[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: In our discussions here, what you've talked about today is some early incidents that you want to talk about, stories that you covered. So let's start with your San Quentin coverage.
Davis: During my earlier newspaper work, I had started correspondence with a number of prisoners, as all people do in public life. Prisoners write to folks whose name they see. So, anyway, I started that. I became interested mainly because of another woman reporter named Wanda Ramey. She and her husband, Dick Qurolla, were just legendary volunteers at San Quentin, and they worked with the prisoners in teaching them about film and so on as a couple. So because of Wanda's interest, my interest perked up, too, and, of course, it didn't take a lot to see that a lot of the prisoners in San Quentin, maybe the majority, at least a large portion, were African-Americans. At that time in the seventies, there was a real interest. People were saying that some people in prison were really political prisoners, etc.
In any case, I became interested in this and became friends with the warden, "Red" Nelson, whom I learned to like a lot, in spite of what some of my more liberal friends thought of my feelings about him. Through him I learned about a man named Robert Wells. This friendship was to a degree that sometimes I'd go out to do stories and I'd end up in the car with "Red" Nelson showing me around San Quentin as though I was on a tourist tour in his car, driving around, showing the facility and so on.
So anyway, he told me about this man named Robert Wells, and Robert Wells was the longest term prisoner in the California penal system at that time. He'd been in prison for forty-seven years. He was first sentenced to prison for receiving a suit that was stolen, receiving stolen property. Obviously there were infractions that kept him there, including a fight with another prisoner, in which the other prisoner died. So he was then sentenced to death row. That sentence was later commuted, but he was in for life without parole. The warden and Robert Wells had become friends over the years, so he agreed that I would do an interview with Bob Wells. He would talk with Bob Wells and he would give me permission, and I'd come in and I'd do it. So I did this story and became fascinated with this man, who had lived in the Fillmore district of the city and didn't know anything. I mean there was so much of modern life that he just had no knowledge of.
Biagi: How old a man was he at this point?
Davis: I'm guessing, but I think he was in his sixties by now. So I did this story and it turned into a documentary, and it was picked up by some of the networks and by the newspapers and so on. Robert Wells was also one of those people, I must say, that people on the left had decided was a political prisoner and should be freed, and so there was interest in him growing as news about him spread. Eventually, John Maher, the founder of Delancy Street, became also interested in Bob Wells. So there was this movement to get him paroled, and each time he thought he was near parole, it didn't happen. But eventually things worked out and he was sent to Vacaville for an evaluation.
Stormy times ahead. I must say that there were lots of setbacks when he went before the parole board, but he did now have people within this prison system itself that wanted to see him free. It was a really fabulous day when I was there to see Bob Wells finally released from prison and paroled into the custody of Delancy Street. The original documentary about him won an Emmy; it was my first, so I was really proud of that.
Biagi: That's a local Emmy in the Bay Area.
Davis: Yes. It was called Northern California Emmy. I continued this coverage of him as he went through all the different processes. But then once he was paroled, none of us realized that for a person who had been locked up for forty-seven years, he didn't have a lot of experience in living on his own, so he became very problematical. He just didn't know how to survive. I sort of became his adopted family, so whenever he was in trouble, I was called constantly. I'll never forget one of the strangest ones. I got a call one day from a MUNI bus driver who said that he had this man who was sitting in front of his bus, who wouldn't move, and he didn't know why, and the guy was incoherent, except he said he should call me. [Laughter.] In any case, Robert Wells lived out his days in freedom, if you can call it that. He had lots of trouble at Delancy Street, but they stuck with him. He didn't live a long time after that. He did what people do who are lost: he started to drink, which was something Delancy Street, of course, couldn't tolerate. So he had a stormy history there. In any case, it was an interesting interlude to have met somebody who had spent almost a half century totally out of circulation.
Biagi: Our next story that you said that you wanted to talk about would be the breast cancer story.
Davis: Yes. At one point in my career, I became very interested in medicine and medical technology and all of this. I did a series of stories, including a story on bypass surgeries. This was very new back then, being in the operating room during the surgery. Before I get to the breast cancer, that was truly a funny story. I got a call from a viewer one day who said, "I have to have a double bypass. I'm scared of this. I really don't want to do it. But I think that if you will come and do a story about it, that I will survive." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I want you to come and I want you to be there in the operating room during my surgery." He gave me his doctor's name. I thought this was a crazy idea; they'd never let me do it anyway.
But anyway, I called, and the doctor said, "Yes, he's convinced, and anything that's going to help him, he's a sick guy, get over this, I'll see if we can work it out." So along with my favorite cameraman, a guy named Steve Pastzy, we actually went to Ralph K. Davis Medical Center (I don't know if that's what it was called then) and we scrubbed, went into the operating room, and I stood with the surgeon throughout the whole procedure. And I've got to tell you, those first incisions were difficult. [Laughter.]
Biagi: I bet. You were still standing when you were done?
Davis: There really is a surreal kind of feeling in an operating theater. There's always music playing in the background and the doctors always talk about everything except what they're doing. They're talking about their golf game and medical business. So this conversation goes on during this whole time all these things are happening. I remember I got through it all very well, no problem, until we got back and had to look at the film. That's when I just about died. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Much more vivid.
Davis: Much more vivid, and for some reason much more real looking at that film than it was actually watching the surgery that day.
Anyway, I'm into this business of doing medical stories. The whole issue of women and breast cancer was just beginning to be an issue that people were just starting to talk about. So one day I got a call from a woman named Rhoda Goldman, part of the Levi Strauss family. Rhoda Goldman had had breast cancer, and she started an organization called Reach to Recovery, which was to help women at that time. They gave radical mastectomies; that was the norm. What they did was to visit with these women after the surgery to let them know that life goes on and you can recover. They had a whole routine, and it was a wonderful organization, because this psychologically is damaging in terms of the woman's view of herself and the disease. That's what some of the women told me.
So in any case, I did a story about Reach to Recovery. That led to more of a discussion about how the word had to get out that women needed to examine themselves. The opportunity for extending life is going to be in early detection. So I proposed a story like this, and by this time we actually had a woman producer at Channel 5 [KPIX-TV], a woman who is quite well known in the news business now, Roxanne Russell, was just new out of UC Berkeley, first job, and Roxanne is now the weekend producer for the CBS Evening News and has been with CBS News for quite a while. Anyway, Roxanne and I decided to do this story, and one of the things we had to do was to show a woman examining herself for breast cancer, which means she had to put her hand on her breast. This became such an issue because some of the men thought we just could not show a bare chest or even a near bare chest on the family evening news. Can you imagine that today?
In any case, the decision was that we would have to have this woman wear clothing. Our request to do this went all the way up the line, all the way to the president of the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Who was a man.
Davis: Who was a man. So the first story we did, we had to do it in leotard, but we went ahead, because we wanted to put the story on, and we did it that way. But we wanted to do the story the way it should have been done, and so finally the appeal went out, and the company came back and said, "Okay." We did a series of stories on mammograms, very new then, just being introduced, and followed the whole process of breast cancer detection. This was back in the early seventies. We were really pioneering. We were thought to be one of the first television stations to do this kind of series, and we won a number of awards for that.
Biagi: Another Emmy for that.
Davis: Yes. But I've always been very proud of that, because I think it really did help to save some women's lives. I know it did. I got letters like you wouldn't believe. It also was a very sad period, because I did a series of stories about it, from this Reach to Recovery to self-examination and the latest way of detecting it through the mammograms and so on, but I also did some stories with women who had advanced breast cancer, and I followed some of those women through their last months, and for one even through the last couple of years of her life. One of the young women who I interviewed early on was just thirty-one years old. I'll never forget. I remember exactly where she lived. I liked her an awful lot, and she refused the radical mastectomy. I don't know if it would have saved her or not, but within months she died. She was a single woman whose parents were back East, so I found myself getting too involved with her and another woman
who was a young mother whom we followed, whose husband was a minister, and we followed her all through her last days and covered her family through her funeral. So I got really, really involved with the women back then and the women who were fighting this disease. As I said, I just got lots of mail and I'm still involved to a degree, but it just got to be too much. I had to back away so I can do some other kinds of things.
Biagi: Next you went to Cuba.
Davis: Oh, yes. I got a call one day from a friend who worked for Congressman Ron Dellums saying that Ron Dellums was going to lead a group of black elected officials on a trip to Cuba, and this was during the Jimmy Carter administration. It was when the only window we had to free access to Cuba was available, if you could call it free access, you could go through some routes, you could go in through Canada, you could go in through Mexico, and would I be interested in going. Of course I said yes. I didn't know if a local reporter was going to be able to get this approved by the company as a whole. I was working still for Westinghouse, KPIX. Networks were going. Barbara Walters, in fact, at the time that we were finishing up the negotiations to go, was in Cuba then with all kinds of resources—helicopter, boat, everything. [Laughter.] So I was really anxious to get a "yes" on it, but I was also afraid that whatever I did was going to be yuck compared to what the network was doing at the time.
Biagi: You didn't have a helicopter.
Davis: I didn't have a helicopter, didn't have boats, didn't have anything. I was lucky to get a producer. I did get a producer, though, and one camera person, and we got the okay to go. But then we found out that that was not as easily done as we had hoped. While they wouldn't pull your passport for going, as I said, you had to go by these strange routes. The only other way you could go is you could charter a plane out of Miami, except that there are a lot of Cuban-Americans that hate [Fidel] Castro and did not want to see the situation between Cuba and this country improve.
So we were in Florida and we arrived there through one of those usual kind of storms that come from nowhere in Florida, where the water just pours out of the sky. We came into the airport and we were met by someone who told us where the hangar was, where we were going to go to meet our plane, that we should not tell anybody where we were going, because there were lots of Cubans who worked in the Miami airport and it would not be a good thing to do, and just to provide us with somebody who would drive us to this location where the hangar was and so on. So anyway, I'm probably not giving you all the drama that was in that, but we arrive in this place, we're warned about, "Don't tell anybody about this. Don't even talk to customs about where you're going. Just take care. You'll have a private customs agent that will see you before you get on this chartered plane," and so on.
