I once worked for a newspaper in Washington, D.C. that spent extravagantly to say the least. It preferred to fly me to interview celebrities that I could talk to almost as productively, and certainly more cost-effectively, on the telephone.
The thought is prompted by the death this week of the legendary Lauren Bacall, at 89, of stroke complications. Thirty years ago, I flew from D.C. to Detroit for an audience with the former Betty Joan Perske, who was starring in the so-so stage musical Woman of the Year at Motown’s Fisher Theatre, prior to a tour stop at the Kennedy Center.
Bacall had a well-earned reputation as a tough cookie, known for getting her way and for not suffering fools like, say, interviewers.
And I was told by her press rep that no photographer would be allowed to accompany me, that under no circumstance should I bring up either of her former husbands — Humphrey Bogart or Jason Robards. And whatever I did, I should absolutely not mention her dog, who died the month before in St. Louis, yet another tour city. Of course, I had never heard of her dog, let alone his demise.
We met and talked in her hotel suite and sometime during our chat — I cannot for the life of me recall what prompted her to get up and exit briefly into her bedroom — she came back with a snapshot to show me. Of her deceased pet dog, Blenheim.
“I must say I laid everything on that poor dog,” Bacall told me. “He was my best friend, my companion. People say, ’Oh, get another dog.’ Well, that’s not the answer. ‘Get another husband. Get another friend. Get another dog.’ You don’t replace people, why should you replace animals?
“I’m demanding of my relationships. Why have I lived all alone these years? Because I’m not going to settle for any jerk who comes along. I’m not built that way. I can’t.”
You see, Bacall was sort of talking about her pet dog, but she was also alluding to her time with Bogey, who died of cancer of the esophagus in 1957. After that, she was more than willing to talk about Bogart — the love of her life, 25 years her senior.
“What made him great?” she asked aloud. “Work. Training. Bogey was not only a fine actor, but he had this incredible personality. And he died a young man. No one ever saw him get old.”
That led her to reminisce about Robards, with whom she had a far more combative relationship, a marriage that ended in divorce after eight years. “Clearly, we couldn’t stay married or we would have,” she commented. “I mean our time together was just not good, for both of us. It was as much my fault as his.”
For whatever reason, Bacall and I hit it off well. She was nothing but pleasant to me, but she did briefly show me the harridan she was accused of being. At one point, she offered me coffee and, when I accepted, she phoned for room service.
After awhile, there was a knock on the suite door and in came a visibly nervous young waiter, who clumsily poured the coffee, rattling the saucers and spilling some of the hot liquid. In disgust, Bacall berated the waiter, barking orders to him, snapping at his incompetence. And the more she snapped, the more he fumbled the coffee service.
Eventually, he slunk away and the fire-breathing Bacall also disappeared, replaced by the charming, soft-spoken interview subject. I imagine she just wanted me to get a glimpse of the gorgon-like Bacall.
The encounter illustrated a view she had of the difficulties of being on the road. “When I toured with ‘Applause’,” an earlier Broadway triumph of hers, “you didn’t have the kind of crap that you have to deal with now. You have to deal with some of the worst, most arrogant service, incompetent people who throw things at you,” she said. “The waiters don’t want to be bothered, the room service doesn’t want to be bothered, the desk doesn’t want to be bothered.”
Sure, we also talked about Woman of the Year and her other stage roles and, of course, about her iconic film work. But what I remember most, particularly now, is Bacall’s abiding unhappiness about her life.
“I’ll tell you something — life is mostly misery,” she said to me. “I’ve discovered the hard way. There are very few happy times in one’s life. I don’t know about most lives, but I’ve found that most of it is uphill and unhappy and a struggle.
“I had a few highs and a few times I really felt wonderful and terrific, but happy? You have to be an idiot to feel happy. How the hell can you be happy in this world? I just do not understand happy now. I really don’t.”