She’s one of the last of Hollywood’s golden-age stars—the girl who stole Humphrey Bogart’s heart at age 19 and has been grappling with their dual legend ever since. Now 86, Lauren Bacall looks back on a lucky, if often difficult, life as she gives it straight to Matt Tyrnauer, talking about the effect of Bogie’s fame on her and their kids; her very brief engagement to Frank Sinatra; her stormy second union, to Jason Robards; and why she hates the Oscar she received, in 2009.
By Matt Tyrnauer•Photograph by Annie Leibovitz • Styled by Jessica Diehl
The apartment is cavernous, on a high floor of the Dakota, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Huge windows overlook Central Park, 30 feet above the tree line, with the grand residential buildings of Fifth Avenue in the distance. My meetings with Lauren Bacall, who is 86, are at three P.M. in the winter, so the light is silvery blue in the wood-trimmed parlor, where Bacall has set the scene for our sessions. A tall wooden chair, for her, is positioned in the center of the room, near a low, white-and-green-upholstered club chair, for me. A single lamp burns in a distant corner. She is dressed, every time, in a black shirt, black pants, and black orthopedic shoes. She always has with her Sophie, an excitable papillon, and what she refers to as “my friend,” her aluminum walker, with tennis balls on its feet. The “fucking fracture that I’ve got on the hip” is the result of a bathroom fall a few months back, a frustrating how-do-you-do after a life of near-perfect health. “Can you imagine? It’s the only time I have been in the hospital except for the times when I gave birth,” she says. A fighter by nature, Bacall has begun to venture out, supported by her walker, onto 72nd Street, going alone to physical therapy, for the most part unrecognized, just another senior citizen. “People don’t pay any attention to me or the walker,” she says. “The other night I was going into a doctor’s office, and some son of a bitch came out of the building, almost knocked me over. I said, ‘You’re a fucking ape!’—screaming at him. He never even turned around. Couldn’t care less, this big horse of a man.”
How Bogart and Bacall fell for each other (A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax, February 1997).
She hands me a box of Bissinger’s chocolate bark and instructs me to tear off the cellophane. “This is going to be our snack,” she says, explaining that she is the St. Louis-based chocolate company’s spokesperson. “I just said ‘Bissinger’s is the best chocolate’ into a microphone when I was in St. Louis touring with Applause [the Broadway musical, in 1971], and every year the boxes of chocolate keep coming, so I guess I am still their spokesman.” The cellophane is hard to puncture, and she suddenly snaps, “What’s taking you so long to open that box? Get over here and sit down!”
“Patience,” Bacall wrote in her memoir, By Myself (1978), “was not my strong point.”
“There have always been rumors about me: Oh, she’s very difficult. Be careful of her. People who don’t know me—even some people who do know me—know that I say what I think. Very few people want to hear the truth. Bogie was like that, my mother was like that, and I’m like that. I believe in the truth, and I believe in saying what you think. Why not? Do you have to go around whispering all the time or playing a game with people? I just don’t believe in that. So I’m not the most adored person on the face of the earth. You have to know this. There are a lot of people who don’t like me at all, I’m very sure of that. But I wasn’t put on earth to be liked. I have my own reasons for being and my own sense of what is important and what isn’t, and I’m not going to change that.”
There is a pause as I make a note on this aria.
“Uh-oh, he’s thinking too much,” she says. “You are going to cut me to ribbons, I can tell. What’s the argument for this story? That I am still breathing? I don’t talk about the past,” she proclaims, taking a piece of Bissinger’s and pushing the rest in my direction. Nevertheless, the past is present everywhere in this room and all over the apartment. It is, in fact, never far from her thoughts. She has lived in great comfort in this place since 1961, when she bought it for $48,000. “I called my business manager in California and said, ‘Sell all of my stock’—what little of it I had—and it’s the only smart financial move I ever made,” she says. The north wall of the parlor, which she faces, is a map of memories in the form of framed photos, drawings, and ephemera, testifying to the fact that she knew the greats from a tender age. “It’s not about me. It’s about all the people who were my friends,” she says. The centerpiece is a vermilion portrait of her as the character Schatze in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) by that film’s director, Jean Negulesco. She was at the height of her beauty then.
