Bette Davis believed she had a sixth sense about people. After a handshake and a five-minute conversation, she would make up her mind about a new acquaintance. “Her mother was psychic and Miss D. always went with her hunches. She had radar,” Kathryn Sermak, the legendary actress’ last personal assistant, exclusively tells Closer Weekly.
After a quick meeting in 1979, Kathryn, then 23, was hired — but told to work on her grip. “You can tell a worthwhile person by the firmness of their handshake,” Bette once told her, Kathryn reveals in Closer’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “As you will be representing me, I would like yours to be a bit firmer.”
One of the last grand dames of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Bette won two Oscars for her roles in 1935’s Dangerous and 1938’s Jezebel, but she worked consistently for decades, accruing nearly 100 film credits before her death at age 81 in 1989. Along the way, she lived fully — finding and losing lovers, reveling in her children, feuding with costars in the press and having some laughs. “She loved to play practical jokes,” says Kathryn, 62, the author of Miss D and Me, who worked for Bette during the last decade of her life when the actress also suffered her most brutal betrayal.
Once admitted into Bette’s private world, Kathryn learned that it was not acceptable to show up for breakfast in a bathrobe. A butler was also hired to teach her how to eat and Bette personally schooled her on how to walk and sit “properly.” This helped Kathryn gain sophistication as she traveled extensively with Bette, who “gave me compliments and gave me confidence,” confides Kathryn.
As her personal assistant, she was at Bette’s service 24 hours a day, but the star was also very generous. “If we were going on a film set, the job was seven days a week. But when it was over, she’d give you a paid vacation anywhere you wanted for as much as six weeks,” Kathryn recalls.
And it wasn’t always hard work. Though not famous for her humor, Bette loved to laugh and often played pranks on her business associates. Kathryn became her accomplice. “Cocktail hour was very different back then. It was a ritual,” says Kathryn, who watched as Bette’s well-dressed guests were served drinks in gag glasses that caused them to dribble.
“Her agent would be pulling out his handkerchief to wipe his chin! He’d be embarrassed in front of Miss Davis. And she would be very serious and ask if he was okay,” the author remembers. Kathryn also helped Bette pull other pranks, like hanging a “Just Married” sign and balloons on the car of Bette’s bachelor attorney and covering his home in toilet paper in the night. “We laughed so hard!” she says.
Bette likewise took her famous feud with her Whatever Happened to Baby Jane costar Joan Crawford in stride. “Everybody always tries to make a big to-do about her and Joan Crawford. But Miss D. would always say that Joan was very professional,” confides Kathryn, who says that the only former costars Bette vowed she would never work with again were Faye Dunaway and Miriam Hopkins, whom she accused of trying to upstage her. As for Joan, both she and Bette were in on the joke. “They took a gamble [on Baby Jane]. They created the hype and it paid off! It revived both their careers and they were thrilled.”
When Kathryn entered Bette’s service, the star was very close to her only biological child, Barbara Davis Hyman, 73, known as B.D., whose father was Bette’s third husband, William Grant Sherry. Bette and her next husband, Gary Merrill, her costar in All About Eve, also adopted two more children, Michael Merrill and Margot Merrill. Diagnosed with brain damage at age 3, Margot had spent her life in institutions. “Family was huge to Miss D,” says Kathryn, who recalls how Bette would bring all her children, including Margot and her nurse, together for family vacations. “She treated Margo no differently.”
But Bette always lit up around her daughter B.D. “Miss D. loved B.D. more than anything in the world. Anything she asked for, B.D. got,” says Kathryn, who recalls that Bette was devastated when her daughter painted her as a bullying alcoholic in her sensational 1985 best-seller, My Mother’s Keeper. “That book was so out of the blue. Miss D. was blindsided,” says Kathryn.
For her part, B.D. insisted that airing her grievances in public was the only way. “I wrote the book because I love her and I want to reach her,” she insisted. “This is essentially a public letter to my mother.” Bette never spoke to her again, but in 1987, she answered B.D.’s accusations with her own best-seller, This ‘N That, which positioned B.D. as a lying and ungrateful child.
But even the great Bette Davis was mortal. A longtime heavy smoker, she underwent a mastectomy to treat breast cancer in 1983 and suffered a series of strokes soon after. “It was my terror that I’d never work again, for I have always very much loved to work,” Bette once said upon her recovery. Few people, other than Kathryn, know how hard Bette strived to get back to work following her illnesses. “When Miss D decides something, she stops at nothing,” says Kathryn. “If you tell her to do exercises, she will do them. We worked on them and eventually, her speech came back fairly quickly. She had [the stroke in] July and we were home at Thanksgiving.”
Bette did return to acting, and even starred in 1987’s acclaimed film, The Whales of August, but she never reconciled with her daughter B.D. and willed her estate to her son Michael. Kathryn went on to become a personal assistant to actress Isabelle Adjani, among others. “I went to college for four years,” she says to Closer, “ but I learned so much more from Miss D.”