Monday, April 07, 2008

My Bette Davis story

David Seaton's News Links
Bette Davis, one Hollywood's greatest stars was born on April 5th, 1908 and so we are celebrating her centenary.

This has brought forth a flood of in memoriam pieces about her. The
best I've read are by James Wolcott over at Vanity Fair, whose fluid, fluent and perceptive blog I read regularly.

Reading Wolcott's posts jogged my memory and up popped my own personal Bette Davis story and out it pops here.

I'm not sure of the exact date, it must have been sometime in the middle to late '50s of tardo-Eisenhower and Bette Davis was touring with her then husband Gary Merrill in "An Evening with Carl Sandburg".

I couldn't have been more than a freshman in high school then, but, precocious little twerp that I was, I belonged to a Northwestern University night-school, theater group and as part of the program they took us down to the loop to see Davis's show. We were all thrilled to be seeing a great Hollywood star in person and even more thrilled because we had been promised a question and answer session with Bette Davis herself after the show.

When it was over we stayed in our seats and waited

After a quarter of an hour, the lights went down halfway and the curtain went up again... and there were Bette Davis and Mr. Bette Davis sitting in front of us.

The house was filled with that uncritical adoration and microscopic attention of a myth-drinking group of Americans having the darshan of a genuine, golden age, Hollywood movie star. Charisma radiated from Bette Davis, the eyes were everything they were supposed to be: they flashed and shone. Charm and temperament exuded... Then something strange and unforgettable happened.

Bette Davis peered into the gloom at the back of theater and suddenly, as if the plug had been pulled from a swimming pool, all of Bette Davis's charisma drained away in a gurgle and for a moment we were left looking at a rather dinged up, middle aged lady, staring with great popping eyes at some point behind our backs.
Bette Davis was paralyzed like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car..... we slowly turned in our seats... coming toward the stage, out of the gloom, was a presence.

Slowly into the half light came Carl Sandburg.

Now Carl Sandburg may not mean much to many of my readers, but for anybody from Chicago at that time, he had so defined the city's self image that no matter what a 98 pound weakling you were, to be from the windy city was to have "broad shoulders". The greatest voice of Middle Western populism, the biographer of our Abraham Lincoln, a socialist and Chicago's poet laureate.

He had a charisma -- with his white mane in the shadows -- that literally glowed in the dark. He didn't go up on stage with the Davises, he found a dramatic sliver of light where he was and all of us turned... our... backs... on... Bette Davis.

I cannot remember what he said to us. I remember only the sound of his voice and the cadences, the way each word he said had its own weight, shape and texture. He recited a bit, he laughed: he bathed in our admiration like a farmer washing his face under a pump on a hot day, a pleasure duly earned.

Bette Davis was just another fan. It was truly, "An Evening with Carl Sandburg."

For some, Bette Davis is "All About Eve", for me she's the poor lady on that stage looking at the back of a bunch of students: an image drowned and drained by reality. DS


The Europhile said...

I'd no idea...

Edward said...

Sandburg had a gaunt chiseled face and the whitest, lankest hair possible, and he shambled when he walked. He always seemed to be wearing dungarees even if he had donned a disheveled suit. It's impossible to oversate his effect.

He, Dos Passos, Frost, and Steinberg are somehow all linked in my mind, associations made during that decarde. We probably have Sandburg to thank for Studs Terkel. The two of them laid Chicago's claim to something more than "hog butcher to the world."

I can easily imagine the scene you describe. I entered U of C in '62, and Sandburg was still a Chicago icon. It took Mike Ditka to take him down a notch. After that, it was "Da bears" more than poetry for everyone.

Bailey Alexander said...

I'd no idea...

Miss Otis said...

We probably have Sandburg to thank for Studs Terkel.

Ah, for that alone, we would owe him a great deal of gratitude.

Such a wonderful story - thank you.
And such a great comment from Edward, too. Like some other great American authors, Sandburg looked the part as much as he captured American spirit on paper. I never saw him person, but now I feel that I did.