She’s got Bette Davis Eyes

All the boys think she’s a spy…..

This post is a a follow up to the post above, and was written a long time ago. Its a true story. Hope you enjoy it.

The process of filling out a job application for me became like balancing a checkbook of lies. “Now, let’s see, from January to March . . . no, make it June. Reason for leaving? Small hurricane? Earthquake? That’s it! Family emergency!” And so on and so forth.

The next job I had was at one of those big corporate Mexican places. There are two of them in Southern California and they are both exactly the same. I believe, in fact, that I worked at both of them at one time or another and I cannot remember which was which and when was when. Last I heard they finally got tired of competing with exactly the same menu and decor and became the same restaurant . . . or something.

We had a meeting once where several new salsas were introduced. So let me see, this one is tomatoes, onions, and cilantro with chopped peppers and THIS one is onions and peppers with a sprinkling of tomatoes and cilantro. It was a terrible job. The restaurant was huge. The plates were huge and heavy and the food was cheap. My first night on the floor I worked harder than I ever had, running a marathon of beans, rice, and margaritas. At the end of the night, while counting my bank, I was horrified to find that I had lost some money and only had thirty five dollars in tips. I racked my my brain, trying to figure out my mistake. Had I made bad change? Dropped something on the floor? When I finally worked it out, I was further horrified to find that there was no mistake; that was what I actually made. Of course the busboy and bartender had to be paid. My share topped out at $20.00. I think that’s about four bucks an hour. I’d run a five hour marathon dressed like Carmen Miranda for twenty bucks. After two weeks of peddling varying combinations of beans, cheese, and tortillas, I received an offer to enter an entirely new facet of the service industry. I was going to be a personal assistant.

My mother’s hairdresser, moved from Seattle to Los Angeles and did really well in the entertainment industry. His name was Randall. Randall gave me my first salon haircut at ten years old and rescued me from some really bad perms. Remember the seventies?Randal’s Northwest defection may have been why my mother moved also; I’m afraid to ask. It is terribly hard to find a good hairdresser after all. Randal’s salon was in downtown Beverly Hills and besides the odd celebrity, he also serviced agents; producers; rich, bored housewives; and one demon possessed head hunter .

We will call her Ursula. She looked like an Ursula. I recall the scene in the “Little Mermaid” where her bloated, purple face fills the screen as she pops live worms into her grinning, gaping maw. One afternoon while Randal teased Ursula’s bleached and frizzy mane she mentioned that she was looking for a young woman to be a personal assistant to Bette Davis. Randal immediately thought of me. I don’t know why really, other than the fact that he was incredibly nice person and had known my mother and I for years. Really, it was like nominating a remedial student for a Pulitzer, but I was ecstatic.

Bette Davis was my hero. An actress of legendary status, tough as nails, who said whatever she wanted, smoked like a chimney, and drank like a fish. I wanted to be just like her. I made an appointment with Ursula. In her office I filled out a standard job application with the usual pack of lies ending with my current employer, Big Mexican Chain Restaurant. This was really odd, filling out only a standard notepad style, minimum wage application form for something as grand as working for Bette Davis. I don’t even think a proper background check was done. I guess if you can’t trust your hairdresser, you can’t trust anyone.

Luckily for Ms. Davis, I was a danger to no one but myself and a meeting was arranged. Once again, I was light years out of my league. I was being considered for a job that entailed well-honed people skills, organizational prowess, and the wisdom to know when to shut my mouth and do what I was told. I for once was completely aware of my inadequacy. After all I was a person whose mother still paid her insurance. My room was a hurricane of dirty clothes. I still left obnoxious messages on my mother’s answering machine with background music by Led Zeppelin. My car was so full of trash that I actually set it on fire once while lighting a cigarette. I drove for a mile down La Cienega Blvd. with one foot on the gas and brake pedals and the other trying to stomp out a growing flame on the passenger side. I did this in my room twice, carelessly throwing a match to one side of the bed igniting a sprawling trail of laundry. The only thing I brought to the table for this job was an indifference to cigarette smoke.

On the appointed day I dressed myself all in black and topped it off with a thirties style bowler hat, bitch red with a big red satin rose on the back. I thought it was homage. Ms. Davis should have thrown me out immediately on grounds of the hat alone. She did not. She showed me around the apartment. It was a beautiful suite of rooms on the top floor of a historical-looking apartment building in West Los Angeles. Oscar surveyed the room from the mantle piece. A large oil painting of a young woman towered over me near the front door. I asked if it was her daughter.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s the one who wrote the horrible book about me.”

I swear to you I did not know at that moment there was such a book. I cringed for a moment waiting again to be thrown out.

“Did you read that book?” she asked.

No, Ma’m,” I said like a Southern child caught in a small domestic crime.

