Miss D liked to be "the first" at everything she did.
So, on November 2, 1989 she was the first to be memorialized on a studio sound stage. It seemed most appropriate to have her memorial at Warner Bros., the studio she was under contract with for 18 years. And it was on Sound Stage 18 that she brought some of her great characters to life in Kid Galahad (1937), The Letter (1940), Now, Voyager (1942), Old Acquaintance (1943), A Stolen Life (1946) and Winter Meeting (1948).
Miss D often told me one of the things she liked about Warner Bros. was that it was a “workers” studio. Unlike other stars who were pampered with diamonds and jewels by studio bosses, she only demanded a good script. The atmosphere of her memorial tribute would be that of a working film set. The sound stage was decorated with old film props - lights, cameras, even the original clock used in Mr. Skeffington (1944). There was a garland of gardenias, Miss D's favorite flower. A screen was suspended in mid-air. Over 500 friends and industry professionals sat on standard folding wooden chairs - just like the film crews use. And they were met by the familiar sweeping sounds of Max Steiner that so often accompanied Miss D on screen.
In 1981, when the great William Wyler passed, Miss D spoke at his memorial service. At home, reflecting on her experience, she told me how things were to be done if something should happen to her. She told me to choose one actress and one actor to represent her profession, to select a professional host who would lead the tribute with dignity. The idea of a sound stage came up as a potential setting and with the suggestion from Michael Black and Bob Osborne, we went to Warner Bros. We did the best we could to fulfill her wishes after she passed on October 6th, 1989.
In the days following the tribute, Paula Parisi published an article inThe Hollywood Reporter entitled: TEARS AND LAUGHTER ABOUND AS INDUSTRY REMEMBERS DAVIS.
To give you an essence of the evening, I wanted to quote some of that article for you here:
[James Woods] lauded Davis’ portrayal of the emotionally distraught heroine of that 1940s film, calling it “poetry on the screen like Yeats might write,” asking, “What kind of courage does it take to open the soul so deeply?”
“There are two kinds of people, those of us who write poetry, and those of us who read it,” Woods observed.
“Even those of us who couldn’t read poetry, read her work with some amount of genius, simply because of the beauty with which she’d written it.”
He praised the indomitable Davis’ early fight for women’s rights as she struggled for roles she wanted in the male-dominated studio system.
“Thank God she worked as hard as she did in her prime,” said [Angela] Lansbury, who bashfully admitted that when she started out, people referred to her as “a young Bette Davis.”
“She has bequeathed to us all an astonishing legacy,” Lansbury said, “bravura acting of the first order.”
[David] Hartman, who had emcee duties throughout the ninety-minute event, read a laudatory telegram sent by President and Mrs. Bush. “America loved her,” the Bushes acknowledged. “How fortunate our nation is to have her contribution to the art of film making.”
The ceremony came to a solemn close as the silvery images onscreen faded to gray for a few brief moments. Then, a blazing beautiful color still of the actress froze onscreen, accompanied by the bittersweet lyrics to “I Wish You Love,” sung by the actress herself, from the record album “Bette Davis Sings.”
Woods summed up the sadness and awe of the evening when he said, “For those of us who are going to be there, and those of us who are there now—up in heaven they’re saying, ‘Buckle your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy eternity.’” ... As the song finished, Robert Wagner got up and turned on a work light, which is how a film set is left at the end of a day’s shooting. Each guest was handed one white rose as they left, in memory of an irreplaceable woman.
There were no recording devices allowed during the tribute. But I decided to hide a tape recorder under my wooden folding chair. It was for posterity. I felt the need to archive this tribute to an unbelievable woman. I recently came across the tapes and decided to have them digitized for the 30th anniversary of her passing. You can listen to the audio below.
This may sound strange to some, but after writing Miss D & Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis, in organizing all the material, listening to her voice again, reading her letters - I feel like she is here with me now more than ever. In The Lonely Life, she wrote that she is larger than life. Undoubtedly, even 30 years later, that statement rings true. She is larger than life. How very lucky for all of us.