The legendary movie actress Bette Davis called herself the “Yankee-est gal who ever came down the pike.”
She was born and educated in Massachusetts, married three New Englanders and had homes in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.
On screen and off, Bette Davis had an acid tongue and a will of iron. She often played unlikable characters: a vulgar waitress, a crazy recluse, a spoiled southern belle, an embittered former child star. Though she didn’t have movie star looks, her beautiful eyes inspired the 1980s hit song, Bette Davis Eyes (which she liked).
She made 86 movies, won two Academy awards and was nominated for eight more. She married four times, but spent the last 29 years of her life without a husband.
In 1982 at the age of 74, she told an interviewer, “I didn’t intend to become one of those prim New England women who are afraid of sex, didn’t want to reach my present age and not have experienced everything…Now I’m a virgin again but I guess I did all right for a little Yankee girl.”
Bette Davis in Massachusetts
She was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Mass. She attended a boarding school, Crestalban in Lanesborough, Mass., then Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass.
Of growing up, she once said, “From the age of six, I have known that I was sexy. And let me tell you it has been hell, sheer hell, waiting to do something about it.”
At Cushing she met and fell in love with Harmon Oscar Nelson, a Massachusetts native she would later marry. Davis claimed his middle name gave the Academy Award statuette its nickname, though most people called him Ham. They wed in 1932, but she made 10 times as much money as he did and the marriage didn’t last.
Bette Davis in New Hampshire
She moved to California and made 22 mostly forgettable films from 1931 to 1934. In one of those films, though, she uttered one of her all-time favorite lines. In The Cabin in the Cotton, she said, “I’d love to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.”
Then in 1934, Bette Davis finally won critical praise playing the frowzy Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage. The next year she won an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance as an alcoholic actress in Dangerous.
After finishing Dark Victory and Old Maid in 1939, Bette Davis went to Franconia, N.H., for a rest. She stayed at an inn called Peckett’s on Sugar Hill. There she fell for Arthur Farnsworth, the assistant manager of the inn. She called him Farny, and they married in 1940.
She bought a shack from the Peckett family on a beautiful piece of land and rebuilt it, calling it Butternut Farm. An old barn from Vermont became a lodge for guests.
Schoolgirls used to hang around the Carol Reed shop in nearby Littleton, hoping for a glimpse of their local celebrity. She treated her young fans graciously. “I’m the nicest goddamn dame that ever lived,” she once said.
Farny died three years after their marriage, and she came less frequently to New Hampshire.
Doing It Right
A strong-willed perfectionist, Bette Davis battled movie studios for good scripts and quality productions. In 1937, Davis sued Warner Bros. to get out of her contract. She lost, but the studio then accommodated her wishes. She then made some great movies with Warner Bros.: Now, Voyager, The Petrified Forest and Jezebel, for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress.
Along the way, Bette Davis earned a reputation as a bitch. Once she described herself as a ‘legendary terror,’ insufferably rude and ill-mannered.
It didn’t seem to bother her.
“If everyone likes you, you’re not doing it right,” she said.
Bette Davis in Maine
Bette Davis won an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in the 1950 film All About Eve, which won six Academy Awards. It also co-starred Davis’ fourth and last husband, Gary Merrill.
Merrill, born in Hartford, had attended Bowdoin College and loved Maine. After he and Bette Davis married in 1950, they bought a five-bedroom home in Cape Elizabeth. She called it ‘Witch Way.’
Throughout the 1950s, they lived on Witch Way with two children they adopted and Davis’ daughter, B.D., with her previous husband, William Sherry. B.D. later wrote a tell-all, My Mother’s Keeper, portraying her mother as an abusive alcoholic.
Of parenthood, Davis said, “If you have never been hated by your child, you have never been a parent.”
Both Merrill and Davis actively supported the Maine Democratic Party, and Merrill helped Ed Muskie win his race for governor in 1958. Her films during the 1950s often premiered to large crowds in Portland. But the marriage soured, and they divorced in 1960.
“Old age is no place for sissies,” Davis once said. She was no sissy, though, and continued to make movies and appear on television into her 80s. She made her last film, The Wicked Stepmother, at the age of 81, and then continued to appear on television talk shows.
For years, Bette Davis feuded with another Hollywood movie queen, Joan Crawford. Crawford upstaged Davis several times and stole actor Franchot Tone from her.
In 1962, they appeared together in a comeback vehicle for both of them: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis had a Coke machine installed on the set because Crawford’s late husband had served as Pepsi’s CEO. Crawford retaliated by wearing a lead belt during a scene in which Davis had to drag her across the floor.
“There may be a heaven, but if Joan Crawford is there, I’m not going,” Davis said.
Bette Davis died of breast cancer in France in 1989 at the age of 82.
This story was updated in 2022.