So we got on the plane and we started to head for Cuba. We were traveling separate from the congressional party, because they were coming from Washington and we were coming from California. About midway in the flight, the pilot, we could overhear—it was a six-seater—started to talk to the tower about his headings, and he said that something was wrong, that he didn't think that the headings he had been given were right. Well, to make a long story short, he had been given incorrect headings. Had we continued to travel on those, we would have run out of gas, because it's a short distance from Miami, and you're going on for this long period of time. We couldn't figure out what was going on. We thought, well, maybe we're avoiding some bad weather or something. Anyway, it was fixed, and we landed in Havana, but the plane had enough fuel when it left Miami to drop us off and to return, but because we'd been sent on this wild goose
chase, they were low on fuel. The first thing we had to do now—remember, there's no U.S. person here to negotiate this stuff—we had to now try to negotiate with the Cuban government people at the airport to provide this guy with fuel to get back. So anyway, that was our challenge upon landing.
Then we arrived and we were met by a party of people who took us to our hotel in Cuba, and the congressional group wasn't there. We wanted to get in early so we could film their landing and their greeting by the government. We went to our hotel, and by the time we settled in, we were watching television, and an announcement came on that an Aeroflot plane had crashed at the airport. So being American journalists, we get a taxi and we want to go out and we want to videotape this. Well, needless to say, that is not the way they do—they do not broadcast bad news in Havana. So we were stopped and we were not allowed to take pictures, except we had taken some from away in the distance, because we could see the smoke coming up and so on. But, you know, they never showed any of that crash. They didn't at that time show catastrophes that happened in that country on their local television news. I'll never forget, one official said to us, "Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to show such tragic scenes to people?" [Laughter.] We said, "Because they're news!" They said, "But you can say it. Why would you need to take pictures?" Well, we never got the pictures.
On that same day when we arrived at our hotel—and middle-age memory is blocking me; I can't remember the name of it, but it was where all the American crews were taken, when we arrived at the hotel, Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther party, was waiting for us on the steps of the hotel.
Biagi: Had you known he would be there?
Davis: No. I don't even know how he knew we were coming, but he did, and he obviously knew approximately when we were coming, because we came ahead of the congressional group, but he was there and we talked and arranged to do some interviews with him while we were there. He wanted to do interviews. That's what he came to approach us about, doing some interviews, because he wanted the American people to hear his side of where things were then, and he was negotiating with the government to try to come home. There were other expatriates. The word was out that we were around.
So anyway, eventually the Dellums party landed, and we were part of their delegation and really were taken on exciting tours of Cuba. I found it one of the most exciting places I had ever been. It just sort of vibrates. I remember that one of the taxi drivers, I was saying to him, "Gee, everybody in Cuba has a job. Everybody's working." He said, "Yes, even those who don't want a job have a job." [Laughter.] So we had some stories we wanted to do about life in Cuba, and we wanted to know more about the educational system, because they really have done a fabulous job of educating their people. They have so many doctors, they were exporting them all over the world, Angola and all kinds of other places, to other countries that were sympathetic to them. So we wanted to know more about their educational system, and we wanted to know about how they kept order. So we got invited one night to one of these block parties that they hold, and we were told some funny things about students in schools. Students that do not do well, first the students are called in, then the parents are called in. Then if the student still continues to misbehave, the father might find himself demoted on his job or privileges taken away from the parents. They found that that worked very effectively. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Pressure. [Laughter.]
Davis: So that was very good. But the main thing for us, for me, anyway, was to get this interview with Fidel Castro, and we were always told from the minute we arrived, "Tomorrow. Tomorrow," or, "Tonight. Tonight." About our second or third day there, we were all on one floor, the eleventh floor. I can't remember the name of the hotel, but I remember the floor we were on. We were on the eleventh floor. We get off our elevator, and who's standing by the elevator door but Fidel Castro. [Laughter.] In complete fatigues, middle of the night, there he is, and he greets Dellums and the rest of the dignitaries there. He gets to me, and I said that I was there and I had to get an interview because Barbara Walters had all of these people and all of these crews, and there was only me, so he had to talk to me. I get this pat on my head, actually on my head, saying, "Don't worry. Yours will be better." [Laughter.] Oh, boy. Anyway, of course there was no interview that day, but everybody being friendly one with the other.
Finally, two days before we were to go home, there was one more meeting with him, but not in a way that I could do any interview. On the day we were promised this interview, we had gone out to some function they sent us to. We came home about 11:30 at night and there was a group of cars, black cars all alike, lined up, and we were all told to pile in them, "Get your gear and your equipment," and we were rushed off. Then 12:30 in the morning, this formality, we all come around with Cokes and tea and coffee, were put in this room, and eventually a receiving line is set up by the Cubans, and we all go down the line. Of course, Castro's at the end of the line. When it got to my turn, I spoke up again, "This is the night, I hope," as we're going, and he agreed to the interview, the sit-down interview. When I say we had interviewed before, we'd hold the mike out and get a few words of reading, but I wanted a long conversation. He did sit for it, and it was—
Biagi: For about how long?
Davis: My goodness, longer than our people wanted to sit there in this hot room with the lights, so I guess about forty minutes, because we did two rolls of film. The part that was really interesting was when the interview was over and it was time to shoot the usual TV cutaways, it had required that, as always, for the cameraman to go in back of the main subject in order to shoot the reporter's face. My cameraman, Dave Ambriz, who Castro took a liking to, is Hispanic and so could converse with him in Spanish, and Dave got up to go around back of him, and people just sort of ran out there. Then we were told that no one is allowed at his back. So finally Dave said something to him in Spanish, and he smiled and nodded his head that it was okay. So I didn't know to that point that no foreign visitors were allowed to get in back. So it was a very thrilling and interesting group.
One night they wanted to take us to the site of where the Cuban revolution had started on the very tip of the island down by Guantánamo Bay, and so we were put on this old DC-8 in the middle of the night in the rain to fly. Our flight left at 2 a.m. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Sounds like you didn't get a lot of sleep on this trip.
Davis: Oh, you didn't, because he never slept. They said he does not sleep in the same bed two nights in a row. I don't know his lifestyle, but things were always happening in the middle of the night. I just mention this because going down to his home territory, we got there and they had this party for us, which was a disco. My fondest memory of that is there we are, hot as the dickens, in the middle of the night, we've had this dinner, there's this disco, nobody in our group really spoke Spanish, and there was Congressman Dellums dancing with the woman who was the lead host. I'll never forget him saying, "Como se dice 'Get down?'" [Laughter.]
"How do you say 'Get down'?" He's yelling over the music, but we could all hear it, and the whole place stopped. So it had its tense moments, but some happy times and interesting times.
Biagi: [Laughter.] That's very funny.
Davis: Anyway, the documentary won two Emmys.
Biagi: It was a two-part interview, two interviews with him.
Biagi: Next we move on to Israel. Here we have this globe-trotting reporter.
Davis: By now I was working at KQED, the public station in San Francisco.
Biagi: That would have been in what year?
Davis: About '79, '80 that this trip took place. In fact, this trip came about in a strange way. Somehow I'd become, probably through interviews, quite friendly with the Egyptian consul general, because if you recall, it was during the time when [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat was making overtures with the Israelis and, in fact, his trip to Israel actually took place, Camp David happened, all of that peace between Egypt and Israel. That's when we started. The atmosphere was started to talk about a trip that would have been a trip to Egypt and Israel and a documentary about the two countries and the fact that for the first time they were talking to each other and there was peace between the two.
By the time we got around to doing the trip, conditions were not as friendly as they had started out to be. In fact, I guess in the interim, I think Sadat was killed . I do know that there was some tension, and what we found out is that we could not go to both countries. There was no way to go to both countries on one trip. I can't recall why, but it became diplomatically [impossible], without leaving Israel, flying to a third nation and flying back to Egypt. So we ended up just deciding to go to Israel with Roxanne Russell again, who has now moved to the public station. We're at the same place again. She was my producer, and a cameraman named Peter Hobbi, whose background is German, we decided to take this trip.
It was a traumatic trip for all of us. Part of Roxanne's college years had been spent as a student in Germany, and she spoke German, not German by background, but knew a lot about it. Peter was [German]. So when we visited some of the memorial sites in Egypt on two occasions, we all ended up in tears and had to sometimes end our work and come back and finish it because we got too emotionally involved.
But we started on this trip, and I don't know when we ever slept on this trip, because the Israelis had put together a schedule that was just a killer. We started out with a trip to—we had several goals. Our documentary ended up being called "Israel: Between the Lines." We started out our trip in Haifa. I started to tell you what our goals were. One, Jerry Brown was governor of California and was very interested in drip irrigation and also in the conversion of saltwater for agricultural purposes, so it was the governor's emphasis on these two areas that helped make the trip possible, too. The other thing is we were looking for San Franciscans who had gone to live in Israel. We had a third topic. Maybe I'll think of it before it's over. But we did have three main ideas that we wanted to try to pursue.
So we went first to our sister city of Haifa, did a little sister city story. We went to part of the university where they were doing some of the agricultural research work to do with irrigation, also was near Haifa, so we were there, and we were off to a kibbutz, where we filmed life in a kibbutz for Americans who were there to find out really if they really wanted to make Israel their home. These were people who were sort of in transition. Then we went up to the Golan Heights, then back down to the Sea of Galilee, followed the River Jordan down through what is now the West Bank, Galilee, all of these places that the whole business of real tension was just beginning between Israel and the Palestinians. It was possible at that time just to get in your car and drive through those areas, and it was just us, you know, without much sense of danger, but with some, because there had been some bombings and the mayor, I think, of Hebron, I think it was, had just either been injured or killed in a bombing.