“My son tells me, ‘Do you realize you are the last one? The last person who was an eyewitness to the golden age?’ Young people, even in Hollywood, ask me, ‘Were you really married to Humphrey Bogart?’ ‘Well, yes, I think I was,’ I reply. You realize yourself when you start reflecting—because I don’t live in the past, although your past is so much a part of what you are—that you can’t ignore it. But I don’t look at scrapbooks. I could show you some, but I’d have to climb ladders, and I can’t climb.”
The Prettiest Usher
‘Bogie was 25 years my senior,” she begins. They were married on May 21, 1945, when she was 20 and he was 45, at Malabar Farm, in Lucas, Ohio, the home of Bogart’s great friend the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Louis Bromfield. Bogart liked to refer to himself as “a last-century boy,” having been born in 1899. “I fairly often have thought how lucky I was,” she tells me. “I knew everybody because I was married to Bogie, and that 25-year difference was the most fantastic thing for me to have in my life.” She points to the wall—to signed photos of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Robert Benchley, Clifton Webb, Noël Coward, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, John Gielgud, and Truman Capote—and says with a sigh, “It’s like all the talent’s gone. It’s very sad.
“Bogie started in the theater not as an actor but as a stage manager, and he got on the stage by accident, because one of the actors did not show up for a performance one evening, so he went on for him. And he said, ‘O.K., this isn’t too bad.’ I don’t know why he ended up in California, because he was brought up in New York. His mother was an artist, Maud Humphrey. His father was a doctor, Belmont DeForest Bogart. How do you like that for a name? He was Humphrey DeForest Bogart.”
There may be some mystery as to how Bogart ended up in Hollywood, but how Lauren Bacall got there, 67 years ago, from her native New York is the stuff of legend.
She was born Betty Joan Perske, in the Bronx, on September 16, 1924. Her mother and mother’s mother were Jewish immigrants from Romania. Her father, William Perske, abusive and unfaithful, fled when Betty was six. She took her grandmother’s name, Bacal, at age eight, eventually adding the second l to make it easier to pronounce. The family’s finances were always shaky. Bacall’s mother worked multiple jobs to support her only child. Betty’s dream from her very early years was to be an actress, specifically the second coming of Bette Davis, whom she worshipped, imitated, and literally stalked when Davis was in New York in the early 40s, staying at the Gotham Hotel, off Fifth Avenue.
While a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in Manhattan, Bacall relentlessly pursued a theatrical break: barging into the office of Broadway producer Max Gordon and begging for a part, striking up a friendship with the actor Paul Lukas, selling the casting tip sheet Actor’s Cue outside Sardi’s, going on an age-inappropriate date with the notoriously lecherous star Burgess Meredith, whom she had met while volunteering at the Stage Door Canteen. (Bogart always believed that Meredith had taken her virginity and later confronted him about it. Meredith and Bacall denied it, but, she says, “Bogie didn’t believe him.”) During this period she was also an usher at the St. James Theatre, and she got the first augury of immortality—if you don’t count being crowned Miss Greenwich Village 1942—when the theater critic George Jean Nathan gave her a glowing notice. As she recalled in By Myself:
Every year he wrote a page in Esquire appraising the past theatre season and listing merits and demerits. On the merit side of the July 1942 issue was the following: “The prettiest theatre usher—the tall slender blonde in the St. James’ Theatre, right aisle, during the Gilbert & Sullivan engagement—by general rapt agreement among the critics, but the bums are too dignified to admit it.” I really enjoyed that one. Being noticed by someone renowned in theatrical circles—anyone—was something. It wouldn’t get me a part, but it couldn’t hurt and it was better than just disappearing.
The day after her 18th birthday, Bacall made her stage debut in a George S. Kaufman play, Franklin Street, which closed after its Washington, D.C., tryout. However, the smoldering good looks that had caught Nathan’s eye landed her in front of Diana Vreeland, then the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, for a model casting. She made the cover in March 1943, and that photo of her, standing in front of a Red Cross office door, caught the attention of Nancy “Slim” Hawks, then the wife of movie director Howard Hawks, who suggested to him that he give Bacall a screen test.
Her Own Svengali
‘Of course, it was Howard Hawks who changed my life,” Bacall tells me. “Despite all of his great accomplishments—Bringing Up Baby , Scarface , some of the best pictures to that date—his one ambition was to find a girl and invent her, to create her as his perfect woman. He was my Svengali, and I was to become, under his tutelage, this big star, and he would own me. And he would also like to get me into his bed, which, of course—horrors! It was the furthest thing from my mind. I was so frightened of him. He was the old gray fox, and he always told me stories of how he dealt with Carole Lombard and Rita Hayworth, how he tried to get them to listen to him and they didn’t, so they never got the parts they should have gotten, and their careers took much longer to take off.”
