Miss D’s request. Throughout their time together, the two grew incredibly close, and Kathryn had a front-row seat to the larger-than-life Davis’s career renaissance in her later years, as well as to the humiliating public betrayal that nearly killed Miss D.
The frame of this story is a four-day road trip Kathryn and Davis took from Biarritz to Paris, during which they disentangled their ferocious dependency. Miss D and Me is a window into the world of the unique and formidable Bette Davis, told by the person who perhaps knew her best of all.