Bette Davis Defines Indestructibility

In her red brick apartment just off Sunset Boulevard, Bette Davis kept a needlepoint pillow. Embroidered on it was the actress’s four-word motto:

“No guts, no glory.”

Ms. Davis was born a Massachusetts Yankee. And 81 years later, after 101 films, two Oscars, three divorces, one mastectomy, a series of strokes, countless Vantage cigarettes and countless shouting matches, she would die one, too.

Over her 65-year career, she made classics: All About Eve. Bombs: Bad Sister. Mistakes: turned down playing Scarlett O’Hara. What she didn’t make were pleasantries and compromises. Or apologies about that.

Many didn’t like Ms. Davis. But Ms. Davis didn’t need to be liked. What she needed was her integrity and work she believed in.

And when, at the age of 54, she struggled to get work, she didn’t rest on her needlepoint pillow and wait for the world to knock on her door. Instead, she took out an ad in Variety:

“Mother of three – 10, 11, and 15. Divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in motion pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood.”

She got employment. Another 27 years of it.

“Indestructible,” said the Massachusetts Yankee. “That’s the word that’s often used to describe me. I suppose it means that I just overcame everything. But without things to overcome, you don’t become much of a person, do you?”

Her last film was The Whales of August. It was a windy, wet shoot on a cold Maine island. Ms. Davis was her usual smoking, shouting self. But for the crew’s wrap party, she showed up with – as The New York Times wrote – a poem she’d penned herself. The poem concluded with a line that summed up its author’s life:

”Let’s all hold our fists high and say we made it.”

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