September 14, 2022

Seeing the Library Book Sale Through “Bette Davis Eyes”

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m always collecting things. I don’t consider myself materialistic, but things do make me feel good. Reassured. It’s easier to know them than people, because objects accept you as you are.

—Bette Davis (1908-1989)

The mystery guest at Friday’s Friends and Foundation of the Library Book Sale might say the same for collecting books. Bette Davis’s first husband, Harmon “Oscar” Nelson, knew from experience. The stated reason for the divorce, according to the December 7, 1938 New York Times, was that she “read too much.” Nelson claimed that she read “to an unnecessary degree…. It was all very upsetting.” As for accepting her as she was, it was at his insistence that she had two abortions, which probably saved her career, as she admitted to Charlotte Chandler in the 1980s during interviews for The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography (Simon and Schuster 2006).

When Chandler asked Davis what she thought of the title, based on Groucho Marx’s reason for taking two girls to a party (“Because I hate to see a girl walk home alone”), she said, “Absolutely. I want that title. That’s me. That’s been the story of my life.” The “girl alone” title somewhat softens the image of Davis as the straight-talking cynic who says “What a dump,” as she surveys Joseph Cotton’s apartment in Beyond the Forest (1949) — the additional emphasis added by Elizabeth Taylor, who played Martha to Richard Burton’s George in the film of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966). Bette desperately wanted to play Martha but the two-time Oscar winner who was once Hollywood’s top box office star couldn’t compete with the mid-sixties media magnitude of Dick and Liz.

Oh Those Eyes

The first recorded response to Bette Davis’s eyes was simple and to the point. When she was about to be terminated by Universal Pictures before she ever made a film, a cinematographer told the studio president that her “lovely eyes” made her a natural for the part of the sweet unassuming sister in Bad Sister (1931), which proved to be her film debut. Fifty years later, Kim Carnes recorded “Bette Davis Eyes,” a chart-topping 1981 hit with lyrics that improvised on the stereotype (“She’s ferocious and she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush / All the boys think she’s a spy, she’s got Bette Davis eyes”). Davis, who was 73 at the time, loved the song because it “made me seem cool to my grandchildren.” Her secret ambition, she told Chandler, was to have been “a femme fatale.” There’s a hint of that in the lyric: “She’ll tease you, she’ll unease you, just to please you.” The photo on the Bad Sister Wikipedia page shows that the tease/unease aura was already there.

“She May Roll You”

One of the great stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age can be found in the Old and Unusual section at the Library Book Sale, and as the song says, “she’ll let you take her home,” but she’s not a cheap date, she may “roll you like you were dice until you come out blue.” But then how often do you see a bookplate with a soulful Scotty staring out at you with sad and lonely, give-me-a-good-home Bette Davis eyes?

Browsers at the upcoming sale will find the Bette Davis bookplate in each of three bound volumes of Harper’s Magazine, two from 1869, one from 1891. The other day I looked through these tomes to see if I could find clues that would indicate why a well-read actress thought them worthy of her book plate. The first thing I noticed, in the context of “divorce on the grounds of excessive reading,” was a full-page George du Maurier drawing of a homely woman entering a formal gathering with her husband, titled “What Induced Him to Marry Her?” As Davis knew, the same question, with “to hire her” substituted, had been asked by studio executives and numerous others unable to conceive that, in film critic David Thomson’s words, this “far from pretty girl” with the “pulsing eyes” could “ever become a movie star,” let alone one who, as Thomson puts it, could trail “the subject of acting across the audience’s path with all the preemptive originality of Queen Elizabeth spreading ermine on the ground before Raleigh.”

Davis as Elizabeth I

The most significant association between a Harper’s  article and a famous Bette Davis role was Walter Besant’s “The London of Good Queen Bess.” Whether she read the piece before or after she played the queen, when the actress born Ruth Elizabeth Davis first expressed interest in the part of Elizabeth, in John Ford’s Mary of Scotland, she was denied it. Four years later, having won two Oscars, she would star in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) with Errol Flynn, the same year various polls named her “America’s favorite star.” She played Elizabeth again in The Virgin Queen (1955). At that time, the second Queen Elizabeth, whose death was the news heard round the world last week, had been the monarch for three years. According to The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, when Princess Diana invited “her favorite actress” to tea at Kensington Palace in 1987, Davis informed her emissary, “I have never met royalty, and it’s far too late now.” She did, however, send over a copy of her memoir, This ‘n That, inscribed, “We in America admire what you have done for the royal family.”

A Brave Librarian

Who else but Bette Davis could go in one move from the Elizabethan Age to the Red scare hysteria of 1950s America as the embattled small town librarian in Storm Center? As timely now as it was in 1956, the film turns on her refusal to withdraw a book (The Communist Dream). A key scene available on YouTube shows her defending her right to keep the book in the collection. As might happen today, when the town council found that she had previous associations with organizations found to be Communist fronts, she removed the book and lost her job, and instead of supporting her, the town turned against her. While the film ends with the librarian reinstated and determined to never again give in to censorship, Storm Center was a critical and financial disappointment, although it won a special prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival as “this year’s film which best helps freedom of expression and tolerance.”

“Now, Voyager”

Given the variety and extent of Bette Davis’s epic career, it’s no surprise that she would rendezvous with Walt Whitman at some point, as happens in one of her signature films, Now, Voyager (1942), in which a “far from pretty girl” reads Walt’s short poem, “The Untold Want,” and follows the line “Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find,” so she does, returning from her voyage as the stylish Bette Davis, transformed, it seems, by the words of Walt Whitman.

It’s safe to say that somewhere among the thousands of books at this year’s sale, which includes first editions by Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, George Orwell, Raymond Chandler, and Albert Einstein, there will be a number by or about Walt, whose “barbaric yawp” will be heard again at the 19th annual “Song of Myself” Marathon, the first live group reading in three years. Held at the Granite Prospect in Brooklyn Bridge Park, the event begins at 3 p.m. this Saturday, with 52 readers reading the 52 sections of Whitman’s epic. For information, visit


The book sale opens with a preview on Friday, September 16, from 10 a.m. to noon. The first 25 tickets will be $20 per person, and the next tickets will be $5 per person, while entry is free for Friends of the Library. Numbered tickets will be available at the door starting at 8 a.m. Customers enter the sale in numerical order, and the number of customers in the room will be limited to 25 at all times. Starting at noon on Friday, admission is free for the remainder of the sale on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Hours are noon-5:30 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, and noon-5:30 p.m. Sunday.