“I’m the nicest goddamn dame that ever lived” – Bette Davis remembered on her 102nd Birthday

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" I'm the nicest goddamn dame that ever lived" Bette Davis

Many people have asked me why my name is fashioned after the character Margo Channing from All about Eve and I always reply “Do you have time to share a dirty martini with me? It’s a long and bumpy story” Growing up the daughter of a poor fish monger in Bangor, Maine wasn’t the most exciting life for a child. I longed to get out and shed my scales. One day I finally got my wish in the form of a very large and hairy woman named Trudie. She was my long lost Aunt. The only thing I knew about her was what my mother told me; “Trudie’s a big fat Lesbo”.

She swung open the door and exclaimed “I’m here to claim my brother’s children”! It was very dramatic She pushed mother aside “I also think it’s cruel you named her after stinky fish”. My real name is Haddock, Haddie for short.

Mother looked at Trudie and then me, and said, “Eh, I don’t care”.

I’ll never forget that first night when we arrived at her bar “Big Trudie’s” on Delancy Street in New York City. She led me to the back room she reserved for the” Peppermint Patties”. It had the faint smell of stale beer and pickled herring. I thought “aaargh just like home”. She sat me down and gave me a gin and tonic. I noticed that All about Eve was silently playing on the black and white. She yelled out. “Listen up all you dykes, butch and fem alike this is my niece Hadd.., pausing as she watched Bette Davis pacing around the room on screen. No! No no this is my niece Margo, Margo Channing. She’s gonna be stayin with me”.  “So keep your paws off of her unless I say it’s ok”. This has been my name ever since, well I changed it a bit for dramatic effect by adding the OH! Making it MargOH! Channing…

Now if only I had those Bette Davis Eyes that Kim Carnes so scratchily sang about I’d be ready to rule the world. Miss Davis really did do that for a long time, bulldozing her way over studio executives, writers and co-stars to get the roles she wanted and arguably deserved during a career that spanned over 50 years. She played hard driven characters like alcoholic actress Joyce Heath in Dangerous and headstrong southern belle Julie in Jezebel, both portrayals winning her Academy Awards. She was the first to be nominated for 10 academy awards. Bette also ventured into television starring in several mini-series and a title role in Hotel and was nominated for 3 Emmy’s eventually winning one for a TV movie Strangers co-starring Gena Rowland’s in 1979.

Much like her rival Joan Crawford Miss Davis was a master of reinvention, though, unlike her rival Miss Davis was able to pick and choose her roles. Interestingly Bette turned down the role of Mildred Pierce (the role that eventually won Ms. Crawford an Oscar) because she felt she was still too young to play the mother of a 17 year old. Maybe this is where the rivalry began?  There is much that has been written about the relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. This can best be summed up, at least from Miss Davis’s perspective with the following quote “The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Bette also had a blasphemous book written about her by her daughter B.D. Hyman called My Mother’s Keeper. The book depicted her as a self-centered, emotionally abusive alcoholic. This is just another example of a daughter trying to cash in on her mother’s fame which in a way backfired due to the book being released a few months after Bette’s series of strokes. It was a best seller, though public opinion swayed towards sympathy for Miss Davis and B.D’s subsequent book was a flop. Bette responded to her daughters accusations in her book titled This-n-that; “I am still recovering from the fact that a child of mine would write about me behind my back, to say nothing about the kind of book it is. I will never recover as completely from B.D.’s book as I have from the stroke she also alluded to the title and added “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.

I had the good fortune to work with Miss Davis and saw firsthand how fun and charismatic she was. She loved to joke and play practical jokes on the extras. I’ll never forget working with her on the 1978 film Return from Witch Mountain as Witch # 6. She asked that I be her cigarette girl as well and director John Hough agreed. They put me in a 40’s style cigarette girls costume and loaded me up with Pall Malls, candy and Miss Davis added bourbon nips and prune juice. Miss Davis said she admired my spunk and humility. She said I looked like a monkey’s ass in the costume. I took it as a compliment.

Several years later Miss Davis requested that I play Whale # 6 in one of her last films The Whales of August. I arrived on the set and was told there were no whales in the film but was handed a rubber whale suit anyway. As I was changing Miss Davis came to my trailer holding the cigarette girl tray. With a sly smirk one her face she said “What a dump!” and added “I need you to be my cigarette girl again” “In a whale suit?” and she replied “No darling, that’s to scare my co-star Lillian Gish. Maybe the old hag will drop dead from fright. I’d rather have Barbara Stanwyck to play mean too. I lit her cigarette and she blew smoke in my face “I want to remind you there’s only one Margo Channing and that’s ME. From now on I shall call you Eve. Now rub Margo’s feet EEEEEVVVVVVeee”.

Whenever I tell that story people ask me if I was upset or humiliated? No!  It was an honor and a joy to be roughed up by Bette Davis. She was an honest and straightforward woman. She once said “I do not regret one professional enemy I have made. Any actor who doesn’t dare to make an enemy should get out of the business”. Precisely!

These traits are best observed on Bette’s appearances on various talk shows from Dick Cavitt to David Letterman. Even when she was very ill the true star shines through, dressed impeccably with cigarette in hand, holding court with quips and stories. She was a classic dame with a herculean talent that cannot be matched.

I was never more shocked than when I got a call from Bette in 1988 asking me to come to her apartment. I made my way to her place just off Sunset Boulevard on the outskirts of West Hollywood in the Century House on Havenhurst. I thought how fun it was she was living in the “gay” part of town. In a way it seemed to fit because she, like Joan, was their icon.

I entered her elegant 4th floor apartment and immediately saw the Gold and Platinum copies of Bette Davis Eyes hanging on the wall. “A gift from Miss Carnes” she told me. “I like the song, it’s a lovely compliment, but I do wish she’d comb her hair”.

She looked frail and quite ill to my dismay; she said “You’re looking (long pause) adequate Eve darling. I replied, “Miss Davis, it‘s MargOH!” I went on to tell her the story of how I came to be called MargOH!, perhaps hoping to move her with my tale. She lit her cigarette and handed me one. “That is the most ridiculous story I’ve ever heard”. I spent a few hours with Miss Davis while she gave me tips for fake banter and walking briskly in a shot. She told me she hadn’t liked the way I did it walking by Dustin Hoffman in a scene from Tootsie. “It’s not how big the role is it’s what you make of it that’s important. Without people like you willing to do nothing in the background, where would I be?” That’s how she felt about Ann Baxter’s performance in All About Eve. “She did nothing”. When it was time to leave Miss Davis told me she had something for me. Her assistant brought out the cigarette girl tray. Miss Davis handed it to me taking out a few packs. She didn’t say a word but only smiled and saw me to the door as I wept.  Miss Davis died less than a year later and I cherish my cigarette tray. The feel of the red velvet and the small burn holes throughout, probably from Miss Davis’s fallen ashes, are precious to me. I no longer smoke but I keep a few bourbon nips in it and sometimes after drinking a few I pretend I’m Eve Harrington.

“If nothing else, there’s applause… like waves of love pouring over the footlights, I’ll never forget this night as long as I live, and I’ll never forget you for making it possible”

Then I imagine Miss Davis responding “Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be”…

I only recite the Eve Harrington lines…I could never be that Margo Channing, only Bette could do that!

She was the nicest goddamn dame that ever lived!

Happy Birthday Miss Davis!

By MargOH! Channing


MORE VIDEO HERE [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=htvMITWibrY[/youtube]

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