Lauren Bacall and the value of reading your old stories

Lauren Bacall signing copies of her successful autobiography " By Myself."   (AP Photo/Press Association)

Lauren Bacall signing copies of her successful autobiography " By Myself." (AP Photo/Press Association)

A couple of days after Lauren Bacall died, I ran into an old friend who remembered that I had once interviewed her for the St. Petersburg Times. To my shock, he even quoted a line from the story: “You wrote that she could scratch your back with her voice.” There was a lesson here about the power of the written word, that a reader could remember a story that the writer had mostly forgotten, and that the language of that story could stick with the reader for 35 years.

With the help of the good folks at what is now the Tampa Bay Times, I unearthed my profile of Miss Bacall. The exact date of publication was March 16, 1979. I had been writing and coaching writers at the newspaper for two years, and was in the middle of a stint as a substitute film and theater critic.

During my watch, Robert Altman came to town to make a movie called HealtH, a star-studded dud of a flick, meant to be a parody of national politics, that, in spite of the efforts of Miss Bacall, James Garner, Carol Burnett, and Glenda Jackson, never saw the light of day.

For me, though, covering the film was a professional bonanza. Over three months, I wrote more than two-dozen news stories, profiles, and features. I learned a lot, and I am about to learn something more.

I’ve come to believe in the value of re-reading your old stories. At the age of 66, I am asking myself today, “What can you see in yourself as a 30-year-old writer that was invisible back then but may be useful to you now?”

Before I can answer that question for you, I’ve got to read the my story again, and I hope you will read it too.

The Look of Lauren Bacall
By Roy Peter Clark
March 16, 1979

Lauren Bacall plays the ancient grand dame of HEALTH, a national health food organization. Her name is Esther Brill, an octogenarian who does not look her age because she has spent her life eating health foods and avoiding sex.

She espouses the belief that “sex is a killer” and campaigns under the slogan “The Pure President.”

“I play an 83-year-old virgin, which I am,” said Miss Bacall at a press conference Thursday in the Don CeSar Beach Resort Hotel. She was dressed in a striped blouse and a long, purple skirt.

“How do you validate your age and your virginity in the film?” I asked shyly.

She laughed. “Well, honey, if you can suggest a way that I can validate my virginity, I’d be most happy to do that.”

Maybe it was the way she called me honey. Her voice has that wonderful texture to it, something that you can feel as well as hear. The voice is warm, husky, sensual. She can scratch your back with it.

I heard in that voice the echoes of To Have and Have Not, her first film with Bogie where she made the promise that all men dream of: “If you want me just whistle.”

Or maybe it was the look in her eyes, eyes that were still youthful, bright, intelligent, full of good humor, yet profoundly alluring.

It was Lauren Bacall, all right. The Look.

The Look that launched a thousand magazine covers, that offered a generation of moviegoers some sweet unspoken promise of love.

Lauren Bacall may be the most seductive actress in the history of American films. There are few scenes in this age of cinematic explicitness that rival the torrid intimacy of her famous love scenes with her husband Humphrey Bogart. They stroke the imagination years after we’ve seen them.

“I think for everyone to see everything is boring,” she said. “I think to use your imagination is more exciting. When you see a love scene and you imagine what might go on is more stimulating than to actually see it. That’s the thing about films: you see these enormous people – you know the size of us on the big screen is ridiculous – and you can be kind of encompassed by these characters. You can lose yourself for that period of two hours.”

Lauren Bacall understands the movies. They have been her life, a life that she describes with humor and passion in Lauren Bacall By Myself, the best-selling nonfiction book in the country.

Her affinity for films may have begun in the womb: “As the nine months came to a close,” she relates in her book, “Mother went to a movie one hot September evening, started to feel the anxious creature within her make her first moves to push her way out, left the movie house, and at about two o’clock in the morning…I was born.”

She wrote the book herself, in an easy intelligent style.

