In 1983, at the end of an amazing career during which she was nominated for a then-record breaking ten Academy Awards for acting, two of which she won, Hollywood actress Bette Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgery followed, as did a number of strokes which left her partially paralysed. Then, in 1985, her daughter, Barbara, released a controversial book, titled My Mother’s Keeper, that exposed their supposedly troubled relationship and generally painted Davis in a terrible light. Two years later, Bette Davis published her memoirs — at the very end was this letter to her daughter.
(This letter, along with 124 other fascinating pieces of correspondence, can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note; Photo of BD Hyman and Bette Davis: Getty Images.)
You ended your book with a letter to me. I have decided to do the same.
There is no doubt you have a great potential as a writer of fiction. You have always been a great storyteller. I have often, lo these many years, said to you, “B.D., that is not the way it was. You are imagining things.”
Many of the scenes in your book I have played on the screen. It could be you have confused the “me” on the screen with “me” who is your mother.
I have violent objections to your quotes of mine regarding actors I have worked with. For the most part, you have cruelly misquoted me. Ustinov I was thrilled to work with and I have great admiration of him as a person and as an actor. You have stated correctly my reactions to working with Faye Dunaway. She was a most exasperating co-star. But to quote me as having said Sir Laurence Olivier was not a good actor is most certainly one of the figments of your imagination. Few actors have ever reached the towering heights of his performances.
You constantly inform people that you wrote this book to help me understand you and your way of life better. Your goal was not reached. I am now utterly confused as to who you are or what your way of life is.
The sum total of your having written this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given.
In one of your many interviews while publicizing your book, you said if you sell your book to TV you feel Glenda Jackson should play me. I would hope you would be courteous enough to ask me to play myself.
I have much to quarrel about in your book. I choose to ignore most of it. But not the pathetic creature you claim I have been because of the fact that I did not play Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind.” I could have, but turned it down. Mr. Selznick attempted to get permission from my boss, Jack Warner, to borrow Errol Flynn and Bette Davis to play Rhett Butler and Scarlett. I refused because I felt Errol was not good casting for Rhett. At that time only Clark Gable was right. Therefore, dear Hyman, send me not back to Tara, rather send me back to Witch Way, our home on the beautiful coast of Maine where once lived a beautiful human being by the name of B.D., not Hyman.
As you ended your letter in “My Mother’s Keeper” — it’s up to you now, Ruth Elizabeth — I am ending my letter to you the same way: It’s up to you now, Hyman.
P.S. I hope someday I will understand the title “My Mother’s Keeper.” If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right, I’ve been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success.
Originally published on Letters of Note