After we drove to Jordan, we ended up down at the Dead Sea, and that's where we were looking into this whole business of conversion of saltwater for agricultural purposes. Finally, our last days were in Jerusalem. It was an interesting trip, and we were just wide-eyed Americans. We were so exhausted from our official program that we had to take a couple of extra days just to rest up before we could leave and fly home. [Laughter.] But one day we were wandering around in old Jerusalem, and we could not figure out why there were no people. Anybody but Americans would have figured out that something was wrong. The streets were practically empty. We had the feeling ever since we'd been there that somebody was keeping an eye on us at all times. We were just walking down the streets, talking to one another, saying, "Why is everybody—is there a holiday that we don't know about?" Finally, a man came up to us who we had seen once or twice before, and said, "It might be a good idea if you spend this afternoon at your hotel or if you spend your afternoon in another part of the city. There have been some incidents here." Well, what we found is that there had been some sniper fire and a couple of people had been hit, folks up on a wall right above where we were walking. [Laughter.]
Biagi: So you did a series, then, did you?
Davis: We did a half-hour documentary. We did a series, too, that's right. We did a half-hour documentary and then we did a series of one on—I forget the other topic. Then we did the water one, because that one had high interest. There was something else we did. But we did two series and a half-hour documentary. The documentary is what got the Emmy nomination; we didn't win.
Biagi: Well, you can't be greedy.
Biagi: Let's move on to one that you did win again, the Oakland series of 1985 on the Oakland Police Department.
Davis: That was sort of a watershed time in my career. I grew up in and around Oakland, family members still in Oakland.
Biagi: You'd left KQED now.
Davis: I left KQED in '80 and started at KRON in '81. Actually, that's not quite true. I worked at KQED till I went to KRON, but it's the same thing.
Anyway, I'd grown up in the areas of West Oakland, where the Oakland Police had never had a good reputation with African-Americans. From the time I was a very small child, I was always fearful of the police in Oakland because of just what I'd heard as a youngster. Of course, the whole trial between the Oakland police and the tensions created as a result of the Black Panther party and so on did not help the situation at all. But I was approached by a guy from the NAACP saying that the Oakland police had a practice of stopping young black men for questioning for no good reason, not being accused of a crime, for walking down the street or standing on the corner. People would come up and stop them. This was a real zealous lawyer who had filed some lawsuit on behalf of young men who said they'd not only been stopped, but they had been beaten by the Oakland police. He was going to put me in touch with six Oakland police officers who would go on camera and accuse their department of doing these things. There was lots of jockeying between that, and ended up, I think, in the end there were maybe four or five of them who really decided to show their faces on camera. The lead couple in the department who were protesting this was a couple, who eventually got married. They weren't married when we first started to talk about this.
The talking about it went over a long period of time as to how we'd do it, when we'd do it, and what would happen. John Dann, who I'd worked with at Channel 9, now is working at Channel 4 and our investigative unit, was the producer on this. So we did a lot of investigating and a lot of checking and so on, but we decided that if, indeed, four or more members of the department wanted to come forward and accuse that department of behaving in a not-professional way, that we should go ahead and do the story. So we started to work on it. It was a series.
In the interview with the chief, who's still chief, Chief [George] Hart, he said that his department practice was proactive policing, that they tried to stop crimes, and that this was just part of good police work of stopping these young men. The problem was that they lost, and during the time that we were doing all this, at least two lawsuits where a young man had been beaten, they had settled out of court. This one lawyer had handled those two cases. So based on all of this, we went ahead with the story. I'm trying to say that because the story created so much tension and it still has created havoc in my life.
We ran the series. If there was a real problem with it, it was the aggressive promotional spots that were produced to advertise the series. I have to agree to some extent with the critics of the series that the promotional announcements, I would say for us would be what the chief would call proactive. They were what announcements of that kind tend to be: they take the most inflammatory points quickly, hit on them, and move on. Well, before the series ever started on the air, over the weekend the promotional announcements were aired.
The chief was so furious that he, I think, for whatever reason, ended up getting the phone number of the station manager at home and called him at home. By that Monday morning, he was at our station. Nobody had even seen the story, but they were denouncing it, and they were calling. By that afternoon, before the story aired, a group of Oakland police officers—there's a place near the station where a lot of our cameramen—a watering hole, we call it—go. They knew this. [They] appeared at Tommy's Joynt. When some of our guys came in, they asked if they worked at KRON, and they proceeded to tell them how they felt about this and how they felt about us and a few other things I don't want to say.
So now this thing is to air later. The worst part hasn't even hit the air yet, and all this is happening. Of course, that day I'd been called into the station, not only me, the news director, the producer, into the station manager's office. The chief came over, we met with him. Normally had the atmosphere been different, we probably would have shown him the segments, because
then he could have seen that the segments were not as hot as the promotional announcements were. By now it's standing on journalist integrity. We're not going to show it, because even if you don't like it, at this point we couldn't change it. It became a news story by then.
Anyway, the series went on, and at that point it had an effect on everybody I worked with, because at this point the Oakland police department would not answer questions from crime reporters. We found it almost impossible to get any information out. Our news cars were ticketed repeatedly. It made life very difficult for everybody I worked with, and even though they were nice to me in the front, I'm sure they were upset. The controversy became the topic of items in columns and, in fact, of stories in the newspaper. Then the Oakland Police Officers Association, which is largely a white police officers' association, had a news conference about it, and the black police officers had another news conference about it. At one news conference, the two groups came together and were yelling at each other about it. Very tense.
Eventually the two lead officers were suspended. They made a silly mistake of calling in sick when they really weren't, and by now their phones were being tapped. They called in sick. An officer was sent to their house to see if, indeed, they were home sick, and they weren't there. Federal charges were then filed against them, because that's a federal offense for a police officer to lie. They were called in and asked to sign affidavits saying that what they had said about being sick was true, and they, unfortunately, signed them. So they were subjected to a federal trial that followed and they were sentenced to prison.
Other things happened. They had a child who, when the mother took the child to Children's Hospital for emergency care and called for authorization of insurance coverage, the hospital was told that it was not available. There were repercussions from that. This really did ruin a lot of people's lives and had a profound effect on me, because my son, who was then living in Oakland, was stopped twice, one for making an illegal right-hand turn, and was taken to jail.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Biagi: Would you do it again, the series?
Davis: I think I would, but I would certainly look at any promotional announcements that were going to be put on the air about a topic as sensitive as this. I think that's what I would change. I just don't think I realized the price that some people might pay for this, and I don't think they did either. I mean, this was the first negative police series put on in this town by anybody. We just don't realize the brotherhood of the blues for what it is, and I understand it. These are people who put their lives on the line every day, and they're close to each other and overly protective of one another to the extreme, I think, in this degree, but I do know that sometime later—I mean, this has gone on. Sometime later an Oakland police officer was shot and killed, had nothing to do with my story, but in the mail came a letter with a piece of fabric with blood stains on it, saying that I was responsible for this officer's death. There's no connection except it was done for the shock value. That followed by five years later there was an article in the Police Officer magazine that rehashed the whole story again. This would be as late as about a couple of years ago, where the whole thing was dug up again. So it is not something that has gone away.
Biagi: And yet you won an award for this.
Biagi: But have you ever been back to Oakland to report things?
Davis: Oh, yes. Oakland is my home city, really, and so I'm there all the time. I do report. Naturally, I don't think they'd cooperate with me to do any story about the police department, but things have gotten better. Our reporter who was assigned to Oakland doesn't have any problems anymore. At least that's gone away and we're treated basically like other news units. But for a long time it was really difficult for people who were assigned to Oakland.
Biagi: And had KRON on their cars. Your cars are labeled, aren't they?
Davis: Well, they used to be; they're not anymore. What you do is you put your press card in the window if you're parked, for ticket avoidance, but many people stopped putting their press cards in the window.
Biagi: It was a way to attract a ticket.
Davis: Right. But all of that is better now to a degree. It was funny. The attitude was because I have lots of friends in Oakland and I grew up there, etc., the way they would always put it, it wasn't personal to me, but I had been somehow duped by John Dann and other people in the NAACP and so on, but that didn't help when it came to my kid. So no one has ever said anything to me other than the letters. I only told you about that one letter. There were so many other letters that were very cruel. I think the only thing that made it better, there were officers in other cities who understood what this was about.
Biagi: Did they stop the practice of stopping people, do you know?
Davis: For a while. I don't know, really, because I haven't kept up with it. But for a while, yes.
Biagi: You haven't heard about any more since?
Biagi: Let's take you up to today now. Your current assignment is?
Davis: Urban affairs, it's called. I cover a lot about city and regional government. I for one while concentrated solely upon San Francisco city government, because during the building boom, when San Francisco was the hottest place in the world to be, everybody wanted to open an office here, everybody wanted to build a highrise here, it was a full-time job just keeping up with government and all of the protest and ballot measures and everything else, and environmental issues that surrounded growth. So I did a lot of that as well as covered city hall. That's along with doing other things as they would come up in terms of my interests.
I'm still doing much of that, although this year my assignment, I've been interested in politics. It's always been the backdrop of everything that I've done. If you talk about government, you're really talking about politics. I'm covering a beat called the Year of the Woman in Politics, and I'm finding that really exciting, because I've covered the Year of the Woman several times before. [Laughter.]
Biagi: [Laughter.] Several other years.
