Bette Davis and Designer Patrick Kelly Made Oddly Perfect Pals
She was one of Hollywood’s most revered stars. He was an emerging force in French fashion. But when they met on Christmas eve in Paris, it seemed ordained by fate.
I started working as a press attaché for the fashion designer Patrick Kelly in
Paris in 1986, a time in my life when work often stretched deep into the evenings. Inspiration came to Patrick, the first American (and first African-American) admitted to Chambre syndicale du pret-a-porter, in the wee hours. People in American fashion passing through Paris knew if they stopped by 6 Rue du Parc Royal late at night they were likely to find him hard at work as the party built around him.
Patrick thrived amid chaos, which seemed to focus his energies. As he sat at his sewing machine, or draped fabric over a mannequin, African American models like Iman, Pat Cleveland, and the singer Grace Jones would arrive, and one night the whole Jackson Five.
Some of his guests had just finished work at other designers’ ateliers and some, fresh from Charles De Gaulle Airport, were looking for a way to party through their jet lag. The studio was filled with music. Respectable by Mel and Kim was one of Patrick’s favorites, and he played it every night as the models danced in the empty showroom. Some nights Patrick cooked macaroni and cheese and fried chicken from his Mississippi grandmother’s recipes. These evenings often ended at dawn, later than I was capable of staying up. I was amazed when I saw Patrick at the studio the next afternoon, ready for more.
Into this cauldron of youth, movement, creativity and confusion on Christmas Eve 1986 I brought Bette Davis. At the age of 78, the Hollywood legend instantly became Patrick Kelly’s most unlikely muse.
I was hired to be Miss D’s personal assistant in 1979, shortly after I finished college. In the seven years that I worked for her, she groomed me to be her perfect personal assistant. She was my teacher, my mentor, and I her protégé.
I was grateful for all she taught me, but as I approached my late-twenties, I was restless to begin life on my own. We were searching for my replacement when she suffered a devastating stroke. I stayed by her side, sleeping next to her bed for three months, until she was discharged from the hospital. Back in California, I spent two years supervising her recovery. When Miss D got her first movie role after the stroke, we agreed it was at last time for me to fulfill my dream to live in Paris and work in fashion. I moved to Paris in March 1985 and, despite the distance, we remained close, talking on the phone twice a week.
Working for Patrick Kelly was a dream job for me. He was Paris’ hottest young designer. He arrived there in 1980 and sold his clothes on the sidewalk in front of fashionable boutiques, where he rapidly gained a following. As the French designer Christian Lacroix told People in 1987, “The French function according to love at first sight. If they fall in love with you, they accept you. And Patrick is very lovable. Everybody loves him.”
When he hired me, his studio was expanding rapidly; after a six-page spread in Elle, he received $5 million in orders. Despite this pressure, the atmosphere at his atelier was fluid and improvisational. With such a small staff, we all did everything and, as Patrick’s partner Bjorn Amelan said, we were not so much employees as co-conspirators. I wasn’t sure why, but I was certain that Bette Davis, whom I called Miss D, would instantly fall in love with Patrick, too.
I had not mentioned that I had worked for Bette Davis when I interviewed for the position at Patrick Kelly because I was determined to make it on my own in Paris. At work I talked about her often, though apparently without clarifying that my Miss D was an Oscar-winning film star. As far as Patrick and Bjorn knew, Miss D was a beloved elderly relative.
That Christmas Eve they invited me to dinner at their apartment, an intimate gathering of ten family members and co-workers. I mentioned Miss D would be passing through town on her way to Germany, and they insisted I bring her along.
At some point in the ensuing weeks, Patrick and Bjorn discovered that Miss D was Bette Davis. Patrick was a lifelong fan and it was the fulfillment of a dream he never had that his idol was coming to Christmas Eve.
That night Miss D wore a black two-piece knit suit with a flared skirt and a light ruffle at the sleeves: appropriately understated, chic and feminine. But from the moment she walked in the door, Patrick started to dress her. His signature adornment was tiny, plump red lips that he fastened onto his designs in playful patterns. He always had some on hand, and he promptly affixed a dozen to Miss D’s waist, instantly transforming her outfit (and her) from demur to youthful and fashionable. I treasure a photo I took of them that evening. Patrick is leaning on the sofa back, behind Miss D, his head resting on his crossed arms. Their faces and their smiles are nearly parallel. A scatter of red lips decorates her midsection, offset by a bright red tassel Patrick had pinned on her right shoulder. That night these two great spirits collided, and neither was ever the same.
After drinks, the dinner table was full of laughter. I was watching Miss D carefully to make sure she didn’t get too tired. I had no need to worry. The party and Patrick’s adornments boosted her energy. During the main course, she rose to toast Patrick and Bjorn. “Thank you for such a lovely dinner and evening. I’m so glad to finally meet you. Your clothes are divine and fun! You’re incredibly talented. And I’m thrilled Kath is working with you. Merry Christmas to all!” she said.
Shortly thereafter she told Patrick it was time for her to go. Patrick refused to let her.
