She isn’t even mildly fatigued. For eight nerve‐shredding weeks, Lauren Bacall has been trying out her first musical, Applause, nightly belting a dozen songs in her big applejack‐brandy alto And swooping through complex dances with such campy insouciance that houses full of taciturn auto magnates forget all about Bette Davis and All About Eve, on which the show is based, and end up at curtain calls on their feet, cheering as if the Tigers had just won the pennant. But in a few days, she will have to make New York forget Davis, too. And in a few hours, she will have to learn a whole new final scene. And room service is late with her breakfast. And none of it fazes her in the least. She stalks the hotel suite with the vigor of a ferret after a garter snake, her long legs aggressive in tweed pants, shaking her long hair, which is the color of fresh celery, swearing amiably, trying not to smoke.
Clearly, she is exhilarated, flying high, and she talks nonstop. She sounds tough; but the growl is chastened by her unmistakable intelligence, her boundless good humor, her great, grudging good will. Twenty‐five years ago, the Warners flacks thought up her professional name, but she is still Betty Perske of the Bronx to any body who has known her more than an hour, and she isn’t about to let you forget that.
“Listen,” she begins, folding herself into a velvet sofa, “do me a favor, do not give me that old thing about ‘Tell me the story of your life,’ or ‘How was it you were discovered?’ or ‘How did you first meet Bogey?’ Because I will upchuck, right here. I mean, who cares any more, what does it matter? Warner Brothers, blah, blah, blah, aren’t people sick of it? I am! I simply refuse to go into that crap again. Read one of the bios in the programs if you want to know. They’re all wrong anyway. And listen, will you please tell me, why is one’s age brought up every four lines of everything that’s written? Would you explain that to me? These bios say I was born in 1924. Well, that’s wrong, I was born in 1934. You just put that in: that my bios have been wrong until now.”
If that’s the case, she would have made To Have and Have Not, the first Bogart‐Bacall film, in which, fresh from Julia Richman High School and two Broad way flops, she became a star overnight, when she was approximately 10. One does not point this out, however, be cause Bacall is already laughing, a long triumphant roar at her own joke. For an instant, Tallulah Bankhead lives. “I’ll tell you what does interest me: that this show has begun a whole new cycle in my life. No, it’s more than a cycle; it’s literally a second life. Very weird, uncanny. It’s as though the last 25 years never happened. I mean, I lived one complete life that had a beginning, a middle and an end, and has nothing whatever to do with my life now.
“First there was my career, which began well, I had great impact, and then nothing but obstacles, never the best parts at the best times. Jack Warner convinced me very early that I was no good, worthless, rotten to the core. He was terrific at that. I learned one thing from him: to keep myself covered at all times. Even then, I knew I’d somehow be sold down the river, which I was; that they would never have one goddam bit of respect for me as an actress, a talent, a potential, whatever, and of course I was right. I was a commodity, a piece of meat. What I learned about acting, I learned from Mr. Bogart. I learned from a master, and that, God knows, has stood me in very good stead.”
She shoots a challenging look across the coffee table. I have been warned that she no longer answers questions about the man to whom she was married in 1945, and who died prematurely of cancer 12 years later. “I think I’ve damn well earned the right to be judged on my own, is all,” she says evenly. “That’s not sacrilege. I loved Bogey very much, we had a marvelous life, but that life has been over for 13 years, and it’s time I was allowed a life of my own, to be judged and thought of as a person, as me. Then, just a few days ago, there’s Earl Wilson, writing a column about Bogart’s ‘Baby.’ Jesus! I mean, is it ever going to stop? Bogey had true greatness in him, as a human be ng; that’s why, for him, there’s no Generation Gap. Marvelous, fine. But Christ, what have I lived on for, if I can’t have something that’s mine? Even when I’m out with a man, people come up and start talking about Humphrey Bogart! I do not understand this! Don’t they see there’s another man there? How can people be so insensitive?!”