Davis: Several other years, like '84, '88. [Laughter.] And it turned out not to be the Year of the Woman. I remember the year, I guess it was '84, wasn't it, when Mondale was running for the presidency and our mayor, Dianne Feinstein, was one of the leading contenders for the vice presidential nomination. Oh, that was an exciting time. I traveled with her to Minnesota for her vice presidential interview and then started following her on some of her trips to San Diego and a few other places to see how she was received. I think it probably was the first time that she discovered that she had a name and a following outside. Fact is, she always seemed surprised when she'd go to Orange or San Diego and there would be all of these admiring women. I think that's when she probably first knew that she had statewide appeal.
So anyway, I was doing Year of the Woman then, and, of course, in '88 it was the Year of the Woman again, and so here we are now. In '92, we hope this time there's a payoff.
Biagi: Let's go back to some kind of general questions about, first, your upbringing and then, later on, your career. In your upbringing with your family, did you ever feel that there were different expectations for you because you were a girl as opposed to your brother?
Davis: Yes, but probably in the opposite way from which most people look at that. Maybe it wasn't gender; it may have been more because I was the oldest. I was never clear. But there was certainly a standard set for me that was much higher than the one for my brother.
Biagi: Is that right?
Davis: Yes. I was certainly expected to take a leadership role in everything, and I still don't know what the logic was, probably because my brother was the baby, so I was the caretaker. It was sort of expected in school that I be well behaved and that I get good grades and so on. My brother, who has an IQ much higher than mine, could get good grades when he wanted to. He already knew that whenever he decided to, he could. So it was okay when he didn't, because they knew he could. With me, it was like a struggle always to get that A or B+ or whatever it was I decided was the grade I had to get for the course. I think a lot of it, though, was internal. I created these plateaus for myself.
Biagi: Was it your family expectations or your own, do you think?
Davis: I don't know, because my younger years were very confusing ones, so I wouldn't even know who to say was setting standards. I think from my aunt, who I lived with a great deal of the time, she always expected the very best from me. Then that was combined with a combination of sort of a challenge or threat from her husband, who was constantly saying I wasn't going to amount to anything. So I don't know which one pushed me the hardest, him saying I wasn't going to amount to anything or her saying that I was going to be the best. I don't know which one, but between the two of them, something happened.
Biagi: Why did he say that, do you think?
Davis: I can say it now. Probably my aunt, if she could hear this, would agree that he truly was a sexist. [Laughter.] He was a man of his time, and that's not to say that he was different from everybody else of his age. Women were women and men were men, and men did certain things and women did not accomplish as much. I don't know why he felt that way, and maybe he didn't even feel that way. Maybe that was his way of motivating. Because you'll find that a lot in southern families, what is said is not what is meant. It's a sort of defensive language. They'll say, "You're not going to amount to anything!" Well, that means they really want you to do something generally.
Or, "If you don't do this, you won't." But for the child, you don't hear, "If you don't," you hear the bottom half. Probably that's the way he phrased the statement that stuck with me, too.
Biagi: Do you remember, as a teenager and going into your twenties, did you have an idea what you wanted to do? Today the whole emphasis is on goal-setting. Were you at sixteen or seventeen setting a goal that you'd do this?
Davis: I know that my dream was to get a college education, and probably I wasn't as focused outside, because the people who had a college education and who were closest to me were my teachers, so I focused somewhat on teaching in high school. I thought I wanted to be a teacher. You've got to remember when you're in a family where few people have graduated high school and no one you know— [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: So you had an idea about being a teacher, but then beyond that, at eighteen, did you see yourself as a journalist for the rest of your life?
Davis: No. In fact, I thought probably at that point it might have been way down on my list, because like many of my colleagues, I am a terrible speller. And maybe that's why I ended up here, I was always taking one kind of an English class or the other to try to get it, and I never did. [Laughter.] I took English for days, sometimes two English classes on one schedule. Oh, dear. It did cause me to take drama classes, because that was in the English department, and that sparked some interest in public speaking and so forth.
Biagi: Another global question. Did you ever feel that you had mentors? Were there people who were crucial?
Davis: There were always people who came in and out of my life that I found inspirational. There was a woman named Dorothy Seales; her name is Dorothy Pitts now. I lived in West Oakland. The Defermery Park Center had been a former USO. When they turned it over to the community, Miss Seales came to run children's programs in the playground. She was a real inspiration in trying to open up a broader world for us girls. We had this little girls' club. You'll find a lot with the black middle class, there's a lot of emulation of what they see as the upper class in the other society. So we'd have little teas and all kinds of other little things. I thought she was such a grand lady.
And I think my best friend's mother was always a real inspiration to me in terms of a person who synthesized information. In other words, my family was sort of a "shoot from the hip" group, and Anna Dean was a woman who thought things over, gave you thoughtful answers, also a person who was very high on education, very high on reading, and inspired me. Her daughter, Rosemary, who is a librarian, you can see the influence she had over books. She loved books. She probably helped kindle my love of books.
Biagi: Then in a professional sense after your growing-up years, have there been any mentors?
Davis: The only black woman that I can remember reading the news on the air was a woman named Terea Hall Pittman. She was the area president for the NAACP, and she had a show where she came on each week and read "Negroes in the News."
Biagi: What year?
Davis: That would have been in maybe the fifties. So I used to listen to Terea Hall Pittman and her very stylized delivery of the news.
Biagi: On radio?
Davis: On radio. It was radio, remember, where I started. It was only because radio changed that I started to even think about television. My goal was to be a good radio reporter at that time. Then I met a man named Louis Freeman, who was the news director for KDIA Radio, the first black intellectual that I knew intimately. I was in awe of Louis Freeman and wanted to be like him, and he was a great newsman. He introduced me to people like Gunther Myrdahl, people that I had never heard of from Europe, and had me reading books on theories that I'd never thought about. So he was a great inspiration to me.
Biagi: When you first got married, if I remember right, you didn't continue working, did you? Did you stop at some point while you were married?
Davis: I did, right after I first got married. I worked while I was in Washington, D.C., then we moved to Hawaii, and it was impossible to get a job there, so I didn't work for a while, not until I came back to the States.
Biagi: Did you, in your mind, have the idea that you would always work or that you would stop working?
Davis: I thought I'd always work. I don't know. In my vision of my life, I was always a working person, I think probably because the women in my family all were. Other than my aunt, after she became too ill to work, she's the only person I know that didn't work. Everybody else worked. Black women have always worked, you know, and that's why the women's movement was such a surprise.
Biagi: After you married Bill, and you're both essentially in the world of journalism, how did you socialize? Are you socializing primarily with other journalists or do you socialize with a variety of friends?
Davis: Absolutely a variety of people. Of course, with both of us being in the business, a lot of journalists—I guess that's why I understand cops so much—you find yourself, because of mutual interests, traveling the same road and having mutual friends, so a lot of our time was there. But I think for minorities coming into the media, there was this double thing, because at least in Bill's and my generation, we've been very involved with minority press, so we had friends. I'm still writing a column and he's still occasionally taking pictures for big events that would go into the weekly paper, so it was journalism, but it was a different sort. It was community-based, not even pretending to be middle of the road in its attitude about the stories they ran and the positions that they took. So we still had this involvement. We found it comfortable, and probably some of our white colleagues might have found it uncomfortable, but we found it comfortable to go to a social event, say, that someone was giving where Eldridge Cleaver was going to be talking about whatever was in the news from his point of view, which was different from covering Eldridge Cleaver when we went to work at our jobs. I mean, we didn't take cameras or reporters or anything to these events. We just went as members of this community. So we socialize at all different levels from the most radical end of our community to involvement with the social elite of our own race. Then because I had been in radio for so long, we had this other arm, the glamour celebrity arm, so we had a very rich life.
Biagi: And you still continue that?
Davis: We don't do as much as we used to. The reason we have this big dining room is because we used to have a series called the Tuesday Series. It was not a big fancy dinner, but we needed space for ten people, and we loved to sit around and have different groups of friends in, you know, get various topics we were interested in, and sort of see other groups of people and just talk. In the old days, they were called saloons? Salons?
Biagi: Salons. [Laughter.]
Davis: Well, the way they ended up, with the amount we drank, sometimes they probably were [saloons]. [Laughter.]
Biagi: So you'd invite a variety of people in and just talk about issues.
Biagi: You haven't done that for a while?
Davis: No. I don't know. We just seem to be either too old or too busy. [Laughter.] But we love to mix our friends, too, from all our different interest groups, and that's been really wonderful times, mix races, ages, and so on. We've had some great parties.
Biagi: Reflecting on your whole life now—I told you these are global questions—what would you say was the happiest time, the most fulfilling time of your life?
Davis: Fulfilling and happy are two different things, because happy would be the frivolous time I spent in radio. That was truly happy. That was fun. It was music and nothing was serious, and if I could avoid it, I didn't read the front page of the paper. So that makes for happiness, right? As long as you've got good health and a nice family and music is the most important thing in your life, it makes it pretty good.
But I think fulfilling, I don't know which era to focus on. I would probably say the years I spent at KPIX, because I made lifelong friends. We did very hard work. We were trusted to make independent judgments. We were seldom told to, "Go out and get this." We were told to go out and be journalists and look at it. So I think all of us agree that we lived through a very wonderful time, and those of us who were there in that period are very fortunate people. You can ask that of almost anybody who happened to end up in that circle in the seventies. There was a world of interest, not that things were good, but interesting things were going on. It was a great time with open optimism for those at the liberal end of the spectrum. Probably if you ask somebody who was more conservative, they would look upon it as totally different from me, but coming from a minority group that was just beginning to get some sense of power and a sense of hope that they could be included and also could be change agents, it was an exciting time.
Biagi: Of course, the flip side of that, the most unhappy time.
