It was the night on the dunes in Amagansett that nearly did me in. George Plimpton was having his annual fireworks party and Ben Bradlee and I had heard Lauren Bacall was going to be there. We had never met her, but Ben had had a hopeless crush on her since her sensational debut in “To Have and Have Not.” I looked forward to the encounter with some trepidation. Not without reason. She looked spectacular that night, of course, and as we were introduced it was clear that Ben was dazzled. To my consternation so was she. That tilted chin, that come-hither look, the husky voice were all in full play and I could feel a knot forming in my stomach. Ben and I, who were not yet married at that time, separated in the crowd, talking to other people, although I couldn’t help noticing that he and Betty, as she was called, never left each other’s side.
When it came time for dinner, I went to find him and he had disappeared. Coincidentally, Betty was also nowhere to be found. I could see the pitying looks on the faces of my friends. I pretended to be unconcerned, got my plate and joined a group, but I was frantic. Ben and I had only recently gotten together, and now I was about to lose him to the sexiest movie star alive. It was at least an hour before they emerged from the dunes, laughing and talking as though they had no concept of time. Ben looked so pleased with himself I could have belted him. He was a bit sheepish when he joined me, and I looked hawkishly for signs of dishevelment, lipstick on the collar. I found nothing, but still. . . . It was no consolation when Betty came over to me as we were leaving and confided in me that Ben was the only man who had ever reminded her of Bogey. (Bogey, of course, being her first husband, Humphrey Bogart.)
After that evening 40 years ago, we were all together out in Long Island quite a bit. I had to decide whether to avoid her or be friends. I chose to be friends. What was so beguiling about her was how up front she was about her attraction to Ben and how kind she was to me. I actually fell in love with her myself, and Ben seemed to be under control. In fact, their interest in each other became an inside joke among all of our friends.
Every year since Ben and I have been coming up to East Hampton for August, I have thrown a birthday party for him on Aug. 26. Some years it has been a sparkling gathering for more than 30, other years a more modest evening with family and a few close friends. But every year, no matter what, Betty would come. And every year she gave the same toast to Ben that had him and the rest of the men under the table. She would lower her voice, doing an exaggerated impression of how most moviegoers thought of Lauren Bacall, look deeply into Ben’s eyes and say, “From my lips to your lips, from my eyes to your eyes, if I’m asleep wake me, if I don’t want to, make me.” It was always the highlight of the evening to watch this personification of glamour own the room. Nobody ever wanted to follow her.
What made Betty special was her accessibility. She was normal, unlike many movie stars who have to travel with an entourage. Betty made fun of that, and her friends, mostly in show business — producers, directors, writers, journalists — always felt that she was one of them. The late, great director Sidney Lumet once told me that Betty was one of the few actor friends he had because she didn’t require the hand-holding that so many movie stars do and didn’t give off the feeling of deep insecurity and neediness of most of them. She was funny and razor sharp, mischievous, iconoclastic, self-deprecating and openly vulnerable. She shared her life with her friends and radiated a feeling of trust that was always returned.
Ironically, when the movie “All the President’s Men” was being filmed, a few years after we all met, director Alan Pakula was searching for the perfect person to play Ben, who was the editor of The Washington Post during Watergate. He chose Jason Robards, who had been married to Betty in the 1960s. Of course there was a great deal of laughing and teasing Betty about that. In fact, at one point the filmmakers were contemplating a scene with Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Post, and Ben. Lauren Bacall was the No. 1 person they considered to play Graham. As it turned out, Kay didn’t make the cut, much to her dismay, and I think Betty’s.
Betty continued to be a close friend and was always the life of the party at our annual New Year’s Eve festivities in Washington. One year, she, wanting to adjust the heat in the guest room as she was dressing, accidentally set off the fire alarm, bringing what seemed to be the entire Washington fire department to our house as the party was just beginning, nearly trampling Alan Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell as they were arriving. The firemen marched upstairs to the third floor with their hoses and unceremoniously barged into Betty’s room, only to find her in her skimpiest underwear. One of them recognized her and, after it was determined that the house was not on fire, they all asked for her autograph. She was thrilled and signed away, totally unselfconscious of her dishabille.
She hasn’t been able to make Ben’s birthday party for the past several years because of health, but we have talked on the phone from time to time. She’s always been feisty and funny, and I always feel better having heard her voice. After I heard the news of her death, I called her voice mail several times Tuesday night just to listen to her.
She won’t be at Ben’s party next week. Ben is not well, either. I haven’t even told him yet about Betty’s death. I will have a picture of her late dog on the table, though. She had a wonderful King Charles spaniel that she adored. She retained her wicked humor to the end. She knew Ben was not a dog person, so she gave him a framed picture of her dog for his birthday. She had written a card that said, “Love me, Love my Woo Woo.”
I can’t say we loved the dog, but we certainly did love you, Betty.
Quinn, a former Style writer, is the founding editor of On Faith.