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BOOKS A chat with author Kathryn Sermak on Bette Davis, the grande dame of acting
by Owen Keehnen
2017-11-08

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Kathryn Sermak was the personal assistant to Bette Davis in the final decade of the celebrated actress's life. Hired at 23, Sermak found a mentor in the 71 year old Davis who eventually considered her more than an assistant, but also a confidant, a friend, and a stepdaughter.

Twenty-eight years after the actress's passing, Sermak has released Miss D & Me, an intimate and loving account of her 10 years with Bette Davis. The book fulfills a promise Sermak made to the actress and is a moving tribute to a fascinating and powerful woman who in the final years of her life persevered through illness, betrayal, and more.

Recently, Windy City Times had a chance to chat with Sermak about the late-life trials of Bette Davis, writing the book about her former boss and an unforgettable road trip the two women took together.

Windy City Times: Bette Davis passed away in 1989 and you've released Miss D & Me, your memoir about being her assistant/companion/friend/surrogate daughter, this year. Why the 28-year delay?

Kathryn Sermak: I made a promise to Miss D in her final years that one day I would tell our story. She advised me that when I did, I should start in Biarritz, the beginning of our road trip that is the end of the book. At first I couldn't write. I was grieving and I could not think of how to shape the story of these ten years and what meaning I wanted to convey from this important part of my young life. I was only 23 when I was hired by Miss D, and the decade I spent with her shaped my whole life, but there was no way that I could know that back then. I went to Hawaii to try to write it on my own, but I found I was just writing letters to Miss D, not really writing a book. I hired several writers, including a prominent one with strong connections to the publishing business, but I didn't like the way that version of the book sounded. I walked away from a very lucrative deal because, even though I was not sure what I wanted to say, or what the story really meant, I knew I didn't want gossip and scandal. That did not reflect what I treasured about my time with Miss D.

Now I think what delayed me was that I needed some distance to reflect. Miss D was a natural storyteller with a great sense of structure, and she revered good writing. She always knew this would be a great tale of female friendship and mentorship. When I met Danelle Morton, my co-author, and she wanted to start the story in Biarritz, I knew at last I was ready and had the person who could help fulfill that promise to Miss D.

WCT: Bette Davis hired you as her assistant on a hunch. What do you think she saw in you?

KS: I think she saw my work ethic. I'd worked hard in my family's photography gift shop business in San Bernardino and my father was a man of exacting standards, just like Miss D. She also saw in me an eagerness to learn, and that I was a good student. She always said that I could make a million mistakes and not get fired, but I should never make the same mistake twice. I never did. Beyond that it was clear on our first trip that we were comfortable with each other. I seemed to fit with her, and I did not object to her very demanding schedule, which I found it fascinating. When she decided to take me on, part of it, I think now, was that she wanted someone she could shape not just to be her able assistant, but whom she could launch into the world carrying the knowledge she had gathered in all the years she had survived in the brutal world of Hollywood.

WCT: As you mentioned, you started as assistant to Bette Davis when you were 23 and she was 71. What expectations did you have going into that and how did the job evolve over the ten years you spent together?

KS: Honestly, I had no expectations. I had just returned to California from a few years abroad in Europe and I did not want to be in San Bernardino. I wanted more of the continental life but I had no way to finance a return trip. I applied to embassies and high-end employment agencies hoping that I could land a job that would bring me back there. When the agency called asking me to interview with a famous actress ( whom I'd never heard of at that time ) I didn't care who she was. All I wanted was to get back to Europe. The temporary job was to accompany Miss D to England, a place I'd never visited, so that was enough for me. We spent a great few months together there, but I knew the assignment was temporary. I definitely wanted to stay on, and was overjoyed when she offered me a permanent job, living with her in her apartment in West Hollywood.

The job seemed to evolve organically. Miss D was very attuned to the people around her. She would never instruct me directly. She'd do something, like reserve a car for the next day, a few times while I watched. Then she'd have me do it and she'd watch me. If I succeeded, that task would become part of my duties. If she saw I was getting bored, she'd increase my responsibilities, like one time in our first year when she saw that I was restless, she knew that I liked fashion. She gave me the responsibility of selecting her outfit for an upcoming event. When she liked the fresh new designers I offered her, this became part of my responsibilities.

By the time she suffered her stroke I'd been with her three years and I knew intuitively the way she thought and acted. At that point I became more to her than an employee. I stayed by her side for two years as she recuperated, supervising her therapies and even assisting her with her exercises. At that point I was more like a stepdaughter. In the end, when I had moved on to have a job of my own in the world of Paris fashion, as the book demonstrates, in our road trip from Biarritz to Paris, we became best friends.

WCT: What was the most emotionally difficult part of the book to write?

KS: The stroke was a horrible incident to relive, and the going over how painstaking her recovery was took a toll on me. As life moves forward one tends to erase the hard edges of things and only remember the triumph. As Danelle will attest, I am a stickler for accuracy and I have saved my datebooks from my time with Miss D. Reviewing them to ensure that we reflected the truth of how her recovery evolved plunged me back into that frenzy of caregiving and the emotions around having so much hope for her against the reality of her frustrations and incremental progress. Fortunately that was a triumph, but it had many grueling moments that I relived in writing those chapters.

