Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The North Star: Bette Davis

By Barbara Bald

Like so many other visitors, Bette Davis came to New Hampshire seeking rest and relaxation. And like so many others not expecting to stay, Miss Davis fell in love with the state and decided to make it her home.

Born on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts, her parents, Harlow Morrell Davis and Ruthie Favor Davis, christened her: Ruth Elizabeth Davis. (Her stage name came from the Balzac novel “Cousin Bette.”) Unfortunately, after her father completed law school, the family separated and when Bette was ten, their divorce became final. Her mother worked tirelessly as a housekeeper, nursemaid and housemother at a school to support the family. She struggled to become a professional photographer and was eventually able to enroll Bette and her sister (Barbara Harriet Davis) into a boarding school, Cushing Academy in Massachusetts. Upon her graduation, Bette (age 20) entered John Murray Anderson School of Theatre in New York City.

By 1929 Miss Davis had made her Broadway debut in “Broken Dishes” and in 1931, having moved to Hollywood for a screen test, she made her first film “Bad Sister.” After six small films with Universal Pictures, Bette signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers Studios. Her role in “The Man Who Played God” started her on her way to stardom, and her role in “Of Human Bondage” earned her critical acclaim. Bette won her first “Best Actress Oscar” for “Dangerous” in 1935, and with her eyes on excellence, she won a second Oscar for “Jezebel” in 1939. At the age of 31, completely exhausted from having made two major motion pictures in one year, Bette took her mother’s advice and vacationed in the community of Sugar Hill, New Hampshire.

A sleepy little town, just north of Franconia, Sugar Hill has a town hall, historical museum, library, meetinghouse, fire department, golf course and numerous inns that offer folks a slower pace. Were you to ‘Google’ the town, you’d find frequently visited places like Harmon’s Cheese Store, The Sugar Hill Sampler and Polly’s Pancake House. While some things have changed in the town since the 1940’s, most businesses remain the same, having changed only names or ownership.

Miss Davis came to the resort called Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill, (an elegant hotel and first resort-based ski school in the country). The celebrity booked a room at the Caramat (now the Sugar Hill Inn) run at the time by Mr. and Mrs. Richardson. According to once owner Orlo Coots, Bette loved the room that now bears her name, because of the light coming in from three sides. He adds that even after she built her home in the town, she often sought solitude in that room, and the dining room always anticipated her visit.

Just why did the legendary Miss Davis, who could live anywhere, choose a New Hampshire home? As Mr. Coots sees it, New Hampshire offered Bette anonymity and a chance to experience a private, non-Hollywood life. In his words, ”She was not on a pedestal in Sugar Hill. Here she was just another person living on Blake Road. How can being a movie star, playing the role of someone you are not, possibly compare to the real life drama of raising children and tending sheep?” According to the Littleton Courier, Miss Davis “…. was completely in love with the mountains of New Hampshire.” She loved the beauty, the openness and the snow. As Bette put it,” A New Englander never forgets New England, the change of seasons and these mountains that really make you feel like you belong here. You don’t get that personal attachment to the gigantic, barren mountain ridges out West. I guess I’ve just got the New England blood in my veins.”

The following year she purchased a ten-acre farm abutting Peckett’s property, hired a Hollywood crew of ten and enlisted the services of Mr. Macomber to build her new home. This architect had worked on all her houses in the past 4 years and built houses for other stars such as Errol Flynn and Eddie Albert. While Miss Davis had purchased other homes, this was the first one she actually built.

The architect stayed at Lee’s Hotel in Littleton while he added a kitchen, service porch and bedroom to one of the oldest colonial homes in the area. Bette and her mother visited the cottage to supervise the construction of “Butternut,” a structure they designed to replicate an old New England farmhouse. A walk inside would have revealed hand-hewn beams, two hearths at the center, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, comfortable furniture and a myriad of antiques the star and her mother purchased in Littleton. The kitchen held a large round table, Glenwood cook stove, rocking chair and hurricane lanterns. Contractor James Viette of Littleton built an adjoining barn from dismantled buildings such as the Easton Post Office. The silo, which he added from the old Vermont barn, still houses a spiral staircase to the second floor and an observation area.

Home was very important to Miss D (an affectionate nickname). In her words about Butternut to the Courier, “A home like this gives you something to think about. Life becomes dangerously dull if one thinks only of his or her work, you know.” To Charlotte Chandler, author of her most recent biography, she added, “Wherever I am, I think of the place I am in as my home, and I can’t stand disorganization.” Butternut certainly satisfied that homebody instinct and was the epitome of organization. Her new home was described as “Bette’s Shangri-la” away from Hollywood three months of the year.