Angrily, she grabs a cigarette pack, shakes out the contents, then grins. “What the hell, I have been good, no smoking after the show, and so far, no voice trouble.” She raps the wood table hard enough to upset a few knick knacks, accepts a light. “Any way, with this show, I will hopefully be given that great gift at last—freedom. It doesn’t seem very much to ask, somehow.” Mention of Applause instantly relaxes her. She is smiling again, speaking almost girlishly, and looks abruptly as though she had been born in 1934. “For the first time, I’m working at full functioning capacity. The part came along at precisely the moment I was best able to cope with it, fully able to understand it. I feel so damn right on that stage! I think I’m finally fulfilling the promise I showed and then never realized. It’s the perfect marriage of — everything. Of course, I may have an identity crisis here; the part of Margo Channing just might blow my brains out some night, there’s so much of me in her, and some of it is, shall we say, a little nervous‐making? [Long Tallulah laugh.] No, I don’t think about the movie any more. Certainly All About Eve is a classic film, but our script is up dated, refocused; it’s really about a woman’s insecurities, and Christ, that’s always timely!
“Now there’s another weird thing about this show: the movie. From the time I was 15, I had one heroine, Bette Davis. She was everything to me, I literally worshiped that woman. And now, that I should be playing a part that she played, and was so marvelous in—I tell you, it is too peculiar. They haven’t got me an understudy yet. They must think I’m Man Mountain Dean. Well, that’s all right, because nobody’s gonna get this part away from me! Over my dead body they’ll get it!”
“What matters is to live your life. To press on and live your life. And that goes for me, and you, and … and your goddam cat, if you’ve got one!”
Then if the show hits, will she stay indefinitely? After two years in Cactus Flower, she swore she’d never let herself in for another long Broadway run. Too exhausting. And boring. “Well, I’ve got a year contract, and the right to do it in London. And in California!” She squints the pale Bacall eyes and twists the large mouth into a perfect mask of victorious irony. “How d’ya like that? As for getting bored, I don’t have the chance. That first act is an hour and a half and I don’t see the inside of my dressing room ’til intermission. This is real gut time, the sheer physical exertion is incredible, it’s like giving 12 quarts of blood per diem, but I am still wide awake at midnight, even on matinee days!
“Listen, how do you like my singing, it didn’t turn you off, did it? I’ve been working with a voice coach since Cactus Flower, he’s marvelous. You know, this is still another coincidence—I started out wanting the theater, not pictures, and I wanted to do musicals. You know, at parties, somebody was playing, and there I was for the night, knew every old song, but I sang softly, terrified somebody’d listen. So now I’m the Beverly Sills of Broadway, right? Hah! I should be so lucky! I think I’ve always been better suited to the stage, though I like doing films, does that surprise you? I like the life, the hours. Sure, I’d do another, if it was something other than garbage…”
She points a slim finger straight as a ruler at the color TV across the room. “I will not have my work coming back on that goddam box to haunt me! I’ve got enough on that box to haunt me as it is!” A sudden laugh, another lost battle with the cigarettes. “And I will not do a film or anything else unless I can work with the caliber of people I’m working with now. Every person connected with this show — God, such marvelous people, aside from their talent. The one thing I dread is that somebody will leave, after we come into New York, and they get great individual notices and new offers. I try not to think about that, honestly. We are all so … together! I tell you, the spirit here is unbelievable.”
This is actually true. Though Applause is a bible of footlight bitchery, the atmosphere behind the scenes at the Fisher Theater is about as malevolent as Life With Mother. Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the script, are two of Bacall’s oldest friends, and Ron Field, who directed, obviously worships her. Young Penny Fuller, a deliciously evil Eve Harrington on stage, has developed an offstage relationship with the star that is right out of My Sister Eileen. The singers and dancers call her “Den Mother.”
Towering over it all, literally and figuratively, is Betty Perske, who nurtured the camaraderie in the first place. She even likes her producers, Joe Kipness and Larry Kasha, “because, damn it, they’re human beings, they have broken their necks to give me care, protection, and, most of all, interest. And I am stunned by this, after my experience in Cactus Flower Oh, what the hell, David Merrick is a —. The only work problem I have ever had was with that man. He hates actors. It bugs him that he needs them. His theory is, ‘You’ll always work for me, if I have some thing you want to do.’ And my answer is, ‘Not necessarily.’ God, two years in his play without missing a performance and he never said ‘Thank you,’ or ‘Drop dead,’ or anything. I do not want to be pandered to! But after you have put out so damn much of yourself, you’d at least like to see your employer occasionally.
