Who Was Bette Davis' Husband? Gary Merrill Fell In Love With Her On Set
Old Hollywood is about to have its dirty laundry aired by modern TV. Ryan Murphy's next anthology series Feud premieres Mar. 5 on FX. The first season, Bette And Joan, casts Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis: peers, superstars, and mortal enemies. Both actors were famous for their larger than life personalities and their rather creative ways of undermining one another. But their feud is just one aspect of their lives that makes both Crawford and Davis interesting. For example, did you know that one of Davis' most famous roles resulted in a marriage? Bette Davis' husband Gary Merrill starred opposite her in All About Eve.
The drama about a fame-hungry ingenue who circles like a buzzard while a stage star's career winds down came out in 1950. Anne Baxter (Eve, the ingenue) and Davis (Margo, the established star) were both nominated for the Leading Actress Oscar that year. (Neither won, though the movie took home six Academy Awards total.) Gary Merrill played Bill Simpson, the fiance Eve attempts to seduce away from Margo. In reality, the actors playing those parts grew closer during the filming. Merrill passed away in 1990. And according to his obituary in The Washington Post, Merrill married Davis the same year that they met and on the same day his divorce from his first wife Barbara Leeds was finalized. Davis and Merrill shared the screen in a few more films after they made it official.
The All About Eve role came about just a few years into his career. Merrill had worked on stage before World War II began, and he appeared in the film Winged Victory while he was still actively serving in the military. Though he's credited in more than 40 films and was one of the first actors to portray Batman (in a Superman radio drama), Merrill's comments on the profession indicate that Davis was the more dedicated actor in the family. The Washington Post quotes Merrill's 1988 autobiography, in which he wrote: "I had no drive, really. I just like to get by and have fun."
The actor titled his autobiography Bette, Rita and the Rest of My Life in acknowledgment of his two Hollywood loves. According to The New York Times, Davis and Merrill adopted a son and a daughter and then divorced in 1960. After their break-up, Merrill became involved with another iconic film beauty: Rita Hayworth. They never married.
In a 2001 Vanity Fair article, producer William Frye recounted some of his more tumultuous experiences with Davis. The piece characterizes Merrill and Davis' relationship as passionate but fraught. Frye wrote about an introduction he attempted to make between Davis and director Herschel Daugherty over dinner. Davis objected to Daugherty pointing his finger at her while making a statement, and she allegedly made a scene. "Bette’s husband, Gary Merrill, simply stood up and left," Frye wrote. "No 'Good night,' nothing. He just walked out, muttering, 'I’ve had it.'" Another time, Frye claimed that Davis couldn't come in to film because she and Merrill had had a row the night before that spilled outside of their house, where she bruised her face on their gravel driveway.
Long after their divorce, Merrill publicly defended Davis. According to The Washington Post obituary, he "paraded outside a bookstore with a sign urging shoppers not to buy My Mother's Keeper, a critical biography of Davis by her daughter." Davis sent him a note of gratitude; it was their first communication in 15 years.
In addition to his film work, Merrill was also politically active. The same New York Times piece states that he participated in the march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama in 1965 and even ran for Congress in Maine in the 1968 primaries.
Davis might have been the brighter star, but her husband Gary Merrill also had a long and respectable show business career.