Lauren Bacall Tells Why She Wrote the Sometimes Bitter Truth About Bogie, Frank, Jason and Hollywood
“You don’t have to do anything or say anything. Maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together—and blow.” With those lines delivered to a mesmerized Humphrey Bogart in 1944’s To Have and Have Not, Betty Joan Perske of Brooklyn was launched by director Howard Hawks as a sloe-eyed movie siren named Lauren Bacall. She was 19. Since then, Bacall—still Betty to all who know her—has become a Hollywood legend. In her newly published memoirs, Lauren Bacall by Myself (Knopf, $10.95) she describes her quick stardom, her happy 11-year marriage to Bogie that ended when he died of cancer in 1957, her brief and bitter affair with Frank Sinatra and her tempestuous eight years with second husband Jason Robards. Her roller-coaster career has included 23 films (among them The Big Sleep, Key Largo, How to Marry a Millionaire and Murder on the Orient Express) and stage hits like the comedy Cactus Flower and her Tony-winning performance in the 1970 Broadway musical Applause. In her cavernous, art-filled apartment in New York’s famous Dakota, Lauren Bacall mused about her life and plans with Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.
Why is Lauren Bacall writing her memoirs now?
Because I was asked by the right man—Knopf’s editor in chief Bob Gottlieb—at the right time under the right conditions. It was 1974; I was back in New York after being in London for two years—playing in Applause and filming Murder on the Orient Express—and there was a pause in my career. I had been asked several times to write about life with Bogie, but no one had ever asked me to write the whole story about my life—before and after him.
How did you go about it?
Every day for three years I went into the New York offices of Knopf at 1 p.m. and stayed for at least four hours writing on yellow legal pads with a felt-tip pen. There will always be diehards who won’t believe that I wrote it myself, but they can go down to Knopf and look at those stacks of damned legal pads.
Why will people doubt you wrote it?
They think actors are freaks—that we’re a lot of drunks who party all the time and never work. Well, I for one work my tail off.
You were brought up to be a “nice Jewish girl,” as you put it, but in Hollywood you hid that fact. Why?
So much more was made of my concealing it because I didn’t “look” Jewish. There was anti-Semitism in Hollywood and I was terribly frightened. Remember, I was 19 and wasn’t exactly swimming in self-confidence. It’s one area of my life I am not proud of.
When you were going with Bogart, did you tell him you were Jewish?
Yes. I had once been asked out by a West Point cadet and the subject of religion came up. He never called back, and I was sure it was because I was a Jew. So when I fell in love with Bogie, I knew I had to damn well get it straight. Of course, he was the last man on earth it would have bothered.
Were you a great fan of Bogie’s before you met him?
Howard Hawks said he’d like to put me in a film with Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart. I thought, “Cary Grant—terrific! Humphrey Bogart—yucch.”
Didn’t Howard Hawks help create your famous voice?
You can’t acquire a voice. Either you have it or you don’t. But Howard wanted me to be insolent with men on the screen, and that meant training my voice so it would remain low. I would park on Mulholland Drive—so as not to disturb the neighbors—and read The Robe aloud in a low, low voice. I was never much of a screecher anyway.
How did the Bacall “look” come about?
I used to tremble from nerves so badly that the only way I could hold my head steady was to lower my chin practically to my chest and look up at Bogie. That was the beginning of the Look. I still get the shakes from time to time.
Are you the tough cookie most people think you are?
I never thought I was a tough cookie at all. When I was making To Have and Have Not Howard Hawks wanted an attitude of worldliness. At the time I was trying to figure out how a kid with absolutely no sexual experience could convey worldliness. The biggest misconception people have about me is that I’m in control of every situation. I’m rarely in control of any situation.
Why are you and Katharine Hepburn such close friends?
I’ve always felt that Katie, whom I got to know when she and Bogie were making The African Queen, was the female counterpart to Bogie. He had tremendous integrity and so does she. Every 10 minutes spent with Katie is a big plus in my life.
Would Bogie have understood women’s lib?
Bogie was an old-fashioned man. He kidded that a woman’s place was in the home, but he was only half kidding. He had divorced three actresses and was convinced that a career and marriage don’t mix.
Which is the stronger sex?
Women. We have much more character, a greater sense of honor and conviction. Men behave as if they’re 3 years old all the time. Jesus, I don’t want to be anybody’s mother.
If Bogart were alive, do you think you would still be married?
Probably, but then my life would have been so different. I would never have gone into the theater because that would have split us up. But I suppose if I had wanted anything badly enough, he probably would have let the girl try her wings for a while.
Does it bother you that you’ll always be Bogie’s Baby?
No, but I get very angry with insensitive strangers who come up when I’m having dinner with a man and start talking to me about Bogie. There’s a limit. As Bogie said, “All an actor owes the public is a good performance.”
Are older men more intimidated by Bogie than young ones?
The young ones think of me as just a woman, the older men as some kind of unconquerable monument. But if a man isn’t interested in me as I am then it’s just too bad. Frankly, anyone who is mixed up with me is damned lucky.
After Bogie’s death your brief engagement to Frank Sinatra ended abruptly. How do you view Sinatra today?
Frank did me a great favor. He saved me from the complete disaster our marriage would have been. But the truth is that he behaved like a complete shit. Still, that was over 20 years ago. When I run into him now, we give each other a nice hello.
What was the most tumultuous moment in your marriage to Jason Robards?
When I invited a few friends over to celebrate his 40th birthday. Jason showed up at 2 a.m., loaded. I grabbed a bottle of vodka, smashed it into the cake and yelled, “Here’s your goddamn cake!” The marriage ended when I came across a letter written to him by his girlfriend.
Do you see each other now?
We adore each other. Something clicked in his head and he decided to kick the bottle. Looking back, I was right to fall in love with Jason because he’s a terrific man. It’s hard to believe, but sometimes you have to go through all of that craziness.
Why have you been attracted to married men like Bogart and Robards?
That I can’t explain. Hell, it’s the one thing I’ve always consciously tried to avoid. The big rule is that you must never get mixed up with a married man—never even look sideways at another woman’s fella. Boy, I really was terrific at obeying that rule, wasn’t I? God!
What do all these men have in common ?
They are all off-center people—trouble and troubled. They all had talent, humor and were very complex. I suppose I must like all of that. No one simple ever thought I was great.
Would you have a facelift?
No, I’m afraid they might slip and hit a nerve and I’d end up with one side of my face hanging down or something. I’ll just stick with this one for a while and take my chances. I’ll be brave.
What is your next project?
In Robert Altman’s next film, Health, I play an 83-year-old virgin. How’s that for a challenge?
What makes you angry?
The American Syndrome—Youth. If it ain’t young, it’s no good. Everything in this country has got to be good looks and unlined faces and thin bodies and people running around in skirts slit up to their ass. It has nothing to do with thinking or with being a human being. There is life in mature people; it’s not all over at 24½.
Do you mind being alone?
I love screaming at these four walls. They don’t answer back and they don’t tell anyone else, either. I’d like another relationship, but it wouldn’t bother me if I never married again. I’m not just going to vamp until ready. There’s a lot I want to do and I’m gonna do it—starting right now.