Of course, her death was also an emotionally challenging story to tell. I am at peace with it because even though Miss D passed twenty-eight years ago, I still feel her all around me. She is a powerful presence still. In telling the story of her brave and determined journey to San Sebastian, where she fell ill after receiving an award at their film festival, I can see in my actions and my thoughts there how I wanted to deny that she was going to die because I wanted her to live with every fiber of my being. It was poignant to recall that, and also we were working on it at the end of writing the book, which carries its own powerful emotions: the power of at last fulfilling this promise to Miss D.

WCT: Most Bette Davis and/or Joan Crawford fans tuned into Feud. Although you began with Davis 15 years after the Baby Jane period covered in the miniseries, in your opinion what did Ryan Murphy and Susan Sarandon get right and what missed the mark when capturing Davis?

KS: I will forever be grateful to Ryan Murphy for Feud because he and Susan Sarandon brought Miss D to a younger audience. I hope those viewers have seen some of Miss D's classic films because they are in for a real treat when they do. Of course, Feud took some liberties with the facts in order to make the series more dramatic. Miss D would never sleep with that director. Also she was a huge supporter of other women and advocated strongly for fair treatment of the cast and crew. I did not find credible the portrayal of her being mean to women who were playing supporting roles or members of the crew. These are small critiques when compared to the joy I felt in seeing Miss D the talk of the town again because of this series. Thank you, Ryan Murphy.

WCT: How aware was Davis of her enormous gay following and what was her take on it?

KS: She was well aware of it, amazed and honored, especially by those who imitated her. That was a great compliment she said. "When they try to imitate you, you know you've made it," she said.

WCT: You were Davis' friend and confidant as well as her companion during her bout with breast cancer, her strokes and the betrayal by her daughter Bede with the memoir, My Mother's Keeper. What did her reaction to those hardships teach you about resilience and life?

KS: In the book there is a scene where the doctors take the family, and later me and Miss D's lawyer and friend Harold Schiff, aside to tell us that she only has three weeks to live. I had been at her side, sleeping on the sofa next to her bed in her hospital room, since she entered the hospital and had been the person who first identified that she was having a stroke. I was devastated to hear this news but Harold advised me not to believe the doctors. He said Miss D was the toughest woman he knew and that I should "never bet against Bette Davis."

Those who have bet against her usually lost that bet. Illness reveals a person's true spirit and what I saw in Miss D was a fighter who met the battle on all fronts. The first front was the battle to regain control of her body again: to move her arms, to talk intelligibly, to walk. In the book we describe her commitment to daily exercises to close her hand, move her arms, regain her balance by walking on the sand so she no longer needed a walker. It was more than that though.

She was also fighting to live life according to her standards and values. Miss D treasured the evening cocktail hour as a moment of civility in her demanding world. She negotiated with the doctors to continue to smoke, but agreed to smoke a reduced tar cigarette, and to replace her scotch and water with white wine spritzers. After a fashion, she would always dress for cocktails although not the fashionable outfits she wore before the stroke.

To me, this was a great lesson in how to be resilient in that she demonstrated that there was a quality of life she was fighting for, not just the functionality of her body. The fact that we still lived according to her values, albeit with different demonstrations of those, helped me to realize that one aspect of her recovery boosted the other. The cocktail hour, dressing for it, meant that her old life was still within her grasp and I think gave her determination to continue on despite the slow pace of progress and the setbacks.

WCT: Miss D & Me was so enjoyable, my favorite part was probably that 4 day road trip you took with Bette Davis along the backroads of France in 1985. That seems to me like it would make an amazing movie. Have you had any thoughts along those lines?

KS: We are so glad you mentioned that! Danelle and I wrote it as a movie with scenes rather than a lot of internal monologue. We see it as a screenplay. Our original structure was the four days of the road trip interspersed between the progress of my relationship with Miss D, but in the end we discovered that was too difficult for the reader to follow. We still think it would make a marvelous movie structured in that fashion because the time shift would be much easier for the audience to see on the screen.

This is the right moment to consider making a film about the relationship between Miss D & Me. The recent scandals in Hollywood have placed some urgency on women telling their own stories. In fact one of the early articles written about our book highlighted just that; men have written the story of Miss D portraying her as a bitch. Yes she was tough and demanding, but as our reviewers on Amazon note, she was also generous, loving and grateful. Ours is a story of female mentorship and it is part of my promise to Miss D that this becomes a film that will help women appreciate the special gift of women helping other women on their way up as Miss D definitely helped me.

WCT: So imagine if you will, Miss Davis has just finished reading Miss D & Me and as she closes the book she turns to you. What does she say?

KS: She says the last line of the road trip, "We did it Kath. We made it." And this is her book too, as I use her words, her photos — it's our story. All the ups and downs of my decade with Miss D, and the ups and downs of my twenty-eight year struggle to find a way to tell this complex story are summed up in those words from Miss D!


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