Growing up in Bristol, we heard lots of anecdotal stories about famous people who spent time there, among them actress Bette Davis. While such stories usually are well-documented, that was not the case with Miss Davis who was seeking anonymity when she visited the area. Unlike Claude Rains, who would walk down the street in Sandwich wearing a cape, a broad-brimmed hat, and dark glasses “so as not to be noticed”, Davis took her privacy more seriously. She was more interested in settling in for rest and relaxation and she attempted to avoid publicity for the most part.
All we have to go by for her Bristol connection are stories our parents told us. They were friends of the owners of the former Tip Top House, a property near the village that included several small cottages perched high on a hill. Today all traces of those structures have been removed in order to accommodate a change in the routing of 3-A and there is a current Habitat For Humanity project to build new homes at that location.
We have been unable to verify the tale we heard growing up, since our parents and others who might have been privy to Miss Davis’ alleged secret visits are deceased. Members of the Bristol Historical Society claimed to have no knowledge of the importance of the Tip Top House when plans called for its demolition, and we have found no other records to validate what we heard as a child.
Nevertheless, it does fit with what we know of Davis’ life. She told the Littleton Courier in an interview that the months of October, November, and December were her favorite months because the summer bustle has died down at that time of the year. She would have found that the small cabins in Bristol, that required a hike up a steep hill, would keep many people at bay, and who would know if a Hollywood star was staying there?
It is well-documented that Davis had a New Hampshire connection, having come in 1939 to stay at an inn and ski school known as Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill where Arthur Farnsworth was the assistant manager. On an excursion to the nearby Bridal Veil Trail in Franconia, Davis became lost — purposely, by some accounts — and it fell to Farnsworth to search for and rescue her. She thus made her impression, they began a relationship, and they were to marry a year later.
Davis bought a farm in Sugar Hill and had a barn dismantled in Vermont and moved to Butternut Farm where she could stay far from the bustle of Hollywood. She moved her mother into the original cottage and she lived in the converted barn. She was not a total recluse, however, spending time skiing and visiting sites in the area.
Her marriage to Farnsworth was short-lived, as he took a fall at Butternut Farm and sustained a fractured skull, an injury that caused him to collapse later on a Hollywood street, dying a few days later. Davis’ visits to Butternut Farm became less frequent after his death and she eventually sold the property.
That may have been when the actress made her anonymous visits to Bristol where she was less likely to be recognized. She no doubt still loved the New England change of seasons which she said “make you feel like you belong here”.
It was about the time that she sold Butternut Farm when a mysterious plaque appeared on a boulder in Coppermine Brook, near the Bridal Veil Falls Trail, proclaiming itself to be “In Memoriam to Arthur Farnsworth ‘The Keeper of Stray Ladies’ Pecketts 1939 Presented by a Grateful One”.
The plaque is not the only legacy of Bette Davis’ days in Sugar Hill. The North Country Chamber Players have a piano that once belonged to the actress. Davis had purchased the instrument, built in 1903, at a New York auction house where it had been suffering from neglect. After Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill purchased Davis’ Butternut Farm, the piano provided music for parties and accompanied the Bretton Woods Boys’ Choir. After the inn closed in the late 1960s, the piano was given to the town which, in turn, loaned it to the chamber players and it became the focal point of the summer concerts in 1999.
Paul Hayward, proprietor of the Homestead Bed and Breakfast in Sugar Hill, was quoted in one account as saying, “She liked the anonymity of the town.”
That did not stop the nearby town of Littleton from holding a torchlight parade that reportedly attracted a crowd of 20,000 when her 1941 movie, “The Great Lie”, had its world premiere there on her 33rd birthday. Proceeds from buttons and banners were donated to the Little Hospital. Finally, the birthday girl was presented with a 100-pound cake. A plaque commemorating the day hangs in the lobby of Littleton’s Jax Jr. Theater.
During her years at Butternut Farm, according to an article published in New Hampshire Magazine, she sometimes rented a room at the Sugar Hill Inn where she had a favorite room with views of Mount Lafayette and Cannon Mountain and four windows for cross-ventilation.
Originally from Lowell MA, Bette Davis always considered herself to be a New England Yankee. That being the case, we have no trouble believing that she found some needed solitude in Bristol, at the Tip Top House. It would have been an appropriate place for a stray lady to stay.