TINSELTOWN TALKS: Kathryn Sermak recounts living with Bette Davis
It’s been 28 years since the passing of Kathryn Sermak’s former boss, Bette Davis, in October, 1989. Sermak recently published her long-awaited manuscript recounting the years she worked as Davis’ personal assistant in the final years of her life.
While “Miss D” — as Sermak always addressed the Hollywood legend — was in the twilight of her career when the two met, Sermak witnessed the flamboyant actress’ still uncompromising work ethic in her final roles in TV movies and feature films.
“She was a perfectionist and would give 110 percent, sometimes 150 percent, when working on a film,” said Sermak, from Los Angeles. “By setting the tone on a set, she let everybody know they all had a responsibility to the producers.”
The 278-page “Miss D & Me — Life with the Invincible Bette Davis” contains 20 (mostly color) photographs (see www.missdandme.com). But it’s not a biography of Davis’s life. “I lived in her house for years — it was like a mother/daughter relationship — and she became my best friend. I only know my story and my history with Miss D.”
In fact, Sermak knew very little about Bette Davis before accepting the job in 1979.
“I certainly wasn’t a fan. I was busy studying at college to become a clinical psychologist. The only time I recalled seeing one of her films was when I was 6 or 7 and watching ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ in the family room and running out scared.”
She says Davis taught her a lot.
“She explained that if I was working for her, I may be around presidents or royalty and needed to learn protocol. So she became my mentor teaching me how to walk, how to talk, how to dress — all the social graces I would need in her world.”
And what a world it was dashing to movie and TV sets, while still finding time to travel the world and entertaining her famous acquaintances. “She could be so elegant, and gracious, and funny and knew so many interesting people.”
But Davis was beset by health and personal problems throughout the ’80s. A breast cancer diagnosis in 1983 led to a mastectomy and, within weeks, a debilitating stroke.
“Suddenly, our roles were reversed,” recalled Sermak. “Now, I had to help her to walk and talk again.”
Then came the unexpected publication of daughter Bede’s brutal book, portraying her mother as a cruel parent. “It was hard enough to get through the stroke. Then, she had to deal with this book.”
Just how much truth was contained within its pages?
“I don’t know, I wasn’t around then,” said Sermak. “I only know that when I first started working for her, Miss D and Bede were super, super close. Whenever she was on a set, photos of her children would come out for display in the dressing rooms. She was very proud of her family.”
After Davis died, there was considerable interest in Sermak’s connection to Davis. “Publishers were after me, some wanting a salacious book about Bette Davis, the character. But that’s not me. I wanted to take my time and get it right.”
After Davis, Sermak worked as a personal assistant for Motown record producer Berry Gordy, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and others.
“But I never wanted to work for another actor or actress,” she says. “After working for Bette Davis, I’d learned from the best.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala, and has written features, columns and interviews for over 650 newspapers and magazines. See www.tinseltowntalks.com