“Don’t call me, ma’m. Never call me ma’m. You must always address me as Ms. Davis, understand?”

“Yes, ma’m, Ms. Davis, ma’m, uhh sorry – Okay?”

She looked at me for a moment searching for some sign of intelligence and moved on.

“If you’re going to work for me, you will have to read my biography.” She handed me a book titled, “This and That.”

“You must also wear something more conservative, can you manage that?” she said, eying my hat.

“Yes, ma’m, Ms. Davis,” I said.

“Good. Then be back here on Wednesday morning at nine o’clock.”

She showed me to the door and I fairly ran home to my closet, wondering what on earth I was going to wear. In my world the clothes I was wearing were very conservative. Remember, it was the mid-eighties. I spent my evenings in heavy metal hell-holes on Sunset Blvd. wearing cheap lace and torn jeans. My hair was an angry ratted mess of hairspray and bottled bleach. I was considering various tattoos. I called my mother at work in a panic.

“Mom, can I borrow some of your clothes?”

“No,” she said, recalling the bonfire in my room. But she did take me to Nordstrom’s to find something to wear. I ended up with a serviceable brown dress, black belt, and low-heeled black shoes. Now I would fade quietly into the wallpaper; if I ditched the fifty pound earrings and half a can of hairspray.

In the big wide world there is an important phenomenon among social animals known as “Positioning.” Apes do it to show one another which of them are the strongest. Lions in prides push the outcasts to the edges of their gathering places. Baby birds torture and kill the weakest sibling to ensure they will get the worm. I was about to get a lesson in “Positioning.” Entertainment folk are not only entertaining; they are masters in the art of “Positioning.” I received several phone calls over the next few days from Ursula who drilled me on various subjects pertaining to my future plans. What was my school schedule? Was I willing to travel? Would I throw myself into oncoming traffic if need be. Things like that. Ms. Davis listened not so covertly on the other line, cutting in with things like ask her this or tell her that. No one asked me if I was willing to stop crawling home from bars at three a.m. I’m not really sure what I would have answered. It never came up. I passed inspection and reported to work Wednesday morning as planned, in my new dress, and subdued hair.

Ms. Davis ushered me into the sitting room. She excused herself for a moment; so I sat. When she returned she looked at me with those famous eyes set on stun and barked at me to stand up.

“You are not to sit down in here! You are never to sit in here unless you are asked.”

Oops. She showed me to a small guest room. There was a single bed, a sewing machine, and a desk.

“THIS is where you sit when I don’t need you.”

See what I mean? Positioning. Then she gave me instructions for answering the phone.

“When you answer the phone you say, “Yes? Then you find out who it is. Then you say hello. NEVER say hello first. Find out if I wish to speak with them. If not, take a message. If I wish to speak to them, you are to announce me and give me the phone.”

This was all very heady stuff for me. Bette Davis was shorter than me by half a head, stick thin, and absolutely terrifying. I was enthralled.

“Now. Let’s see if you can handle an iron.”

She handed me a bright red dress, led me to the ironing board, and left the room. This was a test. The dress was stiff and modern-looking with angles and creases everywhere. I pulled it onto the board while the iron got hot, thinking nervously of my propensity for fire. The iron was an evil thing. It steamed viciously. I put it to the fabric and to my horror, the fabric turned dark. Perhaps it is wet from steam, I thought. No. It was scorched. I was on the edge of panic. Any second now that dangerous woman would return and reduce me to a pile of smoldering ash for the ruin of her dress. There was only one thing to do. I scorched the entire thing so it would match. She came back moments later to check my progress. I held the dress out to her, staring like a rabbit in the road. She inspected it and to my surprise, seemed pleased.

“Good work. We know that you can handle an iron at least.” She left the room to step into the dress and came back to be zipped up. I didn’t move.

“Right,” she said. “Today I have an interview with a young man from the Times. You will sit in your room until I need you.”

I let out my breath. Sitting and doing nothing was something I could probably manage as long as I didn’t touch anything. I followed her about for a bit and she chatted at me. I tried to keep my answers monosyllabic. It was a pleasant moment. I had passed the dress test and was feeling a little cocky. Then the reporter arrived. I answered the door and showed him to the sitting room. He seemed to know better than to sit without being asked. Someone had probably tipped him off. Then Ms. Davis entered and I was whisked away to my little room. I wanted to whisper to him, “Don’t call her ma’m,” but I did not. I closed the door and I was on my own.

