Lauren Bacall was nervous.
With a cigarette in one hand and a pen in the other, and wearing a dozen gold rings in neat little stacks on her fingers, she stood autographing copies of her autobiography, "Lauren Bacall By Myself." She was surrounded by adoring fans who had come to hear her speak at The Washington Post Book and Author Luncheon yesterday at the Sheraton Park Hotel, and copy after copy was thrust at her to sign.
Despite the attention, or maybe because of it, the veteran film star was so distraught that she scribbled notes during the speech before hers, began cradling her forehead in her hand before her turn at the podium, and reportedly had threatened the night before the lunch to flee to New York.
"I was asked by Knopf to write about myself," Bacall told the audience. "It was the first time anyone wanted me to write about myself. They wanted to know about how I had been successful at an early age, and why I wasn't lying drunk in a gutter. . . .
"Which," she said, "is exactly where I want to be right now."
The record crowd of 2,200 howled and applauded.
It was to be a luncheon of spicy vignettes from all four of the featured speakers, including novelist Susan Cheever and Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, co-authors of "The Brethen," about the Supreme Court. And it became particularly spicy when the event turned into an impromptu journalists' roast.
Carl Bernstein (co-author of "All the President's Men" with Woodward) made a special appearance to introduce Woodward and Armstrong.
Bernstein, a former Post reporter now with ABC-TV, said that "some people think Mr. Woodward is cold, distant and aloof.
"That's really not true. He's very personable -- warmth itself. Once, during our investigation, when we were out at dinner, I said, 'Mr. Woodward, would you like a milkshake with your Big Mac?' He said, 'Call me Robert.'"
Bernstein shook his head."I was humbled."
And more: "People think Mr. Woodward did all the reporting and I did the writing. Nothing could be further from the truth. I did both the writing and the reporting. Mr. Woodward was there to lend dignity.
"In the movie they made about me;" Bernstein continued, "Robert Redford was actually supposed to play me. They were going to title it 'Butch Cassidy and the Gentile Kid.'"
Finally, Bernstein introduced "a very fine journalist and one of Washington's greatest dialect comedians, Robert Woodward."
"Tough act to follow," said Woodward at the podium. It would get tougher. He was needled later by his current co-author, Armstrong, who claimed that he is often mistaken for the Carl Bernstein half of the Watergate duo.
On one leg of their promotional tour, Armstrong said, "A man said to me, 'You must be Carl Bernstein.' I told him, 'No -- if I were, I'd be having more fun.'"
At one book-signing for "The Brethren," Armstrong told the audience, he was approached by a man who said to him, "Is is 'Steen' or 'Stine'?"
"I said, 'It's Strong.' Then he thrust in front of me a copy of 'All The President's Men' -- which I had nothing to do with. I couldn't disappoint him, so I signed it, 'Carl Bernstrong.'"
"It's hard to collaborate," Armstrong told the audience. "But, really, Bob and I are both nice fellows. We'll give you a list of our ex-wives and they'll testify to it."
Guest Speaker Susan Cheever -- first novelist, former English teacher, former housewife and former reporter for a small newspaper -- said she had never considered becoming a fiction writer during those former incarnations.
Cheever, whose first novel is "Looking for Work," never collaborated with her famous father, John Cheever. (Although she did interview him once for a magazine.) Nonetheless, growing up with the noted author provided some funny stories.
"When you're 12, you don't really notice that things are unusual," she said. "My father was home a lot. Every morning when we lived in an apartment, my father would get up, put on his only suit, take the elevator down to the building cellar to write -- and then take it off.
"When it was time for lunch, he'd put it back on, come back up in the elevator, and have lunch. I thought that was perfectly normal."