Hawks and his producing partner, Charles Feldman, put her through Hollywood boot camp. She was in awe, and scared to death. “You can’t imagine how beautiful L.A. was then. Of course, it’s all ruined now,” she says. She aced her screen test, but, as she wrote in By Myself, the Hollywood machine “was so much more complicated than I had thought, so much grander.” Slim Hawks and Feldman’s wife, Jean Howard, both social paragons, took her under their wings and showed her off around town. Elsa Maxwell gave her a 19th-birthday party and invited Hedda Hopper, who wrote about it. Bacall started to appear at Cole Porter’s regular Sunday-night dinners at his house in Brentwood. In By Myself, she recalled:
He always had a few soldiers who had no place to go—no home nearby—to dinner and always invited young actresses to dine and dance with them One day I was having lunch at his poolside and was the last to leave. Finally he walked me to the door. At that moment the door opened. Standing there in white shirt, beige slacks—with a peach complexion, light-brown hair, and the most incredible face ever seen by man—was Greta Garbo. I almost gasped out loud as Cole introduced me to her. No make-up—unmatched beauty. It was the only time I saw her at anything but a distance.
Studio makeup artists attempted to alter Bacall, putting her in terror as they moved in to pluck her eyebrows, shave her hairline, and straighten her teeth. She thwarted their efforts: “Howard had chosen me for my thick eyebrows and crooked teeth, and that’s the way they would stay.” She insisted on doing her own hair, in the style that would become her trademark: “The wave … on the right side—starting to curve at the corner of my eyebrow and ending, sloping downward, at my cheekbone.”
Hawks had been thinking hard about a new name for his discovery. “At lunch in the green room one day,” Bacall wrote, “Howard told me he had thought of a name: Lauren. He wanted me to tell everyone when the interviews began that it was an old family name—had been my great-grandmother’s.” Previously he had asked her what her real grandmother’s name was. “Sophie,” Bacall answered. That, clearly, would not do. Hawks, determined to make her into a sex symbol for every warm-blooded American man, was, she feared, an anti-Semite. “He once made some remark about a Jew and I turned cold,” she noted. “I’m sure I paled visibly I was panic-stricken.” She prayed he would never ask her about her religion. It’s a small irony that she has never been comfortable being called Lauren Bacall. Her friends call her Betty. Bogart and his compatriots called her Baby.
On a Saturday morning in 1942, in New York City, Bacall’s mother and her aunt Rosalie had taken her to the Capitol Theatre to see Casablanca. “We all loved it,” Bacall wrote in By Myself. “And Rosalie was mad about Humphrey Bogart. I thought he was good in it, but mad about him? Not at all. She thought he was sexy. I thought she was crazy I couldn’t understand Rosalie’s thinking at all.”
That was when Betty Bacall was 18. Now, at 19, Hawks had in mind casting her opposite Bogart or Cary Grant. “I thought, Cary Grant—terrific! Humphrey Bogart—yuck!” she tells me. In the end, Hawks decided to put her in To Have and Have Not, an adaptation of a Hemingway novel, with Bogart. He presented the ingénue to the star one day on the set of the film Passage to Marseille.
Howard told me to stay put, he’d be right back—which he was, with Bogart. He introduced us. There was no clap of thunder, no lightning bolt, just a simple how-do-you-do. Bogart was slighter than I imagined—five feet ten and a half, wearing his costume of no-shape trousers, cotton shirt, and scarf around neck. Nothing of import was said—we didn’t stay long—but he seemed a friendly man.
The filming of To Have and Have Not was marked by two bombshell experiences for Bacall. The first was her discovery that she was so terrified in front of the camera that she could barely function. No matter what Hawks tried, she couldn’t gather her wits to perform her role as the femme fatale Marie, whom Bogart’s character in the film, Steve, nicknames Slim (in homage to Slim Hawks). She recalls being “ready for a straitjacket [on the first day of shooting]. Howard had planned to do a single scene that day—my first in the picture. I walked to the door of Bogart’s room, said, ‘Anybody got a match?,’ leaned against the door, and Bogart threw me a small box of matches. I lit my cigarette, looking at him, said ‘Thanks,’ threw the matches back to him, and left. Well—we rehearsed it. My hand was shaking. My head was shaking. The cigarette was shaking. I was mortified. The harder I tried to stop, the more I shook. What must Howard be thinking? What must Bogart be thinking? What must the crew be thinking? Oh God, make it stop! I was in such pain.”
