Top positive review
Intimate portrayal of the last years of Bette Davis's life
July 24, 2017
Kathryn Sermak’s MISS D & ME is a tribute to the last years of Bette Davis’s life. Sermak served as Davis’s assistant for seven years, living and traveling with her, helping her prepare for film roles, and seeing her through several very difficult trials. The Bette Davis we see in this book is both the acerbic, witty, scathingly opinionated Star we know from such films as “All About Eve” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” and the aging, fragile woman who suffered through breast cancer, several strokes, and the betrayal of her beloved daughter, B. D. Hyman. Sermak’s perspective gives us a window into what Davis’s final years were like, and insight into the mind of an iconic figure who will always be part of American culture.
Sermak started working for Bette Davis in 1979, when the actress was 71 and Sermak was in her early 20’s. Their relationship got off to a bit of a rocky start, with Davis determined to remake Sermak into the kind of assistant she required. This involved training her how to walk properly, how to shake hands with authority and confidence, how to use the correct utensils during formal meals, and to avoid overuse of the word “okay.” The Bette Davis we see in the early pages of this book is a perfectionist, domineering and unrelenting in her need to control the people around her. She goes so far as to “suggest” that Catherine Sermak change the spelling of her first name to “Kathryn,” since it would make her stand out more from the millions of Catherines out there. At one point, Sermak laments, “Do I have to completely reinvent myself to please her?” But Sermak is clear that no matter how difficult those first few months were, she learned a lot from Davis, and became a stronger, more confident woman because of her.
MISS D & ME chronicles several of Davis’s most trying times, which happened during her years with Sermak. These include her bout with breast cancer, her debilitating strokes, and her eventual breakup with her daughter, B. D. Hyman. Hyman’s tell-all book, “My Mother’s Keeper,” was published during Davis’s recovery from her stroke, and it devastated Davis by its portrayal of her as an abusive alcoholic. Sermak surmises that Hyman may have expected Davis to die after her stroke (the doctors did expect this), which would have meant the book would be published after her death (as “Mommie Dearest” was published after Joan Crawford’s death). But Davis’s recovery resulted in a final break between Hyman and Davis, who eventually disinherited her and her children.
The most interesting part of MISS D & ME is actually Sermak’s accounting of a road trip she and Davis took from Biarritz to Paris in August of 1985. There we get to see a side of Bette Davis that we don’t see in either her films or the many interviews she has given over the years. By this time, she and Sermak had become much more than employer and employee. They were close friends, and Davis even referred to Sermak as her “step-daughter.” Davis gave Sermak a lot of advice during this road trip, including advice on how to remain a strong and independent woman – a woman of value – even with the man you love. Davis admitted that she herself had “failed at love” (she married four times, but was alone in the final years of her life), but she had succeeded in remaining her own woman. That, perhaps, is her signature achievement.
Overall, MISS D & ME is an interesting account of the final years of a fascinating woman. There’s not a lot here about Davis’s career, or her acting methods, but there is much about her life, her relationships with her children, and her way of thinking. She was undoubtedly a perfectionist, with little tolerance for those who disappointed her. And we clearly get glimpses of the things her daughter may have seen as abusive – it would not be easy to be raised by a woman like Bette Davis! I enjoyed reading this book very much, although I have to say that the epilogue (which chronicles Davis’s death in France in 1989) brought in an element of religion and spirituality which was absent from the rest of the book. In fact, the only real reference to religion before the epilogue is a scene where B. D. Hyman reveals her born-again Christianity, which further distances her from Davis. Sermak’s trip to Lourdes, and her spiritual experiences surrounding Davis’s death, seemed oddly out of sync with what was, until then, a very down-to-earth recounting of her years with Davis. That said, this is a book that will appeal to any fan of Bette Davis. I do recommend it.