Feature Book By Kathryn Sermak

Miss D and Me

Miss D and Me

Miss D & Me: Life with The Invincible Bette Davis by Kathryn Sermak is a tale of two women. The relationship morphed from that of employer-employee to mentor/protégé to mother/daughter ending up as the best of friends.

Bette Davis is regarded as one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood history. She had more than 100 films to her credit along with television and Broadway roles. There are many firsts including being the first actor, male or female to receive ten Academy Award nominations, winning two, and she became the first woman elected as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The author, Kathryn Sermak, while in her early twenties, was hired by this Hollywood icon to be her personal assistant. But she also became a loyal and loving buddy, a co-conspirator in her jokes and schemes, and a support system as Miss D struggled to overcome physical ailments of cancer, a mastectomy, a stroke, and a broken hip, as well as the betrayal by her daughter Bede. Readers will take a journey into the last ten years of Davis’ life where these two, generations apart, from different backgrounds, were able to relate to each other on so many levels.

About the Author Kathryn Sermak

Kathryn Sermak

In 1979, at the age of twenty-three, Kathryn Sermak was hired by Bette Davis as the legend's girl Friday. Since Miss Davis's death, Kathryn has continued to preserve the memory of her friend and mentor. In 1997 she co-founded the Bette Davis Foundation with Miss Davis's son, Michael Merrill and is a member of the Board of Trustees. The Foundation offers bursaries to gifted young actors, and in 1998 presented the first Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award to Meryl Streep. Along with Mr. Merrill, Kathryn is also co-executor of the Bette Davis Estate. Kathryn has been personal assistant to HH Princess Shams Pahlavi,; French actress, Isabelle Adjani; the statesman and journalist, Pierre Salinger; astronaut Dr. Buzz Aldrin, Motown Founder, Berry Gordy Jr.; famed American designer, Patrick Kelly and the co-creator of "Where's Waldo," Michael Gornall. Kathryn was also among the first to receive the Personal Assistant Career Award in 2003. She has worked as an associate producer in TV production and development, in addition to having collaborated with Miss Davis on her New York Times bestseller THIS N THAT and the reissue of Miss Davis's autobiography THE LONELY LIFE. Kathryn Sermak earned her BA and BS degree from the University of Southern California, after completing her senior year at the University of Madrid, and attended the prestigious Institute Catolique De Paris.

An Interview with Kathryn Sermak (Interviewer Elise Cooper)

Elise Cooper: What was your initial meeting like?

Kathryn Sermak: I was supposed to be her Girl Friday. I really did not know who she was, since I was twenty-two and she was seventy-one.  The year was 1979 and as I entered her premises she was a mere five feet two inches but had the presence of someone much larger. After a few questions, she hired me and told me she had a hunch about me. 

EC: You tell of how she mentored you?

KS: She taught me how to shake someone’s hand, explaining “You can tell a worthwhile person by the firmness of their handshake, and, as you will be representing me, I would like yours to be a bit firmer.”  Then she showed me how to use the different utensils when eating, pointing out the proper salad fork.  As with the firm handshake, she expected that her personal assistant should speak with authority and coached me how to project my voice. Next on her list was fine-tuning my appearance.  Miss D wanted something more polished and asked a designer hairdresser to come to her house to cut my hair.  After the voice and hair, she worked on my posture and movement.  She had me walk with my shoulders back, tilted pelvis, and movement of my hips, as she told me “the foundation of a graceful walk is a graceful posture.” She always told me don’t make the same mistakes twice. This was part of the job and I knew if I did not like it, I could leave and not work for her.

EC: She also asked you to change the spelling of your name from Catherine to Kathryn?

KS:  She explained that people would remember me.  They would associate me with that person whose name begins with “K”, not “C”. I thought she probably spelled her name, ending with an “e”, not a “y” for the same reason.  Because at that time everyone spelled the name in that manner, and it is not distinctive.  She advised me, “one of the big battles in life is to stand out from the crowd.”

KS: How would you describe her?

KS:  Her official name was Ruth Elizabeth Davis.  The initials spell RED which represents fire, like her personality, which was a spit fire of one.  She was the most honest person I had ever known.  She was strong, sharp, and powerful for the first five years I had known her.  But the public humiliation by her daughter at first sapped her strength.  I think the dominant quality of Miss D was independence and she conducted her life with a strict set of rules. 

EC: Would you also say she was a survivor, having to overcome so many physical ailments?

KS: Yes.  A lump was found in her right breast in 1983.  We arrived at the New York hospital in a room on the seventeenth floor, a huge suite. I had not seen her this frightened before, but she had the foresight to tell the surgeon, that if he found a malignant tumor, she wanted him to perform the mastectomy immediately. After she came out of recovery she was chatty with incredible energy. On the ninth day of recovery, Miss D opened her mouth to speak, but only a small sound found its way out.  I could tell something was terribly wrong and I shouted to call the doctor.  At that moment Miss D collapsed, but when she awoke, her spoken words were mangled and unintelligible.  After finding out she had a stroke affecting her left side, we also were told by the doctors she had only three weeks to live.  But she was a fighter and at the age of seventy-five she re-learned to walk and talk again.  Her speech came back first, and then four months later she was able to move her pinky finger to touch her thumb. She lived another six years, most of the time very spunky.

EC: You refer to this Generation of the 1940s -1950s?

BW: Those who fought in World War II were from the elite class of leaders in the military, political, and industrial world.  But during the years the story takes place in they chose to exist on the money their grandparents made.  They essentially became spectators instead of participants.  This generation prized itself on preservation rather than innovation, so they became static.  The future does not belong to people who don’t want to change.  They never questioned the values of society.  I chose 1969 because of the moon landing.  It has the symbolism of showing that this generation were just deep spectators.  Once they went into preservation mode they wrote off their own relevance.

 EC: Do you think you were critical of this generation?

BW: I did not want to take down this culture. I don’t want to look at the past through a modern lens.  Our ancestors’ experiences should be understood only through their eyes, and I chose to slip into their skin. I wanted to give the readers a mirror where they can reflect on those views.EC:

She saw her daughter’s book as a betrayal?

KS:  Her daughter, Bede, had written a tell-all memoir in the style of Mommie Dearest, published on Mother’s Day in 1985. Miss D could not believe she did this.  She cried and felt she could never get over what was written.  It was as if a sword had been thrust into her heart. To get her out of her melancholy, we flew to France to take a road trip around the countryside that would end up in Paris. She cried, would not eat, and was depressed.  Her battle to recover after the stroke had been fueled by pride, a test of her will, and she had not been defeated.  But this time seemed different. I was able to pull her out of her darkness by resurrecting that Yankee in her, who believed that is was distasteful for those that wallowed in their defeats. Slowly she began to eat and take walks, chatting about the gorgeous ocean view in France. While driving one day she told me, “Kath, bad beginnings always make for good endings.”

EC: In the book you speak of your boyfriend, Pierre?

KS:  He was a playboy. I was naïve and did not realize this, but Miss D did see through him and she had his number. After I complained to her that I felt he looked upon me as his housekeeper she gave me sound advice. I was tired of picking up after him.  She told me to gather all his clothes and put them in a corner of the room on the ground.  Then said, ‘do not say anything to him.’  She was right because within a week he cleaned up after himself.

EC: How would you describe your relationship with Miss D?

KS: She was my rock.  She shaped my sense of what was right and proper.  I knew her almost as well as I knew myself, but she was the one who gave me the language to describe it, the manner to endure it, and the grace. We completed each other’s sentences and knew what each other was thinking. I am so thankful to her for opening the door to me of a whole new world.

EC: THANK YOU!!

 

  

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