Finding Meaning

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What Ever Happened to Bette Davis?

By Skip Hellewell

The meaning of our lives is shaped by our choices. Choices are like Robert Frost’s diverging roads in that iconic yellow wood, where we stand looking down one, then the other path, weighing which to take. In our life choices, few can resist the Siren song of fame and fortune. Meaning, however, is found on humbler paths.

Consider Bette Davis, perhaps the best known of all Laguna residents. Davis was the first great female star after movies got sound. She appeared in a hundred movies, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and won two. (Could have been three—she passed on “African Queen” because the studio declined to film in Hollywood.) She was the highest paid woman of her time; her movies made so much money for Warner Bros. that some considered her the fifth brother. Davis was a chain-smoker and her movie, “Voyager, Now,” shot on the patio of the old Victor Hugo restaurant, now Las Brisas, featured an iconic cigarette lighting scene. (She died as a result of breast cancer, for which smoking is a risk factor, but that’s another story.)

Davis, a combative perfectionist, was hard on directors, and husbands, too. She went through over 60 of the former and four of the latter. She met her third husband, William Grant Sherry, at a 1945 party at the Rockledge estate. He was a struggling artist, recently out of the service. Sherry intrigued Davis by claiming to not know who she was. Public recognition was important to Davis. Another Laguna story has her checking out of Dilley’s Books, back in the day, with a stack of books, peremptorily telling Jim Dilley to put them on her account. Dilley cheekily responded, “What name would that be, Madam?”

Davis and Sherry married and settled down at her place on Woods Cove where her only natural child, Barbara, was born. Shopping at Mariner’s stationery store on Forest Avenue, Sherry was intrigued with the angelic face of a clerk and proposed she be hired as their nanny. Davis was busy making “All About Eve,” a film about an aging Broadway star, and in her absence, a romance blossomed between Sherry and the nanny. Long story short, Sherry and Davis divorced, Sherry married the nanny, and Davis married her costar, Gary Merrill. Sherry’s marriage lasted until his death; the Davis-Merrill marriage ended in a bitter divorce after 10 years.

What’s the meaning of all this? First, it’s to note that Sunday is the 30th anniversary of the passing of Davis, a talented woman who loved Laguna and took on male-dominated Hollywood and fought it to a draw. Second, it’s to note that the adulation of strangers, which Davis craved yet kept at a distance, is ephemeral. Davis later acknowledged that the demands of her career made it hard to engage those around her. Her husbands all departed (one died in a fall), and her only natural child became estranged after writing a tell-all book critical of Davis. Finally, there’s a warning that fame and fortune are natural antagonists to the best thing in life—the love of those who know us best. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]


Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Calvary Chapel Seaside, 21540 Wesley Drive (Lang Park Community Center), 10:30 a.m.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 7 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, Sunday 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish). Saturday: 4 pm Reconciliation, 5:30 Mass.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 8:00 & 10:30 a.m.

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.

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