May 05, 1997 12:00 PM

by A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax

Forty years after his death, the truth can finally be told: Humphrey Bogart was a lousy kisser. Mary Astor, his leading lady in two films, including 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, complained after one clinch, “Try not to knock my teeth out next time!” To which the quintessential screen tough guy contritely replied, “I’m sorry, kid.” But don’t fret, shweethearts: Unlike another new bio, Bogart, by Jeffrey Meyers, this is no kiss-and-tell clip job. Ann Sperber (Murrow: His Life and Times) interviewed more than 200 of Bogart’s cronies and colleagues before she died of a heart attack at 58 in 1994. Hired to complete the book, Lax (Woody Allen) has woven her research into a graceful, compelling narrative. In it, Bogart emerges as an admirable figure—despite his nasty temper, heavy drinking and mercurial love life. He and actress Mayo Methot (his third wife, whom he left in 1944 to marry Lauren Bacall) argued so often that they were dubbed the Battling Bo-garts. When his friend Errol Flynn noticed Bogart’s two black eyes one day, the actor wearily replied, “Yeah, that’s a right cross from Mayo.”

But he also clashed with Jack L. Warner, the tyrannical studio boss who kept casting him in B movies even after Casablanca made him a screen idol in 1942. After Warner threatened him with suspension for rejecting a potboiler script, Bogart retorted, “Turn your dogs on me.” His bravest fight, though, was against the esophageal cancer that left his body emaciated but his spirit undimmed. To one visitor Upset at his skeletal appearance, Bogart quipped: “What’s the matter, kid? Can’t you take it?” Even while dying—too young, at 58, in 1957—Bogie comes off here as larger than life. (Morrow; $27.50)

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