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NONFICTION : THIS 'N THAT by Bette Davis with Michael Herskowitz (Putnam's: $17.95; 256 pp.).

April 05, 1987|Mary Dryden

It is a fundamental example of Bette Davis' strength of character that she wrote this memoir while recovering from both breast cancer surgery and a stroke. In fact, the overwhelming sensation with which one is left on reading "This 'n That" is that of strength.

Knowing at an early age precisely what she wanted to accomplish in life (i.e., be the best actress possible), Davis set about her plan with courage and dogged ferocity. Despite her obvious superior intelligence and her penchant for speaking her mind, success in films came relatively early. When television began to compete with cinema, she made the transition from one medium to the other without breaking stride.

Davis writes with clarity about her marriages and other emotional involvements, with judicious criticism about certain famous co-workers and with rueful humor about her disappointments in life. She is as likely to describe in luscious detail the gardenias strewn on her bed by an imaginative lover as she is to detail her first husband's physical brutality. She reveals her profound maternal sentiment for her long-time secretary and confidante Kathryn as calmly as she confronts the emotional betrayal of her daughter B. D.

Davis, by her own admission, is one tough lady. One learns of this not so much through her survival of devastating illnesses or her long and distinguished career, but from the direct, matter-of-fact way in which she relates these victories and tragedies. The hard-headed determination that appears to govern all her actions brings to mind the words of T. S. Eliot:

. . . we fight rather to keep

something alive than in the expectation that

anything will triumph

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