SHE CAME IN quite unexpectedlu, very quickly, with a stir and a proper commotion to signal that a real somebody had arrived. This was a big party, a celebrity party, the sort of party you can get to attend if you're a journalist, a party of music and loud talk, but when she arrived everything went momentarily silent -- a tribute. It is that way now with Lauren Bacall.
It is hard to figure, this sudden infatuation with Lauren Bacall. She is on the cover of Newsweek and written up in People magazine and saluted all over the place. Some of that is because she has written a book, a really good book, a book mostly about her and Bogie, a book that is being heavily promoted. But this was all happening even before the book. There has to be something more to it.
She is, after all, out of step with the times. Here is a woman whose main claim to fame is that she is the widow of Humphrey Bogart. She is an actress, sure, and now a writer, but what she is, essentially, is a widow, a mother, and not a woman of soaring accomplishment. She is not a woman who is doing something, breaking out of the conventional molds, making lots of money or hitting a tennis ball or running for office or transplanting hearts. Lauren Bacall, more than anyone, is not famous for any particular accomplishment. Indeed, for a whole younger generation, she is famous for being famous.
The interesting thing about Bacall is that she started as a sex kitten, as a woman men were supposed to find attractive, and she would up as a woman other women find attractive. She is a woman they care about -- emulate, in some cases -- and all you have to do is go around, as I have done, and ask people what they think of Bacall and you get back nothing but warmth. They like her and they like her, in some cases, even though they were mere babes when she first told Bogart how to get her attention -- "If you want me, just whistle." It was, as they now say, neat.
About the only one who comes close to Bacall, in this sense, is Lillian Hellman. There are some similarities -- the long affair with Dashiell Hammett, for instance, and Hammett's superficial kinship to Bogart. He is the writer, after all, who created what may be Bogart's greatest role -- Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon." But the thing cannot be carried too far. Hellman has a body of work, an artistic, political and a personal commitment that has made her the darling of feminists. She has truly become a legend in her own time and one reason is that she has lived long enough to help write it herself.
There are some others in this category. Datharine Hepburn and Betty Davis come to mind, but both of them are great, not merely famous, actresses who have been able to prove that there is life for a woman after 40. Like Bacall, they are women of strong personalities, of character, who are, you somehow know, nice people. But still, they are women of immense accomplishments in their field. This is not the case with Bacall.
No, Bacall stands alone -- sui generis. She is adored by just the sort of women who should be questioning her, taking her apart, asking what she does for a living and just what sort of career does she have and is she, really anything more than the widow of Humphrey Bogart and the former wife of Jason Robards?
Still, there is something. Part of it has to do with longevity, with being around a long time, and part of it has to do with either having the good sense or the luck to adopt a low profile when you're out of fashion. Some of it, for sure, has to do with how she ran counter to the Hollywood notion of beauty -- nothing stacked about Bacall. For some women she was a role model, an actress who literally taught them how to walk and dress and, of course, smoke. Smoking is not something you just do. She made few good films, but in those she left her mark.
But there is something more at work with Bacall and what it is, really, is Bogart. What she has been able to do is protect, hold dear and unblemished, this feeling we all have that she once h ad one hell of a marriage, something special. It runs counter to the cynicism of the times, the belief that the only good marriage is a dead marriage, that romance goes after a month and sexual excitement after a week, and here she is, Betty Bacall, years later saying it ain't so. She is liked for that, loved for that. It's romantic. It's silly. It's nice.
Here's looking at her.