I met Lauren Bacall just at the turn of the millennium. She was in Waiting in the Wings on Broadway, Noel Coward’s last major play, the one he wrote for his distinguished actress friends of a certain age, the play being set in a retirement home for ladies of the stage. Seldom produced, revived in New York in 1999, this was a production to celebrate Coward’s centenary.
Our two leading ladies were Lauren Bacall, screen goddess of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Rosemary Harris, stage star on both sides of the Atlantic and now known to a global audience as Spiderman’s Aunt May.
The other actors in the play comprised a who’s who of New York theatrical names, including Britain’s own Simon Jones (Arthur Dent in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide), I understudied Simon and later went on for him for almost a month when family matters took him back to England. If you are curious the full cast list is here. Initially, I was included in this illustrious company playing the relatively modest (but utterly crucial) role of the 2nd St. John’s Ambulance Man under my former stage name of Collin Johnson. In fact the redoubtable Geddeth Smith (1st St. John’s Ambulance Man), and I, carried a dead body down the stairs on a stretcher and out through the common room of the home where the play is set, in the pre-credits opening sequence. It was a solemn moment which gave a foundation of gravitas to the play.
Until one matinee about 90 performances into the season, I did what Sir Noel Coward famously said you must never do, and tripped over a bit of furniture, dropping the body.
One of those things that technically you are indeed not supposed to do, and yet somehow, one of those which many actors do seem to do after all. All the distinguished ladies of Broadway had to turn upstage to hide their giggles, and for the rest of the run Liz Wilson would sometimes whisper mischievously to me as I was waiting to go on, “Drop the body again, Colin!”
Opening in Boston, the show ran for six months in New York, playing first the Walter Kerr theatre and then The Eugene O’ Neil. The run included one of the most masterful bits of producing I’ve ever seen – but that’s a story for later.
Miss Bacall, had a reputation and deservedly so for being smart, feisty and direct. She was a creature of the movies and all that can mean, and she knew it. She trailed clouds of glamour. She was also of course, one of the greatest movie stars that ever lived and one of the most beautiful human beings ever to act in front of a camera.
Later I came to think that Miss Bacall’s tough exterior also functioned in a protective way. It took a little time, but by slow degrees a manner which could be truly challenging turned, in my perception, into a graceful charm. Midway through the run she hosted the cast at a dinner at Joe Allen’s and hair was let down on all sides.
It wasn’t as if she and I became buddies with weekly phone calls, but there was a charming coda to the experience of being in a show with her.
The show ran till May, and then Trish Conolly, who had baffled me by appearing to be far too young to be included in a cast specifically about ladies of retirement age, and I, took a romantic trip to Paris.
In Paris we met up with Betty, as we now called her.
She used to go to Paris in the summer when she could. This was Bastille Day, July 14th. Oddly, on this day, instead of haute cuisine, she took us to a favorite Chinese restaurant — and very good it was too. Gong pao chicken, and we each had a Vodka and tonic.
Betty was relaxed and charm itself, and she had plans, insisting we were to see the fireworks. At about 20 minutes of midnight we left the restaurant and began a gentle stroll along a boulevard, getting slightly lost. Suddenly the boulevard filled with about a million people and I became acutely aware that I had LAUREN BACALL on my arm. It was distantly reminiscent of a tricky moment in an early technical rehearsal of Waiting in the Wings when I had to go on in a blackout to guide Miss Bacall off the stage. This delicate function, taking some ten seconds or so, became my nightly task. But lost on the boulevard as we were, this was a scene change without end. “What happens,” I thought, “if she is recognized, and the crowd demands Humphrey Bogart?”
We found our way, we sat on a bench in the Place de la Bastille to watch the fireworks. Betty, enjoying the evening, reminisced with details about her glamorous career, in a way that would make a biographer thrill. When the fireworks were over Trish and I escorted Betty through side streets to the modest hotel where she liked to stay low profile.
And then there was an incident which was all film.
The setting was just right. Like one of those Noir exteriors lit by a master of lighting. We were on a cobbled street and the lamplight was something Fellini might have come up with. There was moonlight too.
The crowds were gone, the street was empty. And then we heard footsteps as though made by the best of foley artists. A young man of maybe 17 or 18 years old approached shyly. He spoke softly to me in French, “Is that? It is … isn’t it, Lauren …?”
“Do you think she would give me an autograph?”
“I don’t know, you can ask.”
The young man offered a ragged piece of paper. Betty turned to him, gave him a smile that dazzled him and glamorized the night. It was a gracious moment, as she favored the boy — he was scarcely more than that. Her smile unleashed the full force of the silver screen. It made him weak at the knees — I know because he turned to me, as Miss Bacall signed her name.
“Mes genoux tremblent.” he said, “My knees are trembling.”