Pump Room orchestra leader Stanley Paul and friend.
Except for a few letters and an occasional phone call over these many years, I’d somewhat lost touch with Bette Davis. That is, until the spring of 1973. I’d read in the newspapers that the Sarah Siddons Society here in Chicago was going to honor her with an “Actress for All Seasons” award. My orchestra had been hired to play at the gala, which was going to be held at the Guild Hall of the Ambassador West Hotel on May 13. In those days, with Miss Davis as the headline, I was sure the gala would be a complete sellout. I was beyond thrilled that I would see my old friend again.
On the day of her arrival, I was beside myself with anticipation. I sent a basket of fruit, cheeses and a bottle of scotch up to her suite before her scheduled check-in. Victor, The Pump Room’s maître d’, had let me know that Miss Davis made a reservation to come in that evening, which was Saturday, May 12, 1973, a day before the gala.
That evening, I was at my usual place on the raised bandstand, leading my orchestra from the far left corner of The Pump Room, where I could see everything going on. About an hour into the evening, I happened to glance over at the door and could hear a little commotion. Standing there by the entrance with one arm on her hip, and another waving a cigarette madly, I saw none other than Miss Davis herself. There was a deep-throated shriek. “BUT I’VE AHL-READY TOLD YOU, I DON’T WANT TO BE SEATED IN BOOTH ONE. I WILL BE SITTING WITH STANLEYPAUL AT THE PIANO.”
“But, Miss Davis,” Victor began to explain, “you will be more comfortable in booth one.”
“JEEEZ!” she exclaimed. “DIDN’T YOU HEAR WHAT I SAID?”
I saw Bette Davis brush Victor aside, puffing at her cigarette as she sashayed across the crowded room. People parted right before her as though by a mysterious magnetic force. Conversations stilled to a slow hush and trailed away altogether. Eyes followed the queen of the movies making her grand entrance. She knew how to make an entrance as only Bette Davis could or would.
“MY GAWD, THERE YOU ARE!” she called out to me, breathing through a word now and then as only she ever did. “WHAT AN EXTRAAA-VAGANT BASKET WAITING IN MY SUITE UPON MY AHRRRI-VAL. YOU MUST REEE-ALLY BE DOING WELL!”
As I stated before, I’d sent her a basket of assorted fruits, cheeses and scotch. From what I could see, I guessed she’d sampled at least the liquid portion of the gift. She hoisted herself up onto the bandstand with the timely assistance of the bass player and slid herself onto the piano bench beside me.
“WHERE DID YOU E-VAH GET THOSE AWFUL SIDEBURNS?” she laughed, nearly pushing me right off the edge of the bench. Then she exclaimed, “WAITER! BRIHHHNG ME A SCOTCH — MAKE IT A DOUBLE!”
The couples on the dance floor were staring at us in complete and utter disbelief. She then clicked open her handbag and took out her lipstick and painted it across her top and bottom lip in one fluid motion. Then she brought out not one, but two packs of cigarettes. “WAITER, I THINK I’D BETTER HAVE AN ASHTRAY!”
She started smoking. And I mean smoking. Within 20 minutes, my piano keys were wholly covered with ashes, and I was choking with all the smoke. But you couldn’t tell Bette Davis to stop smoking. In fact, you couldn’t tell Bette Davis to do anything.
With my piano bench on the edge of the stage, and her sitting next to me while I was leading the orchestra, I was afraid I was going to knock her off the stage by this point, all the while envisioning the headlines in the Chicago Tribune tomorrow:
BETTE DAVIS FLOORED BY PIANO PLAYER
Stanley Paul Offers Thousand Apologies
An hour passed without the orchestra taking a break. Now two ashtrays were completely filled, the smoke was gradually thickening, and my band members were shooting glares at me because we were long past our scheduled break. But our guest of honor had no interest in stopping whatsoever.
She was already inhaling her more-than-probable third scotch when she tipped her head back and started singing along with the orchestra. In, I might add, a completely different key. Bette Davis was probably one of the greatest movie stars of all time, but singing was a craft she’d never quite mastered. In music, there are keys from A to G. Bette sang in the key of H — whatever the Hell key she wanted! It was quite a sight: me squinting at the ash-covered piano keys through the gray haze of cigarette smoke; the band members playing furiously along; patrons gawking at Bette singing — or, rather, trying to sing. There I was, doing my arpeggios on the piano, with the one and only legend swaying beside me on the piano bench.
How lucky was I to meet Bette Davis, let alone call her a friend? There will never be another one like her. (But I won’t tell you exactly how she felt about Joan Crawford.)