Breakfast with Bette Davis and the Famous Three Minute Egg

You could assume a lot of things about Bette Davis. Perhaps you’ve watched her movies (all 100+ of them) and you know her characters… smart, complicated, dramatic… and you think, personally, she must have been like that too. Or maybe you’ve read her books and know that her life hasn’t always been charming or easy, and you might think she bravely dealt with a lot of disappointment. Or perhaps you’ve seen her past interviews on television or youtube and witnessed how funny and polished and magnetic she was even in the off hours of her professional life.

All those instances might lead you to assume things about Bette, making you define her as one thing more than another – brassy, smart, privileged, funny, vulnerable, demanding, narcissistic, intense, wise, melodramatic, sincere, even terrifying.  Thanks to Kathryn Sermak’s new book, Miss D & Me, we can put our assumptions aside and know first-hand that Bette was a little bit of all those things. And so much more.

It is always fascinating to me to read about the behind-the-scenes lives of people in the public eye. Especially those stories shared by people who worked closely with a celebrity on a daily, detailed basis. Mostly because it breaks down the perception barrier of thinking that famous lives are so much more different than our own. That somehow fame and notoriety have morphed them into other-worldly figures washed clean from weakness and frailties. We generally only get to see one side of a famous person’s life depending on which part the media chooses to focus on, but with behind-the-scenes stories, you are offered a glimpse into a much more diverse landscape than any two-minute news clip or ten-minute interview could provide.

Ordinary people that work alongside extraordinary people are witness to the three-dimensional side of stardom  – all the good and all the bad wrapped up in one experience.  Like the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and her cook Norah, or Frank Sinatra and his valet George Jacobs or Madonna and her brother Christopher we are offered the chance to understand that the lives of these seemingly mythical creatures are really just fellow human beings, both flawed and fabulous.

When Kathryn Sermak first came to work as Bette’s assistant in 1979, Kathryn was a young, carefree Californian who spelled her name the classic way – Catherine – and had just newly spelled out a dream of one day living in France. Bette was in her 70’s, still working and very much set in her ways. Kathryn thought she was taking a simple summer job that would enable her to fund her way to France – not even really aware of who Bette Davis actually was. In turn, Bette thought she was getting a competent, sophisticated assistant in Kathryn whom would be both professional and perfunctory. Both were in for a very big surprise.

In the early, uncertain days, Kathryn didn’t expect to eventually count Bette as one of her best friends and Bette absolutely never entertained the idea that Kathryn would become like a daughter to her. At first, everything was wrong for both women. On Bette’s side, Kathryn was not enough – she wasn’t cultured, she wasn’t able to anticipate needs, she wasn’t sophisticated, nor groomed for the level of lifestyle that Bette had grown into. On Kathryn’s side Bette was too much… too demanding, too overbearing and too controlling. Both thought they would never last the first week together.

The turn in their relationship from bad to better came down to one simple little thing – an egg. Bette’s breakfast most always consisted of a three-minute egg. The proper cooking of it was her litmus test as to the value of any good assistant’s worth. There’s not much to cooking a three-minute egg. It involves a pan of boiling water, an egg still in its shell and three minutes of simmering.   But Bette added a twist to this simple test. How do you cook a three-minute egg in a hotel room with no stove, no pots and pans and no kitchen? Perplexed, Kathryn had no idea until Bette motioned to the in-room coffee pot. Then hot water was brewed. The egg was placed in the glass coffee carafe and the time was monitored on a wristwatch for 3 minutes exactly. In this small test of skill, it wasn’t that Kathryn failed to quickly and cleverly assess the options of impromptu cooking in a kitchenless room, but instead, it was the trainability of her actions that caught Bette’s attention.

That was the beauty of their relationship and the bud that ultimately bonded them together. The fact that Kathryn was young, fresh and naive while Bette was experienced, opinionated and worldly proved a combination of character traits that formed a tight friendship that lasted the rest of Bette’s life. It wasn’t always easy for these two women learning about life and each other day by day, but by the end the experience was invaluable.

There were outlandish moments, like when Bette insisted Kathryn change the spelling of her name from Catherine to Kathryn so that she would be more memorable (which she did!). There were all the lessons Kathryn had to endure… etiquette, elocution, table manners,  how to walk properly, how to dress effectively, how to eat with decorum and how to hold court at a table full of strangers.

