D & Me
Life with The Invincible Bette Davis
by Kathryn Sermak
D & Me: Life with The Invincible Bette Davis
by Kathryn Sermak is a tale of two women. The relationship
morphed from that of employer-employee to mentor/protégé
to mother/daughter ending up as the best of friends.
Davis is regarded as one of the greatest actresses
in Hollywood history. She had more than 100 films to
her credit along with television and Broadway roles.
There are many firsts including being the first actor,
male or female to receive ten Academy Award nominations,
winning two, and she became the first woman elected
as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Kathryn Sermak, while in her early twenties, was hired
by this Hollywood icon to be her Personal assistant.
Kathryn also became a loyal and loving buddy, a co-conspirator
in her jokes and schemes, and a support system as Miss
D struggled to overcome physical ailments of cancer,
a mastectomy, a stroke, and a broken hip, as well as
the betrayal by her daughter Bede. Readers will take
a journey intothe last ten years of Davis’ life
where these two, generations apart, from different backgrounds,
were able to relate to each other on so many levels.
Cooper: What was your initial meeting like?
Sermak: I was supposed to be her Girl Friday. I
really did not know who she was, since I was twenty-two
and she was seventy-one. The year was 1979, and as I
entered her premises, she was a mere five feet two inches
but had the presence of someone much larger. After a
few questions, she hired me and told me she had a hunch
You tell of how she mentored you?
She taught me how to shake someone’s hand,
explaining “You can tell a worthwhile person by
the firmness of their handshake, and, as you will be
representing me, I would like yours to be a bit firmer.”
Then she showed me how to use the different utensils
when eating, showing me the proper salad fork. As with
the firm handshake, she expected that her Personal assistant
should speak with authority and coached me how to project
my voice. Next on her list was fine-tuning my appearance.
Miss D wanted something more polished and asked a designer
hairdresser to come to her house to cut my hair. After
the voice and hair, she worked on my posture and movement.
She had me walk with my shoulders back, tilted pelvis,
and movement of my hips, as she told me “the foundation
of a graceful walk is a graceful posture.” She
always told me don’t make the same mistakes twice.
This was part of the job, and I knew if I did not like
it, I could leave and not work for her.
She also asked you to change the spelling of your name
from Catherine to Kathryn?
She explained that people would remember me. They
would associate me with that person whose name begins
with “K,” not “C.” I thought
she probably spelled her name, ending with an “e,”
not a “y” for the same reason. Because at
that time everyone spelled the name in that manner,
and it is not distinctive. She advised me, “one
of the big battles in life is to stand out from the
How would you describe her?
Her official name was Ruth Elizabeth Davis. The
initials spell RED which represents fire, like her personality,
which was a spit fire of one. She was the most honest
person I had ever known. She was strong, sharp, and
powerful for the first five years I had known her. But
the public humiliation by her daughter at first sapped
her strength. I think the dominant quality of Miss D
was independence and she conducted her life with a strict
set of rules.
Would you also say she was a survivor, having to overcome
so many physical ailments?
Yes. A lump was found in her right breast in 1983.
We arrived at the New York hospital in a room on the
seventeenth floor, a huge suite. I had not seen her
this frightened before, but she had the foresight to
tell the surgeon, that if he found a malignant tumor,
she wanted him to perform the mastectomy immediately.
After she came out of recovery, she was chatty with
incredible energy. On the ninth day of recovery, Miss
D opened her mouth to speak, but only a small sound
found its way out. I could tell something was terribly
wrong and I shouted to call the doctor. At that moment
Miss D collapsed, but when she awoke, her spoken words
were mangled and unintelligible. After finding out she
had a stroke affecting her left side, we also were told
by the doctors she had only three weeks to live. But
she was a fighter and at the age of seventy-five, she
re-learned to walk and talk again. Her speech came back
first, and then four months later she was able to move
her pinky finger to touch her thumb. She lived another
six years, most of the time very spunky.
She saw her daughter’s book as a betrayal?
Her daughter, Bede, had written a tell-all memoir
in the style of Mommie Dearest, published on Mother’s
Day in 1985. Miss D could not believe she did this.
She cried and felt she could never get over what was
written. It was as if a sword had been thrust into her
heart. To get her out of her melancholy, we flew to
France to take a road trip around the countryside that
would end up in Paris. She cried, would not eat, and
was depressed. Her battle to recover after the stroke
had been fueled by pride, a test of her will, and she
had not been defeated. But this time seemed different.
I was able to pull her out of her darkness by resurrecting
that Yankee in her, who believed that is was distasteful
for those that wallowed in their defeats. Slowly she
began to eat and take walks, chatting about the gorgeous
ocean view in France. While driving one day she told
me, “Kath, bad beginnings always make for good
How would you describe your relationship with Miss D?
She was my rock. She shaped my sense of what was
right and proper. I knew her almost as well as I knew
myself, but she was the one who gave me the language
to describe it, the manner to endure it, and the grace.
We completed each other’s sentences and knew what
each other was thinking. I am so thankful to her for
opening the door to me of a whole new world.