The only way she could “hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to the chest, and eyes up at Bogart.” That stance accidentally became Bacall’s signature attitude on-screen, known as The Look.
Bombshell No. 2: Three weeks into the filming, Bogart called on Bacall in her trailer to say good night. She was combing her hair. He was standing behind her, she recalled in By Myself,
when suddenly he leaned over, put his hand under my chin, and kissed me. It was impulsive—he was a bit shy—no lunging wolf tactics. He took a worn package of matches out of his pocket and asked me to put my phone number on the back. I did. I don’t know why I did, except it was kind of part of our game. Bogie was meticulous about not being too personal, was known for never fooling around with women at work or anywhere else. He was not that kind of man, and also he was married to a woman who was a notorious drinker and fighter. A tough lady who would hit you with an ashtray, lamp, anything, as soon as not.
Thus transpired the defining moment of Bacall’s life and career.
The romance had to be kept secret from Mayo Methot, the wife—who was given to jealous rages and had once actually stabbed Bogart with a small knife—and from Hawks, who was also totally possessive. For a 19-year-old starter in Hollywood, Bacall was playing a high-stakes game. They met in cars on dark side streets or for quiet lunches at the Lakeside Golf Club, across from the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. Bacall later wrote, “Hedda Hopper came on the set one day and said, ‘Better be careful. You might have a lamp dropped on you one day.’ There was a column squib in the Hollywood Reporter: ‘You can have your B&B at lunch any day at Lakeside.’ ”
Hawks got wise fast and went berserk. But at the same time he was professional enough to play off the real chemistry between his two actors. According to Bogart biographer Eric Lax, Hawks was driven to such distraction by Bacall’s rogue behavior that, to console himself, he had an affair with Dolores Moran, the other main female actress in the film. Nevertheless, he reduced Moran’s part and increased Bacall’s, simply because the B&B chemistry was so intense. (Moran never recovered from the blow. According to Darwin Porter’s 2010 book, Humphrey Bogart: The Making of a Legend, she “languished in Hollywood, working sporadically. Near the end of her life in 1982, she said, ‘Had it not been for Lauren Bacall, I too might have become a screen legend. She stole not only Bogie, but my thunder. Had she not come along, I know Bogie would have fallen for me. I was his type.’ ”)
Film historian Leonard Maltin noted that the Bogart-Bacall affair is obvious on the screen: “It’s one of these instances where it’s quite possible that we are eyewitnesses to an actor or actress falling in love, and while good actors make us believe that all the time, there has to be some extra kick when it’s real.” Even Bogart and Bacall got fantasy and reality crossed: during their courtship they called each other Slim and Steve, their characters’ names. (When their first child was born, they named him Stephen.)
‘Because of my romance with Bogie, Hawks saw his plan crumbling before his eyes,” says Bacall. Midway through production she was summoned to the Hawkses’ Bel Air home. “Just Hawks, Slim, and me. I was petrified. Howard threatened to send me to Monogram, which was the lowest of the low studios in Hollywood. I said to Bogie, sobbing, ‘He’s going to send me to Monogram!’ Bogie said, ‘No, he’s not. Don’t you worry, no matter what he says.’ Because Howard used to say to Bogie, ‘You don’t have to get serious about this girl. Take her downtown to a hotel and get a room with her—that’s enough.’ That was not Bogie’s scene at all.”
Just four years after stalking Bette Davis at the Gotham Hotel, Bacall suddenly had a contract at Davis’s studio, was dating that studio’s biggest star, and was betraying the man who had handed her the keys to the kingdom. She was charmed. And it would only get better.
Released in October 1944, To Have and Have Not was a hit, and Bacall was an overnight sensation, “transformed … from a nothing to a combination of Garbo, Dietrich, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn,” she recalls in By Myself. “So proclaimed the press. I was everything Howard Hawks had always wanted. My name would be on everyone’s lips all over the country, my words would be immortal—my God, what was I going to do about the me that was buried beneath all that, the me that I was stuck with, that was real? How could I live up to all that—how could anyone?”