There was apparently more than one love affair in the making at Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill. During her first visit to the resort, Bette met Arthur Farnsworth, then assistant manager and ski instructor at the resort. Described in “White Mountain Sketches” as a Vermont boy having a “genial manner and friendly smile,” Mr. Farnsworth had studied music and then became a skilled pilot and aircraft engineer. After vacationing in Sugar Hill, Farnsworth accepted the position at Peckett’s. Local papers reported seeing Bette (previously divorced from bandleader Harmon O. Nelson) spending lots of time with Farnsworth at theatre events, dances and area outings. There’s even a bronze plaque at the end of Bridal Veil Falls trail that reads, “To Arthur Farnsworth: the keeper of stray ladies.” Rumor has it that Miss Davis had the 1939 sign placed there for Farnsworth (“Farney”), whose job it was to entertain and ensure the safety of resort guests. Possibly, Bette would “accidentally” stray from trails so that he could find her! Despite the couple’s denial of romantic intentions, they married on New Year’s Eve in 1940 at a friend’s Arizona ranch.

Bette’s biggest tribute to the North Country was the world premiere of her movie “The Great Lie”, also starring George Brent and Mary Astor in Littleton on April 5, 1941. Indeed, Littleton had never seen such fanfare! The day began with a band playing, majorettes twirling, and hundreds of spectators lining the streets. Celebrities and writers arrived in Littleton on the New Haven train and were escorted to Thayer’s and Lee’s Hotels. Under the direction of Will Dexter of Hildrex Farm (now Polly’s Pancake House), morning activities included a Sugaring-off party at Valley Station, a press trip to Cannon Mountain for a Tram ride, Grand Slalom and Ski Review. Afternoon brought a cocktail party at the Iron Mine Inn with Bette serving as hostess with her mother Ruthie attending in her fur and gloves.

After an evening buffet at Thayer’s, Miss Davis, Governor Blood and other celebrities led a torchlight parade of 50 cars to the Premier theatre (now Jax Jr). With the streets scrubbed, town decorated, 1000 red flares lining the way and spotlights mounted high on rooftops, a 34-piece band from Plymouth State Teachers’ College and a Boys’ Choir under the direction of Dick Whiting accompanied the procession. In Hollywood fashion, Bette waved to fans from a Cabriolet convertible.

The evening offered an elaborate Birthday Ball for Bette’s 33rd birthday. The stage of the Littleton Opera House held a large replica of Butternut Lodge with trees, native plants and a white picket fence. A 200 lb. Plaster of Paris cake with candles (measuring 6ft. feet in diameter and 5ft. high) greeted guests. Governor Blood received the first piece of the real dessert, a 100lb. cake! Official Bette Davis buttons were sold for the occasion, $1.50 was charged for balcony seating and a “Hillbilly” band played in the streets for folks who could not get into the affair. Indeed, Littleton got a taste of Hollywood in more ways than one!

Bette Davis brought more than glamour to the North Country. Like the energetic, independent women
she played in film, she shared some of her time and values with the community. Her souvenir booklets from the Premiere raised $2500-3000 for the Golden Rule Farm for Boys and the Littleton Hospital. A year earlier she had joined Peckett’s Riding Club, and in 1940 presented awards to the equestrian winners at the Sugar Hill-Franconia Horse Show. Somewhat later, at a 1947 Costume Party held at the Franconia Town Hall, she helped the Franconia Ski Club raise $400. Bette began charging ten cents for her signature with proceeds going to the Red Cross, and she modeled gowns for them at a Red Cross auction at the Franconia Work Room in Sugar Hill that raised $1500. Nancy Aldrich (daughter of the Richardsons, now co-owner of Polly’s Pancake House) remembers when, as a child of ten or eleven, she even saw Bette model a T-shirt and skirt to be raffled off at some auction, then change into her own street clothes!

Outside of New Hampshire, Miss D’s community involvement expanded globally. She was instrumental in founding the Hollywood Canteen for servicemen during WWII. Likewise, she shared the stage with Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante and Frank Sinatra in raising money for the War Bond Effort in 1943. Tireless as she was on any undertaking, she is credited with raising $2 million in 2 days for the same cause on a Missouri/Oklahoma tour. In 1980 Miss Davis received the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the Defense Department’s highest civilian award, for establishing the Canteen.

“Nothing gold can stay,” says Robert Frost, and such was the case with Bette and her love of the North Country. Just how do we close this love affair with the state? Bette’s dream of building a playhouse behind Butternut and organizing her own repertory theatre to tour the country never materialized. After twenty years Butternut transferred to Ross Coffin of Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill. The house, barn and 110 acres sold for $20,000, well below the cost of building it. Until 1967, when Peckett’s closed, they used it for recitals and to entertain guests. Today, son Bob Peckett is official caretaker of the property for its owners, and Franconia Notch Vacations rents the estate to guests for $2148 per week.

