Biography of Bette Davis, First Lady of the American Screen

Oscar-Winning Actress and Film Icon

American actress Bette Davis (1908–1989), circa 1940
American actress Bette Davis (1908–1989), circa 1940.

Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Actress Bette Davis (born Ruth Elizabeth Davis; April 5, 1908–October 6, 1989) was one of the most acclaimed actresses of the 1930s and 1940s. Known for her expressive eyes and distinctive speaking style as well as her patriotic efforts during World War II, Davis earned the nickname "First Lady of the American Screen." Between 1935 and 1962, Davis was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress ten times. She won twice, for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938).

Fast Facts: Bette Davis

  • Given Name: Ruth Elizabeth Davis
  • Occupation: Actress
  • Born: April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts
  • Died: October 6, 1989 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
  • Education: Cushing Academy
  • Memorable Roles: Of Human Bondage (1934), Dangerous (1935), Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), All About Eve (1950), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
  • Key Accomplishments: Nominated ten times for the Academy Award for Best Actress (won twice); the first woman to receive the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award
  • Spouse(s): Harmon Nelson, Arthur Farnsworth, William Grant Sherry, Gary Merrill
  • Children: Barbara Sherry, Michael Merrill, Margot Merrill

Early Life and Acting Career

Bette Davis was born on April 5, 1908. She lived her earliest years in Lowell, Massachusetts and New York City, and attended boarding school at the prestigious Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. She was inspired to become an actress after seeing Peg Entwistle in a New York production of Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck in 1926. Davis began acting on the stage in the late 1920s and made her Broadway debut in 1929 with the play Broken Dishes.

First Film Roles and Oscar Wins

In 1930, Davis moved to Hollywood after being offered a screen test by Universal Studios. She made her film debut in the 1931 drama The Bad Sister, the first of several movies in which she appeared with Humphrey Bogart. Though Davis appeared in a few more films for Universal over the next year, they were largely unsuccessful and the studio did not renew her contract. Davis signed a new contract with Warner Bros. and made her Warner debut alongside George Arliss in the 1932 drama The Man Who Played God.

Davis began to gain acclaim with the 1934 drama Of Human Bondage, which she made while "loaned" to rival studio RKO Pictures. Her performance was so celebrated, in fact, that the press was shocked that Davis was not nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. She became one of the few individuals to ever officially receive Academy votes as a write-in candidate (write-in votes were disallowed shortly after).

In 1935, Davis appeared in the drama Dangerous. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the performance. Davis later claimed that she originated the Academy Award's nickname "Oscar" because Oscar was the middle name of her then-husband Harmon Nelson. (However, the tale is one of many disputed origin stories about the "Oscar" nickname.)

Jezebel and Hollywood Stardom

Director William Wyler cast Davis as a manipulative Southern belle in the pre-Civil War era in 1938's Jezebel. The film was a big hit with critics and audiences; Davis won her second Academy Award for the film. With these successes, Davis became a bona fide Hollywood star.

Davis appeared in several successful films over the next few years, including Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), and Mr. Skeffington (1944). During this era, Davis became known for her tough, even caustic, on-screen persona. Her eyes and distinctive manner of speaking became her most famous trademarks.

During World War II, Davis co-founded the Hollywood Canteen with actor John Garfield. The Hollywood Canteen was a free club for military personnel that was staffed by volunteers from Hollywood studios, including Davis. (A film, also called Hollywood Canteen, was made at the club; Davis played herself.) She helped to raise millions of dollars for the war by selling war bonds. Davis also briefly served as the first female President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

After the war, Davis' popularity at the box office began to wane. She had two major box office failures: Winter Meeting (1948) and Beyond the Forest (1949). After Beyond the Forest, Davis and Warner Bros. mutually agreed to part ways.

Revitalized Career and Feud With Joan Crawford

In 1950, Bette Davis had another acclaimed role in All About Eve. Davis portrayed a Broadway star whose status is threatened when a young aspiring actress becomes involved in her life. The performance marked a rare move for an actress of the era, as Davis, then in her early 40s, emphasized—rather than downplayed—her age. All About Eve revitalized Davis' career and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In December 1952, Davis returned to Broadway for the first time in two decades, starring in the musical revue Two's Company for its four-month run. In the late 1950s, Davis began appearing regularly on TV anthology shows like General Electric Theater and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In 1962, Davis had yet another late-career success in the horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis starred opposite Joan Crawford as a pair of feuding sisters. The film, which was a box office success, earned significant publicity thanks to media reports of a real-life feud between Davis and Crawford. What Happened to Baby Jane? marked Davis' final Oscar-nominated role.

Later Life and Death

Davis continued to act in film and on television throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In 1989, Davis made her final on-screen appearance in the film Wicked Stepmother. Notably, however, she left mid-production due to issues with the script and direction.

A lifelong smoker, Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1980s and underwent a mastectomy. Her cancer later returned, and Davis died on October 6, 1989 while visiting Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. She was 81 years old.

Awards and Legacy

In her final years, Davis received numerous honors, including:

  • The Golden Globes' Cecil B. DeMille Award (1974)
  • The American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award (1977), the first woman to receive the honor
  • U.S. Department of Defense's Distinguished Civilian Service Medal (1980), for her support of the military during World War II
  • Kennedy Center Honors Award (1987)

Davis received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for film and one for television. Her famous eyes were celebrated in the Kim Carnes pop song "Bette Davis Eyes," which became a #1 hit on the U.S. Billboard chart in 1981.

Bette Davis, who was dubbed "The First Lady of the American Screen" at the height of her fame, remains an iconic actress in Hollywood history. Davis' relationship with Joan Crawford was also depicted in the critically-acclaimed 2017 TV series Feud: Bette and Joan.


  • Sikov, Ed. Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis. Henry Holt and Company, 2007.
  • Davis, Bette.The Lonely Life: An Autobiography. Hatchette Books, 1990.
  • Longworth, Karina, narrator. "Star Wars Episode I: Bette Davis and the Hollywood Canteen." You Must Remember This, 6 January 2015.