It took Bogart almost six months to extract himself from his third marriage, and while Bacall was waiting for that to happen, she became a co-dependent of sorts in Bogart’s alcoholic relationship with Methot—rushing out one night in the driving rain to pick him up on the side of a road in Orange County after he went on a binge. To this day Bacall refers to Methot as “the drunk,” the lady who called her at home one night in 1944 and warned her, “Listen, you Jewish bitch, who’s going to wash his socks? Are you?
Bacall has been given credit for making Bogart cut back on his drinking. Baffled and often terrified at his consumption, she at first wrote it off to the dark influence of his unhappy marriage. “I just tried to talk to him like nothing was amiss,” she says. “That was pretty useless, but I didn’t know what else to do. Eventually I just ignored him. I’d never been around something like that.”
Though Bogart’s alcoholism is part of Hollywood lore, Bacall seems to go back on the accepted wisdom about it when we talk. “He changed his way of drinking a lot,” she says. “He never stopped drinking, but he was never an alcoholic, not even close to that. No, his drinking was all partying and having a great time, but he absolutely never drank when he worked. He grew up during the speakeasy era, so that’s the way it was.” Stephen Bogart, their son, writes in Bogart: In Search of My Father that both his parents were terrified that the other would leave the marriage.
The result was the friction of two insecure people. My mother, fortunately, was not a big drinker. But Bogie, of course, was, and when he drank he would worry and often he would lash out at my mother Mom says that when Bogie drank too much … he felt remorseful. And when he drank too much he often had a temper. She tells me there were times when Bogart was so loaded he didn’t even know where he was or who she was.
When I cite this passage to Bacall, she replies, “He doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”
She says she tried not to discuss Bogart for a number of years after his death, from esophageal cancer in 1957 at the age of 57, because the idea of becoming a professional Hollywood widow at 32 was unappealing. Today, however, the gravitational pull of an immortal star is just too heavy to push off. This Bogie-centrism has been a source of frustration and even hardship, she admits, not only for her but also for their son, who writes in his book, “At a minimum my mother would have liked me to talk a lot about Bogie. To her, Bogie was, and remains, perfect. She always wanted me to ask her what he was like.”
“Steve always felt that nobody could be as perfect as I said Bogie was,” Bacall tells me. “But I never said he was perfect, because God knows he was not. Who would want to be married to somebody perfect? I wouldn’t. I think Steve got a lot of things wrong,” she continues, “because he wasn’t there, [but] writing the book made him feel good. I don’t like to talk about my children. I don’t think it’s fair to them, and I don’t think it’s necessary. Steve, who was the first child, has been trying to find an identity for himself besides being Humphrey Bogart’s son. It’s a terrible thing to have to rise above that. You can’t. I just wish he had asked me some questions.” Bacall also expresses frustration with her other two children—Leslie, age 58, her daughter with Bogart, and Sam Robards, age 49, her son from her second marriage (1961–69), to Jason Robards—for never wanting to ask her questions about the past.
Being Mrs. Bogart
I ask if she felt that her acting career was hurt by being Bogart’s wife. “Oh, yes, because he wanted a wife. He didn’t want an actress,” she says. “He’d been married to three actresses [Helen Menken and Mary Philips, before Methot], and from the beginning he said to me, ‘I love you, and if you want a career, I’ll do everything I can to help you, but I won’t marry you.’ He wanted a wife that would go with him and be there, and he was dead right. And that’s what I wanted, and that’s why I wanted children. He had never had a child. So I was Miss Pushy in that way. But I was happy being his wife. I loved it. Because I really loved him.”
“Do you feel that you might have missed a lot of roles?,” I ask.
“Oh, definitely,” she says. “I think many directors never thought of me except as Bogie’s wife. Billy Wilder only thought of me as his wife. That doesn’t lead to a great career, and I certainly did not fight for a career. So I guess you win some and you lose some. It was by choice. Except, of course, if you are ambitious—which I always was—it’s very hard to erase that from your inner self. I finally felt that I came into my own when I went on the stage.” She won Tony Awards for her roles in Applause, the 1970 musical adaptation of All About Eve, in which she played Margo Channing, the role created by her idol Bette Davis, and for Woman of the Year, in 1981, playing a part originated on-screen by her great friend Katharine Hepburn.