There were awkward moments, when Bette’s insistence on how to appropriately handle certain social situations was so outdated, that Kathryn would bear the brunt of the embarrassment.   This was especially apparent when Bette insisted on dressing Kathryn for a formal dance in Washington DC complete with fur coat, gloves, a designer dress, expensive jewelry and dance lessons only for Kathryn to encounter a room full of denim-clad twenty-somethings casually hanging out in a dance hall.

There were the vulnerable moments when Bette crumpled up in the face of public humiliation as her daughter wrote an unflattering tell-all book, or when Bette threw off her wig in the car one day and embarked on a temper tantrum that was heartbreakingly child-like.  There was oodles of advice about men and relationships and sticking up for oneself in the face of adversity. And there were the laughs and the conversations and the sweet letters that Bette would write to Kathryn expressing all the appreciation she felt for her darling assistant and her close friend. There were silent treatments and long work days, elegant cocktail hours and thoughtful gifts, tears and tenacity, laughter and luxury. There was life, with all its good and all its bad.

And there were eggs – lots of eggs. Bette and Kathryn traveled the world together and ate at many fine restaurants, but the food Bette would choose to make for herself or her family on days off was simple fare that harkened back to her New England roots. Homemade burgers, cucumber salad, cornish game hen, wine spritzers, clam bakes, fresh berries with cold cream… those are the foods that she liked to make. For this post, our breakfast menu inspired by Bette Davis includes the following:

A Bette Davis inspired breakfast!

It’s a simple menu symbolizing all that was Bette Davis – sweet, salty, fresh, traditional, colorful, warm, cool and classic. It takes just a few minutes to make and is so easy it doesn’t even require detailed instruction. Simply boil an egg for 3 minutes.  Slice some homemade bread and slather it with jam.  Bake a potato in the oven for an hour and then finely chop it up with some scallions and salt and pepper and add the mix to a pan with some olive oil and let it cook until it turns brown and crusty. Adorn the plate with fresh fruit. Tah-dah! Breakfast, Bette Davis style, is ready!

Kathryn would be the first person to tell you that life with Bette was extraordinary for her last ten years. That the talented movie star was never far from the actual woman. That there was a glamorous side to her, a practical side, a petulant side and a vulnerable side that made her interesting and unique and ultimately endearing. That she was far from perfect but perfectly real.

“That’s me: an old kazoo with some sparklers, ” Bette once said.

The many faces of Bette Davis throughout her 55-year career.

Cheers to Bette for tackling life head-on,  with grace and style and fortitude and being 100% unique about the whole affair until the very end. Cheers to Kathryn to giving us a very real look into the life of real woman and cheers to three-minute eggs – a new breakfast favorite here in the Vintage Kitchen!

This post is part of a blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood featuring the life and film Career of Bette Davis. Read more about this incredible woman and her work in a variety of posts contributed by a dozen different film bloggers here. 

Find the vintage cookbooks that contributed recipes to this post in the shop here.

Find the recipe for homemade brown bread from a previous post here.

Find out more about Kathryn Sermack and her book, Miss D & Me here.

The Lady Behind The Leopard: Bringing Up Baby’s Unseen Star

Olga Celeste on set with Neissa. Photo courtesy of Click magazine, 1938.
Olga Celeste on set with Neissa. Photo courtesy of Click magazine, 1938.

Seventy-eight February’s ago (that’s 1938, if you struggle with math) Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were lighting up the silver screen with funny situations in their second movie together, Bringing Up Baby.

bringing up baby movie poster

They shared the comedic spotlight in this movie with two more co-stars – non-traditional sidekicks that were a bit out of the ordinary even for Hollywood standards…

Olga Celeste and her leopard Neissa. Photo courtesy of Click Magazine, February 1938.
Olga Celeste and her leopard Neissa. Photo courtesy of Click Magazine, February 1938.

Meet Olga Celeste, an early Hollywood animal trainer and her favorite Indian leopard Neissa.  Olga was born in Sweden in the late 1880’s and began working with animals at the age of 11. By 1938, she had taken her talent all the way to Burbank, California where she held court as the only female leopard trainer in the world.

Ms. Jeannie loves this photo below – you can see Olga’s excitement in working with her students.

Olga at work. Photo curtesy of Click Magazine 1938
Olga at work. Photo curtesy of Click Magazine 1938

Part of the Vaudeville circuit, she was also an actress and stunt double but her true passion lied in leopards. Using the art of conversation, rather than physical brut power, Olga trained her leopards by talking to them, using the power of her confident personality to gain control of the cats instead of using fear tactics and force.

