Lauren Bacall: Hollywood Legend Who Lived a New Yorker’s Life

Wall Street Journal
By Melanie Grayce West
August 13, 2014

Though known world-wide as one of the last of the grande dames of Hollywood’s golden age, Lauren Bacall, who died Tuesday at the age of 89, kept the profile of a quintessential New Yorker.

Friends, neighbors and local merchants recalled her attendance at Metropolitan Opera performances and regular movie nights at Lincoln Plaza Cinema as well as her placing large orders from Zabar’s—and having the occasional indulgence from Gray’s Papaya.

Stanley Poll, one of the proprietors of the William Poll food shop on the Upper East Side, regularly took Ms. Bacall’s orders over the phone.

She was a customer for 40 or 50 years, he said, and liked her sandwiches double-wrapped, with extra dressing, always on the side. She always had the shop’s watercress dip in her apartment for her children.

“She adored my mother and father,” said Mr. Poll. His mother, Christine Poll, died earlier this month. Ms. Bacall called when she heard the news.

“Ms. Bacall had the grace and dignity to spend 18 minutes on the phone with me lauding my mother and father,” said Mr. Poll. “She was a lady. She really was.”

An actress, model, best-selling author and mother of three, Ms. Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske. She first lived in the Bronx at 1749 Grand Concourse and, later, in Brooklyn, according to census records from the Bronx County Historical Society. She attended a boarding school for girls in Tarrytown, N.Y., and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.

Her Hollywood success came in 1944 at the age of 19 with the film “To Have and Have Not.” The next year, she married her co-star in that film, Humphrey Bogart. The two were together until his death in 1957 and had two children. Later, Ms. Bacall married actor Jason Robards and had another son; the couple divorced in 1969.

By the early 1960s, Ms. Bacall had settled into a sprawling apartment at the Dakota, the legendary gabled co-op building overlooking Central Park that has been home to artists and entertainers, including Yoko Ono, Roberta Flack and Leonard Bernstein.

It was on and around this stretch of West 72nd Street where Ms. Bacall—known to friends by her given name, Betty—was a fixture. While some say she was unapproachable or even occasionally prickly, others recall her as gracious.

Joshua Henne, a 36-year-old political consultant, said his brush with Ms. Bacall came in October 2009, when he stopped by the Upper West Side location of Gray’s Papaya, the famed New York hot dog shop, after a movie.

A black town car pulled up to the curb and Ms. Bacall emerged in a silver ball gown, he said. She went into the shop and bought two hot dogs—one for her, one for her driver—before heading back to the car.

“I clumsily said to her, ‘Hello, Ms. Bacall,’ ” he said. “And she turned around and said to me in a very Lauren Bacall way, ‘Well, hello there.’ “

“Not only is it cool that she came to Gray’s Papaya at 11:30 at night, but she clearly had just left a black-tie event,” he said. “To this day, I wish I had bought her a hot dog.”

Rick Folbaum, who formerly lived in New York, said he often saw Ms. Bacall out at night with her pet dog.

Mr. Folbaum’s big mutt, Martini, loved Ms. Bacall’s small dog. After playing it cool the first few times he saw her, Mr. Folbaum, now a news anchor in Miami, said he confessed that he was a big fan. Ms. Bacall said to him, “I think our dogs are big fans of each other,” he said.

“It was so crazy that you’d see this living legend doing the same thing as everybody else.”

It was decades ago when Barbara Duvoisin, 52, stayed in a spare bedroom at the Dakota while a student at Columbia University. She stopped by the building with a bouquet of flowers on Wednesday while on her way to a makeshift memorial for Ms. Bacall in Central Park. She recalled running into the famous actress in the Dakota’s elevators and having brief exchanges.

“She was just so gracious, and so—sounds very trite to say—so normal,” recalled Ms. Duvoisin.