Davis: I think it was near the end, just before I left KPIX and the direction of TV news started to change. The happy talk came in, the short sound bites, the rise of the consultants, the emphasis on ratings versus anything else. It was a very melancholy time for me, because nobody likes to see what you view as a wonderful period of your life slipping away, but I think it wasn't just that; it was because it was affecting me personally. I think the country was just getting ready to go into
the "me, myself, and I" eighties. That required a whole different thought process and a whole different emphasis. I found that a very unhappy time, and a lot of unhappy things happened. That, of course, was the time of the Moscone shooting, the Guyana situation, and other horrible tragedies. It was very difficult.
Biagi: And the classic: would you do anything differently?
Davis: Oh, there are so many things I'd do differently that I can't even tell you.
Biagi: Can you list five?
Davis: I wish I could.
Biagi: It doesn't have to be five.
Davis: I just know that there have been many missed opportunities, I think. I think when you are so involved in—excuse me, and I don't mean to sound boastful—but when you're so at the center of history being made, you don't know it. Even if you're playing a part in it sometimes, it's hard to recognize it. I don't think I always gave the weight to what was happening in my life that should have been given it. I didn't always give the thought to what I was doing that maybe I could have given it. It was sort of a wide-eyed, "This is going to go on forever." I think a lot of entertainers suffer from that same syndrome. When life is so rich that it's like eating desserts all the time, you simply lose a sense of the importance.
A great part of my career was like that, and things were just tumbling at me. Here was this high school kid, you know, no college education, doing all of these things that most people with postgraduate degrees were still thinking about, having a lot of access because of my race and because of my gender that some of my colleagues maybe didn't have. But, of course, they had things that I didn't have, too. But the ones that were important to me were happening for me.
So what would I change? I think I would hope that if ever—but there's a possibility there might be another period, not in this arena, but in another arena where things might be that rich, I hope I would be much more thoughtful about it.
Biagi: What about how your profession itself has changed?
Davis: I think it's very important. I worry about the future. Because of my lack of formal training in this business, I've assumed an idealistic view of what the work was about. I have always considered it an important cornerstone of a good working democracy. I've always felt that you can't have a thriving democracy without a free press and a flow of information in an understandable way. I worry that people who manage what I do tend to be more those who look at its commercial value versus its value to this nation as an instrument, another arm of making government operate properly.
So I'm concerned about the future, but I'm also an eternal optimist, even though everybody calls me a pessimist because if you tell me something, I'm going to give you the other side of the issue always. But I can do that and spring right back. That comes from being a Libra, too. [Laughter.] I always think that the boomerang will work, that it will get so far out there and will come back, and hopefully we'll find a balance between the obligation to earn money for those who own the stations and our obligation as the voice of the people. I think that somehow has got pushed to the back burner too often.
Biagi: Whose reporting work have you most admired in your career? Which journalists?
Davis: Now you've got me. There are so many people at different periods of my life. [People] that I've worked with over my career, who I've admired so much, Roxanne [Russell], whose name I've mentioned quite often, and another producer who is with CBS, because a lot of the KPIX people ended up going to CBS, Roxanne and George Osterkamp, who is still here, still working for CBS as their San Francisco bureau person. But I think of people who I worked with here and have gone on to do other things, people like Richard Threlkeld, Rick Davis, Mike Lee. These are all people who I know well, but I think they do an excellent job of what they do, and most of them have spent the last whatever overseas in some capacity covering the really hot spots of the world, and they've done an admirable job.
Biagi: You've talked a lot about community involvement and how you never felt that that was something you shouldn't do. You felt it was something you should do. But have you ever had thoughts about the ethics of that as a reporter?
Davis: Oh, all the time. I'm always weighing.
Biagi: Have there been any specific incidents when you've come face to face with it?
Davis: Oh, yes. I mean, it happens continually. The problem with getting older is that the older you get, the more people you know because you've just been around so long. [Laughter.] I know that when I was working at KQED, where the rules are different for public television, I have to tell you that, that in commercial television in terms of relationships, when I was working at KQED, Dianne Feinstein's daughter wanted very much a career in journalism at one time, but really found her mother's position a hindrance more than a help, so she was interning there for a while. Our daughters are about the same age. So because I was experiencing some of the same things that Dianne was going through with Catherine, I was always trying to talk to Catherine more, as much for my sake to understand a young woman of her age. Anyway, so Dianne Feinstein and I had always known one another, certainly because of the coverage and so on, but we just became friendly. Because we share a lot of common ideas, I always had to pull myself back, especially when I go to a news conference, you know, and remember, "Okay," and not be too sympathetic.
So that was an issue back then, and it's continued on, even back to, as I said, my relationship with people who would be considered left-leaning. I'm sure that sometime or other in my career I've been on somebody's "observed" list because I have so many friends that would have been on anybody's list. But in the black community, where there's a feeling of oppression, people who are talking liberation, you cannot say that you don't have some sympathies for that point of view, because you see the poverty and you see all the other stuff that goes with it. So you have to really watch all of that.
On the other hand, people who you vehemently disagree with, you've got to be sure you give them a break. Well, not a break, but at least you don't become the roadblock stifling their views. So I'm constantly worrying about that. There are certain people that I begrudgingly have had to talk to. [Laughter.] But you know, somebody like William Buckley, who I thought, because his writings were so conservative, that I never would like, well, I found after I interviewed him a couple of times, I mean, he was a very pleasant, charming man who wrote me little notes, probably the same thing he did with everybody else and talked to on his tours, but people like that you found weren't as bad as you thought they were.
But, no, this whole ethical thing, maybe other reporters have not found it to be true, but I find that I'm always having to have these little talks with myself and try to always be as fair as possible, and if because of the limited opportunities for minorities of my age group, almost anybody who was important enough to be on the news is somebody that you know. So there was always that problem.
Biagi: Has there ever been a situation ethically where you made a decision that you felt was wrong afterwards, on reflection?
Davis: I don't have anything that's haunting me, that I can remember. I still have questions always, because of individuals who I'm extremely socially friendly with and who are in controversial spots, if at some time I'm ever questioned about this, how would I answer. If, indeed, you'd gone out to a dinner party with this person and then you have to do a story about them the next day, how compromising is that? I've come to the point now that I've spent twenty-five years here, and outside of the run-in with the Oakland police, in twenty-five years I've never had anyone accuse me of being biased, and even in the case of the Oakland police, they didn't think that I was personally biased. They just thought that I had been duped, which I don't know, it might be more insulting. But my reputation—and I'm very proud of it—has been a person who does try to be even-handed, even if it's not personally my opinion, but try to be even-handed in terms of access. That is, give you as much time as I give the next guy to explain your point of view.
Biagi: Overall, looking back at it all, is broadcast journalism a good profession for women, do you think?
Davis: I think so. I think that women have been able to earn salaries that they couldn't have envisioned in television before. Granted, those days are coming to an end, but women have done very well. Not as well as the men, but some have done extremely well. I think it's still a good profession. I think what the problem is, that because of that and because of some of the glitter, glamour edges on it, women who are going into the business may be going into it for reasons different from women of my generation who went into it, because the business they're going into is a different kind of business. You couldn't go into the business today and make pronouncements, as I did, "Oh, I only wear lipstick. I don't wear any other makeup. I'll wear my hair any way I want unless you want to pay to get it done. If it's on your ticket, I'll do it, but I'm not paying to do it." [Laughter.] It was your journalism what counted, not how you looked or anything else. Of course, that wasn't true then and it isn't true now, but I felt that way about it, because I had come from radio and newspapers where nobody looked at me anyway. So I didn't understand this emphasis on hair and so on.
So women going into it today are coming at it from a different angle. I see some sense that the requirement that everybody be blonde and blue-eyed and twenty-three is beginning to moderate somewhat.
Biagi: Do you think the standards are the same for men as they are for women in television?
Davis: I never thought they were the same, no. Never.
Biagi: Why is that?
Davis: I think it's because of the way we've been taught about the way we value men. We value men for their power, for their money, for their connections. We value women because they're
good-looking and they're good talkers, they're entertaining. Different standards. So you get a guy who's a little pouchy, it's okay because he's probably influential or he's probably bright or something. Get a woman, she's an old broad. [Laughter.]
Biagi: We'll stop there.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Biagi: What we're going to do, Belva, is start at the beginning and go back to October 13, 1932 and little Belva.
Davis: I was born in Monroe, Louisiana, which was called Northern Louisiana, versus New Orleans, a city that I didn't visit until I was an adult. I was born there to a mom who was in her early teens.
Biagi: Her name?
Davis: Florence. Her maiden name was Howard. She married my dad, John Melton. At the time I was a teenager, they were divorced, and her name is Florence Mays now. She remarried, of course.
I was born there and had a rather confusing childhood, living with a series of relatives from time to time. As a small child, my father and my uncle had left Louisiana under some rather unpleasant circumstances. My uncle had filed a lawsuit against his employers and won a large settlement, $2,000, I think it was, something like that, $2,000 or $4,000 at that time. In those days, for a black male that was considered in the thirties just something you didn't do, so my uncle was told that he should leave that part of the country, and he and my dad left.
Biagi: How old were you when they left?
Davis: I assume, since I was just going to pre-school or I wasn't in real school, I was someplace around four or five years old, something like that. So temporarily we were sent to Arkansas to live with our grandparents for a few months.
Biagi: You and your—
Davis: My brother John, who is younger than me. So we went there and lived with my grandfather for a while, and then soon my dad came out to get us and brought us back by train from Arkansas. I don't know whether we went back to Louisiana or not, but anyway, we came out on the train to West Oakland [California].
Biagi: Why West Oakland?
Davis: The family had found work, various members of the family, with the Southern Pacific Railroad in West Oakland. That's what they were doing, and my dad worked in a lumber mill most of his life. Eventually, by the start of World War II, he was one of the first people hired at the Naval Supply Center. Basically what he did was build pallets for cargo to go on. But the other people, everybody else just had worked at the Southern Pacific, and what started with maybe a couple of people in a little basement apartment in West Oakland soon grew to about
eleven people who were living in this basement apartment, and it was truly a basement apartment, an unfinished basement apartment. So anyway, we survived there.
