Published April 01, 2005
LOS ANGELES - – Lauren Bacall (search) sits in a secluded corner of the outdoor dining area of a tony Westside hotel for a twilight interview.
She's near the end of a book promotion tour, which she found more strenuous than the movie tours of her Hollywood days, and she's in need of a little pick-me-up: "I'd like a pot of tea with a thermos of boiling water," she instructs a waiter.
A longtime New Yorker, she has returned to her old stomping grounds — the house she shared with Humphrey Bogart was just a couple miles away — to hawk her new-old book, "By Myself and Then Some." (search) It's a unique publishing venture: The first part is a reprint of her excellent 1978 memoir, "By Myself." It is followed by "And Then Some," which brings her life up to date.
Why do it that way?
"I wasn't convinced it was such a great idea," she explains, "until my literary agent said, 'Listen, it's 25 years since "By Myself" was published. You've had a life since then; a lot of things have happened. There's a whole new generation who could read your autobiography.' I do get an amount of fan mail, and a lot of young people say, 'I wanted to buy your book and I can't find it.' So I thought maybe I should try it."
The waiter returns with a ceramic teapot covered with a cozy. Bacall reiterates her request for a thermos.
She acknowledges that updating her life sometimes proved to be painful, especially recalling the loss in a year's span of many close friends, "each of them very important to me; it was like an epidemic." Among them: Roddy McDowall, songwriter Adolph Green, playwright Peter Stone, actors Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Gregory Peck and Katharine Hepburn, and writer-director George Axelrod.
"The (losses) chip away at your own life, and the world gets smaller," Bacall says.
Her friendship with Hepburn dated back to 1951 and the location for "The African Queen." The bond deepened with the deaths of Bogart and Spencer Tracy. Bacall writes poignantly of her many visits to Hepburn in her Connecticut retirement and what happened the last time she was there:
"I walked right over to her chair in the living room, sat next to her, kissed her. She seemed to know me a little." And when Bacall was about to leave, Hepburn, who had been silent, said, "Please stay." After a half-hour, Bacall kissed Hepburn's cheeks, and Hepburn whispered, "Thank you."
A new waiter presents another cozied teapot. Bacall responds testily, "What is the problem, there's no thermos in this hotel? I have a thermos of hot water every single morning. Go to the kitchen and ask for a thermos."
The classic Bacall face seems little touched by her 80 years, an observation she treats with customary frankness: "When people say I look just the same, I tell them to take another look. My mirror doesn't tell me that."
Her last two years have been amazingly busy. Beside writing the book, she has done TV commercials and given lectures that include film clips, commentary and Q&A — her favorite part of the show. Her most recent film was "Birth," starring Nicole Kidman.
Waiter No. 2 finally brings the thermos, steaming hot. Bacall thanks him, and he withdraws, apologetic and seemingly dazed. "For good or ill, I'm honest. I don't think there's enough of that around," she says.
The thermos affair was pure Bacall: outspoken, opinionated, undaunted, a bit quirky. She has been known to wither interviewers who ask stupid questions.
But she also has a tender side, especially when she talks about her children — Stephen, who is working in documentary films, and Leslie, a yoga therapist, both by Humphrey Bogart, and an actor, Sam, by her marriage to Jason Robards. Bacall positively glows when she talks about her four grandchildren.
Stephen and Leslie oversee the use of their father's likeness in TV commercials, print ads and other media. "When Bogie died, suddenly people were using him in the most common, horrible way," Bacall says. "If anybody was going to make any money out of this, it's not going to be strangers, it's going to be his children."
The most readable portions of "By Myself" remain her romance with Bogart, their marriage and her devotion during his final agonizing battle with cancer.
"I am always associated with him in people's minds — 'the greatest love story ever told.' You can't get away from that. He'd never believe it, of course," she says.
"It's great that he's still appreciated by so many, because he's worth it. He was a very special human being, Bogart."