She's Got Bette Davis Ties

Margo Channing came to dinner . . . Baby Jane stayed for breakfast!"

That tantalizing teaser only sounds like a terrifying advertising come-on for one of Bette Davis' horror movies from the '60s.

In reality, it's a line of dialogue from Me and Jezebel, a reality-based play about the legendary actress by Valley author Elizabeth Fuller. In a nutshell, it's also the inspiration of a cottage industry that began 16 years ago when two-time Oscar winner Davis showed up for dinner at Fuller's home -- and didn't leave for a month.

The drama-drenched debacle began innocently enough on May 23, 1985. That's when Fuller -- then living in Weston, Connecticut, with her husband and preschool-age son -- invited her neighbor Robin Brown over to share a barbecued chicken dinner. Brown asked if Fuller minded if she brought along an old girlhood chum who happened to be staying with her because of a hotel strike in New York City.

Informed of the guest's identity, Elizabeth Fuller became an instant nervous wreck.

"What would you do if you suddenly found out Bette Davis was coming to your house?" asks Fuller, little dreaming the havoc the star's visit would wreak on her life. An "adrenaline junkie" who thrived on turmoil, Davis reportedly transformed Fuller into a 24-hour errand girl, made Fuller's son into the world's youngest Bette Davis impersonator and almost ended a marriage when Fuller's husband issued an "either she goes or I go" ultimatum.

In the process, Davis also allowed Fuller access to a previously undocumented chapter in the actress's life that is by turns as funny as anything in the comedy All About Eve -- and, if Fuller is to be believed, as inexplicably weird as anything in the spooky Burnt Offerings.

If the rest of this story isn't history -- when Davis' friend was called away on an emergency, the star wound up moving into Fuller's home "for one or two nights" that stretched into more than four weeks -- it isn't for lack of trying on Elizabeth Fuller's part.

More than a decade after that memorable supper (although Davis praised Fuller's pie, she recalls that her guest crabbed, "The chicken was so raw it almost pecked me!" ), the harried hostess is still dining out on the tale.

To date, Fuller -- who lives in Mesa during part of the year while her teenage son attends Skyline High School -- has parlayed her 32-day encounter with the Houseguest from Hell into a publishing/theatrical annuity that includes a magazine article, a book, chapters in several other books she's authored, a lecture tour and a short-lived off-Broadway play that has since taken on a life of its own in stock and regional theater.

Last month, Fuller's run-in with the popeyed icon even led to an art show at Scottsdale's ZED gallery. Hyped by invitations jokingly "written" by Davis on behalf of "my dear friend Liz," guests were urged to see a series of kitschy ceramic dioramas and wall hangings inspired by Davis, as well as a knit dress dotted with cigarette burns that the actress left in her home more than 15 years ago.

Sitting in a Scottsdale cafe near the gallery, Elizabeth Fuller doesn't look much like the star-struck hausfrau you might imagine after reading her 1992 book, also titled Me and Jezebel. In repose, she's almost a dead ringer for Gilligan's Island star Tina Louise.

But once she starts talking and her theatrical mannerisms take over, it's not hard to believe that she's the little girl from Ohio who grew up worshiping Bette Davis, thanks to the tutelage of a like-minded grandmother who helped her draft fan letters to the star.

"As long as I can remember, I've always loved Bette Davis," confesses Fuller, explaining that, as a teenager, she wore a replica of Davis' Jezebel gown to a high school dance and performed a parody of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in a talent contest. "And now this woman I'd idolized forever is coming to stay in my home? Well, you can just imagine how I felt.

"The whole thing was just like The Man Who Came to Dinner," continues Fuller, referencing the 1941 Davis film about a pompous celebrity who takes over an Ohio household after he slips on some ice outside their home, and is forced to stay there until his broken leg mends.

When the 77-year-old Davis arrived at Fuller's riverfront home with 18 pieces of luggage, a broken leg was one of the few infirmities not on her medical chart. Despite having been recently hospitalized for a broken hip, a mastectomy and a series of strokes that had frozen her mouth into a permanent sneer, the near-skeletal Hollywood vet soon triggered a series of events that, as described by Fuller, played out like a marathon-length I Love Lucy episode.

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Dewey Webb