Wednesday, February 8

Betty at the Bookstore

I am not given to going gaga over meeting movie stars.  It is their work on the screen or stage and books written about them or by them that floats my boat.  Living for years on the other side of Sunset in L.A. while a teen, I frequently saw them and often in the oddest places.  I stood behind Joan Crawford once at a liquor store.  Julie Andrews passed me on the stairs exiting a Beverly Hills department store.  I stood next to Clint Walker in several lines at Disneyland.  On various jobs I have run into Debbie Reynolds, Glenn Ford, Burt Lancaster, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Sally Field, Jacqueline Bisset, Clint Eastwood, Patrick Swayze, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Douglas and scores more.


And those folks aren't among the countless I met while working in talent payroll at Universal Studios.  I encountered Dean Martin at a movie theater once and he chewed me out for an unflattering review I wrote on one of his films.  I engaged in some lively conversation with Jon Voight at a party.  I clumsily caddied for Robert Young at the Bel Air Country Club and he dismissed me.  At the same location I delivered Fred Astaire's newly-shined shoes to him.  His shoes, for God's sake...!  I was on a TV quiz show called The Movie Game with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Forsyth as my partners.  I have been swimming at Judy Garland's home and met her as she swept down the spiral staircase.  I breakfasted with Doris Day at her long table (I was a buddy of her son Terry one school term).  I have been to a wrap party (for the film Seconds) at Rock Hudson's.  I was sitting still at a stoplight once and looked over and there was a favorite actress, Joan Leslie.  The beat goes on.  You get a little jaded on this stuff when you live on the other side of Sunset.

There are some others who certainly did get my complete attention and I unashamedly went gaga when I met or saw them.  Sitting fourth row, slightly off center, and watching Elizabeth Taylor in the play The Little Foxes made me dizzy.

I had always known who I might like to meet and it seemed to me these were the very ones I never met.  Other than Taylor and Day, one I hoped to see one day was Lauren Bacall.  I really liked her since she fit snugly into my wise-ass dames category.  It was too late for me to meet Humphrey Bogart since he died the year before I moved to Los Angeles.  Little did I know that one day I would meet Bacall and tell her about a time in my past. 

A lazy summer day, outfitted in teenage angst, I was sitting outside with my friend Bob Linkletter at his house.  We were overcome once again with a flash of mischief.  Bob was one of five children of television personality Art Linkletter and they lived very well on Mapleton Drive in celebrity-laden Holmby Hills and we'd been friends for about a year.  I think we always brought out the inner brat in the other.

"Wanna go over there?" he gurgled, pointing to a large, beautiful home right across the street.  Bogart and Bacall used to live there.  She and the kids moved out.  It's empty now.  I know how to get in through a window.  Wanna?"

He didn't have to ask me twice.  I loved them and I loved the home, which I had already noticed without knowing it was theirs.  I thought it was much nicer than the Linkletter's which, although quite nice, of course, was austere and veddy, veddy proper.  The Bogart place had all the movie star ambience, especially in terms of the beautiful grounds and the size of the house which was comfy and kind of country.  I could practically smell the breakfast across the driveway.

Once inside, there was a spacious kitchen, I believe a step-down living room and a wonderful den and bar where I could only imagine the famous people and boozy conversations that filled it.  Soon we skipped stairs to the second floor and invaded the bedrooms and at least one bathroom, the one off the master bedroom.

"Come here and see somethin' really cool," I imagine him saying.
He pointed me to a huge safe.  I remember it as being free-standing but big enough for a person to completely enter.  "Let's take turns locking each other inside it.  It's fun.  I know the combination."

I don't recall ever knowing how he knew the combination, but sure enough, he did.  He made me practice a few times while he eagle-eyed me and I did it every time.  Then he said he would get in, I would shut the door and twirl the dial and then voilà!... I would open it up again and out he'd come.  We must have been possessed.

My final trip inside didn't go so well.  What happened?  Why wasn't he opening it?  I uncomfortably fit inside and the darkness was unimaginable and with it, of course, the lack of air.  I know there are some great minds who could say how long it takes to black out and in fact die; all I can say is it doesn't take very long.  When I tried to yell, my mouth seem to become vacuum-packed.  Airless as it was, it felt like something flew in my mouth, something very warm, like pieces of cloth, choking off my words.  My temples pulsated, my eye sockets hurt.  I could barely hear Bob saying bits and pieces of things... trying... combination won't... hang on... stay still.  Just as it was about the grand finale (I had no doubt), the door suddenly opened.

I tumbled onto the floor and even though I could detect the air (not exactly fresh due to a closed house), I could catch enough breaths to get my lungs pumping again.  I went quickly from thinking I was going to die, to thinking I was going to live after all, to thinking I was going to die.

That experience was, without a scintilla of doubt, the worst of my young life and the birth of my life-long claustrophobia. 