World War II made a difference, because there were lots of jobs and more money, and my aunt and my uncle were one of the lucky ones that secured one of the housing projects built during the war effort, and I went to live with them in Alameda [California], so I was there for a few years of my life living with them.
Biagi: And your mother stayed?
Davis: My mother and my father and my brother stayed in Oakland, and various other relatives. Eventually, my aunt and her husband bought a house, something, of course, I did not realize at the time, but only years later learned, they bought a house in Berkeley, but the reason they were able to buy it was because of the Japanese-Americans who had been forced out of their homes. So these houses were sold for practically nothing.
Biagi: Your aunt's name?
Davis: Pearline Lindsey, and her husband Ezra Lindsey. One of these houses on Ashby Avenue, a house that, at least for the moment, is still in the family. They bought it, I guess, in '42 or something. My uncle passed away, and my aunt is quite elderly and living in a rest home. I think her daughter has the house on the market to sell.
In any case, I moved with them to Berkeley, but because my closest friends in life lived in Oakland for some time, I finished all my junior high year in Oakland while living in Berkeley.
Biagi: Let's go back now to your grammar school years. List the schools you attended.
Davis: I went to Prescott Elementary School in Oakland and then to Lincoln Elementary School in Alameda, then to Hoover Junior High School in Oakland, and finally to Berkeley High, which I can't say enough about, because I credit the good education at Berkeley High with making it possible for me to go up my way through life.
Biagi: You recently went back and gave a commencement speech there, didn't you?
Davis: Yes, I did. They invited me to be the commencement speaker. They did something else which is really wonderful. I was one of the first members of what they call the Berkeley High Hall of Fame, and so I was one of the first people inducted into the High School Hall of Fame. That was very rewarding. But I feel I owe the Berkeley school system a lot because of that.
Biagi: How did you get around town in Berkeley at that time? By foot, right?
Davis: Oh, of course, and the bus.
Biagi: The Key system, right?
Davis: Yes. My mom, because of her connections with the Southern Pacific Railroad, sort of trained people, and where my mother lived in Oakland was on the Key system train line. So we spent a lot of time riding the Key system, because it was accessible, and somehow or other, the Key system tied in. I don't know why I think it tied into my mom's work, but I think we either got discounts or my mother got tokens or something, so we were able to ride and it didn't cost but
a dime, anyway, in those days. So especially during the summer, whenever we were bored, we'd just get on the Key system train and ride the train to what's called the East Bay Terminal now and ride back home again on the A train. The A train went right past our house. That was fun. That was a real lift.
Because my mom worked for the Southern Pacific, too, there was a ferry, and when you took the train, you could take the ferry to San Francisco. So on days when we were really brave, we'd go down and get on the ferry and ride over to the Ferry Building, walk outside the ferry terminal, look at the streetcar turn around in front of it, never go any farther than that, except on really great days when we'd get permission to take the streetcar to the beach and we'd go to play on the beach. Those were special treats. It meant you had to have money to go there, of course.
Biagi: The Fun House.
Davis: Yes, the Fun House and all of that, which was great fun.
Biagi: Just to get your total name correct, now, you start out as Belvagene.
Davis: That's right, all one word, Belvagene.
Biagi: And your last name is, at this point?
Davis: At this point? My true last name? My married name?
Biagi: Your beginning name.
Davis: My beginning name is Belvagene Melton. That's my maiden name. Then I was married once to a Davis, and that's the name I've professionally stuck with all my life, not because I wanted to, but because other people decided that's what was going to happen. Then my married name now is Moore.
Biagi: So we get you through junior high, and you're at Berkeley High. Were there any subjects you particularly liked or excelled in?
Davis: I was always very good in history, because I loved to read and I liked history, and I was always very good with that. I was good with math. I just never could get English down very well. [Laughter.] So it became my waterloo, my challenge, and I took class after class. I took English. Besides what was offered, I guess English 4, 5, or 6, something like that, and then took drama, public speaking. I took everything that would help fortify. But it was like an uphill, every battle.
Biagi: Spelling was not particularly your subject?
Davis: No, not at all. But I did okay. I never got Fs or anything, but I just never got it, and probably because of some weak beginning. In the beginning, I obviously didn't get it in grammar school.
Biagi: That was when you were moving around.
Davis: A lot.
Biagi: Did you have any particularly close friends at this time?
Davis: Oh, yes. By the time I got to junior high school, which is that lost time for kids, you know, you're just getting ready to go into your teens, I met another girl who was as lost as me. [Laughter.] A friend who's still a friend to this day named Rosemary Prince. What we had in common is that we both wore glasses and we both loved to read, and we became fast friends and just hardly ever did anything one without the other. It was like having a sister. She lived with her mom; it was just the two of them. Her mother later remarried, but in the beginning of our friendship, it was just Rosemary and her mother. Her mother was just a really wonderful woman.
Biagi: Her mother's name?
Davis: Anna Dean. Absolutely wonderful woman. She was a really good guide for me growing up.
Biagi: In what way?
Davis: Because there was not really much consistency in my life, between my mother, my aunts, my cousins, and so forth. There was always love there from all of them, but it was not like one house, one mom, and all of that. Whereas Anna Dean was a consistent person because of my close friendship with Rosemary, who I saw a lot of.
Biagi: What kinds of ideas did she introduce into your life?
Davis: She was really an education buff, a reading buff, a woman who I just admired because of her ability to listen to all sides, I mean even from teenagers, all sides of things that other parents would just give you an edict and that's it. With her you discussed everything, and I always thought that was really wonderful.
Biagi: Did you visit the library a lot? You say you were a reader.
Davis: Oh, yes. In fact, her daughter is a librarian, so we spent a lot of time in libraries. Our escape was reading about the world, because our world was really pretty small. I mean, our big thing when we were kids was both of us could get passes on the SP [Southern Pacific]. Now, you'd think with getting a free pass to ride anywhere in the world, we'd have done all kinds of things, but the most we ever did was to go to Los Angeles. We'd get a pass and go to Los Angeles to visit her relatives in the summertime. That was a big adventure. But we read about a lot of things.
Biagi: What did you read?
Davis: I don't know. A lot of romance. I tried to find happy things to read about, I can tell you that. Not romance in the way that you talk about it today, sex-based romance, but idyllic romance, people falling in love and being happy and all that. I think, too, that was the mood of the era in which we were growing up, you know, Dad and Mom and the white picket fence and two kids.
Davis: Right. Actually, this was in the forties.
Biagi: You were thirteen when the war ended.
Davis: That's right. Yes. So anyway, I guess I just read a lot of romance stuff. I read a lot of history. Things with a historical setting I loved. A lot of things that had to do with the Spanish history of California or the Spanish flavor. I liked that an awful lot.
Biagi: Who were you living with during your high school years?
Davis: Primarily with my aunt. My mother lived there, too, part of the time.
Biagi: That is on Ashby Avenue [Berkeley, California]?
Biagi: 1649 Ashby Avenue.
Davis: 1649, a house with a blue window. [Laughter.]
Biagi: You've mentioned a Miss Anna.
Davis: That's the same Mrs. Dean, Anna Dean.
Biagi: Okay. And also Oakland Tech.
Davis: My friend went to Oakland Tech.
Biagi: So you didn't go to school together.
Davis: No. We went to junior high together. Then she went to Oakland Tech to high school and I went to Berkeley High. But I went to Oakland Tech during the summers, every summer from the year that I graduated Hoover, every summer I went to Oakland Tech to summer school. Oakland Tech offered summer school to Berkeley school kids, and I didn't need to go to summer school, but it was something so that I had some purpose during the summer.
Biagi: Did you work?
Davis: Yes. I got a job from the time I was about fourteen, I guess, working in the Berkeley Five and Dime, and I worked there till I graduated from high school.
Davis: It was one of those jobs I guess nobody could get hired for today. I had a little dust thing. I used to go around and just dust the merchandise. I started at about fourteen and eventually became a salesgirl.
Biagi: Big job.
Biagi: When you graduated from high school, what did you want to do?
Davis: Of course, I wanted to go to college so bad. I had spent all this time with a double major in high school because I really wanted to go to college.
Biagi: Double major in?
Davis: Business and college prep. Business was because I was counseled properly, "Just in case things don't work out." My teacher sort of knew of my circumstances, divorced parents, living with relatives and so forth. So I took the regular business classes as well as my college prep courses. That's why I talked about English. I took business English as well as—I mean, I had all these classes. As I said, it still didn't do any good.
Biagi: You graduated from high school.
Davis: Yes, and I applied to a lot of different schools. All my friends were going to San Francisco State, so when I got accepted at San Francisco State, god, I was thrilled. The fees were not very much. I don't know, maybe $200 or $300 or maybe a little more than that by the time you add your books and so on. But I couldn't raise the money to go. I took a job, but by the time I got the job, it was late in the summer, working for the federal government, and there just wasn't time to get it all together. My mother was still living with my aunt, and by then she had had a second failed marriage, but with two children who were just ten months apart, and she very much wanted to move out of my aunt's house, and my salary could make that possible. So there was some feeling that I should help out, so we moved into an apartment together with my stepbrother and sister. They were teeny kids.
Biagi: How did you get the job with the federal government?
Davis: I'd taken an exam and got a GS-2 position.
Davis: A clerical position, yes.
Biagi: So you went to work every day, right?
Davis: Right. It was very unhappy. God, terribly unhappy, because I was the only one in my group that was not in college. All my friends were at college. Of course, they were thrilled, freshmen college students. I mean, there was so much going on in their lives. I saw them often, but I was not included in the conversations. I was terribly unhappy. So when my next door neighbor, who I had known and dated off and on all through high school, asked me to marry him, I did.