“Oh, Miss Davis, you cannot go now!” said Patrick. “My peach cobbler is in the oven, but it’s just about to come out.”
“Oh Patrick! How can I say no? Of course I will stay!”
The next day Patrick sent Miss D a dress that fit her size four frame perfectly, along with a matching hat. Thereafter he began designing clothes just for Bette Davis. That spring, when she appeared on television to promote the publication of her second memoir, This ’N That, she wore Patrick Kelly exclusively. She so adored his clothes and him that often she would interrupt an interview to call attention to her outfit and proclaim Patrick’s name on national television.
The most notorious of these outings was on Late Night With David Letterman in April 1989, five months before she died. She tripped on a cord during the long walk out to the interview couch and Letterman mistook this little stumble for frailty. He stood in front of her, shielding her from the audience, a gentlemanly gesture intended to give her time to recover. When he stepped aside, he revealed Miss D in her bright red Patrick Kelly dress with three large, strategically placed, sequined question marks. When the wolf whistles and catcalls died down, Miss D claimed the stage for her and for Patrick.
“Patrick Kelly made this dress just for me, just for your show. Now you see what they are?” she asked Letterman, who had returned to sit behind his desk. “They are question marks. You are always asking questions, are you not? Well, I thought tonight I might ask you a question.”
Letterman looked like he wanted to drop down below the floor as Bette Davis turned to interrogate him. She was now the one obscuring the audience’s view. When Miss D finished her three questions, one for each mark on her dress, Letterman looked wryly at the audience and observed, “If this was a prize fight, it would have been called by now.”
That’s what Miss D felt like when she wore a Patrick Kelly dress. When I zipped her into it, she took in the energy he channeled to her those late nights in his atelier. He bolstered her strength and made her even more sassy. If ever there was a direct link between a designer and his muse, it was the one shared by Patrick and Miss D.
In a way they were kindred spirits, odd for two people from such dissimilar backgrounds and styles. While Miss D was a Yankee and a perfectionist, the master of detail who needed to control all of them, Patrick, a son of the deep South, thrived in anarchy and reveled in surprise. What they shared was determination, conviction, and a tireless work ethic. While their approaches were different, they knew who they were and how they saw things, and neither of them let anything distract them from their goals.
At a time when French haute couture designers favored boxy shapes, big shoulder pads, and military hardware, Patrick’s clothing was slinky, fun, and fresh. He draped jersey in bold colors contoured to accentuate a woman’s curves, earning him the nickname the King of Cling. More than just the silhouette, Patrick’s love of bows, buttons, and sequins was a break from the brassy, geometric monotony of the ’80s.
Miss D also broke through the stodginess of the Hollywood studio system.
The carefully curated, larger-than-life perfection that the studios demanded from stars bored her. The roles that interested her were real and raw, and some of her best roles were not glamorous, but about women bedraggled by their circumstances. Miss D exuded confidence, strength, and simplicity, as did Patrick. In her way, she was a breath of fresh air for women who never could attain the Hollywood ideal. Miss D was not playful or joyful like Patrick, but like him she was a fighter who was determined to get respect. I believe that, though they were very different from each other, that Christmas Eve they met they instantly recognized their similarities.
Miss D was not only Patrick’s muse, she was his treasure, as she was mine. Whenever Miss D needed me—to help her on a movie set or with publicity for her book—Patrick graciously allowed me to go to her, assuring me that my job would be waiting for me when my responsibilities to Miss D were done. When Miss D’s cancer returned in 1989, I quit my job at Patrick Kelly because I didn’t know when I would be able to come back. Fortunately, Miss D beat back that cancer and, with the doctor’s approval, accepted an invitation to be the honoree at a film festival in San Sebastian, Spain. I knew she would need me at her side.
The cancer depleted Miss D’s balance and energy, but not her vanity. She insisted that her fans not see her in a wheelchair. I worked with the festival to make sure that she had places to steady herself everywhere she walked in public. Her stamina amazed me. She presided over a two-hour press conference and a glittering evening when the festival awarded her the Donostia, the Spanish Oscar. That evening she wore a Patrick Kelly floor length black evening dress cut to fit her perfectly, and a black mink hat.
When the festival was over, she collapsed. We stayed for a few days in the hotel hoping she would rally enough to fly home to California, but she got worse. We flew to the American hospital in Paris, where she died five days later.
While I was arranging to get Miss D’s body back to California, I had lunch with Bjorn. We both remember that lunch, but neither of us now can recall where we were or what we ate. Patrick was in the hospital dying of AIDS, and Bjorn, as I had done with Miss D, was sleeping next to his hospital bed. All we remember from that meal is the heaviness of loss, the one that we shared over Miss D, and the one that was to come when Patrick died January 1, 1990.
The dress I chose for Miss Davis to be buried in was the shorter version of the formal black crepe de chine mock turtleneck dress that Patrick made for her. He’d also made a shorter version in jersey, which is what I wore for the flight. I wanted Miss Davis wrapped in the love she felt from Patrick and that his joy and energy were carrying us both back home.