From a teen life among the glitterati to nearly dying in a safe in Bacall's house... where am I going with this?  Well, here's where.  Flash forward a goodly number of non-movie star years and I am living in the Midwest.  And Bacall is coming to a bookstore near-ish me to autograph her newest bio, Lauren Bacall Now.  I would almost rather be locked in a safe than stand in any long line, but maybe I would brave it, just this once, to see a movie star I really wanted to see.  And maybe I would tell her my long-ago story of nearly dying in her house.

My partner says, "What the hell, I want meet her, too."  So off we go to a neighborhood strip mall and damn if that line isn't outside.  Bad idea, I thought.  Turning around and leaving is what I should have done, but no.  Sooner than expected we were inside the mall but not the bookstore.  I peeked in the window, and omigawd, there she was.  I could not believe that they had her seated at an ordinary card table, but she was breath-taking to behold... every inch a movie star, imperious really, barking a few orders in between signings.  Water would arrive, more writing utensils would be placed perfectly and gingerly in front of her.  Madame would throw her head back and that full blonde mane would move as a solid body.  I half expected her to whinny, at least paw the floor.

The line moved achingly slowly and it felt like we were standing in a sauna.  And then it came... the sweat.  I was so afraid that my light blue shirt would be dark blue by the time I got up to her and that little wet curls would frame my face.  People spoke of her as though they knew her.  "Oh Lauren this or Lauren that."  Many spoke of Bogart.  Two fans fell all over themselves reciting the lines Bogart and Bacall spoke in To Have and Have Not about whistling.  Two or three were pretty perky about seeing her on Broadway.  The woman in front of me said Bacall was really only called "Betty," her real and preferred name.  She'd never really much taken to Lauren.

My partner volunteered that he would go find me paper towels.  We were getting a bit closer now and I was wet and skittish.  Was it just the heat in that place?  It sure seemed like I was getting nervous to meet her.  I started thinking maybe I wouldn't share my story after all.  I could now see the actual events at the table and it appeared most folks opened their books, laid them gently in front of the Great One and she asked their names, briefly wrote something and off they went.  They may have gotten in I've always loved you or I know this will be as good as your last book or I loved you in....  Or maybe they just stared, slack-jawed and thunderstruck being in The Presence.  And off they went.  Next.

Now I was absolutely certain I would not tell her the story I had spent so long dreaming I would tell her if I had the chance.  I once entertained writing to her about it.  I was surprised she wasn't seated on a platform of sorts where we would have to hand the book up to her.  It didn't seem smart to be lording over her.  She seemed to have a body language that told me I was on the mark.

"Miss Bacall, as I kid I once broke into your house (oh swell, B&E is an avocation of this psycho book-buyer) on Mapleton Drive with my friend Bob Linkletter and he locked me in your safe and I almost died," I suddenly and surprisingly heard myself gushing.  I had at the same time leaned down and into her space, certainly uncomfortably close, but with the intention of keeping my little story as private as I could.

All at this same time, other events unfolded with equal dispatch.  As I slid the book under her, advising my name was Bob.  Just as she tightened her grip on her pen, two big droplets of sweat bubbled off my forehead and onto her writing hand.  Plop.  Plop.  She looked up at me and horror was written across her forehead.  I had seen that look before in her films The Cobweb, Shock Treatment or The Fan, all dealing with insanity.  And then there were the goons standing behind her, their arms crossed, looking like this was just a gig in between filming Scorsese crime capers.  One started around the table while a woman came from out of nowhere and got in front of me. 

"Please, please do not get so close to Miss Bacall.  Sir, what are you doing?"

I started to explain but decided it should be directed to Miss Bacall and for some unexplained reason I got too close again.  I wouldn't say we were nose to nose but I could feel her breath.  She tried to roll her chair back but it was an equally cheesy cardtable chair without rollers and a goon quickly steadied her.  And on and on I went.... "and I almost died in that safe in your bathroom."

"What was your name again?" she said rather glacially, pen again poised to write, never looking up at me.  "Bob?"  I said that it was.  "There never was a safe on Mapleton Drive.  Thank you."  Emphasis was haughtily on never.  She shut the book with a bit of attitude, I thought.  I didn't blame her.

"Why would she have said there was no safe when you absolutely know there was?"  Are you sure you were in the right house," my partner asked.

Obviously I was wondering the same thing.  I guess the only explanation is that someone else lived in the house after the Bogarts left and they installed the safe.  Maybe Bob told me those many years ago that the Bogarts once lived there and I thought he said they just had lived there.  I dunno.  I do know that two, inter-related, rather dire events, taking place many years apart, became connected, much to my dismay.

One other thing I feel fairly certain of... neither Betty nor I have ever forgotten that day.  I can now find humor in it.  I hope she has. Plop.  Plop.




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