Biagi: This was what year? And to?
Davis: This is Frank Davis, Jr. I guess that's 1952.
Biagi: How old were you?
Davis: I must have been eighteen.
Biagi: So that would be 1950.
Biagi: Where did you live after you married?
Davis: We moved to Washington, D.C.
Biagi: Because he was in the—
Davis: Air Force. We moved to Washington, D.C.
Biagi: Did you work in Washington?
Davis: Yes. I got a job with the Office of Wage Stabilization. It was an interesting time, my first exposure to the East, my first time even traveling to the East, my first long train ride by myself.
Biagi: Because he was there already?
Davis: Yes. I traveled by myself there. The fact is, right after we got married, I've often tried to remember, but I think it must have been only a day or two later, he left to go back to where he was. It was some months before I traveled to the East Coast, to Washington, and joined him there and got a job and was in Washington when my first, eldest child was born, Steven Eugene.
Biagi: What year was that, and date?
Davis: Steven was born June 15, 1953.
Biagi: You were in D.C. Was your husband still in the air force?
Davis: Yes. We stayed there until he was transferred to Hawaii.
Biagi: When, roughly?
Davis: I was only there about a year, so it was probably a year later.
Biagi: That was to?
Davis: Hickham Air Force Base.
Biagi: Then you stayed home with Steven in Hawaii?
Biagi: You didn't work there?
Davis: No, I didn't. I tried getting jobs there, but it was very hard for offshore people, as they call them, to get work there then. Jobs went to the Hawaiians. So it was very difficult. I couldn't get a job in a dime store.
Biagi: How long did you stay there then?
Davis: I was there probably nearly two years. I had two Christmases there, so it must have been two years.
Biagi: And then you left Hawaii?
Davis: Back to the Bay Area.
Biagi: Was your husband out of the air force by this time?
Davis: Yes, he was discharged, and we moved back to the Bay Area.
Biagi: Back to your original neighborhood?
Davis: No. Well, semi. North Oakland. Started to grow up by now.
Biagi: You had your own house?
Davis: I had my own house, started to grow up, went to driving school to learn to drive.
Biagi: You didn't know how to drive?
Davis: No. And I could tell there was a change going on in my life. There was a real push for independence, I guess. When I put it this way, I realize probably why the marriage fell apart, because I had been willing to be this completely submerged personality, and I married somebody who wanted that kind of a woman. Then I was turning into this other person.
Biagi: And Steven started school, I guess, soon after you came back.
Biagi: Did you go to work?
Davis: Yes, I did.
Davis: I went back to work for the navy and worked for the navy in a unit called Forms and Publications, handling secret weapons for top secret manuals for the naval weapons. I did that for a long time.
Biagi: Where was that job?
Davis: It started at the Treasure Island Naval Base and was later, because it truly was a supply element, the unit was consolidated and transferred to the Oakland Naval Supply Center, and I was right back where I started. That had something to do with my psyche, too.
Biagi: Who was handling child care for you?
Davis: We had somebody who came into the house every day.
Biagi: And after school?
Davis: It was the kind of job where people wait at the door to go home. You're off at four. Nobody's working at four. Everybody's sitting with their handbag, waiting for the four o'clock hour so you can get to punch out. [Laughter.] I think I ended up winning several awards there because I've always been such a workaholic, and I was one of the few people who did not wait by the door to go home, so I ended up winning some awards. That was sort of the norm.
Biagi: You worked there how long?
Davis: I know I worked there till 1959. I don't know when I started, but I know I worked there till '59. The reason I know that is because my daughter was born in 1959, and when I left, it was to go on maternity leave.
Biagi: That's Darolyn.
Biagi: Her exact birth date?
Davis: December 23, 1959.
Biagi: Where is your marriage at this point?
Davis: Dissolving. By now I've pursued some of my interests in writing.
Biagi: In what way did you pursue it?
Davis: I started just submitting articles to all kinds of places. I don't even know. I'd get back tear sheets every now and then. No money, but where things had been published, and they would be enough to encourage me.
Biagi: What kind of subjects were you writing about?
Davis: Anything and everything. Sometimes they were fictional, little short stories, sometimes I wrote about personalities or people that I knew that I thought were interesting. I was just experimenting, and I would submit. I remember once one got published in the San Francisco Shopping News. [Laughter.]
Biagi: You'd just write them and send them off?
Biagi: Did you target any kinds of publications in particular?
Davis: I wasn't smart enough to know what to do about that. I'd see something, get an address, and send it off.
Biagi: So things started getting published.
Davis: Yes, but it was enough to encourage me, to make me think that maybe I could learn to write one day if I kept at it. So I did that at the time when the Johnsons were starting probably the—it is—the most widely circulated black weekly in the world, Jet magazine. I was one of their
first and beginning reporters, and I was called the West Coast stringer. They used to call me the West Coast—I had a name, this great big huge title, but got really no money.
Biagi: How did they find you?
Davis: I found them.
Biagi: Oh, you did?
Davis: Yes. Again, I'm talking about sending stuff. I sent something. I think then it was a story about somebody. Because a lot of the stuff that I used to write for Jet—actually, the way they used it, I don't know if you'd call it writing—they would be little bulletins that would end up sometimes under society, sometimes under art or whatever. I'd send in these little paragraphs and things about people. Later on, that grew to where I was actually contributing writer to Ebony magazine, which was the flagship, and I'd do personality sketches and participate in their top ten bachelors or ten best dressed or whatever their theme was for that month.
Biagi: You were still working at the naval base?
Davis: Yes. In that period of years, I started to write a newspaper social column for a weekly newspaper, a black newspaper called the Bay Area Independent. I had a byline column, and I wrote about all kinds of community news.
Biagi: You bylined with your name?
Biagi: Belva Davis at that point.
Davis: Yes. So all of that stuff was perking, and I was sort of growing up, finally. One day—not one day. It was obvious that my marriage and me weren't working out, so I left.
Biagi: Did you just leave or—
Davis: No. I think I probably read or wrote too much in those days, and I don't even know if this was necessary or if it was just in my own mind it was part of the drama of living, but I had this huge, very complicated master plan for leaving.
Biagi: Which was?
Davis: I had asked for a divorce, and my husband said no and was really very adamant and very threatening about not wanting me to leave. If he ever found my notebook, I'd have probably been killed. I had a plan where I had purchased a car, I had hired a moving company and studied maps of California and done diagrams, and one day he just went off to work and I had the moving vans come and take my things out and left the appropriate things in the note, got in my new car, and just took off, driving California with my two kids.
Biagi: When you say driving California, did you have an itinerary?
Davis: Sort of, yes. I chose places I wanted to see. First I drove to the Monterey, Carmel area, then into the central valley. That's when I found—I called home. I never told my mom where I was, but I'd call to find out, and she'd say he'd hired this—I didn't think this would happen in real life—this detective agency to look us up. I got sort of scared, so then I drove into the central valley, thinking, "Nobody will ever find me in the central valley." So I stayed there and just would move every couple of days.
Biagi: And the money for this trip came from where?
Davis: From my retirement account from the navy. I had also done all of that. Why none of that paperwork ever ended up—I mean, it was really—it was exciting, wondering whether I was going to pull it off. It would probably make a good chapter in a book or something. But anyway, I ended up driving down to Southern California and San Diego. I guess I took a month, six weeks. My logic was to allow his temper to cool down before coming back. I finally came back home, then started out trying to get a real job as a reporter.
Biagi: When you came back home, where did you live?
Davis: I rented an apartment, and the kids and I moved into an apartment.
Biagi: In Oakland?
Davis: In Berkeley. The kids and I moved into the apartment, and I started to job search. Eventually the money started to get thin, so then I registered with a temp employment agency. I was getting a little bit of money from the column, a little bit of money from Jet, but not enough to pay the rent. I still had a little savings, but I at least was smart enough to know not to spend every dime. I just kept applying, applying for radio and newspaper work. Television hadn't entered my sphere at that time.
Biagi: What made you think about radio?
Davis: I was familiar with it, because black radio has a long history. It's very important in the black community, and there are personalities and people that you can have empathy with. It was something that was possible. Television was impossible, because we had no presence outside of Nat King Cole. So, anyway, that's what happened. Eventually I decided, "If I'm going to really learn to write, I'd better do this full time," and started to work full time at the Bay Area Independent as a reporter, and it hardly paid enough for us to—I mean, that was probably one of the poorest times that we ever had.
But I was really fortunate during that period. There was a young Berkeley student who came to work for me as a babysitter. At least one thing, throughout all of this stuff, I guess because of my own history, child care was at the top of my list, so even when I was married and I was working before, I had someone who came to the house every day. Somebody was there. Even when I had no money, I always had somebody who lived with me or came to the house. So, anyway, I had a young gal from Berkeley named Karen Lind, a student, and she was from Redwood City, a blonde, blue-eyed cutie, just had no experience in dealing with any of the problems of black people, but she was just a doll. Still I think so fondly of her and I talk to her occasionally. She became my nurse, a terrific gal. She was really good. My work was so screwy that she often would have to take Dee Dee home with her, the baby, home with her on weekends,
and it caused a real trauma in her life, because here she was off to Berkeley and then she reappears back home and she's got this brown baby. [Laughter.] So it had its cutting edge to it. We laugh and joke about it, the reaction she'd get in Redwood City with this kid on the weekends.
My son traveled with me, my travel companion, in whatever I was doing or where I was going.
Biagi: While you were writing and reporting?
Biagi: He's how old now?
Davis: Goodness gracious.
Biagi: Ten or twelve?
Davis: I don't think he's that old yet. No, he can't be twelve. I don't think so. Maybe he is. No, he's not that old.
Biagi: Because we're not into the early sixties yet. We're in late fifties.
Davis: Yes. A little kid.
Biagi: So it was a full-time job at the newspaper.
