TEA WITH BETTE DAVIS
By Dr. Don Noyes-More
PAM LEIGH was
born into a middle class family in 1925. Her
Richard, was a hard working geologist for the State of California. They lived
in what is now Monterey Park. Pam was the baby of the family. She had an older
sister, June, and a brother, Ralph, who was oldest. All were dark-haired with
blue eyes. They lived in a farm house built in 1890.
father’s job called him away from home to work on projects throughout
California. But when he came home it was a thrill to the whole family. The
children would make paper hats and bake a special orange-flavored chocolate
cake, their dad’s favorite. Pam’s grandfather lived in the home in a third
floor room which included what he called his “reading room,” which was a turret
like a witch’s hat. He spent most of his days in his workshop making children’s
toys in back of the house, which had been a barn at one time. To Pam’s complete
joy he made her a wooden doll house when she turned six years old. It was a
birthday she remembered with such happiness. Grandfather loved all the children
There was a
picture book perfectness to this warm and close family, as though nothing could
ever harm them. Her brother Ralph picked up Pam at school. Together they would
joke as they walked the ten blocks home. One day as they walked in the house it
seemed very quiet and still. “Mother!” Ralph yelled. There was no answer.
Grandfather coming down the stairs said, “Be quiet! Your mother’s ill.”
“What’s she sick with?”
“Some sort of croup. She’ll get better.” Granddad
answered. The doctor wasn’t called. Their father had been out of town for over a week
and had called home only the night before.
Pam’s mother’s coughing increased,
and she was now running a high fever. The family doctor was finally called. Pam
had no memory of what the doctor did for her mother, but her mother never went
to the hospital. Pam’s mom passed away the night after the doctor’s visit. The
funeral was long and busy with friends and family.
remembers refusing to cry, not one tear.
At night for a number of years after
Pam’s mother’s death, Pam said she could smell her mother’s rose perfume in the
room. “And then I could go to sleep, I knew she was there with me” Pam’s father
hardly spoke to anyone after the mother’s death. He became emotionally cool and
kept his feelings strictly to himself.
his wife’s death the father spent longer amounts of time away from home. A
succession of aunts came to take care of the children. The grandfather filled
in for the missing father. Beach outings were the most fun for the children.
Grandfather would rent an old house in Santa Monica for most of the summer.
farmhouse home held all Pam’s mother’s memories. Personal items were never
packed away. It became a living museum. The beach house, though, was wonderful
– open, airy and without all the sad memories of mother. Aunt Milly, Pam’s
aunt, came to take care of the kids along with the grandfather. In Santa Monica
Aunt Milly, who was loving, supportive, and outgoing, would join the children
every day at the waters edge and jump in the waves with them. Grandfather
fished and read. Every night there were special games and music. Often they
ventured down to Venice Beach to go on the roller coaster and rides on the
pier. Ralph found his first “best girl” at the Venice Pier, and she was his
June seemed the most unaffected by the mother’s death, but then June was
everyone’s special emotional support. June would always see when Pam or Ralph
needed a kiss or a hug. June made no close friends.
One day during
the summer when Pam was 14, the family was on the beach next to Venice Pier.
Pam just got up and ran into the water. She swam further and further out into
the ocean. Aunt Milly, grandfather and Ralph screamed at her to come back. But
Pam paid them no mind. She kept swimming. Then they lost sight of her. It
looked like she swam to the end of the pier and then just vanished. Ralph ran
to get a lifeguard. After 20 minutes of panic and fear Aunt Milly saw Pam, wet
and weak looking, walking off the board walk onto the sand. Aunt Milly ran to
her with a beach towel. “Honey, what did you do? Where did you go!” She was
Pam said she
had told her mother that one day she would swim around the pier. “Just for Mom,
I did it. I swam around the whole thing,” Pam said proudly.
pier swimming incident Pam had to stay at the Santa Monica house. She was
allowed to go to the beach with Aunt Milly only, but was not allowed in the
water. One bright summer day while Aunt Milly was reading one of her novels and
falling asleep in the warm sun, Pam sat next to her. Getting restless Pam told
her aunt she was going to play ball with a group of girls just up the beach a
way. These were summer friends that Pam knew well. The girls began tossing the
ball and rolling in the sand after it. They were all playing near a backyard
stone wall of a very nice home on the beach.
The front of
the house faced Pacific Coast Highway. Zoom! Went the ball over the wall. “Get
the ball, get the ball!” The girls screamed. Pam went to get the ball. Since the wall was not low
enough to climb over she made her way to a gate entrance on the side of the
house. Pam pushed open the large wrought iron gate and walked towards the house
up a flagstone walkway.
Pam was going
to ask permission to get her ball. She heard dogs barking as she got closer to
the side patio door. She had a short panic and thought maybe she ought to just
run and get the ball. But being polite she continued to the door. The dogs were
now barking loudly. She knocked twice and stood there fearful that when the
door opened, she would be attacked. Slowly the door opened, dogs barking. Pam
“Oh my God!”
She thought to herself as she saw the face of the woman who answered.
What can I do for you?”
Pam was dumb struck, no answer came from her.
you want?” The woman asked again.
“Are you Bette Davis?” Pam asked. It was, it
was Bette Davis. “Last time I looked at my contract it was still my name!”
back at Pam. “What do you want?” Bette Davis said more agitated than before.
Bette Davis was wearing pants and had a bandana on.
ball, our ball, it’s, it’s in your back yard. It went over the fence. Gee I’m
sorry! Golly, we never meant to put it there. Honest! I’ll pay for any damage.
