I drive right up to an old Boston mansion and tell the maid, “I’m Detective Sullivan and must speak to the daughter of Gladys Cooper, Bette Davis.”
No doubt alarmed, she comes to the door and says, “What is it, Detective Sullivan?”
“I’m quite sorry about the untimely passing of your mother. May I please come in and confirm some of the details?”
“There really aren’t any details. My mother was quite old and frail and she died of a heart attack.”
“We’re going to need a copy of the autopsy report.”
“There was no autopsy.”
I examine her face a few seconds before saying, “If you’d be more comfortable discussing this at the station, I’d be happy to drive you.”
“Shall I call my attorney?” she asks.
“I don’t know, Miss Davis. Do you need one?”
“Very well, Detective Sullivan, come right in.”
We walk down a long hall and turn into a large living room where I sit on a sofa and she in a chair.
“Would you like something to drink?”
“Never drink on duty, Miss Davis.”
“I was offering coffee or tea.”
“No thank you.”
“This won’t take long, will it, Detective Sullivan? I’m expecting guests for dinner tonight.”
“Just a few details.”
I open my notepad, glance at several underlined items, and say, “You don’t look at all like the person in photos from a couple of years ago.”
“Is that a question?”
“No, Miss Davis, it’s a compliment.”
“I’ve lost more than twenty pounds.”
“You also look more becoming without those glasses.”
“And you’re dressing more stylishly.”
“Are you going to ask me any questions, Detective Sullivan, or provide commentary for a women’s magazine?”
“How did you get along with your mother?”
Now Miss Davis silently examines me.
“I don’t like your insinuation,” she says.
“Then answer the question.”
“I gather you already know. She bore three much older brothers whom she adored. I was an accident. She had no love for me, only ridicule. I felt shy and awkward around a mother who treated me like her servant.”
I start taking notes.
“Why didn’t you leave home?”
“I was hardly in demand. But even before I got heavy, my mother insulted me in front of men and drove them away.”
“Did you hate her?”
“You’re really quite impudent, Detective Sullivan, but I’ve found talking about painful experiences can be therapeutic.”
“Have you ever had professional treatment?”
“You damn well know I have. Claude Rains is a brilliant and compassionate psychiatrist. Spending several weeks in his sanitarium changed my life. I was also delighted to be away from my mother. I blossomed when I went on a cruise and met Paul Henreid. We knew we were in love, but he was married, and we parted not knowing what to do.”
I flip to another page.
“Two weeks ago Mr. Henreid’s wife drowned in the river near their home. That confused authorities since she couldn’t swim and never entered natural bodies of water.”
“That’s not in the script,” she says.
“Neither is this conversation.”
Bette Davis stands.
“You’ll be leaving now, Detective Sullivan.”
I stand and say, “We’ve talked to various people who confirm that your mother resented your growing independence. Since she controlled the purse strings, she tried to force you to resume being dowdy and weak. You resisted, demanding ‘complete freedom.’ Shortly thereafter, your mother almost died rolling down the long staircase from her the second floor to the first. Where were you when she fell, Miss Davis?”
“I’ve told you to leave.”
“Did your mother threaten to write you out of her will? Did she say you’d be a spinster with no means of support?”
“Detective Sullivan, if I had a gun, I’d shoot you.”
“Did you want to shoot your mother? We’re going to exhume her body to determine if toxic substances caused her death.”
Making fists at her sides, Miss Davis says, “I’m calling the police to have you arrested for trespassing and harassment.”
“By now, Miss Davis, we have two squad cars outside. You’ll be going downtown in one of them.”
“This is insane. You can’t possibly have any evidence.”
“We have a special witness, and we don’t need to wait for the trial to introduce Olive Higgins Prouty, author of Now, Voyager.”
Miss Davis dashes to Mrs. Prouty and says, “Olive, thank goodness you’re here. Tell him I didn’t do it.”
“You didn’t do it in my book, Bette, but I like the detective’s movie ending better. You poison your mother and Paul Henreid wrestles his wife into the river and holds her down.”
“You can’t let this crazed detective destroy your finest work, Olive.”
“Don’t worry, Bette, the book won’t change. Just the screenplay.”