Davis: Yes, but I also had other full-time jobs.
Biagi: Such as?
Davis: I didn't have other full-time jobs, but I was doing a radio show by then at KSAN, which was at that time beamed to a black audience. It was called Negro radio. So I was doing a daily radio show, little five-minute segments that were on four times a day, and reading the news out of the afternoon newspapers, and marrying that with original news stories that I had written about the black community. So I would cover events important to the black community and marry together whatever we would fathom out of the newspaper that we thought would be of interest to the audience we were serving.
Biagi: So you're writing for the newspaper and working on the radio station every day, five minutes every day on the radio station?
Davis: Yes. Right.
Biagi: And the paper is a weekly?
Davis: Yes. And working for a weekly paper, anybody who's ever worked for one, means that you do everything on the paper: delivering the copy, proofing the copy, doing the layouts, writing the headlines, doing everything.
Davis: No. That's the one thing my editor did. He knew where to stop. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Did you have a sponsored program on the radio?
Davis: The news was just regular run of the mill. I had no name to program but my own. I was the co-anchor of this little news show.
Biagi: Co-anchor with?
Davis: Herb Campbell.
Biagi: You did those two jobs, at least, for—
Davis: And to fill in when the money got thin, because now I had an apartment and a full-time babysitter to support and kids to feed, I worked, on the hours when I could, temp work.
Davis: Clerical work of some sort. So it was a busy and full life.
Biagi: Where did your break come after KSAN, so to speak?
Davis: I got a call one day. Things got pretty tight there for a while. I took a temp job at Kaiser Permanente, and I was working for a guy named Dr. Raskind, who was their one and only neurosurgeon at the time, and who had been a person that was very high strung, to say the least. I worked with him, and I just came in temporarily, and I got along with him, and they really pleaded with me to stay, "Please stay, please stay." So I ended up, they paid a penalty for hiring me off the temp list, or whatever that is, because you know they make it so complicated for you to do that. I ended up working there full time, but I still had the responsibility of the newspaper.
Biagi: And the radio station?
Davis: Now I had cut back on my KSAN duties, because I knew what I wanted was my own music and personality program. So word sort of drifted around during this period, and I finally got a call from a woman who was the traffic manager at KDIA Radio, who was going to go on maternity leave. Her name was Odessa Broussard now. She's married to the former state Supreme Court justice, Allen Broussard. She was going to go on maternity leave, and maybe she'd come back and maybe she wouldn't, and thought I could learn this job of traffic. If I'd just come in a few evenings a week, she'd teach me and she would make sure they hired me, and if I got that job, then I would be in a position to get myself the radio job. So I took that advice and took that job, and became the traffic manager, and soon was able, through coercion, to get my own show.
Biagi: You'd better be clear about that. What kind of coercion? [Laughter.]
Davis: Well, listen. When you're a one-woman operation, where you schedule all the commercial announcements on a station and you put together all the continuity books all by yourself, you give out all the avails, or time available, to sell to the sales staff, you're pretty powerful when it comes to the sales force. I kept saying, especially to the news guy on the sales force, that, "Things would be really better for you if you could help sell this half-hour show for me, if you could just do this." Of course, a guy who I still love today, Bill Morrison, finally convinced a woman who
owned a drapery company, Beauti-pleat Drapes, to sponsor me in a program, and that's what got me on the air, this one sponsor.
So I started doing a program on Saturdays from ten to noon, I think, and made the most of it by taking my tape recorder out everywhere, doing personality interviews, inviting personalities into the station when I could get them. It was one of the old-fashioned radio stations where the studios were huge, with a grand piano and a stage and all this stuff, where live radio had been king at one time. So it was the old Warner Bros. building where I worked. So I would have people like Horace Silver, the jazz pianist, Mel Torme, all these people would come in to be my guests, and they would perform.
Biagi: On radio.
Davis: On radio. So it became a very popular show, and that popularity led to a five-day-a-week plus the Saturday show.
Biagi: And you gave up your other?
Davis: No, I didn't give up anything.
Biagi: Still at Kaiser?
Davis: Oh, I left Kaiser. I left them and told them I'd be back. I never returned, and I used to get a call about every month or so as to when I was coming back to work, because I didn't know whether she [Odessa Broussard] was going to come back. Of course, her husband is very successful, so she never went back to work. But I was still doing my newspaper stuff and still my Jet stringer stuff. I was still the traffic manager, and I was still doing the radio.
Biagi: And you had a lot of Beauti-pleat drapes.
Davis: Right! [Laughter.] The whole house was done in Beauti-pleat drapes. I entertained all the time a lot of these celebrity friends that I'd meet, incidentally, because I love to cook. In fact, everybody who entertained, it just became like word of mouth. People would come to town that I didn't really know well, and my friends, who I did know, would say, "Call so and so. She can really cook." And most of the time people, in those days, anyway, who were traveling, were eating in restaurants so much, they loved the opportunity for a home-cooked meal. Ours was never like celebrity parties. It was just coming to have dinner with our family and my neighbors next door or something. You could relax. So we had this big reputation for having these parties. [Laughter.]
Biagi: That's great. KDIA is located where?
Davis: In Oakland. At that time it was located in downtown Oakland, down near Lake Merritt.
Biagi: So you really were giving the entertainers an opportunity to promote their shows and promote an audience.
Davis: Yes. I think the unique thing was that my approach to life has been one sort of like you do things and then you think about what you've done. So there was just this real mix of talent. I had Kitty Kallen, who nobody will remember, but used to be a big star, I mean non-black people on this show as often. Not as often, but whenever the opportunity was presented, if it was
somebody that I thought was good, they were guests on the show. So even back then there weren't that many opportunities to go and do live. I had an audience. I was really pioneering. I had an audience that would come on Saturday. We'd serve them lunch afterwards.
Biagi: An audience in the studio?
Davis: In the studio. We'd go live and we'd have lunch. They'd have all of my sponsors' food—Foster Farm chicken and Del Monte cling peaches and Wonder Bread. [Laughter.] Those were the centerpieces of the meal they'd get, anything that anybody on the air—and sponsors loved it. They could do good point of sale photos with people sitting there eating their chicken. The unfortunate part was that I did all the cooking, too! [Laughter.] No catered meals here. They'd give us the product and I'd have to fix it.
Biagi: It was unfortunate because you had to do the work.
Davis: My whole family. I have the world's best husband. I just thank God all the time. I couldn't have dreamed up a better partner, because I would think of all these things, I was always overcommitted, and here's this sweet man, you know, just going along, picking up the slack after me all my life.
Biagi: We haven't even got him in here yet, so you'd better clarify here. Where does Bill come into your life?
Davis: We were not married at that time. We were very close friends.
Biagi: This is Bill Moore.
Davis: Yes. At the beginning of all of this, at the very beginning, but we got married soon after.
Biagi: When did you first meet?
Davis: We met many years before, before my daughter was born. He was the assistant in a photography studio when I'd do all the social news stuff in the Jet magazine thing. There was a photographer named Chuck Willis, who I worked with a lot, and Bill was the assistant. So I met Bill through my association with Chuck Willis. So he was a buddy, always somebody, you know, "I can't get my column to San Francisco. Can you come drive it there? I'm past deadline. I can't get this thing off to Jet. Can you take it out to the airport for me?" He was always the guy who would do you the favor. So soon after I started the radio career, we got married in the midst of all that.
We decided we were going to get married. We did take one afternoon to go to Martinez to get a wedding license, because we didn't want anybody to know what we were doing. We hung onto it for almost three months. Then the day that I was doing something and I looked at the date, we realized that the marriage license was going to expire, and he called up in midday, and I said, "This thing is going to expire today. What do you want to do?" He said, "I don't know. What do you want to do? Do you want to get married today?"
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Davis: He said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "Well, you know, I wanted to always go to Carmel." I said, "What can we do?" Because we used to have spots on the air for the Highlands Inn,
and so I called them up and said, "Gee, we'd like to get married there." They said, "Okay. In the chapel? When?" I said, "Sometime after nine o'clock tonight," because I had to finish my work day. I couldn't leave, because there would be nobody to do the logs and so on. So I called my friend Rosemary and said, "Look. Can you drive up to Carmel with us?" And another friend, named Ralph Jones, "Could you be best man?" So we got into this little VW [Volkswagen] of Bill's. Can you imagine four people driving a VW?
Biagi: A bug!
Davis: A bug, driving, crammed in this thing. We drove over from the East Bay, got as far as San Francisco, and decided we needed to have bachelor parties, so we went off South Market. You know how romantic this is. We found some ratty bars, and Ralph and Bill went in and chugged down a drink, and Rosemary and I had a Coke. We got back in the car and we headed for Carmel. We got there and we met this funny little preacher who had this driver's license, and we had this tape of wedding music, and then we remembered something important. There were no flowers, so we went out in the yard of the Carmel Highlands Inn, and Bill cut some flowers from some tree branches and made a bouquet for me. [Laughter.] And we got married, and he brought along his camera with his little tripod and put it on time delay, and the four of us stood like four Quakers, stiff as a board, for this wedding picture. We then drove home, and he went home to his house and I went home to my house, because we were both really busy. [Laughter.]
Biagi: And the date is?
Davis: We got married in 1963. When we got married is the question. [Laughter.] We actually celebrated the wrong date for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, because I still don't know when we got married! But I know it will be thirty years next year, so count back from there.
Biagi: By the years.
Biagi: Do you have a month?
Davis: That's the confusing part. We're not sure whether it's June or July, and I think that's what was a mistake before, because my friend, Rosemary, got married one day apart from our wedding day, but I always get her month and my month mixed up. She got married like a year later. Anyway, I still am not sure. I know we'll be married thirty years next year. Anyway, funny beginning, but a good outcome.
Biagi: We'll stop here.
© 1993, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.