Whitney Stine became a fan of Bette Davis before he’d seen even one of her films.
Plagued by a series of illnesses as a child, Stine was often confined to his bedroom, unable to take up an outdoor hobby. His sister had a solution: she gave him a stack of fan magazines, left over from her own clip-collection of Jean Harlow, and told him to get to work on a scrapbook.
When he got through that stack of magazines, he realized that one actress appeared in his favorite clippings more than any other: Bette Davis. He threw out all but the Davis clippings, and continued to collect material on her as he grew older. Eventually, that same sister who had given him the stack of fan magazines took him to see his first Davis picture: Jezebel.
This story is recounted early on in “I’d Love to Kiss You…” Conversations with Bette Davis, Stine’s 1990 book about the friendship that eventually grew between himself and Davis. Stine put his fandom to good use writing a book about Bette’s career, Mother Goddam, for which she agreed to write a running commentary… and in the process, the two became close friends. They would remain so for the rest of Bette’s life.
“I’d Love to Kiss You” is a unique Hollywood book. Davis’ own candid words are recounted by Stine, covering everything from which of her films she hated, to the men that she loved, to the health struggles that she faced later in life and the impact that they had on her career. A portrait is painted of a woman that recognized her own talent, was honest to a fault, loved those close to her very dearly, and approached life with an energetic spirit. I was already a fan of Davis prior to reading this book — she’s been one of my favorite actresses for years — but Stine’s recollections of her conversations made me like her even more.
I loved this book pretty much immediately. I read it just one book apart from Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, a similar (but more recently-published) book that tracks the writer’s relationship with his subject. The difference between the two volumes is that Ava’s words come from conversations she had with Peter Evans while he was ghostwriting her memoir; Bette’s words come mostly from social visits, stories that she shared with Stine after Mother Goddam had already been written. Ava is conscious of the fact that a book is being written about her, while Bette is simply conversing with a friend. (Bette does acknowledge near the end of Stine’s book, however, that since he is a writer, he’ll likely put their interactions down on paper some day.)
“I’d Love to Kiss You” is a delight for Davis fans to read, as she holds nothing back in her discussion of her films, her co-stars, or her personal life. Below are a few of my favorite quotes from the book (not very juicy tidbits, but of interest to me).
On the success of her lecture series: “‘John hopes to do other shows with Rosalind Russell, Sylvia Sidney, Lana Turner, and maybe even Joan Crawford.’ She giggled. ‘I told him if he did get her, I’d sit in the first row and knit while she was doing her question-and-answer bit!'”
On whether she found Bogie attractive: “No, not personally. He could be terribly uncouth. As you know, he played in my first picture, Bad Sister, and in several others, so I knew him a long time. But what women liked about Bogie, I think, was that when he did love scenes, he held back – like many men do – and they understood that. […] But up until Betty Bacall I think Bogie was really embarrassed doing love scenes, and that came over as a certain reticence. With her he let go, and it was great. She matched his insolence.”
On Paul Henreid and Now, Voyager: “He’s one of my favorite people. The part of Jerry Durrance in Prouty’s Voyager was American. At first I was against the idea of having a man with a foreign accent play him. And when I saw Paul’s first test, I was horrified. For some crazy reason that no one remembers today, he was made up with four coats of pancake, his hair was plastered black with brilliantine, and they gave him a smoking jacket to wear! It was horrible, and he hated the way he looked. When I saw how attractive he really was in person, I insisted he be tested again.”
I’d have to place this book in my top five old Hollywood bios, perhaps even at position number one. It’s a truly wonderful read, and I can’t wait to dig into Mother Goddam next!