“It’s a big joke, you know: you’re an actor, you only work three hours a night, what a cushy deal! But what you have put into those three hours is incredible; the amount of you that you give so the 2,000 people who pay to see you go out satisfied. And I’ll tell you something, I don’t know about this business of walking through a show. I don’t understand it, I don’t know how it’s done. So if you do work hard — well, hell, I don’t want to socialize with David Merrick, but just an occasional smile, a pat on the back, and if not, then the hell with it, who needs it? I would rather work where there is a gemutlich feeling, a warmth, a coziness. I can’t stand fighting during rehearsals, screaming, yelling, scenes. Oh, I can fight if I have to, believe me — but then I can’t work.”
During this, a waiter has brought breakfast, and Bacall has managed to clear a place for the tray, tip generously, and consume half a plate of eggs and sausages with only five small breath‐pauses. She has also briefly discussed Adlai Stevenson, whom she considers the second greatest man of our time, and Bobby Kennedy, whom she considers the greatest (“When he went, I went, I will never re cover from that, never”), dissected the sixties (“The crappiest decade in history, all our best men murdered, what’s fascinating about it?”), dismissed pot and nudity (“okay for others, but they’re not for me”), and ground a firm heel into Washington, D.C. “I’ve seriously thought of there. It’s where everything that affects all our lives happens. But right now, baby, it’s a wasteland. Hell no, I don’t get asked there now, and if I did, I wouldn’t go, not in this life or the next. I mean, there’s nothing to discuss, right?
“But I like the country feeling of life around Washington; I like the idea of land, No, I don’t own any, because I can’t afford it. As soon as I meet my prince charming, he’ll take me away to the country. Until then, kid, if I don’t work, I don’t eat. I’m not rich, and never will be, and I don’t give a damn. Things, I don’t need; I’ve had enough things. When I was younger, I thought, ‘If I could just have this, buy that!’ Then I could, and I went crazy, and bought 90 of everything, and never used any of it, just let it all lay there. God, I have wasted so much money in my life. thrown away so much dough, and for what? I worked my tail off for every cent of it, and what have I got to show? My apartment in the Dakota. That’s it. Except the kids, of course. God, have I been lucky there! You want to see them?”
She bounds into the bedroom as if her children waited there, comes back with three snapshots in silver frames. “I take these every where. Never go away with out my babies. Here’s my beautiful boy, my Bogart boy, Stephen, he’s 20, and this is Leslie, she’s 17, also Bogey’s. You’ll look far to find a face as pretty as that. And this is Sam, my little mouse. He’s 8. Katie Hepburn’s his godmother, and godmothers don’t come any better, right? Fantastic bunch of kids.”
She puts the pictures care fully out of harm’s way and sits down abruptly. For the first time in an hour, she looks distant, distracted. “Stephen got married this year,” she says quietly, “to a darling girl. I thought he was a little young; but Christ almighty, why not? There’s so much that’s crappy in the world, if you find something good, I don’t care what it is, then absolutely have it! My daughter’s going to college in the fall, so now I’ll only have the little one with me. God! It is so terrifying, how life repeats itself! I am now bringing up my third child without a father! Oh, I don’t mean Sam is really father less. But for all intents and purposes, he doesn’t have a father who’s in the same place for any length of time. Because of the nature of his work…”
Sam’s father is Jason Robards, whom his mother divorced last September after eight years of marriage. Asked about this, gently, her eyes narrow, but she smiles, very mischievously. “Bah! I thought you were gonna get around to that kind of question! Well, my dear fellow, there is nothing to say about that except that it’s over. Period. Now, will you tell me why these interviews have to be full of gossip? Would you explain that? I mean, who cares about that trash? Is that what really matters, what makes a person?” She is on her feet, grabbing her suede duffel coat and a bat tered script; already she is minutes late for rehearsal.
“What matters,” she suddenly announces at the door, “is to live your life. To press on and live your life. And that goes for me, and you, and … and your goddam cat, if you’ve got one!” Then she is gone, grinning, down the hall to the elevator and the theater, to live hers.