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Bette Davis by the Bay

The news that Bette Davis had rented a house down the block didn't excite Charlie Hennings until he'd seen his grandmother's reaction to it. Charlie's mother had hesitated to inform her own mother about Miss Davis' rental, for fear she would "go crazy," Susan Hennings explained. "But eventually, I told her. And she went crazy."

On her next visit to the Hennings' Huntington Bay home, Charlie's maternal grandmother swore she was going to walk down from her daughter's house to the cottage at the corner, knock on Bette Davis' door and ask for her autograph. Charlie's grandfather shook his head in something akin to exasperation and told Charlie's grandmother that Bette Davis wasn't going to give her the time of day, let alone an autograph. But Charlie's grandmother was determined, and she had infected Charlie with her enthusiasm, although that wasn't much of a task.

Charlie had managed to summon up admirable degrees of enthusiasm any time he wanted during his eight happy years on earth. Once when a kindergarten classmate lost a pen out the first-floor window, Charlie summoned enough enthusiasm to whip his Batman cape from its hiding place in his schoolbag, don it in a flash and leap out the window to retrieve the pen. Charlie's unsuspecting substitute teacher nearly expired from heart failure, but his classmates thought it a cool move.

To disguise her intentions on her trek to the Bette Davis house, Charlie's grandmother took along Charlie's 12-month-old brother, Matthew, in a carriage and asked Charlie and his sisters, Nancy, 10, and Erin, 6, for an escort. Grandma had bribed the kids with pairs of multicolored pinwheels that fastened like bumblebee antennae to their heads, and as the school of Henningses headed west, Charlie bicycling in the lead, the pinwheels whirred madly in the summer breeze.

Charlie got to the house first, followed soon after by his sisters. They stood peering over the fence, their headgear whirring like bugs. Charlie had no idea who Bette Davis might be, but he had heard the song "Bette Davis Eyes," and had seen singer Kim Carnes performing it on cable television. He may have expected a young, blonde woman in a black leotard.

When the grandmotherly woman with the gravelly voice glanced up from beneath the rim of her sun hat and barked, "what are you walking way up there for? Why aren't you walking down there? It's low tide!" Charlie responded, "My grandmother's coming to see you!" He whirled around toward the road and yelled:

"Grandma! This is it! This is the place! Is she old? Then this is her!"Miss Davis watched, her hands on her hips.

"Oh, my God!" Charlie's grandmother thought, as she wheeled the baby carriage around suddenly and dashed back up the street, ducking from embarrassment. "Oh, my God! Never again! The woman would never speak to me again, even if I ever did get the chance to meet her!"

Charlie's grandmother left Huntington and never tried to see Bette Davis again, though it wouldn't have been too difficult. The actress shopped for fish in the local fish store, bought clam rakes in the hardware store and endured all kinds of daily and nightly interruptions from neighborhood teens, and noise from parties at the nearby Bay Club.

And she endured Charlie, apparently. Susan Hennings kept running into neighbors who said that her skinny, blond, elfin Charlie had introduced their son or daughter to Bette Davis. "He never mentioned it to me," she said. "I would hear it from parents. 'Hey, Charlie took Alex over to meet Bette Davis.' 'Hey, Liz tells me Charlie took him to meet Bette Davis.' "

With her son an apparent intimate of the legendary actress, and her mother an unrequited fan, Susan Hennings decided she would march down the street and ask for an autograph for her mother. She marched about 15 times and circled the block an aggregate total of maybe 45 times, but she could never knock on the door. Finally, she chose a day when the children were back in school. She pushed the baby carriage up to the gate, turned away, returned again, turned away again and, at last, walked to the door and knocked. A woman answered. Mrs. Hennings could think of nothing to say except, "I came for an autograph." The woman said, "I guess you want Bette Davis' autograph, unless you want mine. I'm the cleaning service. But Miss Davis is gone."

"When did she leave?" Mrs. Hennings asked.


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