Lauren Bacall spent 12 years married to another Hollywood legend, Humphrey Bogart, calling those the best years of her life despite the trauma of watching her beloved husband die of cancer on Jan. 14, 1957.
Bogie was 57 at the time — and Bacall was 32. She spent the next 57 years carrying the torch for the love of her life. Bacall died on Tuesday at the age of 89, just one month from turning 90. Even during other romances after Bogart’s death — including with Frank Sinatra, who broke off their engagement, and Jason Robards, whom she married and then divorced during the 1960s — Bogie was always part of her life.
One of my favourite stories about keeping the flame burning bright arrived this week courtesy of Toronto publicist and producer Stephen Shinn, president of Shinn Communications Canada. In the 1990s, he was then involved with the lecture series Unique Lives and Experiences. Bacall certainly had a unique life and many extraordinary experiences, on-screen and off. So she was a popular guest on the circuit and Shinn travelled with her to cities across the U.S. and Canada.
“Every time we pulled into a new city and checked into the hotel,” Shinn said, “Bacall would summon me for the Yellow Pages Ritual.” They would flip through the local directory looking for any business establishment — from pizza parlours to cafes to restaurants to whatever — that used the name Bogie or Bogart. “She would call them, announce herself as Betty Bacall, and demand to know why they were exploiting her late husband’s name and whether they had the legal right to do so!” Most of the time, the response was pure befuddlement.
Was Bacall being obsessive? Sure. Sweet? Yes, in a wonky, eccentric way. Loving? Absolutely, because Bacall was smitten with Bogart from the moment they met in 1944 on the set of her debut film, Howard Hawks’ romantic wartime thriller To Have and Have Not. Her sashay in a critical scene is one of the sexiest moments in cinema history. Ditto for her instructions to him on how to whistle for her: “You just puts your lips together and ... blow!”
Most of all, however, the anecdote tells you that a Hollywood icon like Bogie left behind a personal legacy as well as a public one. Everything she did with Bogart, in real life and on-screen, informed what she did after he was gone. So their work together in To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage and Key Largo was power training for a lifetime on screen and stage. She won a Tony Award for her 1981 starring role in the Broadway musical, Woman of the Year (which I attended — and she was electrifying).
Despite memorable films without Bogie as co-star, Bacall earned her only Oscar nomination late, as best supporting actress for The Mirror has Two Faces (1996). She lost but the Academy finally gave Bacall an honourary Oscar in 2010 “in recognition of her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures.”