The Legend of the Silver Screen Has Lifelong Ties to Maine
During her more than 60 years as an actor, Bette Davis had roles in over 50 films. She was nominated for an Academy Award 10 times, winning twice, for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938), and was the recipient of many other acting awards. Bette had a quick wit and an acerbic sense of humor, but she was also a champion of good causes. During the war years, she rallied Hollywood on behalf of the Hollywood Canteen, a club where men and women in the armed services could go for free meals and entertainment. Bette Davis was a co-founder and its first president. She headed the Tailwaggers Foundation, an organization sponsoring humane legislation for animals. She was active in promoting the training of guide dogs for the visually impaired. And she initiated a campaign to send weekly food packages to underfed European families.
Bette Davis is best known for her Hollywood film roles, but she also had ties to Maine: she was Ogunquit’s first woman lifeguard; she performed in Maine venues over the years; she owned a home in Cape Elizabeth with her fourth and final husband, Gary Merrill, in the 1950s; and she filmed scenes for one of her last movies in Maine.
Bette was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the daughter of Harlow and Ruth Davis. She was christened Ruth Elizabeth Davis, and nicknamed Betty. Legend has it that a family friend suggested her name be changed to the more memorable Bette, from the title character in Balzac’s Cousin Bette.
Bette’s parents divorced when she was 7. Her sister, Barbara “Bobby” Davis, said during an appearance on This is Your Life, that their mother worked as a photographer and that it was “the three of us against the world.”
Several years ago, the Ogunquit Heritage Museum hosted an exhibit dedicated to its lifeguards—including a young Bette Davis. The town acquired the beach in 1926. Bette completed Red Cross training and joined the volunteer lifeguards that summer. Photographs from that period include one of a young Bette at the center of a lineup of otherwise male lifeguards beside a rescue boat, and a photograph of Bette in her Red Cross lifeguard uniform, which was recently posted to the Old Pictures of Forgotten Maine Facebook page.
During her high school years at Cushing Academy in Massachusetts, Bette participated in theater and dreamed of being an actress. According to information in the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society collection, after graduating from the academy, Bette enrolled at John Murray Anderson’s drama school in New York, winning a scholarship to attend. To gain practical experience, she took a bit part in the play Broadway, with a stock company under the leadership of George Cukor, who later became famous as one of Hollywood’s greatest directors.
Bette joined the Provincetown Players, appearing in The Earth Between and receiving good reviews. A six-month run in the play Broken Dishes led to her being named to play opposite noted American actor Richard Bennett in the Broadway play, Solid South. During the play’s run, Bette made a screen test for Universal Studios, and she was called to Hollywood.
Bette did not become a star overnight. She and Universal parted ways after one year. Bette was prepared to pack her bags and return to New York, but a phone call from English actor George Arliss, who was at the height of his career, changed that. George needed a leading lady for his next picture, The Man Who Played God (1932), at Warner Brothers Studio. Bette got the part—and a contract with Warner Brothers.
It’s been said that Bette’s performance as Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934) is the one upon which her star rose. Other notable films include Now, Voyager (1942), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), and All About Eve (1950).
Bette married Gary Merrill in 1950 after the couple starred together in All About Eve, which won an Academy Award. Merrill, who grew up in Connecticut, had summered at Black Point in Maine and attended Bowdoin College for a time. The couple eventually purchased an oceanfront property on Zeb Cove Road in Cape Elizabeth, which Bette named “Witch Way.” Here they raised their two adopted children, Margot and Michael, in addition to Bette’s daughter from a previous marriage, Barbara, known in the family as BD.
“I have lots of good memories about our time at Witch Way, a beautiful property and a wonderful family home, right on the ocean,” Michael Merrill, Esq., told Portland magazine in 2014. There were “two coves, a large front lawn, a barn, an enclosed area for goats and other farm animals and horses, vegetable gardens, berry bushes and a pond,” Michael recalled. He had lived at Witch Way from age 1 to 7. In adulthood, he went on to head up Boston law firm Merrill & McGeary. “Dad did have a hockey team, Merrill’s Marauders, which played ‘pick up’ hockey against other groups of players on the pond. I was too young at the time to be involved in the hockey games. But we had a dinghy in the pond which I rowed around on.”
Despite being “terrified” of television appearances, Bette agreed to be on Edward R. Murrow’s show, Person to Person, with Gary on September 21, 1956.
During the interview, Bette told Edward Murrow that she didn’t miss the California climate. “I’m a real Yankee who loves the change of seasons, particularly the winter,” she said.
Viewers were given cozy insights into the couple’s home, such as the fact that Bette always kept sleigh bells on the front door, “for two very good reasons. One, I like the noise itself; and the other is that no one can sneak in that way.” Edward also asked about Bette’s unique dining room table, which featured a giant lazy Susan at its center, and the rug beneath her coffee table, which he mistakenly called a hooked rug.
Never one to mince words, Bette replied, “Sir, that is a braided rug.” He chuckled and apologized, to which Bette said, “Well, I can’t let the women think you don’t know that,” adding that she had not made the rug, but that, “it is handmade and it’s rather a lovely one.”
Gary, more experienced and at ease in front of a TV audience, spoke highly of the Pine Tree State. “Maine is kind of an incurable disease. Once you get it you just can’t lose it, and there’s no cure for it,” he told Edward. “If you like rocks and pine trees and the ocean, Maine is the place.”
According to Jim Rowe, president of the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society, “while Bette Davis maintained a low profile here in Cape Elizabeth, she was quite visible ‘out in society.’ Most of our materials are press clippings from the Portland newspapers.” The organization’s collection also features ads and program covers from The World of Carl Sandburg, which Bette and Gary performed locally as well as on Broadway.
In addition to performing at State Theatre in Portland, Bette also appeared several times at the Ogunquit Playhouse, where she sometimes perched in a window and chatted with ticket holders in the garden. According to volunteers at the Historical Society of Wells and Ogunquit, both Bette and Gary are mentioned in the publication, The Ogunquit Playhouse: 80 Years, a copy of which is on the shelves at the historical society.
The couple divorced in 1960. Gary continued to live in Maine between films, while Bette returned to Hollywood with the children. But in 1986, Bette returned to Maine to film scenes for The Whales of August, which was released in 1987. Filmed on Cliff Island, the tale of two elderly sisters (Bette Davis and Lillian Gish) was set around the Pitkin House, a private home that still stands and is a popular subject for local artists.
Bette worked nearly to the time of her death. Her final movie, Wicked Stepmother, was released in 1989. She had just attended the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain, where she had been honored for her acting career. She was en route to her home in West Hollywood but ended up in a hospital in France instead. She died of breast cancer in October 1989 at the age of 81—just eight months after the film’s premiere—in an American hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.
The couple eventually purchased an oceanfront property on Zeb Cove Road in Cape Elizabeth, which Bette named “Witch Way.”
To learn more about Bette Davis’ many Maine connections, contact the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society via their Facebook page or by emailing [email protected], or calling 619-6793.
The Ogunquit Heritage Museum is operating with restrictions due to COVID-19 (five guests at a time, with masks). It’s best to call ahead prior to a visit. Call 646-0296 or visit ogunquitheritagemuseum.com for more information.
The Historical Society of Wells and Ogunquit may be reached at 646-4775 or by visiting wellsogunquithistory.org
You can view the This is Your Life with Bette Davis’s sister Bobby and the 1956 Person to Person appearance of Bette Davis and Gary Merrill on YouTube.com.