The 1920's Luna Park Zoo brochure which features Olga on the very far right. Brochure photograph courtesy of lincolnheightsla.com
The 1920’s Luna Park Zoo brochure which features Olga on the very far right. Brochure photograph courtesy of lincolnheightsla.com

Employed by the Luna Park Zoo in Los Angeles, Olga worked with and trained a handful of leopards but her favorite was Neissa, whom she considered nothing more than a large house cat. Because Neissa was such a joy to have around, Olga often took her home with her after a long day on the set. Like any person passionate about their profession, Olga’s home reflected her life with leopards in both the decor and the wall art, which was made up of signed photographs of all the actors she had worked with in Hollywood.

At home with Neissa.
At home with Neissa. Photo courtesy of Click Magazine, February 1938.

Sweet and docile for the most part Neissa did have a precocious side. As a lover of perfume (like all pretty ladies!) Neissa was soothed, comforted and drawn to anything that smelled fragrant, so Olga used perfume as her main training technique.

In Bringing Up Baby, the very first scene shot for the movie featured Katharine Hepburn walking around her bedroom and talking on the phone wearing a gorgeous floating dressing gown.

True professionals...Neissa and Katharine in action.
True professionals…Neissa and Katharine in action.

Perfume was sprinkled on the cloth near Katharine’s knee so that Neissa in the scene would rub up against Katharine’s leg in affectionate greeting.

“I must add that I didn’t have enough brains to be scared, so I did a lot of scenes with the leopard just roaming around.” – Katharine Hepburn, on interacting with her feline co-star

Neissa’s character, Baby, was portrayed as a sweet and affectionate cat with a touch of wild precociousness. Like her real-life self, Neissa was also sweet and affectionate and wildly precocious.

Promotional still for Bringing Up Baby featuring Katharine and Neissa.
Promotional still for Bringing Up Baby featuring Katharine and Neissa.

Katharine worked with Neissa at ease up until the point the innocent clinking of wardrobe weights on one particular skirt irritated Neissa so much so that she spontaneously lunged for Katharine’s hemline. Luckily Olga stepped in at just the right moment before anything unfortunate happened but it did cause fearless Kate to readjust her casual relationship with Neissa.

Olga, always quick on her feet had the strength and ability to lift up to 200 pounds, so she was capable of protecting all actors on-set should something go awry but Cary Grant wasn’t reassured by Olga’s presence just off-camera. He was so terrified of Neissa that the director Howard Hawkes had to come up with creative shots so that Cary and Neissa never actually acted together in any one scene.

This was one of the scenes that had to be patched together so that Neissa and Cary Grant didn't have to act together.
This was one of the scenes that had to be patched together so that Neissa and Cary Grant didn’t have to be in the car at the same time together.

Olga understood that leopards weren’t for everyone but hoped through training demonstrations and film performances that people would come to understand how truly intelligent and extraordinary these exotic creatures were. Working well into her 60’s, Olga’s last film with her leopards was the 1950’s blockbuster The Ten Commandments, but a lover never truly stops loving, so she continued to stay engaged,  interested and informed with all matters animal throughout her retirement.   After more than seven decades in the film and animal training industries, Olga passed away at the age of 81 in Burbank.

leo5
Olga and Neissa, pals for life. Photo courtesy of Click Magazine. February 1938.

Olga is a fantastic role model for the month of February… this follow-your-heart time of year that is synonymous with love, passion, romance and taking chances.  Olga made a lifetime career out of pursuing her interests, living fearlessly and having fun in the process. She fell in love with leopards at a young age and managed to stretch that interest across two continents, eight decades, one wild kingdom and millions of people.

Although initially under-appreciated, Bringing Up Baby is now regarded as one of the best comedic movies of all-time and consistently lands on the ten best list of Katharine Hepburn’s greatest performances. If there was never an Olga, there would never have been a Neissa. And if there was never a Neissa there might never have been a comfortable Kate and if there was never a comfortable Kate there would never have been a successfully comedic Baby. And if there was never a Baby there would be a few less laughs in the world. And the thought of that dear readers is an absolute tragedy.

Cheers to Olga and to living life with a heart full of love!

 

clickmagazine

{A little side note: Photographs for this blog post came from a feature article in the debut issue of Click Magazine published in February 1938, which was recently for sale in Ms. Jeannie’s shop. As so happens sometimes with almost antique paper, this vintage magazine is starting to show signs of wear and tear so in order to preserve its contents Ms. Jeannie will be framing it behind glass and featuring it in an upcoming blog post on decorating. Stay tuned!}