Honest I will!” Pam was almost in tears now.
looked at Pam with a half smile on her face, “Won’t you join me for some tea,
now?” Pam asked. “Yes, now, would you like that?” “Oh yes! My friends are
expecting the ball,” Pam said.
“Well, we’ll throw it back over the wall to
them,” Bette Davis said.
both walked into the garden and there, a couple of feet from the
wall, was the ball. Bette picked it up and pitched it over the wall.
at the girls that she was going to be awhile. She heard a “Yeah, OK,” and then
heard them laughing and playing again. Bette Davis led the way into the house.
She let her dogs stay outside. They walked into a little sitting area. An older
lady who walked in was asked to bring tea. Lighting a cigarette Bette Davis
asked Pam where she lived. Pam opened up telling Bette Davis all about herself
and losing her mother. Bette held Pam’s hand softly for a moment and then
abruptly let go. Pam saw Bette Davis seemed to be getting emotional and caught
herself. Pam didn’t want to ask Bette Davis anything about herself, thinking it
might be considered rude. Pam did ask about the dogs and Bette went on for a
long time about them.
served and Pam looked down for the first time and saw she was barefoot. She
tucked her feet under her chair so they would not be noticed. Bette Davis chatted
on about unimportant things. There was a long pause and then Bette Davis said,
“Life is tough. So you must learn to be a tough cookie to get by!” Pam was
taken back by the statement and Bette offered no further explanation. Pam
started to see Bette Davis’ hands fidget and her eyes wander about. She
suddenly seemed bored and restless.
cue, Pam stood up and said she had to go. Bette Davis walked her to the door,
walked onto the step and called the dogs. She looked at Pam and said, “Remember
what I said. Learn to be tough.” Bette Davis then acted like Pam had already
left, not paying any further attention to her.
“Thank you.” Bette Davis had the door half shut. There were no actual
went back to Bette Davis’ house nor told anyone but her sister June about her
meeting. June had her tell it over and over again. That Christmas June gave Pam
a scrap album as a present and in it were clippings of Bette Davis from Life
and Photoplay magazines. Pam’s favorite picture was in a spread in Life
about Bette Davis’ home in Connecticut.
life Pam got connected in movie and then TV production. Hollywood was
everything to her. She was behind the scenes in many of the top productions and
in early TV programs. She got a reputation for being hard and mean with those
that worked for her. No one stood in Pam’s way. Nothing mattered as much as her
work and getting ahead of the other guy. Pam was tough on everyone. She walked
and talked her way through some of the most difficult men dominating Hollywood.
She loved TV production and for a woman in the early 1950’s was doing quite
well in Hollywood. Nothing was to stop her until she met the one man she fell
in love with.
late in life after many years of hard work in movie and TV production. Her
husband was an aircraft executive she met at a Hollywood party. The party was a
three day affair at Ronald Reagan’s horse ranch in the San Fernando Valley. A
few weeks later Pam and her husband were married in a small ceremony in
Hollywood. Soon after their marriage her husband insisted it was either him or
Hollywood. She had to choose. It broke her heart. To keep him she had to give
up Hollywood and her friends. She chose the marriage. They moved to Florida. Pam
was bitter she had to make that decision. Pam’s husband was a businessman who
wanted a traditional family life. He was well meaning, honest, and kind and Pam
wanted him whatever the cost. Despite her choice Pam had little concern for her
family life. Months later she found herself pregnant, unhappy, and drinking
heavily. She spent most of her time on the phone with friends in Hollywood
crying. They had a son to whom she was cold and inattentive. Pam never did
become close to her son or involved in his life. As soon as her son was old
enough at seven, he was put into a military school. Beyond the pride she took
in his being at the finest military school and later on dating the “right”
girls from the “right” families, Pam had little interest in his life.
As the years
passed Pam and her husband grew further and further apart even though they
continued to travel together. She traveled extensively with her husband, whose
work took him all over the world. Pam drank a great deal of the time – on
planes, in airports, at the air shows her husband attended, everywhere. She
often haunted the hotel bars of New York, Paris, Rio, and Tokyo. She picked up
men while her husband was working or entertaining on his own. Pam felt she had
made a tough choice by getting married and was entitled to all the other
compensations she wanted without regard for others. That was “being tough.”
Finally it all ended and Pam’s husband divorced her. The long sad party had
ended. She became ill and despondent.
divorced when we met. Most of her divorce settlement had gone to pay for a bad
illness she suffered due to her excessive drinking. She had little money except
for her paid condo and a car. I gave her a job but she was unable to really
work more than 4 hours a day. I got to know her well. We spent many hours
together in 1991 and 1992. She would pull out all her pictures for me and
retell her personal stories of Hollywood and the stars she knew.
held wonderful memories for her. It kept her going. She often wrote to people
she considered personal friends in the movie and TV industry. Few ever wrote
more than a holiday card or a short note. But she treasured them all. In her
yellowed album were pictures of stars and old lovers. Every picture came spiced
with a story. Pam was drinking buddies with some of the top stars.
I took Pam
out to dinner for her birthday. She joked about being “sixty something.” Over
dinner she became sad and withdrawn. She said, “I shouldn’t have been so tough
with everyone. I don’t have anyone left.” Too late in life Pam rethought Bette
Davis’ advice. Bette’s advice had become a part of Pam, Pam’s life role to
In the end
Pam’s continued drinking took its toll on her health, and she died after a
short illness. Only three people other than myself, her son, ex-husband, and
his wife showed up for the funeral. Her son sold her condo, car and personal
effects. It was a tough ending for a