13 August 2014

Lauren Bacall

When people say (and they do) that New York is like a mistress, I know what they mean. The city is smart and beautiful and sophisticated. We love New York, but it demands a great deal from us in return, and it doesn’t always love us back. To my mind, then, New York looks a lot like Lauren Bacall.

The truth is that I might not have lived here if not for her. When I was still in college, my parents came to town, and we went to see Woman of the Year. My mother was transported by the show, and especially Bacall’s hilarious duet with Marilyn Cooper, “The Grass Is Always Greener.” Mom concluded that New York must be all right if it could put on a show like that. When I declared my intention to move here, she didn’t object.

A few years later, I went to pick up Amanda Green at her parents’ apartment. I got off the elevator, rang the buzzer — and Lauren Bacall answered. There’s no way to prepare for something like that, but eventually I composed myself, told her about my mother and Woman of the Year, and thanked her. “Isn’t it nice to know that you can have an affect on people like that?” Bacall said.

“You’re lucky she was nice to you,” Amanda said to me as we left the building. “She just spent half an hour yelling at me.”

Yes, Bacall was gorgeous, and she could be one of the most caring, loyal friends anybody (including Amanda’s parents) could want, but she was also tough — and if she had qualms about making demands or being outright rude, they didn’t stop her. In contrast to Robin Williams, about whom it seems virtually everybody has a heartwarming story to tell, plenty of people have stories about Bacall’s imperious temperament. And they’re true. Backstage at Woman of the Year, they called her “The Beast,” I was told by a friend who worked on the show.

The odd thing is how little that mattered, at least if you weren’t on the receiving end of the gesture in question. Lauren Bacall was a star. She was not like other people. She was not like other stars. She might love you. She might not. You were lucky in any case — you’d get to tell the story afterward.

And so, since this morning, New York has been a little less itself.

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