Working (and Living) with Bette Davis. Author Kathryn Sermak Remembers

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday October 9, 2019

At the age of 23, Kathryn Sermak became the personal assistant to Bette Davis. That was in 1979 and she stayed with the movie legend until her death a decade later. But Ms. Sermak's relationship with Davis didn't end there: in 1997 she co-founded the Bette Davis Foundation with Miss Davis's son, Michael Merrill, and is a member of its Board of Trustees. The Foundation supports the careers of aspiring actors, as well as honoring successful actors with the Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award, the first of which was awarded Meryl Streep in 1999. Since then the honorees have included Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis and Michael Douglas.

Last year Ms. Sermak published "Miss D and Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis," a memoir about her times with Ms. Davis over their ten years of being together. The pair became close as Davis experienced a late career renaissance, experienced health issues, traveled through France and dealt with the publication of Davis's daughter B.D.'s unflattering memoir in 1985.

Last Saturday, Ms. Davis was celebrated on the 30th anniversary of her death at the Hollywood Museum as part of their "Lobby Tribute Series," which pays tribute to iconic and legendary individuals in entertainment. At the event artifacts and personal items owned and worn Ms. Davis were exhibited to the public, and there was a first look at the Turner Classic Movies' Wine Club's Bette Davis Malbec Wine, that is being issued in honor of the star. Ms. Sermak was also on hand for a book signing that followed the event.

EDGE spoke to Ms. Sermak about her relationship with Ms. Davis, her memoir and the late TCM host Robert Osbourne, who was amongst Ms. Davis's closest friends.

Her personal side

EDGE: How did you come to work for Bette Davis?

Kathryn Sermak: Prior to working for Ms. Davis, I was working for HRH Princess Shams Pahlavi. (The sister of the Shah of Iran.) At the same time (1979) the princess was leaving the country, Ms. Davis was looking for somebody to go to Europe with her. Just after I decided to go back to graduate school, I got the call from her. Back then you found a job by word of mouth. I didn't know who she was, but she was going to England and she had a ticket for me to travel with her. It was only supposed to last for 3 months but ended up lasting 10 years.

EDGE: What can you tell us about the Hollywood museum's Bette Davis exhibit?

Kathryn Sermak: It is going to be wonderful exhibit. It is very similar to my book. There have been so many books written about Bette Davis. The exhibit is going to show her personal side. The museum already has clothes of hers and other things. I know the personal side of Bette Davis and going to showcase those things.

EDGE: Did you help choose the artifacts and personal items to be shown?

Kathryn Sermak: Most people didn't know that she loved to cook. She would cook on the movie's sets. I am bringing her cookbooks, pots and pans. There will be some of her personal diaries, private photographs, and some of her movie costumes never displayed to the public. There are going to a lot of personal items. Things that the public wouldn't know about or have ever seen.

EDGE: In 2017, you published a memoir about your time with Bette. Why was it important to you to tell your story?

Kathryn Sermak: Ms. Davis made me promise that one day I would tell our story. She always said it is a great story about women supporting women. It's ironic because she was always ahead of her time. Finally, today, women are supporting each other, but she did that long ago. She never believed in women feuding. Also, she didn't have time for it. She would say, "Women had to work as twice as hard as a man to get where they need to be."

EDGE: How would you describe your relationship with Miss Davis?

Kathryn Sermak: In the beginning, it was boot camp, because I had to prove myself. In that 10 years we went through a lot together. It really started to change around the 5-year mark after she had the mastectomy then the stroke. I became more than an assistant. I become the hairdresser, the nurse, and I really started really doing more for her. She was my best friend, my mentor, and become like a mother to me. We really learned a lot from each other.

EDGE: Since she had a close relationship with the late Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, I am sure she would be happy with having a wine in their collection.

Kathryn Sermak: Absolutely! She loved France. We once did a motor trip through the French countryside and stopped at all the wineries along the way. When she was younger, she always drank scotch and water but after she had a stroke she had to turn to wine.

Favorite role?

EDGE: Bette once said, "Never, never trust anyone who asks for white wine. It means they're phonies. So, it's a good thing that TCM has a red wine named after her...

Kathryn Sermak: She often laughed about that, because after she had the stroke, she would drink a wine spritzer with white wine and then she always had red wine at dinner. She adored Bob. They had nicknames for each other. He called her "spud" and she called him "bully."

EDGE: Do you know how Bette felt about being a gay icon?

Kathryn Sermak: She loved it! She thought it was a huge complement when a drag queen would impersonate her. She said you haven't made it until you have been impersonated. Ms. Davis admired her fans in the LGBT community immensely.

EDGE: Favorite Bette Davis movie and why?

Kathryn Sermak: Honestly, it would be "All about Eve." She was just so great in that film. I could watch it on a 24-hour loop. It was just a magical movie. It is also where she fell in love with Gary Merrill.

EDGE: What life lessons from Bette Davis could we apply to our personal lives?

Kathryn Sermak: Ms. Davis loved life. She always lived in the moment and never looked back. She was honest, tough and loyal friend. When you have love, you have everything. We definitely need more love and compassion in today's world.

For more information about Kathryn Sermak and her book, "Miss D and Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis," visit For more information about Bette Davis, visit her website.

For more information on the Bette Davis exhibit visit, visit the Hollywood Museum website. To learn more about the TCM Wine club, visit visit the TCM website.

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