“Writing the book was almost like childbirth, in a way. I almost had post partem depression when I turned the manuscript over. It was a tremendously cathartic experience. It’s much easier to write about something than it is to talk about it. What I wrote, I wrote. And that is self-explanatory. So I certainly don’t feel obliged to talk about any of it in detail. And I also have kept one or two things to myself.”

Miss Bacall punctuated her answers with hearty, unaffected laughs and projected a warmth that could melt the most stone-hearted of interviewers.

Her director, Robert Altman, has said that he cast Miss Bacall in HEALTH “because I like her and it’s the only way I could get close to her.”

She returns the affection: “We all feel very much together on this film. It’s a very happy combination of people and personalities. None of us have ever worked together before. But there is much more of a sense of unity than is normally on a film. Bob Altman is very open to actors’ ideas and suggestions. An actor could not work in a more open or easier atmosphere.”

Born in New York City, her real name was Betty Joan Weinstein Perske and everyone on the set still calls her Betty. It’s a plainer name than Lauren, but it fits. Because beyond everything else, it takes only a few minutes with Lauren Bacall to understand that she is a wonderful, down-to-earth woman, who has not let fame cloud her sense of herself.

She explains in her book that she learned her values from Bogart: “To be good was more important than to be rich. To be kind was more important than owning a house or a car. To respect one’s work and to do it well, to risk something in life, was more important than being a star. To never sell your soul – to have self-esteem – to be true – was most important of all.”

I know there are writers who never read their old stories. The reluctance, I believe, stems from the impostor syndrome, that all of their insufficiencies and fallibilities will surface in the re-reading. They will look at their old stories the way I look at videos of my golf swing and opine, “Man, I really do suck.”

When I go back to look at an old story, my response is usually different. I may cringe at this phrase or wish I had revised that, but my overwhelming impression goes something like this: “Hmm. This stuff is pretty good. The kid can write.”

I’ll ignore, for the most part, the elements in my profile that I’d wish to change. There is a star-struck quality to the prose that I would have toned-down a bit. And who can know for sure if Bacall was really a “wonderful” person or merely a good actor? In the age of Snark, my profile might look like a puff piece.

But let me dwell on the good stuff:

  • I can see and hear myself in the prose. Without the byline, I could still tell it was me. This is a quality we call “voice,” that illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader. I can trace a governing intelligence in the prose, a quality that poet Peter Meinke calls “wit.”
  • I was clearly prepared for the press conference – a format that can be deadly to writers – by having read her autobiography, a best-seller at the time. Not only could I derive ideas and questions from the book, but more of her own language as well, including the anecdote about her birth and her powerful mission statement about life and work that I save for the end.
  • I remember going into the event with a theme in mind: that at a time when more and more explicit sexuality was being revealed on the big screen, Bacall and Bogart had set a different – and better – standard. After she fielded some boring questions from a local TV guy, I asked her, “Miss Bacall, can we please talk about sex.” To which she replied, “Oh, let’s do.” The fact that I was writing about sexuality will come as no surprise to my friends and colleagues. It has been a trademark of my work and life and I have, on occasion, toed the danger line. No retreat, baby, no surrender.
  • Finally, I admire in my own work a not yet fully developed playfulness with language. “The look that launched a thousand magazine covers” feels slightly derivative but works in context. And I can also admire the passage that would be remembered by an old friend three decades later:

“Maybe it was the way she called me honey. Her voice has that wonderful texture to it, something that you can feel as well as hear. The voice is warm, husky, sensual. She can scratch your back with it.”

This story turns out to have a highly personal kicker. At the time of the interview, my wife Karen was pregnant with our third child. If it turned out to be a girl, we would call her Rene. Months later we got tired of that name, and I came forward with a suggestion, “What if we called her Lauren, after Lauren Bacall.”

[Try this exercise: Go back and find a story you wrote three months or three years ago. The older the piece, the “colder” it will feel to you, enabling you to read it more objectively. Ask yourself these questions: What pleases me? What would I now change? How would I describe the voice of this writer? What important lessons about writing have I learned since?]

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