Last week we lost one of the last remaining legends of Hollywood cinema when Lauren Bacall passed away at the age of 89. For the past week the internet has been pouring with beautiful, heartfelt obituaries. 21st Century Flapper wishes to bid farewell to our beloved Betty with a tribute perhaps unlike the ones you’ve read before. Here my dear friend Kendra Bean, the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, recalls her encounter with the star nearly a decade ago. Prepare for a giggle.
By Kendra Bean
What you’re about to read is a true story. It happened nearly 10 years ago on St Patrick’s Day, 2005. I had just turned 21 and was in my junior year at the University of California Irvine, about 45 minutes south of Los Angeles on a good traffic day. I can’t remember exactly how I found out about it, but somehow I learned that Betty Joan Perske, better known to movie lovers as Lauren Bacall, would be signing copies of her updated autobiography, By Myself and Then Some, at Book Soup on Sunset Blvd. Being a relative newcomer to the Classic Film Appreciation Gang, I had only read a few celebrity autobiographies, Bacall’s among them. So I was at least familiar with her story, if not her entire filmography (still working on that one, to be honest). Luckily, my roommate Alex agreed to go, so along our fellow Film and Media Studies friend Liesl, we hit the road – Hollywood or bust!
Although we arrived with plenty of time to spare, it wasn’t until we spoke with the cashier at the bookshop that we learned it was some kind of ticketed event, for which we, of course, were unprepared. But driving back to Orange County empty handed wasn’t an option. We’d come too far, and when life hands you lemons, you’d better damn well try and make lemonade. Our lemonade came in the form of some nice autograph hunters standing in line. They were either charmed by us or felt sorry for us (let’s say it was the former), and allowed us to pretend we were with them. Despite it being an obnoxious and seedy tourist trap, Hollywood is an interesting place for classic film fans. 99% of the big stars of the era are now gone, but there are still plenty of people milling about town who either met or knew someone famous. The guys we chatted with had obviously been around for a while: they fascinated us with stories of meeting Myrna Loy and Ingrid Bergman.
After about an hour and a half, during which a bee flew down my pants leaving me with a really uncomfortable welt on my stomach, the line began to move. We were informed that the rules were going to be strict: No photographs. Ms. Bacall would only be signing one item per person, and that one item was a copy of the latest edition of her book, no exceptions. I felt kind of sorry for the people who brought cherished vintage memorabilia. Like some kind of overpowering force, her star power went into effect before we even stepped inside the store. One thing was clear: Bacall meant business.
I may have been relatively new to classic films, but it’s not like I’d never seen a celebrity before. Just a month earlier, I had gone to the Oscars, and despite standing for 11 hours and being jammed into a space the size of a studio apartment with about 100 other people, I think I handled it pretty well on the scale of 1 to Crazy Fangirl. Dustin Hoffman stood 3 feet away from me and I only screamed internally; I didn’t even melt into a puddle of flesh-colored goo when I saw my future husband circa 1998, Leonardo DiCaprio. So I was pretty sure I could handle an 80-year-old lady.
Lauren Bacall by Andy Gotts, 2013
As we neared the front of the line, I began silently rehearsing what I wanted to say. You know, something normal like “You and Bogie were great,” or “I like your movies.” Alex and Liesl went before me and said similar things, which earned them a friendly “Thank you, sweetie” from the woman in charge. Finally it was my turn. She looked so regal sitting there, dressed head to toe in black with her white hair pulled behind her head in a half-ponytail. She was the definition of a star; there was nothing “ordinary” about her, and that was intimidating. Clutching her book in my hands, I walked up to the table and set it in front of her with the dedication page open. She put pen to paper and without looking up, handed it back to me. Not wanting to let the opportunity pass me by, I felt compelled to say something – anything. I opened my mouth to speak, but instead of my carefully planned spiel, it was like word vomit:
“YouknewVivienandLarry,” I said.
That got her attention, alright. She raised her imperious head and with her steely blue eyes locked on mine said, “WHAT.”
To clarify: After Humphrey Bogart died, Bacall spent some time in London and fell in with the British theatrical set, which included luminaries like Noel Coward, Kay Kendall, and Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, who I was and am still very much interested in. Anyway, I was flustered with my faux pas; this wasn’t supposed to happen!
But I went on: “The Oliviers, you knew them.”
Apparently I was unintelligible because she straight up told me that she couldn’t understand what I was saying. I knew I was holding up the line, so I was grateful when her assistant/publicist/minion lady whispered a successful attempt at translation in her ear. Suddenly Bacall’s demeanor changed from fierce to politely friendly as she told me what I already knew: “Oh yes, we were good friends!”
“Okay,” I breathed before quickly spinning around to find my friends cracking up at my awkwardness. As I turned back to catch a final glimpse of the former Harper’s Bazaar cover girl and bona-fide Hollywood legend, I heard her tell the man behind me whom I’d “arrived with” that she couldn’t understand me because I was smiling so much. Empathetically he told her, “She was excited to see you.” Good save, random stranger.
At the time, I was sure never live that encounter down, but looking back on it I don’t think I’d have had it any other way. I’ll certainly never forget it. Just a couple weeks ago I drafted a letter to Lauren Bacall requesting an interview for a book project I’m currently researching. News of her death from a stroke last Tuesday saddened me not only because I’ll never get the chance to talk to her with the wisdom that comes with growing up, but also because I really thought she’d outlast everyone.
God speed, Betty. Thanks for the memory (and for not calling security on me).