When the contents of the house went on the market, Bette’s 1903 Steinway became the property of the town of Sugar Hill. With broken soundboard, separated ribs and antiquated hammers, the piano arrived at the Sugar Hill Meeting House in 1970. It sat in its permanent home for 28 years until a $5000 grant from the NH Council of the Arts and a matching grant from the town helped refurbish the piano. Since July of 1999, when pianist Bernard Rose played it at the 21st White Mountains Summer Music Festival, the piano has played at a series of Bette Davis Seminar Concerts that reveal the role of the piano throughout different historical periods and musical settings.

While the North Country had a way of opening Miss D’s heart, and Hollywood distance between Bette and Farnsworth fanned their romantic flame, the hectic pace and rigors of professional life finally ruined marital bliss. In the Chandler biography, Bette recounted that because of her frantic schedule, she never really got to know her husband Arthur Farnsworth . When they did interact, she realized they weren’t very compatible and admitted arguing a lot. Three years later, “Farney” mysteriously collapsed on the streets of Hollywood from what authorities called a previously received, unexplained head injury. Bette made it to his side and remained with him until he died two days later.
Bette later went on to marry and divorce artist William Grant Sherry with whom she had a baby girl, Barbara Davis Sherry (BD). She then married her 4th husband, actor Gary Merrill and moved to Maine. She adopted a little girl, Margot (who turned out to be brain damaged at birth) and a little boy Michael. She divorced one final time in 1960, never to marry again. She attributes her failed relationships with men to the desertion of the man she desperately loved and strove to please, her father.

At the age of 75 Miss Davis developed breast cancer and in 1983, shortly after a mastectomy, she suffered a stroke. Her assistant, Kathryn Sermak, became her loyal caretaker and constant companion. Though doctors told Bette she would never work again, she went on to prove them wrong, acting until her death. On October 6, 1989, after being honored at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain, Bette Davis, 81, died at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. Author Chandler captures Bette’s ‘never-give-up’ spirit when she recounts that Bette did not want to disappoint her fans and leave them with the last image of her boarding an airplane in a wheel chair. Noted for her quote, ”Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Miss Davis struggled to rise and made it into the plane without a chair!

Bette bequeathed all her possessions to her loyal friend Kathryn Sermak and her adopted son Michael, now a lawyer. Because of a scathing book her daughter had written about her, Bette had disinherited “B D” who never contested the will. In 1997, Michael and Kathryn established The Bette Davis Foundation, a non-profit organization that grants scholarships to college students that duplicate Bette’s quality in the craft. With more than 100 films and 10 Oscar nominations to her credit, Bette paved the way for other actresses in Hollywood. She was the first woman to be president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences and the first woman to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Bette’s gravestone appropriately reads: “She did it the hard way.”

Besides a classic piano and a Shangri-la estate for vacationers, what was the grand dame’s final legacy to the town of Sugar Hill? In the end one might call the relationship between Bette Davis and the town symbiotic. While the town provided a sample of country living and temporary escape from notoriety, Miss Davis left residents and visitors with a taste of Hollywood’s glamour and a lifetime of memories.

Heart of New Hampshire wishes to thank the many folks of Sugar Hill who shared information and memories for this article. A special thank you goes to the Sugar Hill Museum whose summer/fall exhibit entitled “Bette” helped this legend come alive. Located on Rt. 117 Main Street, Sugar Hill, the Museum is open Thursdays through Saturdays from 1pm to 4pm with free admission or donation. For additional information or special tours, visitors may contact Winnie Harwood at 823-8431 or visit the Web Site at www.franconianotch.org.

For more on Bette Davis visit:
www.BetteDavis.com (the Official Web Site)
The Woman Who Walked Home Alone by Charlotte Chandler
Fasten Your Seat Belts by Lawrence J. Quirk
The Movies of Bette Davis by Gene Ringgold
This ‘n That by Bette Davis

Reprinted with permission


  1. I am the current owner of the first house, "Butternut", at 37 Butternut Lane, that we believe Ms. Davis had built. I am seeking clarification on the description you provide in your article, " “Butternut,” a structure they designed to replicate an old New England farmhouse. A walk inside would have revealed hand-hewn beams, two hearths at the center, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, comfortable furniture and a myriad of antiques the star and her mother purchased in Littleton. The kitchen held a large round table, Glenwood cook stove, rocking chair and hurricane lanterns. Contractor James Viette of Littleton built an adjoining barn from dismantled buildings such as the Easton Post Office. The silo, which he added from the old Vermont barn, still houses a spiral staircase to the second floor and an observation area." The first home described sounds like the house I own exceot that it contains only two bathrooms. The adjoining barn built by Mr. Viette appears to be the second house she had built which is also known as "Butternut" as is rented out by Franconia Notch Vacations. My house is a rental property managed by Peabody and Smith (please see the Peabody and Smith rental property site for details). I also maintain a web site for the Butternut house at www.thebutternutcottage.com. Any additional information you might be able to provide would be wonderful. Thank you!

  2. My apologies for the typos in my comment!