Stephanie Salter's eyes for Bette Davis’ new postage stamp

By Stephanie Salter
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE For several years, as he watched the U.S. Postal Service roll out one Legend of Hollywood stamp after another, retired Indiana State University literature professor James Misenheimer waited.

Through Marilyn Monroe … James Dean …Lucille Ball … Cary Grant … Audrey Hepburn … Henry Fonda … Stamps rose from 32 cents to 33, 34, 37 then 39 cents for Legend No. 13, James Stewart.

Where, in heaven's name, was Bette Davis???

Misenheimer, a cinephile and all-around aficionado of the theater arts, wondered if there was anyone left inside the great postal service bureaucracy who had a clue about what constitutes a Hollywood legend.

And he was not alone. He had fomented "a wide agitation for at least five years or longer" among his fellow Davis admirers around the country. Politely, but firmly, they kept the cards and letters coming to the U.S. postmaster general, each and every one lobbying for a Davis stamp.

"We always received the postcard, a response to the effect — 'We receive so many requests every year for special stamps. Your request will be taken into account.' You know what that means," he said.

At last, a few months ago, word arrived that the postal service had come to its senses. The two-time Academy Award winner (also nominated 10 times) would receive her own commemorative stamp. On April 5, the 100th anniversary of her birth, Bette Davis will become the 14th Legend of Hollywood.

The first-class, 41-cent stamp depicts Davis in her 1950 "All About Eve" incarnation. Her blue eyes catch the sparkle of diamond earrings, and her light-brown hair rides luxuriously atop the collar of a fabulous fur coat.

One glaring omission, easily spotted by any Davis fan, is the absence of a cigarette between the actress' gloved fingers. It has been air-brushed or Photo-shopped away.

"Thank goodness they did not include that," said Misenheimer, a non-smoker who wants no one to be encouraged to light up.

Not that he ever would have let the heavy-smoking Miss Davis know his feelings, which he could have done — in person.

Nearly 40 years ago, Misenheimer was blessed with two hours in the presence of the screen icon. Just Jim and Bette, drinking tea in the sitting room of her Westport, Conn., home.

"It was, for me, a sublime time," he said, his native Texas lilt weaving like a bright ribbon through descriptive memories.

Davis' address still inspires great delight as he recites it: "One Crooked Lane. Is that not perfect for her?"

Misenheimer, who taught for 21 years at ISU — everything from Shakespeare and Chekhov to freshman composition — had made the trip to Westport while still on the faculty of North Texas State University. Most of her screen career behind her, Davis occasionally presented memoir lectures at colleges at that time. Misenheimer had been dispatched to invite her down to Denton.

Alas, she could not grant the university's wish, but "she agreed to receive me anyway," Misenheimer said. "Her assistant — his name was Vic — answered the door and ushered me in. She called from the sitting room, 'Dr. Misenheimer. Have you arrived?' You know that voice."

Indeed. In fact, Jim Misenheimer does an excellent imitation of Davis' unmistakable cadence and delivery.

Rather than talk about herself, he said, the actress wanted to know about Misenheimer's students and what he and the programs at North Texas offered them.

"I am still so touched. She was sincere," he said. "It was a very precious visit. She could not have been more gracious."

Quality time with great thespians seems to follow Misenheimer and his wife, Carolyn (also a retired professor), like a covey of guardian angels. They have met and chatted with many luminaries and become friends with several. The walls of one small room in their gorgeous but understated Farrington's Grove home are lined with autographed photos of stage and film stars.

About a decade ago, the Misenheimers made the acquaintance of Dame Judi Dench, the British, Oscar-winning actress who has taken over the role of M in recent James Bond films. A warm friendship has grown, with visits to London for the Terre Haute residents and amusing, newsy letters from Dench.

Come spring, Misenheimer might wish he had a bit of Bond's or M's clout with government bureaucracies. As happy as he is about the overdue issuance of a Bette Davis stamp is how unhappy he is about the very short shelf life the stamp will possess.

"The postal service is raising the price of a first-class stamp by one cent — on May 12!" he said. "Barely a month, and Miss Davis' stamp will be out of date. What kind of a postal service do we have?"

Fortunately, the Misenheimers belong to a philatelic organization that will make the stamps available earlier than at the post office.

"Carolyn and I are figuring out how many sheets we are going to buy," said Misenheimer. "It will be many."

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or

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