Shel Dorf and Bette Davis

May 11, 2010

Alan Light has previously written about how he and Shel attended the 60th Academy Awards ceremony in 1988 together using tickets that originated with Bette Davis. However, Shel had at least one additional, earlier connection to Bette Davis.

Having been a great fan of Bette Davis for years, Shel wrote her a fan letter in 1987 and received a grateful reply. Retyped versions of these letters follow (with some typos corrected) with scans of the originals thereafter along with a 1948 sketch by Shel that looks a bit like Bette Davis.

Shel’s letter:

October 26, 1987

Dear Bette Davis,

My time is most precious these days (I work for a publisher doing reprint books of the great comic strips) but since you have delighted and entertained me since 1943 (when I was old enough to go to the movies), I wanted to write to you just to say thank you for going on and on with picture making. It is wonderful to have such a long lifeline to my youth. Those hours spent in the dark have made me conscious of many different shades of life and so many different women you have portrayed. Just to be exposed to great screenwriting has been an education for me. Your standards in selecting only quality stories (in most cases) to appear in has improved my taste in literature. I’ve read that you insist on changes when the writing needs improvement. That has certainly paid off for us moviegoers. There must be some real idiots in Hollywood trying to make a fast buck by putting crap up on the screen. Happy to say, you set high standards for us years ago. The new film, “WHALES OF AUGUST” is in that category. Maybe that is why I am tempted to write to you now.

I drove up from San Diego last Sunday just to see your new film. It won’t open down here for a few months. We saw it at a theatre at Beverly & Fairfax. Afterward something wonderful happened. The audience actually applauded! Quite common in the ’40’s, but rare these days! I know you would’ve been proud. You really touched us. As I looked at your image on the screen I thought of that other woman who was blind and laid across the bed. That scene from “Dark Victory” was recalled. I felt a real continuity with my life and I thank you for such a rare experience.

I hope you will find new properties written about older women of all types. You played Fanny Skeffington long before you had to! She was unforgettable. Also, the secretary Maggie in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is one of my favorite Bette roles. This new character, Libby, brought them all back. Now I realize why all your life you have fought against untalented, stupid people in power positions I’ve read studio memos, etc. regarding all your fights with the studios. Maintaining high standards for your films gave you a reputation for being difficult.

You’ve earned our respect. Oh, hell, I’d better stop before I screw this up! I humbly bow and say Thank you, Bette Davis!


Shel Dorf

Bette Davis’ reply:

Dear Shel Dorf,

What a great letter from you. It has brightened a very dull day where I am at present!

Oh Yes! More female roles such as there were in the past. Hard to maintain high standards in scripts of today. They are mostly horrific!!

Many thanks, again, for your wonderful letter.


Bette Davis

Shel's letter to Bette Davis.

Shel's letter to Bette Davis.

Bette Davis' reply to Shel.

Bette Davis' reply to Shel.

And here is a pencil portrait that Shel did in 1948 when he would have been 14 or 15 years old. There’s no title on the drawing but perhaps it’s Bette Davis. What do you think?

Update 05/12/10: Shel’s cousin Donna Horwitz says she believes the below sketch is actually of actress Gene Tierney, “another movie lady love of Shel’s.”

Pencil sketch done by Shel Dorf in 1948.

Pencil sketch done by Shel Dorf in 1948.

Our thanks to Shel’s good friend Charlie Roberts for having given us the originals of the letters and sketch so that we could make them available on this site.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony Gleeson June 4, 2010 at 11:10 pm

I believe the “word unclear” in Ms. Davis’ postcard is “I am”– i.e., “..a very dull day where I am at present.” And “hooipie???” I believe it’s “they are mostly horrific”

Now bring on those doctors’ scrawls……. 😉

Tony G


Donna Horwitz May 12, 2010 at 8:25 am

Thank you for the letters to and from Shel and Bette Davis. I think Shel’s drawing is actually Gene Tierney, another movie lady love of Shel’s.

Cousin Donnie


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