Lauren Bacall wrote her original autobiography, "By Myself," in 1978. I read it soon after at a time in my own life when I was in transition and was much more interested in Hollywood than I am now.
Her recent death at age 89 prompted me to search out the book, which I've hauled around with me since. I remembered liking "By Myself" 30 years ago. In rereading it, I still do because it's a real story, honest, if not brutally honest about her life from the time she met and married Humphrey Bogart in 1945, her life with him, her children and the ultimate crushing loss when he died of cancer in 1957. Her story just gets started. Widowed in her early 30s, Bacall must find her way as a single mother of two young children and keep some kind of a career going (code for earn a living). She turned to her friends for support, some married, some not. Some reached out and included her, others couldn't handle her singlehood. Frank Sinatra had been a close friend of Bogie and became her close friend. But the relationship was on and then off.
Bacall describes what grief did to her early on. The desperate pain of loss, the slow realization that life alone was all about conversations with yourself, by yourself.
She writes, "People always ask what you'd change if you had your life to live over again. I wouldn't change a lot of the unhappy times because then I would miss something wonderful. But I would change like a flash--me during it -- how I behaved with Stephan and Leslie (her kids), either short-tempered or over-affectionate --avoiding everything I could that had to do with Bogie, with my past life -- my insane desire to get out of my house. As if that could erase anything."
This was the 1960s before modern support groups, online counseling and social media. Before ModernWivesClub.com.
It was Bacall talking to her mother late at night, talking with her friends over dinner. Trying to find her way. It was tough. But this is no tear-jerker.
Bacall writes in a self-critical way that draws you in as a fellow traveler. She looks back on her grief, her transition out of Hollywood back to New York, her recovery. She brings you along on a journey that's interesting for her candor about mistakes, about friends who dropped her and about men.
She marries again in 1961. This time to Jason Robards, among the most talented American stage actors of his time. Robards also was an alcoholic, which eventually destroyed the relationship and resulted in divorce in 1969. From that marriage, Bacall bore another child. She accepted the end of her marriage to Robards as inevitable because of his drinking.
Bacall describes herself as a "risk taker" and went to Broadway first in "Cactus Flower" in 1965, "Applause" in 1970 and "Woman of the Year" in 1981. She won Tonys for Applause and Woman of the Year. In 1976, she co-starred with John Wayne in his last movie, The Shootist."
About personal lessons learned?
"The lesson of Bogie I had finally put into practice: In the face of inevitable, terrible happenings, how much better to hold on to one's character and hurt others as little as possible. The straight road," she said.
On who she was: "I've finally discovered," she said, "that you really don't learn from past mistakes. You do logically, reasonably, but emotionally, not for a second. I didn't mean to waste one more minute. Patience was still not my strong suit."
On losing someone you love: "The knowledge of death being part of life's cycle helps not at all. There is no way to prepare for the darkness of that pit of despair, that gaping hole that remains empty and gnaws constantly like an open nerve."
On working: "Work is essential to me -- really using myself, really functioning, body and mind at their best -- but it only heightens my emotional needs, it doesn't lessen them."
Bacall went on to write again. "Now," in 1994 and "By Myself and Then Some," in 2005. I've not read either but will have to track them down.
On widowhood: "I had to get out from under being "Bogart's widow." That was not a profession, after all -- and there would be no hope of a new beginning unless I fought for one."
On being a single woman: "A woman along can't win with wives. It's a problem I've had all my single life, and there's no way to fight it."
In the flurry of news about Lauren Bacall's death, there was little coverage beyond her Hollywood celebrity days, her marriage to Humphrey Bogart. The comments were about her beauty, her chiseled looks and smoky eyes. Nothing was said about her books, about her Broadway work. One minute summaries don't allow for much. I remembered liking Bacall's "By Myself," for her storytelling, her candor and the rough patches and how she managed them. Still do.
She finished her book this way: "I don't like everything I know about myself, and I'll never be satisfied, but nobody's perfect. I'm not sure where the next years will take me---what they will hold-- but I'm open to suggestions."
Thank you, Lauren Bacall for putting a voice to what many women experience in the circle of life.
For comment on her life by Betsy Sharkey in the LA Times, "Appreciation: Lauren Bacall's Voice resonated with Women," click here.
Other personal writing by talented women:
"Knock Wood," by Candice Bergen about growing up with her vantriloquist father Edgar Bergen.
"The Year of Magical Thinking," by Joan Didion after the death of her husband.
"Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.," by Anne Lamott.