To this day Bacall blames studio boss Jack Warner for hurting her career by forcing her to follow To Have and Have Not with a dog called Confidential Agent (1945). She played a spy, opposite Charles Boyer, and had to do a British accent, which she admits she did very badly. “Whatever you do, don’t watch that movie,” she orders me, still visibly smarting from an experience 55 years in the past. It took two other Bogart films, The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) and John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), to resuscitate her career, but she feels that she never recovered completely. With the exception of How to Marry a Millionaire and Designing Woman, Bacall downplays her early movie career after Key Largo.
In all she has nearly 50 films to her credit. In later years she made star appearances in such memorable titles as Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter (1994). Her last major role as a leading woman was opposite John Wayne in his final film, The Shootist (1976), directed by Don Siegel. Though their politics were diametrically opposed—she is as famously left-wing as he was right-wing—the two icons became close friends. Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, who made two films with Bacall, Dogville (2003) and Birth (2004), says, “I was honored to work with her—intimidated and thrilled. She’s incredibly strong, a great mother and a wonderful actress.”
Bacall made a sensation in a 2006 episode of The Sopranos, playing herself. As she is leaving an awards ceremony, she gets punched out by a mugger who is after her swag bag.
“My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure,” she says, adding, “I’ll never know if that’s true. If that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.”
She tends to his legend, to be sure. The one transgressive anecdote I run by her regarding Bogart incenses her. Bogart biographer Darwin Porter relates a story spread by Truman Capote. “I gave Bogie a blow job one drunken night,” Porter quotes Capote as saying. “It was to settle a bet. I told him if I could beat him at arm wrestling three times in a row, he’d [have] to submit to a blow job. He agreed. When I beat him, he went upstairs with me and unbuttoned his pants and took it out for me.”
Bacall says, “Oh, please. You must be joking. I never heard that. Why would you bring a thing like that up? What kind of a mind do you have? Step out of the gutter. Truman Capote wrote the script for Beat the Devil [1953, starring Bogart and directed by his close friend John Huston],” she continues, “and that’s where they met. Bogie always said, ‘When you meet him you think, My God, where did he come from, this little guy? And then once you get to know him, you just want to put him in your pocket because he’s so funny and so smart.’ So maybe it was a pipe dream of Truman’s—who knows? But it’s a totally ridiculous suggestion that it really is a fact, and I hope that’s beneath you, because I really don’t like the fact that you brought something like that up.”
On the other hand, she is charmed by a similar story, which she volunteers, regarding Bogart and Noël Coward. “He and Bogie were guests of Clifton Webb one weekend. Bogie and Noël were assigned to the same room, and Noël was gay, as everybody on earth knew, but nobody cared, because he was so great. Just to be in his presence was quite enough. And at the end of the evening one night, they were changing into their pj’s to hit the sack. Bogie was sitting on the edge of the bed, and Noël at one point put his hand on Bogie’s knee. Bogie said, ‘Noël, I have to tell you that if I had my druthers and I liked guys you would be the one I’d want to be with. But, unfortunately, I like girls.’ And from that moment on Noël never mentioned it, and Bogie never mentioned it. Class behavior! And they became fast, fast friends.”
Bogie and Jason
Across the room a phone rings, and I offer to get it for her. “Let a man answer it, and see what happens,” she says in a theatrical version of her already theatrical voice. (Famous Bacall story around the Dakota: A doorman, his first day on the job, stops her at the gate and asks where she is going. After getting his head bitten off, he pleads ignorance. “How was I supposed to know it was you?” he asks. “The voice,” she replies.) While she takes the call, from her daughter, Leslie, a yoga instructor in Santa Monica, I wander through the apartment. A long vestibule is lined with sculptures by Robert Graham and Henry Moore—both were close friends—a painting by Henry Fonda, and a Bernard Buffet she bought with Bogart on their first trip to Paris. It once sat propped against the wall of the living room of their Holmby Hills mansion, which she and Bogart never got around to furnishing completely before he died. The massive living room of the Dakota is arranged like the drawing room in an English country house, with boat-like sofas, a bit threadbare, covered with quilts. Bacall’s National Book Award for By Myself is on prominent display, but conspicuously absent is her honorary Oscar, the Governors Award, which she was given in 2009. (She received only one Oscar nomination, for The Mirror Has Two Faces, 1996.)
When she is off the phone, I ask, “Where is the Oscar?”
“It’s hidden in my bedroom,” she says. “I’m ready to throw it out the window. I hate it now. Every time I look at it, I remember that day, and I think it was probably the worst thing I have ever done. What should have been one of the best days in my life is one of the worst.”
