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TEA WITH BETTE DAVIS

By Dr. Don Noyes-More

PAM LEIGH was born into a middle class family in 1925. Her

 father, 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.

Pam’s 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 very much.

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.”

Pam asked “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. Pam 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.

Following 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.

The old 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 nonstop passion.

Pam’s sister 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 shouting now.

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.

After the 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 looked up.

“Oh my God!” She thought to herself as she saw the face of the woman who answered.

“Yes dear, What can I do for you?”
Pam was dumb struck, no answer came from her.
“What do 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!” Bette

Davis shot 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, my 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.

Bette Davis looked at Pam with a half smile on her face, “Won’t you join me for some tea, dear?”

“Tea? me? 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.
They 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.

“There!” She said.

Pam yelled 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.

Tea was 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.

Taking the 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.

Pam said, “Thank you.” Bette Davis had the door half shut. There were no actual “good-byes.”

Pam never 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.

Later in 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.

Pam married 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.

Pam was 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.

Hollywood 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 play.

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 tough gal.

 

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A True Hollywood Story by the People’s Writer