Her friends called her Betty. As you may already know, Betty (Lauren) Bacall died today in New York City of a massive stroke. She was 89. Born Betty Joan Perske, she wowed audiences in the forever-after-famous “you know how to whistle” scene in the 1944 romance, To Have and Have Not. Her co-star Humphrey Bogart was impressed. They were soon married and remained devoted to one another for the next 12 years, until his death in 1956. Her gravel-voiced immediately transformed her into a star – that and her otherworldly beauty. Her life is the stuff of Hollywood legend. She has even expressed surprise at her own career;
“It’s quite amazing the people I worked with — some of the all-time all-time greats.”
In 1997, she received a Kennedy Center Honor; in 1999, the American Film Institute voted her one of the 25 most significant female movie stars in history.
About four years ago, my pal Allegra Huston (sister of Anjelica) was being celebrated at the home of John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck, Doubt, etc) for her new autiobiographical book, Love Child. The event was star-studded to say the LEAST, but just after arriving I was introduced to Betty by Allegra, and suddenly all the other celebs became "just people". Betty had know Allegra since she was a kid and they hugged and reminisced (I shot a picture that I can’t locate...) Then, Bacall proceeded to tell a story about being on the set of the African Queen, a John Huston film starring Bogey and Katherine Hepburn, and going with Bogey & Huston to share a suite the Ritz in Paris on a break during filming. There was drunken-ness, shopping by Huston, etc. – I cannot recount all of the details and anecdotes here, but suffice it to say that it was TOTALLY ENTHRALLING. There was a casual buffet dinner layed out in front of us and Betty couldn’t see too well in the dim light, so I made her a plate of food and she went off to eat. I made myself a plate and low and behold, there was a spot right next to her in the living room and we began to chat – about Hollywood, the Hamptons, being directed by Streisand, movies, New York real estate, roles for aging stars, Bogey, etc. I swear we talked for 30-40 minutes… I get chills thinking about it now. I did pretty well pretending I was talking to any 85 year-old and not this ICON. I did OK not acting like a total freak. The night went on and as I said, there were many more famous faces at this party of maybe 35-40 (Jeremy Irons, Roger Waters, Harvey Keitel, Robert Wagner, Jill St. John, Angelica Huston, to name a few…) There was a baby grand being played in the middle of the loft-like apt and at one point, Betty went up to it, leaned in and started to sing! I can’t remember what it was but it was sweet and low-key… I went near, to hear. Anyway, that was my unforgettable encounter. And now she’s gone.
She made a cameo on The Sopranos as herself in 2006 and in our little talk she complained about being forgotten by the younger generation, but in the end she didn't really care, continued to work and live her life as she wanted. It’s a dumb cliché but they REALLY don’t make ‘em like this one anymore. Here she is with Bogart in The Big Sleep. Watch.