‘When Bette Met Mae’ Chronicles the First Meeting, in WeHo, of Two of Hollywood’s Most Independent Female Stars

From left to right, Karen Teliha as Betty Davis, Brandon Michael Larcom as Wes Wheadon and  Victoria Mills as Mae West.
From left to right, Karen Teliha as Bette Davis, Brandon Michael Larcom as Wes Wheadon and
Victoria Mills as Mae West.

They were the most independent women in the history of Hollywood. Bette Davis, known by some as “The First Lady of the American Screen,” never shied from a fight with the (male) titans who ruled the film industry. She had the temerity to take her career to England when Warner Brothers, the studio with which she had a contract, offered her unsatisfactory roles. Mae West, in an era dominated by the puritanical Motion Picture Code, pushed forward with sexually provocative roles in plays such as “Sex” and “Diamond Lil.” Their stage success led Paramount to take a chance on her with carefully laundered films such as ““Belle of the Nineties.”

Betty Davis, left, with Wes Wheadon, photo from early 1970s
Betty Davis, left, with Wes Wheadon, photo from early 1970s

For all their prominence in the then-small world of Hollywood of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties (well before the era of reality TV shows and celebutantes in which everyone has 15 minutes of fame), Davis and West never managed to meet until a night in 1973 at the home of a West Hollywood antiques dealer. “When Bette Met Mae” is a film that chronicles their first encounter, with the conversation taped that night by Wes Wheadon, a West Hollywood optometrist who was tending bar. The film is being screened for the first time on March 27 at the West Hollywood City Council Chambers.

“I had purchased a cassette tape recorder, and I brought it along with my Polaroid camera,” Wheadon recalled. “I showed it to Bette and said it would be fun to record Mae’s voice. Everyone agreed, so I turned it on and let it run for the two hours that cocktails were served.

“What I captured was a priceless conversation from the two ladies who seemed eager to learn about the other’s life. Questions from Mae’s two male escorts to Bette kept her going — some got her really riled up, and Bette asked a ton of questions about Mae’s life. It was a slice of Hollywood History that no one has ever heard.”

Wheadon said the conversation covered their history in Hollywood, censorship, contracts, the actors union, their USO appearances during World War II, writing scripts, film rights and payment of residuals and the people who had impersonated them (drag performers such as Charles Pierce and Craig Russell.)

“Mae discussed her many famous boyfriends, Bette her four husbands and children,” Wheadon said. “Bette talked about her relationship with Joan Crawford during ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,’ and Bette clearly didn’t care for ‘Crawford’ — as she called her).”

Wheadon said that Laura and Larry Worchell, the film’s executive producers, suggested created an historical documentary using the audio tape and still photos that he took that night. “A film was shot using look-alike actors and a restored sound-tape of the recording made that night. After five minutes of watching, the actors and hearing the real voices of Bette and Mae dubbed in, you cannot tell the actors aren’t really Bette and Mae. I’ve been told this technique of a ‘reverse dub’ has never been done like this before.”

“The film only covers what was discussed that night, which was a great deal of history,” Wheadon said. “Back story stills, clips and narration by Sally Kellerman, as well as interviews were added to clarify and illustrate what was being discussed, making the film truly historical.” Wheadon said those in the audience will feel like a fly on the wall during that evening.

And how did Wheadon find himself pouring (lots of) drinks that night? He already had begun his career as an optometrist and was living on Orlando Avenue next dor to Pollock. Pollock was remodeling a house next door and hired Vik Greenfield, who had been Davis’ personal assistant, to help. Davis asked if she could stay at that house while she worked on a TV film at Universal.

“She arrived, and I met her over the backyard fence,” Wheadon said. “We got along well, and Chuck and Vik, seeing this, would ask me to dinner a couple times a week. So Bette and I became comfortable and friendly. I was 27 and Bette was 65 and rambunctious as hell. She also liked her cocktails starting with orange juice with vodka at mid day, then a nap then vodka or whatever else in the evening. She liked to entertain her pals and stars she knew and liked (mostly men — didn’t much care for women, especially pretty ones) whenever she could. With Chuck and Vik doing all the work of course.”

Eventually, Wheadon said, Pollock and Greenfield decided they needed a break from Davis. They asked Wheadon to have her over for dinner at his place once a week. “So that became our weekly ritual,” he said. “I called it ‘Bette Duty.’ She was fun. I was not a big fan, and as such we got along well.”

Davis died in in 1989 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, of a stroke. She was 81. West died in 1980 in Los Angeles at the age of 87.  But these two of Hollywood’s most independent and famous stars will be alive again at the screening of “When Bette Met Mae” at 7 p.m. on March 27 at the West Hollywood City Council Chambers, 625 N. San Vicente Blvd. south of Santa Monica. Admission is free, but seating is limited and advance reservations are required. Reservations can be requested by emailing whenbettemetmae@gmail.com

  1. Was at a party at Chucks’ in the 80’s that he gave for Frank Langella. I went upstairs and saw many pics lining the walls of Bette and Mae. I always said that it would make a tremendous play or movie. I’m so glad that its finally been put on record.

  2. Bette Davis was once asked ‘What is the secret to a successful marriage?’ and she replied, ‘Separate bathrooms.’ Judging by her 4 marriages, guess there’s a little more to it than separate commodes. And I wonder if this is what Marlene Dietrich was referring to when she said, ‘I vant to be alone’.

