I’m at least 84% sure this story is accurate. Eighty-four percent because I was in the room at the time, the other 16% because I didn’t see what happened but only heard about it. Even if the anecdote is not red-check true, it provides tantalizing support to the domineering social legend that was Lauren Bacall, who died Tuesday at 89.
On March 3, 1998, TIME threw an amazing party for its 75th anniversary at Radio City Music Hall, across the street from the Time-Life Building. Tiers of tables, a hundred or so set on floorboards in the gigantic auditorium, held a glittering constellation of politicians, authors, scientists, athletes and artists, with each table of eight or 10 anchored by a TIME staffer. At table 38, which I hosted, the guests included Norman Mailer and his wife Norris Church, Tina Brown and Harold Evans, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Val Kilmer and a female agent from the Secret Service, ready to protect President Bill Clinton if necessary. Clinton, barely a month after the Lewinsky scandal had become public, was seated at table 1 with Toni Morrison, James L. Brooks, TIME Managing Editor Walter Isaacson and other luminaries. And at some table between Walter’s and mine sat Bacall.
But not for long. Clinton had come to Bacall’s table to speak with Barry Goldwater. When Bacall saw where Clinton was sitting, she strode down to table 1 and ordered a waiter to put another chair and place setting in that cramped circle. Voilà! She was sitting with the President.
(SEE: Barry, Bill and Bacall)
I relate this not to suggest that Bacall was a bully — though I know people who cringed and were singed by her hauteur — but because it illuminates the will power she thought she needed to demonstrate in the half-century after her early Hollywood stardom. In her 1978 autobiography, she paints an unflattering portrait of herself at 15: “tall, ungainly (I didn’t know I was ‘colt-like’ until a critic said I was), with big feet, flat-chested,… too inexperienced, shy, frightened to know what to do with a boy when I did have a date.” Yet by 18 the Brooklyn-born Betty Joan Perske had been a Harper’s Bazaar cover girl. At 19, she starred in her first film, To Have and Have Not. And at 20 she wed her 45-year-old leading man. Bogie and Betty, Humphrey Bogart and (her movie name) Lauren Bacall: a love affair for the ages.
Actually, their marriage lasted just 11½ years, ending with Bogart’s death from cancer in 1957. By then she was 32, and good starring roles eluded her. She moved back to New York, married actor Jason Robards Jr. — they divorced after eight years, in 1969 — and became the young doyenne of Broadway. The plays Goodbye, Charlie and Cactus Flower became movies, but with Debbie Reynolds and Ingrid Bergman, not Bacall. In 1970 she turned herself into a musical star and a Tony winner as Margo Channing in Applause, based on the movie All About Eve; and 11 years later won another Tony in Woman of the Year, a musical redo of the first film to pair Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She continued to grace movies and TV dramas (usually supporting roles) and plays (as a star). But the Bacall that the world loved and lusted for was the teenager who taught Bogart the wolf whistle in her first film role.
Nancy “Slim” Hawks showed the Bacall Harper’s Bazaar cover to her husband Howard, director of such Hollywood classics as Scarface, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire, Red River and Rio Bravo. Pleased with his reputation in discovering and nurturing female stars, from Carole Lombard to Rita Hayworth, Hawks imported Bacall to Hollywood and signed her to a personal contract. His studio, Warner Bros., wanted her teeth fixed and her hairline raised; Hawks refused. He liked her as she was, except for her already low voice, whose register dropped even further when she followed Hawks’ orders to shout out passages from a book (The Robe) into the canyons under Mulholland Drive. By the end she possessed that throaty voice that Tom Wolfe later called “the New York Social Baritone.” Smoking helped, too.
Bogart, in his third marriage (to Mayo Methot), paid little attention to Bacall at the start of the To Have and Have Not shoot, but he soon fell hard. In the movie’s famous early scene, Bacall stands at Bogart’s door and sultry-whispers, “You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” She leaves and Bogart whistles appreciatively. That scene could be a documentary film of the middle-aged star realizing he loved his leading lady. Bacall was still a virginal “nice Jewish girl,” and she had adopted her eyes-up, chin-down tilt — what would come to be known as The Look — because she was a nervous ingénue with a case of the shakes. See how she projected herself into Bogart’s and the moviegoers’ erotic dreams? Acting!
Bacall had only one stage credit, an ensemble role in the short-lived Broadway play Johnny 2 x 4. But she had It. She arrived on screen grown-up. No other young actress could project her feline seductiveness — part lynx, part minx. Those qualities served her well in the three other films Bogart and Bacall made together. Hawks’ The Big Sleep, from the Raymond Chandler novel (and co-scripted, like To Have and Have Not, by William Faulkner), Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage and John Huston’s Key Largo were taut melodramas that sizzled from the combustion of Bogie’s weary machismo and Betty’s precocious allure. By her early twenties she was Hollywood glamour on ice. Her lips suggested she knew her impact on the opposite sex and found it less empowering than amusing; her eyes lasered through a man’s ego and into his id.
She chafed at the enduring connection to the love of her life — that fans and the press alike couldn’t think of Bacall without Bogart. (Everybody could think of Bacall without Robards.) The title of her autobiography, By Myself , asserts that she wanted to be known for herself, not just as Bogie’s Baby. Yet he was her costar in her four best films of the ’40s; the one she made with a different leading man, Charles Boyer in Confidential Agent, was a critical and financial failure and for her a humiliating experience. After Key Largo in 1948, and still in her mid-twenties, she was often cast as the older “other woman”: the brittle sophisticate to Doris Day’s ingenue in Young Man With a Horn, or Patricia Neal’s in Bright Leaf. In the 1953 How to Marry a Millionaire, Bacall was the third-billed brunet between two sexy blonds, Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable.
She was felicitously paired with Rock Hudson in Written on the Wind, stood up to John Wayne in Blood Alley and took some of the starch out of Gregory Peck in Designing Woman. That romantic comedy opened in 1957, the year of Bogart’s death, and effectively ended her movie-star career. In the ’60s, like other Warners stars of the ’40s — Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Olivia de Havilland — Bacall went gothic in Shock Treatment, a tale of a lunatic taking over the asylum. She was the crazy one. A decade later, between Applause and Woman of the Year, was one of a dozen stars in Murder on the Orient Express. Her savoriest late role was as Barbra Streisand’s haughty mother in the 1996 The Mirror Has Two Faces. In a telling scene shared by two generations of Jewish movie queens — the ’40s cover girl Bacall and the ’60s “ugly duckling” Streisand — Barbra asks the still-resplendent Betty, “How did it feel to be beautiful?” And Bacall’s face softens into a glow: “It was — wonderful!”
Maybe it wasn’t entirely wonderful, being Mrs. Humphrey Bogart forever. Maybe that need to be her own woman not only spurred her through a long, versatile, accomplished post-Bogie career, but also gave her the gumption to move down to Bill Clinton’s table at the TIME gala. Still, 70 years after it began, she couldn’t control her legacy. She remained half of a smart, sassy, poignant love affair on-screen and off. Their warmth and electricity was the stuff of romantic legend; it outlived him, and now her, because it seemed the perfect, sexual and intellectual match. As Bernie Higgins sang in his 1980 ballad “Key Largo”: “We had it all / Just like Bogie and Bacall.”