- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 21, 2005

BY MYSELF AND THEN SOME

By Lauren Bacall

HarperEntertainment, $26.95, 506 pages, illus.

Lauren Bacall had just turned 20 when she became world famous starring opposite Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ “To Have and Have Not.” The on-screen pairing of the two was box office dynamite, a perfect chemistry despite the differences in age and status. Bogart, 25 years her senior, was world famous and Ms. Bacall an unknown.

But that changed overnight, once people saw the movie. All across America fans gleefully recalled the words Ms. Bacall says to Bogart in what has become the film’s most famous scene: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow.” And the words remain as memorable today, to new generations of fans, as they were 60 years ago.

No leading lady in Hollywood had ever looked quite like her. Tall, slim and sultry, with striking good looks and a low, sexy voice, it was clear on screen that she was smart, very smart, and wasn’t ever going to hide that fact. It was also obvious that this classy woman enjoyed the company of men, a quality that came across in her first film with Bogart, in other films they made together such as “The Big Sleep” and “Key Largo” and in their much publicized happy marriage which lasted nearly 12 years and ended only with Bogie’s death by cancer.

A quarter century ago, Ms. Bacall published her autobiography “By Myself.” Now she’s republished that book along with additional material and calls it, “By Myself and Then Some.” For the most part, it’s a pleasant romp. Ms. Bacall’s chatty, nonstop prose keeps things going, and (of course) she has quite a story to tell. Born Betty Perske in 1924 in New York City, she grew up in the warm Jewish family environment provided by her mother — who had come from Romania with her parents when she was a baby — and her mother’s closest relatives. Her ne’er-do-well dad fled the nest when Ms. Bacall was still a child, and didn’t re-enter her life until much later when he tried to capitalize on her fame.

From an early age, Betty Perske was stage struck. Her initial goal was Broadway, however, not Hollywood. The family financed a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts during her mid-teens, but when the money ran out, the young Ms. Bacall found work modeling for designers in Manhattan’s garment district.

An acting career seemed distant indeed, probably impossible. But a stroke of luck came her way. A friend knew an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, and Betty found herself not only in photo spreads inside that powerful fashion magazine, but also on its cover. In Hollywood the wife of Howard Hawks saw the photographs and showed them to her director husband, already famous for films like “His Girl Friday” and “Bringing Up Baby.” A totally smitten Hawks sent word east, asking Ms. Bacall to come to California for a screen test. Betty came — under the very careful supervision of her mother, naturally suspicious of Hollywood’s plans for her daughter — and within an amazingly short amount of time, became a star.

It is a tribute to Ms. Bacall’s solid upbringing that success didn’t go to her head. “But here I was, twenty years old, and I really had it all,” she writes. “And it was more or less handed to me. I hadn’t had years of struggle and deprivation.” She credits Hawks entirely with creating her early movie image, the image that made her instantly famous. He “invented a personality on screen that suited my look and my sound and some of myself,” she says. But “the projection of worldliness in sex, total independence, the ability to handle any situation,” she claims, bore no relation to what she was like when young or at any other time of life.

Hardcore fans (of which this reviewer is one) of course aren’t going to believe this for a minute. Ms. Bacall not calm, collected, cool and in charge? Still, she describes in great detail how nervous she was when the famous Harper’s Bazaar photographs were taken and how at every important event in her life she’s suffered from the shakes, due to acute anxiety.

It was these shakes, she claims, that were responsible for the famous Bacall look, her head tilted downward, but eyes looking directly ahead. “By the end of the third or fourth take,” she writes about shooting during “To Have and Have Not,” “I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up at Bogart. It worked, and turned out to be the beginning of ‘The Look.’”

Ms. Bacall is at her best describing her happy marriage to Bogart, and their two children. She’s deeply moving about his struggle with cancer and his death. She offers touching and sometimes intimate portraits of fellow stars she knew well and loved: Vivien Leigh, for example, and John Gielgud, John Huston, Alec Guinness and David Niven and his wife, Hjordis.

Bogie and Ms. Bacall were also very close to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and saw them frequently. So close that she wanted Tracy to deliver the eulogy at Bogart’s funeral, but he said no, that it would be difficult for him to do without breaking down. It is interesting, too, to learn that Tracy wouldn’t take Hepburn out to dinner or other occasions unless she wore a dress instead of her trademark pants. For these times, Hepburn had two dresses she could choose from.

One of the more interesting encounters (among many) Ms. Bacall relates was with novelist William Faulkner, whose fondness for booze was well known and who spent a great deal of time in Hollywood writing film scripts. Evenings she and Bogie would run into the writer, a short man, at Harry’s Bar. “Invariably Bill Faulkner would be sitting alone at a table,” she writes. “He was such a shy man… he was so grateful company that he’d stay with us until we left.”

On one occasion, she continues, “With my usual tact, I said, ‘tell me Bill, why do you drink? Bill, in his soft Southern drawl said, ‘Well, with one martini ah feel bigger, wiser, taller, and with two it goes to the superlative, and ah feel biggest, wisest, tallest, and with three there ain’t no holdin’ me.’”

She liked Faulkner, finding him “a charming and gentle man, and very serious.” But Ms. Bacall could also muster strong dislikes. Her description of Frank Sinatra’s coldness and crudeness is devastating, and she offers unflattering looks at producer David Merrick and playwright Arthur Miller. And she pulls no punches when she shows how hersecondhusband’s (actor Jason Robards’) heavy drinking contributed to the destruction of their marriage.

In this memoir, Ms. Bacall is very much an independent woman with strong opinions completely her own. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to find that when she brings up politics her views become almost entirely groupthink star world left. When she discusses the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation of Hollywood leftists in the late 1940s, for example, she writes, “Those people saw Communists under every bed.” Also, she adds, “It suddenly became risky, even dangerous, to be a Democrat.” Really? Were Hollywood Democrats being rounded up and thrown in jail? But what’s worse is that Ms. Bacall doesn’t mention a word about the expansion of communism in East Europe and China at the time, making it seem that HUAC’s concerns sprang from no where except the evil intentions of its members.

As for George W. Bush, well, Ms. Bacall does not like him. She writes that under Bush not only has glory departed from America, but also its humor and laughter. She believes Bush intends to turn the United States into a “pure Aryan” and “Christian country.” No doubt she’s repeating the chatter of friends among the Hollywood and Manhattan glitterati, but many readers will wish she’d kept such notions to herself.

Still at times Ms. Bacall can come across as a rabid, tax hating Republican. When she mentions the large estate — more than $1 million — she would have inherited from Bogie, she can’t resist adding, “the government took over half. Why do you have to pay for dying? I do not understand, and no one will ever be able to explain to me why what you have earned in your lifetime does not belong to you to do with as you see fit.” Amen. That’s the independent spirit we see in Ms. Bacall’s films and that Americans long ago grew to love, and that, fortunately, is the personality that’s most often at the fore in this entertaining, fun memoir.

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