"Someone asked: 'How could you write a book like this? It will destroy your mother.' My answer is that it will take more than my book to destroy my mother. She's indomitable."
Bette Davis' daughter, B. D. Hyman, whose tell-all autobiography, "My Mother's Keeper," is already creeping up the best-seller lists, was in Los Angeles this week, defending herself against charges that she has written another "Mommie, Dearest" (Christina Crawford's chilling account of life with her mother, Joan Crawford) and explaining her reasons for writing the book that has enraged some critics and incensed Davis' friends and acolytes.
The book has already drawn a lot of flak. It provoked Gary Merrill, Davis' fourth husband, to picket the bookstore in Portland, Me., where he lives, with a placard reading: "Don't buy 'My Mother's Keeper.' " The book, he claimed, was written "out of cruelty and greed."
It has provoked a two-page letter from Bette Davis' attorney to William Morrow & Co. Inc., the publisher, warning the firm of passages that are "clearly libelous." (Copies of this letter, incidentally, were sent out to dozens of newspapers just ahead of B. D. Hyman's cross-country promotional tour.)
Hyman, 38, christened Barbara but always called B. D. by her mother, seems unconcerned by the furor.
"First," she said over a quick lunch, "I'm not worried about there being anything libelous in the book. Morrow's lawyers went through it with a fine tooth comb. Second, this is not another 'Mommie, Dearest.' I wrote this book while my mother is still alive and able to say what she likes about it. (Davis has so far made no comment.) And I don't claim she abused me. She did not.
"I really wrote the book in an attempt to understand her. And right to the end I wasn't sure I'd have it published. I kept on hoping my mother would finally accept me as I am and stop regarding my husband (producer Jeremy Hyman, whom she married at 16) and our two sons as threats to my relationship with her. But of course she can't."
One of the charges leveled in Davis' attorney's letter is that Hyman could not possibly recall conversations overheard when she was a child--yet which are printed verbatim in the book.
"It's a valid question," Hyman said. "The fact is I remember everything clearly because it was so repetitive. It went on week after week, year after year. The only dialogue that isn't totally accurate in my book is Gary Merrill's--and that's because I wouldn't dream of repeating the kind of language he uses all the time."
"My Mother's Keeper" is replete with stories about her mother's drinking and her violent fights and arguments with Merrill, who, says Hyman, once "flattened me against the wall" and who sometimes stood, stark naked, "calmly drinking his customary morning martini."
"They were ill-suited," Hyman said. "Emotionally, my mother hates men and, emotionally, Gary hates women.
"What's funny to me is to see someone like Gary Merrill, who hates my mother's guts and who hasn't spoken to her in 20 years, suddenly taking up the role of the white knight. I think the truth is that he's thrilled by all the attention he's been given since the book came out. He ought to write me a thank-you letter."
Hyman gives considerable space in the book to her mother's opinions of actors. Few are complimentary. Peter Ustinov, with whom she made "Death on the Nile," is "a bore. . . . If I had to listen to one more anecdote I'd have puked right in his face." Sir Alec Guinness, with whom she made "The Scapegoat," is "a dreadful actor. . . . " Robert Stack, with whom she worked on "John Paul Jones" is " . . . the dullest actor who ever lived."
This, surely, is pretty cheap stuff?
"I think it's funny," said Hyman, "and if you know my mother you'll know this is the way she talks. She's such an abusing person."
One inaccuracy in the book, she admits, concerns her father, William Sherry. She has seen him only once since she was a baby.
"In the book, I repeat the story that my mother told me," she said, "which is that my father ran away with my nurse when I was just a baby. But when the book came out he wrote me a long letter in which he said he'd really been kicked out when my mother fell in love with Gary Merrill."
Hyman, who now lives in the Bahamas, had not seen her mother since last October. Did she expect a reconciliation one day?
"Oh, yes. But first she'll have to work through her rage at what I've done. Then, she'll come and see me. It may be in anger, but it will be the start of true communication between us. As I say at the end of my book, the door will always be open to her. . . . "
Having read "My Mother's Keeper" there would seem to be little ground for such optimism.
"It will take time, " said B. D. Hyman. "But it will happen."