I could hear them talking in the next room and I tried to eavesdrop but couldn’t catch enough to hold my attention. I began to nod off. In minutes I was sound asleep and probably snoring. I awoke just in time to hear the conversation ending and Ms. Davis showing the man out. I stood up and looked in the mirror. My serviceable brown dress was hopelessly wrinkled and I had a pillow crease on my face. I seemed to have curled myself up into a ball on the bed. I hoped that she wouldn’t notice. Maybe she would make me iron my dress. She called me from the other room and I emerged rubbing my cheek. She took no notice of me for the moment but collapsed dramatically on an easy chair arms akimbo and legs splayed. The interview had taken a lot out of her it seemed. I stopped thinking about myself for the moment and looked at her. She looked quite fragile and completely human. She was, after all, in her seventies. She was smoking a cigarette. I dutifully noted the butts in the tray as I was to empty it when there were three. Then she noticed my dress. Those eyes were deadly.

“Well. I notice your dress is quite rumpled.” She smiled. “That’s good. Means you’ve had a full day at work.”

I didn’t know what to say so I smiled back.

“I think that’s quite enough for one day. You may go now and come back tomorrow,” she said obviously having had enough of strangers in her house for one day. I got my purse and she walked me to the door. The door clicked shut. As I turned to go, I heard my name called, followed by a string of harsh invectives. I knocked on the door.

“Ms. Davis? Did you need something?”

She opened the door and sighed. “Oh, good. You’re still here. Help me with this damn zipper.” She turned, I zipped. We said goodbye again and I left feeling thoroughly useful. I was supremely and completely happy. Ms. Davis and I would spend the next few months getting used to one another and in Spring I would travel with her to Washington D.C. and then perhaps to Europe.

Next morning I ironed my dress and set off for work. When I arrived, Ms. Davis wanted to talk about my future. I innocently told her that I was an actress and I told her that I had given two weeks notice at my other job.

“JOB?” she cried, as if I’d told her about an illicit child somewhere.

I still can’t tell you to this day why she found this so upsetting.

“Yes, Ma’m, Ursula knows about it. I wrote it on my application,: I said meekly.

“Well, then, that’s not your fault. It’s HER fault.”

Now we come back to “POSITIONING.” She called up Ursula thrashing her verbally until she surely bled. I told Ms. Davis I had given my notice and that I would make this my last evening. She didn’t tell me to wait. She really should have told me to wait. I arrived at the restaurant that night and impetuously told my boss it was my last night and I told her why. She was not amused or excited for me.

The next day Ursula called me up and said Ms. Davis had decided not to hire me on the grounds that I was an actress and that she would end up feeling responsible for helping me and introducing me around. She also said that I had not been forthcoming on my application. Still bruised and battered from her tongue lashing the night before, Ursula needed a scapegoat. Ms. Davis was thoroughly pissed off because I had the audacity to work for a living and it needed to be somebody’s fault besides hers. It would have been much better for everyone had Ursula acknowledged she was dealing with a difficult, eccentric person and a very young girl. Instead she “Positioned” herself as the victim and me as a scheming little liar to cover her butt.

I called Ms. Davis in tears telling her I had quit my job and that I was a terrible actress. She hung up on me. I called Randal and told him what happened. He was so angry he called Ursula and her business partner, canceled both their appointments and told them never to grace his salon with their presence again. Everyone was in a complete uproar just because a little old lady was having a difficult time adjusting to a new servant. I found later that she had hired and fired approximately ten women before and after me trying to find the right person. The soap opera was completely unnecessary, and it got even better. After Randal canceled her appointment, Ursula called me in a rage telling me I was a poisonous little Scorpio and that I would never work in this town again. I swear I’m not making this up. She went on dropping names at break-neck speed to make sure I know how goddamn important she was.

“And by the way, you misspelled Acapulco’s on your application!” she said and hung up. I would like to report that I uttered a scathing retort before the line went dead. I did not. I cried inconsolably for a day. Then I picked myself up, Randal gave me a smart new haircut, and I went out looking for a job.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “She never would have made it. She was the wrong person for that job.” You’re right. I was definitely not ready for it. But I never got a chance to prove my incompetence. It’s okay. I got to hang out with Bette Davis and ruin her clothes. I got to talk to her and listen to her swear. And the cool thing is, I know she really liked me. And I her, despite the fact that she was a spoiled diva and totally human. I was in awe. We were both women who were crusty on the outside and soft underneath. Her crust was just older than mine and it had an Oscar. My friend Randal and I both eventually ended up back in the Northwest, me temporarily and he forever. Randal died in Spokane with only his mother at his side when my son was about a year old. My family and I made the trek across the state to see him and say goodbye. Nobody from his Hollywood life was there to see him off. A famous songstress, client, and supposed close friend sent him a copy of her new cd as he lay on his death bed. Hollywood is such a warm, loving place. Anyway God bless you, Randal. I love you, miss you, and haven’t had a decent haircut in years. You were the best.


4 thoughts on “She’s got Bette Davis Eyes

  1. mariekeates

    The PA business is tough, I should know, I am one. Good job my boss isn’t Bette Davis although she can be as scary and I can feel as out of my depth at times 🙂

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