  3. This is a great film (saw it in Weho) despite T. Malachosky’s claim he was Mae West’s ‘personal assistant’ from 1969 to 1980. He had never even seen the inside of her apartment until mid-1973, when friend and Ravenswood switchboard operator Chris Basinger asked West if she’d mind seeing him. He was “Paul’s gopher boy” (as in Novak, West’s live-in companion and real personal assistant) before that. In the later 70’s Malachosky also worked at the switchboard and was fired for being entirely too invested in West’s phone conversations. “Personal assistant” is not only a wild exaggeration it is simply not true. Even “secretary” is stretching it. Both Robert Duran and Chris Basinger whom were ever-present in West’s later years, are still very much alive, and are not pleased about the attempt at changing history.

    Having said that, this was a great movie, very tastefully done and with top notch impersonators. It totally deserves to be in festivals. So glad the tape survived.

  4. I have been researching a manuscript entitled “In Search of Mae West” for several years and have had the good fortune to speak directly with the young men at the time that comprised West’s “inner circle” when she held court in her Ravenswood Apartment lair. I was aware of the existence of the dinner conversation tapes as reference and some details were revealed in Barbra Leaming’s 1992 Bette Davis biography.

    I am very excited about the film When Bette Met Mae and hope to be able to view it and possibly speak to the producers as well as Wes Wheadon when I arrive in Los Angeles of a month this coming May.

    It is ironic that Mae West who fiercely protected her persona, demanded that reporters not record her voice during interviews, and take hand written notes, was being recorded by those she placed trust in. In the late 1940’s when West reprieved her signature play, “Diamond Lil” a back stage visiter secretly recorded their conversation and was subsequently discovered to be selling 78 rpm records of their banter. West successfully sued to stop further distribution.

    During my research in Los Angeles, I heard reel to reel tapes made of telephone conversations with West sharing her candid thoughts on Bette Davis’ visit at the Ravenswood, and her subsequent request to set up a second get-together. The final assault was West’s growing suspicion that her assistant Stanley Musgrove was secretly recording her answers to a barrage of questions about her early career during weekly Sunday suppers at his home.

    Upon Mae’s death it was reported in Daily Variety that West’s companion knew about the secret recordings and allowed them to continue with the understanding that no book would be published during her lifetime. Hopefully this film portrays Mae West as more charming and open than many of the previous biographical attempts.

  5. I’ll never forget the night Bette Davis hosted the opening of Geraldine Fitzgerald’s “night club show” at The Back Lot in WeHo. What a night for star gazing. Olivia de Havilland was there, Gregory Peck & so many other huge stars that came to honor GF. Her show was pleasant enough but I had such a good time I went back the next night expecting the same exciting action. But alas, that show & the few thereafter were sparsely attended but I did get a chance to have a personal conversation with the lovely Irish lass Geraldine Fitzgerald.

  6. She was very close with great beauties and great stars like Olivia De Havilland, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ida Lupino, Anne Baxter, Margret Sullivan, Joan Blondell, Mary Astor and Debbie Reynolds an Southern with a great respect for Gladys Cooper. Movie stars she disliked are Joan Crawford, Miriam Hopkins, Marilyn Monroe, Celeste Holm. Stars she was a protégé; Ann Margaret, Julie Andrews, Meryl Streep, Debra Winger.

    Her great leading men Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Gary Merrill, Ernest Borgnine, Fanchot Tone, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Herbert Marshal, Paul Henried and Victor Buono.

  7. Bette not Betty but pronounced Betty loathed being called Bett. The line “Take Fountain” is really credited to Marlene Dietrich. The best line on Ralph Edwards, “This is Your Life,” is when Ralph Edwards asked Bette “What should I do with your jacket.” Bette–“Dump It.”

  8. in 1978 Bette Davis signed her record album “Miss Bette Davis” for me at “Celebrity Records” on Santa Monica Blvd. near Robertson. Unfortunately when I had Butterfield & Butterfield auction off some movie memorabilia for me, that was sold along with a signed copy of her book “This ‘n That”. All I have left are pictures & have always regretted letting go of those signed treasures. I keep thinking the personalized record album will reappear at another auction & I can buy it back but I’m not holding my breath. I provided the desk that she used to sign her albums & the line went east on S.M. Blvd. for blocks. Mae West also signed 2 photos for me at her home on Rossmore in 1971 & those I still have.

  9. She was a West Hollywood resident, early on at 1217 Horn, then at the end of her life at the Colonial House, 1416 Havenhurst (just off…Fountain)

  10. Best Bette Davis story I know – late in her dotage, she showed up on Johnny Carson from time to time. It was a big deal to her – she dressed up in prime Davis style (all-black, including hat, jewels, cigarette holder. Carson asked her once, “Bette, you are such a legend and have so much experience. What advice would you give aspiring actors if they move to Hollywood?”
    She pondered this like she was going to come up with something significant, took a few puffs, and then said, simply
    “Take Fountain!”
    Johnny, Ed, Doc, the band and the crew laughed hysterically; the Midwestern tourists had no idea what she meant.
    We all do.

    Mae West was a dinner guest at a house I rented years later. The landlord was George Cukor; the tenant back then Roddy McDowell. The latter had dinner parties, and Cukor, their mutual buddy Elizabeth Taylor, Mae West and Beverly Sills were guests. Emanuel Levy, in his Cukor bio, describes how West let Sills know that she had opera training early in her career, and insisted on comparing her skills to the singing legend.

  11. Charles Pollock would have us all doubled over in laughter and rolling on the floor with his Bette stories, God rest his soul. I miss him.

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