“Because I only talked about Bogie,” she says. “My three children were sitting out there, and I never talked about Jason, and I never mentioned Sam, my youngest child. I had a lot I should have said about Jason, and Sam”—who is an accomplished actor in his own right—“was sitting right there. I think that’s about as bad a thing as I’ve ever done. I just kind of went blank. And I knew it, and I tried to get back on, and I couldn’t, because they had all of the film cuts planned, and so they were right into the next thing. I think it scarred my son terribly, and there’s no excuse for that, especially in view that I so adore him.”
She adds, “People are always criticizing me for Bogie this and Bogie that. It’s become very tiresome to always be asked about Bogie and never about Jason. I find that insulting, and it has hurt Sam a lot over the years.” She points out that, after all, “Jason took up more of my life than Bogie did.”
Robards also took up almost as much of By Myself as Bogart, but in a much less flattering light. Perhaps this is because they had been divorced not long before she wrote the book, and Robards’s alcoholism, which Bacall describes with arresting candor—especially for 1978, when such things were not freely discussed—was a nightmare for her for many years.
Bacall, however, utterly rejects the notion that “one guy was the great guy and the other guy was no damn good. It’s not true. I had no intention of writing that way, and I don’t really remember writing that kind of stuff. When Jason was not drinking so much, we had good times together. Not always, but we had some good times. I also had Sam. Sam enriched my life more than anyone has—not intentionally, it’s just the way he was. What a great gift. Jason adored him, but Jason was not a good father. Jason didn’t show up when he was supposed to show up. I think Jason, unfortunately, was not good enough. I wish he had been.”
Both of her husbands were actors of exceptional talent. Bogart won an Oscar for The African Queen (1951) and was nominated for two more, for Casablanca (1942) and The Caine Mutiny (1954). Robards won the Oscar for best supporting actor two years in a row, for All the President’s Men (1976) and Julia (1977), as well as a Tony for The Disenchanted (1958). Bacall bristles, however, at any comparison of the two men. “My time with Jason bore no resemblance to my life with Bogie, none,” she says. “Some people said, ‘Oh, because he looks like Bogart.’ He didn’t look anything like Bogie, and he didn’t behave anything like Bogie. He didn’t think anything like Bogie. With Bogie, it’s no surprise that I say those were the best years of my life, because I married a man who adored me and who taught me everything about life and movies and people and exposed me to the best part of living, which was talented, creative people. And all of his absolute devotion to the truth, to honesty, to honor, and to laughter—to everything. How could I not find that the years that changed me completely and that gave me a life were the happiest? I didn’t have to think of anything. I was just being adored by this fantastic man. I didn’t have any real love in my growing-up life, except for my mother and my grandmother.”
I ask her if she thinks she was seeking a substitute father when she took up with Bogart, given the difference in their ages.
“I’m not discussing my daddy,” she says.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because there’s nothing to discuss,” she replies. “I didn’t know him at all until I was eight years old, and I never saw him again. And he was not Mr. Nice Guy, and he did not treat my mother well.”
When I press her on this theme, she says, “Your thinking paints a picture that has no relation to me. You’re thinking that somehow Bogart, in the back of my mind, was a father figure. He wasn’t.” Then, almost immediately, she partially recants: “It’s very dramatic and romantic, this idea. Well, Bogie was kind of my father. He showed me the way, because I didn’t know anything about movies and Hollywood.”
Telling the Truth
The most extraordinary chapter of By Myself is the one covering Bogart’s illness and death. The account is so detailed and raw that it seems as if Bacall is describing events that happened the day before, rather than decades earlier. For example, she takes herself back to the night before his death:
That night was a night never to be forgotten of total restlessness—of Bogie picking at his chest in his sleep—of his feeling he had to get up and then not—of constant movement. I was awake most of the night and could see his hands moving over his chest as he slept, as though things were closing in and he wanted to get out. The only thing that became more apparent to me that night was an odor—I had been noticing it as I kissed him. At first I thought it was medicinal—later I realized it was decay. Actually I didn’t realize it—I asked the nurse what it was and she told me. It was a strong odor almost like disinfectant turned sour. In the world of sickness one becomes privy to the failure of the body—to so many small things taken for granted, ignored, I reacted not with revulsion but with a caving in of my stomach.
