I was first introduced to Lauren Bacall by way of movies when I was all of sixteen years old as she burned up the silver screen acting opposite Humphrey Bogart in Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not.” Betty, as she was known to her friends, was just nineteen years old when she came out to California for a screen test after being picked out of a magazine by the wife of director Howard Hawks. Her trademark look that she became so well-known for was the result of the fact that she was, “A nervous wreck” on the set of that film, her first. She said that she couldn’t stop shaking in those scenes with Bogie and so she dropped her chin to steady herself and there it was, “The Look.” Bogart was still married to actress Mayo Methot when he met Bacall. Known as “The Battling Bogarts”, Methot once sailed an ashtray at Bogart’s head in a restaurant in a jealous rage. In the early days of their romance Bogart and Bacall snuck around, back lots at the movie studio and clandestine meetings on his boat. Bogart was afraid for a time that Methot might actually try to harm Bacall. After he obtained a divorce and he and Bacall were married in 1945, he bought her a fur coat which she promptly placed on the floor and walked over barefoot, just to see what it felt like. Together they made four films, “To Have and Have Not”, “Dark Passage”, “The Big Sleep” and “Key Largo” all of which I just realized that I own copies of. “Dark Passage” and “The Big Sleep” are favorites, though you’ve got to have some intestinal fortitude to get through the plot heavy and completely worth it, “The Big Sleep.” However I think that it was in this film, “The Big Sleep”, that Bacall seemed to emerge from girlhood, her voice trained to be deeper, that sexier, somewhat smokier quality to it and with a new-found confidence and yet she was a mere twenty-one years old.
Bogart and Bacall passed thirteen years together, had two children. Bogart was ill for quite some time before any but their closest friends knew and Bacall cared for him, his weight so slight that they managed to get him from the upstairs of their house to the downstairs via a dumb-waiter facilitating his sole wishes to spend time with her and the kids, to sit with his friends and share stories while enjoying a scotch and a smoke.
But what else? She had a relationship with Sinatra. She had notable roles in numerous films, “How to Marry A Millionaire” another favorite of mine, she stared on Broadway and with Paul Newman in “Harper.” She later married Jason Robards with whom she had a son, actor Sam Robards, who some of you might remember from the films “Fandango” and “Beautiful Girls.” She took chances with movies like “The Fan” and “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” And I’m starting to ramble, because I’m crying…
I wanted to be that beautiful. To smoke cigarettes that well. To stand up that straight. To get my hair to frame my face just that perfectly. I wanted to be that smart, to sound that smart. The nickname of her character in “To Have and Have Not” was “Slim” and wasn’t that great, weren’t all the great babes and dames nicknamed like that? She was glamorous and down to earth and CLASS with a capital CLASS all the way through. I listened to her interviews and the way that she said “Cary Grant” was intoxicating…”Oh Cary Grant, well, he was just gorgeous, that man…” She had that air about her that women with integrity always have, the tone of their voice, the way she held her cigarette at the ends of her fingers, pointing when she talked, “And I’m telling you he never once…” The intelligence behind the eyes, the sidelong glance, she was onto you, buster, all the way through and don’t you forget it. There were times during interviews when you could tell that she didn’t like someone whom she was being asked about and she would still find something good to say about them, objectively, and that’s character.
When I think of watching those old films late at night during my teen years there are three women who stand out, who became role models of a kind for me, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, and Lauren Bacall.
Thinking now, what was it that I so admired about these women of this era and it was that they projected a kind of stoic strength and class that seems to me so absent from the world of today. In listening to Bacall talk about her friendship with Hepburn, she says, “I am what I am and that’s it.” What a wonderful reminder to be ones self regardless of any other thing, no-nonsense gals who went about their business as though it were exactly that, their business, and as though they had every right to. I needed that and I’m going to take that lesson of their lives away with me and keep it, again. That is the example that I began with and as we find ourselves at crossroads at various times in our lives with decisions to make about direction, well, it’s good to remember there is really only that, “I am what I am and that’s it.” Be that, if you can do that and stand your ground as yourself, which isn’t necessarily an easy thing to always do, chances are that it will be more than enough.
Betty Bacall was a girl from The Bronx who wanted to be a movie star back when they still existed, and she was. She was an icon to me and perhaps this seems somewhat lacking in specifics or intelligent discourse but I think that it is difficult to fully articulate how it feels to be an adult and to be watching the passing of childhood heroes, there is something about it that feels like the threads of reality dissipating into some strange other world without foundations, though of course that isn’t true. On the heels of the passing of James Garner and Robin Williams, this news seems all the more difficult to process. These stars, they brought other worlds to us, they entertained with intelligence, affable charm and wit, with candor and sex appeal and class, they made our world(s) seem a little more tolerable, a little better for an hour or two here and there. What sweet dreams. Though really, I don’t even know what to say.
Lauren Bacall was 89 years old and that ain’t a bad run.
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