August 13, 2014

The first time I wrote about Lauren Bacall was because I could. I was a fan, writing a column three times a week, and so any subject would do. Bacall had just published her memoir, “Lauren Bacall by Myself,” which I read and enjoyed — and so I wrote about it. The second time I wrote about Bacall was because her father called.

Actress Lauren Bacall at her home in New York in 1965. (Associated Press)

His name was William Perske, and he had supposedly abandoned his family — his wife, Natalie, and his daughter, the very young Betty Joan (not yet Lauren) — or so Bacall had written. Not true, the man on the phone said. He lived in an apartment house right over the District line, and he invited me to come see him. He would meet me in the lobby. I asked how I would recognize him. That, he said, would not be a problem.

Boy, was he right! The man in the lobby was Lauren Bacall, had she been born a man and had aged some. He had her face, all the features pointing down, sultry and aquiline — all in all, totally Bacallish. He invited me up to his apartment and showed me family pictures. He denied that he had ever abandoned his family. He said his wife had left him. He said it was not likely that his daughter knew the truth.

So I wrote what he told me. I did not necessarily believe him, but I did not disbelieve him, either. My point was that the truth no longer mattered. He was a mere man and his daughter was no longer Betty Joan Perske, but Lauren Bacall, movie star, widow of the legendary Bogie, one-time fiancee of Frank Sinatra, former wife of Jason Robards. When she spoke, the world listened. Her version of what happened — false or not – was the truth. His rebuttal, his meager protest, was just a chirp in a boiler factory.

The night the column appeared, friends of mine gave a party, and Bacall, in Washington for some reason, had been invited. I had no idea she was going to be there, and so when I showed up, I was both surprised to be told of her presence and also a bit wary: Watch out, I was warned. Bacall was angry about the column, and she was no one to mess with. I entered the party anyway.

As I recall, I tried to avoid Bacall. I was a bit afraid but also awfully torn. I mean, I was a fan. I wanted to meet her. I was sure she would see in me a bit of what she liked in Bogie or Sinatra — the similarities were obvious — but I kept my distance. I was sitting by myself on a sofa when she approached. I held my breath. She sat down next to me. She reached for my hand. She smiled the way she did in “Key Largo” or “The Big Sleep,” and I affected nonchalance. “It’s all right,” she said. And we became friends.

I would love to overstate our relationship, but I cannot. I saw her from time to time, usually in the company of others. We had dinner together at least once, and I invited her to my place for dinner on more than one occasion, but I can’t remember her ever coming. Once a year, she would attend Ben Bradlee’s birthday party and give the same toast. It was teasing and flirtatious, directed to the man who was the Bogie of journalism, and just plain good fun. The last time I saw her, age had done its awful work. She was in a wheelchair. We exchanged some pleasantries, and I said goodbye. Now, I do so again. She was, in the argot of her film era, one swell dame.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.