“Honest,” she says. “I promised myself I would be, and Bob Gottlieb [formerly of Knopf], who was my editor, made very clear that I had to tell the truth. I said, ‘Of course I’m going to tell the truth. There’s no point doing it if you’re not going to tell the truth.’ I was very upset, for example, about having to say something about Frank Sinatra that was not very nice, but [Gottlieb] said, ‘You have to.’ Well, I said he behaved like a shit, which he did.”
In the wake of Bogart’s death, Sinatra, who had worshipped and emulated him, as well as lusted after his wife, made a play for Bacall. She was receptive. “The fact of my being alone was crucial,” she later wrote. “I hated feeling that my life was over at thirty-two Up to that time there had been either my mother or Bogie to lean on. Now there was no one. If I’d stopped to verbalize that, I’m sure I couldn’t have functioned And there was the weekly nightmare [about Bogart’s death] that would literally have me waking up screaming.” Sinatra wooed her and took over as provost of the exclusive Hollywood society that Bogart had founded with Bacall and a few friends (Spencer Tracy, David Niven, Judy Garland, agent Swifty Lazar, restaurateur Mike Romanoff) called the Holmby Hills Rat Pack. In the 60s this group became totally Sinatra-focused and renamed itself the Clan.
“I was in terrible shape then, and I was in no shape to cope with Sinatra and his incredible behavior,” Bacall tells me. Yet she could not ignore the “insane electric currents running between them all the time.” In 1958, Sinatra proposed. “I questioned nothing. That was my trouble—one of my troubles,” she says. The night of their engagement, they went to the Imperial Gardens restaurant on the Sunset Strip. “A young girl came over for autographs,” writes Bacall in By Myself. “Frank handed me the paper napkin and pen. As I started to write, he said, ‘Put down your new name.’ So ‘Lauren Bacall’ was followed by ‘Betty Sinatra.’ It looked funny, but he asked for it and he got it. I often wondered what became of that paper napkin.”
Within days the engagement was off. Swifty Lazar, perhaps Bogart’s closest friend, had leaked the news to Louella Parsons. The Los Angeles Herald ran it on the front page: SINATRA TO MARRY BACALL. “I gasped—oh my God, what a disaster—how the hell did that happen?,” Bacall later recounted. “How could Louella have printed that? ‘My God, Swifty. You told her—are you crazy? Frank will be furious!’ Swifty just laughed: ‘Of course I told her—I didn’t know she’d do this. I just said I happened to know that Frank had asked Betty to marry him. So what? He did! What’s wrong with saying it?’ I said, ‘It wasn’t up to you. You’re coming home with me right now and calling Frank—I don’t want him to think I did it.’ I was so insecure it was pathetic.”
Sinatra dropped her over the phone. At a dinner party only months later, he was one seat away from her. “He did not speak one word to me—if he looked in my direction, he did not see me, he looked right past me, as though my chair were empty,” Bacall wrote. He ignored her for the next 20 years.
‘I think there are certain things you have to face about yourself,” she says. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. Sometimes you think: I’m the Queen of the May—I can do anything. The great thing about life is—the terrible thing about life is—that everything is mixed up. All the things that you thought were one way suddenly turn out to be another way. You might say that my honorary Oscar was a high point in my life, but it actually represents to me the worst thing I’ve ever done. So it’s very weird. But nobody’s perfect, as Joe E. Brown [the actor who has the last word in Some Like It Hot] said. Right?”
Bacall continues, “I don’t think anybody that has a brain can really be happy. What is there really to be happy about? You tell me. If you’re a thinking human being, there’s no way to divorce yourself from the world. Yes, I probably was happy when I was married to Bogie, but I was very young then. I had a good growing-up life, I would say, but I wasn’t really happy, because I was an only child, and I wasn’t part of a whole family—what we in America consider the proper family, a father and a mother and child, which, of course, is a big crock we know—and yet I had the greatest family anyone could wish for in everyone on my mother’s side. So what you think is happy? Happy shmappy. I think you have to be unconscious to be happy. Are you unconscious?” she asks me.
When our final interview is over, I help Bacall up from her chair, and she walks with me to the door. “You haven’t told me a thing about you!” she says as I stand there with one foot over the threshold. She gives me a hug and a kiss and then issues one last lament: “I can never get a voice-over job. People say, ‘With your voice?’ I say, ‘Yes, with my voice.’ It’s all Bogie’s fault.” She leans forward and pokes a finger in my chest. “Remember what Bogie and my mother both used to say: ‘Character is the most important thing. All that matters is character!’ ”
With that she shuts the door.