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BOOK REVIEW:

Miss D & me : life with the invincible Bette Davis

Call Number: 
812.092 D261Se

This is a memoir written by Bette Davis’ former assistant, Kathryn Sermak, who spent nearly a decade working for Davis and developed an unlikely friendship with the screen legend. It took Sermak nearly thirty years to write this book and it stands as a tribute to Davis’ bravery and resilience.

In 1979 Sermak was a recent college graduate living with her strict parents in San Bernardino. College had given her a taste of independence and she was doing her best to avoid graduate school. She fell into a job that utilized the foreign language skills she had mastered in college, and spent six months teaching Spanish to Princess Shams Pahlavi, sister to the deposed Shah of Iran. When the Princess left for Mexico, Sermak had to find yet another means to put off grad school. Armed with an admittedly padded resume, she managed to wrangle a meeting with Davis, who was preparing to work on an upcoming film project and looking to hire an assistant. After Davis approved Sermak’s astrological sign and confirmed her ability to cook a “three minute egg” (which was not entirely true), she was hired.

Over the next few months, the demanding Davis (or “Miss D” for short) would put Sermak to the test. Sermak went through a rough period of adjustment, doing her best to meet the requirements of the screen legend with mixed results. She feared that Davis would fire her at any moment, a fear that was seemingly confirmed when she overheard Davis relay over the telephone that Sermak was “all wrong.” Davis instructed Sermak to take a short vacation that proved to be stressful as the fledgling assistant worried about the status of her job. To Sermak’s surprise, Davis did not fire her, instead confessed that she had genuinely missed her young employee. Davis, thereafter, took Sermak under her wing and the star began a Pygmalion-like odyssey to shape and mold the young woman into a intuitive professional. Rather than shrink at such a proposal and its challenging taskmaster, Sermak met the assignment head-on.

What was intended to be a three month job for Sermak evolved into a decade long friendship as the two women battled an onslaught of personal and public crises together. The book covers a particularly grueling period in Davis’ life: following a diagnosis of cancer Davis underwent a mastectomy; complications related to that procedure led to a stroke that would nearly kill the acting legend. Sermak was at Davis’ side when the stroke occurred, and recognizing that something was wrong, demanded a medical intervention that ultimately saved Davis’ life. Davis’ agonizing recovery from the stroke was compounded when she learned that her daughter Barbara Hyman, aka “B.D.” (“BeDe” in the book), had written a scathing Mommie dearest style book. Sermak had been trying to hide this from Davis in order to protect her from the possibility of another health complication. Davis was incensed on both accounts.

Gossip is not dished out in this book, but a few stories do surface that could be construed as gossipy, notably an extremely uncomfortable luncheon with Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal, and the complete deterioration of Davis’ relationship with her daughter. And for those readers hoping for it, the name Joan Crawford is mentioned once. These stories aren’t intended to undermine Davis’ privacy, but rather illustrate how the bond between Davis and Sermak was strengthened during Davis’ final decade. After B.D.’s betrayal, loyalty was paramount to Davis and the devotion Sermak showed was never forgotten by the screen legend, or those connected to her inner circle. Davis’ son Michael gave his support to both Sermak and the book, as did a number of Davis’ long-time friends like Robert Wagner and Olivia de Havilland.

Sermak both loved and admired Davis but does not sugarcoat her recollections of the actress. Davis’ mission to shape Sermak into a confident professional is, at times, cringeworthy but Sermak took it in stride and her willingness to learn from Davis is admirable. Sermak went on to work as a personal assistant for a number of high profile personalities including Motown founder Berry Gordy, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and actress Isabelle Adjani, proving that Davis’ tutelage was not in vain.

The Bette Davis featured in this book is multi-dimensional: alternately funny, stubborn, domineering, wise, heartbreaking, inspiring and always fascinating. Davis, no doubt, changed Sermak’s life, and the book is a testament to Sermak’s admiration for her beloved Miss D, as well as the eternal appeal of the extraordinary Bette Davis.

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