Actress Lauren Bacall, who died on August 13 at 89, was an early presence in my life. As a pre-teen in 1944 Montreal I saw Bacall (nee Betty Perske) in “To Have and To Hold” never dreaming that she would one day grace my columns in The Forward!
My classmates at the Workmen’s Circle School ecstatically whispered, “She’s Jewish!” and we competed in imitating the future Hollywood legend’s film character’s now iconic seductive come-on to [future husband] Humphrey Bogart “just put your lips together and blow!”
I first met Bacall at the February 2, 1998 Theatre Hall of Fame Ceremony at The Gershwin Theatre, at which set and costume designer Tony Walton said of honoree Bacall: “Through flu, flood and torn cartilage, Betty — ‘The Look,’ ‘ The Legend’ — never missed a single performance during the five-year run of ‘Applause,’ the two-year run of ‘Cactus Flower’ and ‘Woman of the Year.’
Masha Leon and Lauren Bacall // Photo by Karen Leon
A stunning Bacall in a black and white ensemble said “I fell in love with the theater as a child and lost 15 years in California…. Once I was offered a play by Garson Kanin and Bogie (husband Bogart] snapped, ‘My wife stays in California with me!’ After Bogie died I came back to New York.” Then with classic Bacall edge, she concluded: “I never believe in awards. When they start giving them to you, you’re about to croak. I think I’ll go home and die.”
At the February 7, 1999 Playhouse luncheon honoring Gregory Peck, Bacall sat in front of me with Peck’s wife Veronique. When I gently tapped her shoulder to say “Hello,” she reacted as though seared by a hot poker and ready to lash out, recognized me with a throaty “Hello.” Asked who his favorite leading lady was, Peck said, “Betty Bacall.” Bacall stood up. “With all respect to your wife,” Bacall told the audience “his favorite co-star was Ava Gardner.” “How dare you say that!” Peck shot back. “We won’t go into that,” purred Bacall.
At the November 24, 2003 American Legacy Foundation publicizing smoking-related illnesses dinner at Cipriani 42nd Street, honoree Kirk Douglas” recalled, “I met Lauren Bacall when she was a beautiful 16-year old. I was a poor boy. I had no raincoat. Her uncle gave me an overcoat that I wore for two years. How did I thank her? I tried to seduce her on a rooftop in Greenwich Village. I didn’t succeed, but we have become great friends since then. He accepted the award from Bacall — whose hand he kissed with a grand flourish.
At the January 31, 2005 Drama League Tribute to songwriting giants Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer Charles Strouse first kissed a shocked Lauren Bacall’s hand and then kissed her on the lips.
My last Bacall encounter was at the January 29, 2009 Legion of Honor Ceremony honoring Sidney Lumet at the French Consulate’s Cultural Center. He got kissed on both cheeks — a la francaise — by Bacall who, still glamorous, held her own amidst the stellar roster of celebrities that included Liam Neeson, Sean Connery and Alan Alda.