Kirk Douglas Remembers Lauren Bacall: She Was My "Lucky Charm"
The legendary actor, who knew the late actress as "Betty," credits her for bringing him to the attention of Hollywood and inspiring him to help others
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
With the loss of Lauren Bacall, whom we all called "Betty," a meaningful part of my history has been extinguished.
I met Betty when she was 17 and I was 24. We were both studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was on my own in New York with meager funds. That winter, Betty saw me shivering in my thin overcoat. She didn't say anything, but she talked her uncle into giving me one of his two thick coats. I wore it for three years. That sort of unassuming kindness was one of her most endearing characteristics. When I had the honor of presenting Betty with her honorary Oscar in 2009, I told the audience: "People said Bacall was 'tough.' She's a pussycat with a heart of gold."
After World War II ended, I was honorably discharged from the Navy in San Diego. Betty had been discovered by Howard Hawks and was now in Hollywood preparing for her first film, in which she was to star opposite none other than Humphrey Bogart. I wanted to see her before flying back to New York, so I called her, and we arranged to meet for dinner. Of course, she was late. When I stood up to greet her, I noticed that she had the script for To Have and Have Not under her arm. We talked about it, and she read me a few lines: "You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together — and blow."
"Betty," I said, "you will be a star." My prophecy came true.
Back in New York, I continued the frustrating task of looking for a job, hopefully in a play that would last for more than a few performances. I had a wife and two children to support. I succeeded in getting the lead in The Wind Is Ninety, and I got good notices.
Shortly after the play opened, Betty attended a cocktail party for the famous producer Hal Wallis, who was going to New York the next day. Betty was always a girl who spoke her mind. She said, "Hal, when you are in New York, you must see The Wind Is Ninety. My friend Kirk Douglas is in it and has gotten rave reviews." He actually listened to her — did I mention she was persuasive? — and soon after I was on my way to Hollywood with a meaty role as Barbara Stanwyck's husband in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
Over the years, Betty and I never lost touch. We even starred together in a film [1950's Young Man with a Horn] before she went back to New York to achieve the Broadway success I had always longed for. We tried to see each other whenever we were on each other's home coast, and we shared many special occasions in each other's lives, including my 50th wedding anniversary celebration in 2004.
Throughout our friendship, I wrote her letters, mostly typed because I have bad handwriting. She always penned her replies, and they were almost illegible — handwriting worse than mine! My latest note wasn't answered, which was unlike her. I wondered why. Then, on Aug. 12, like the rest of the world, I found out.
It's hard to lose a friend, especially one with whom you have shared your dreams and your journey. In the case of Betty Bacall, I also lost my lucky charm — the girl who believed in me enough to talk Hal Wallis into giving me a Hollywood career. That was my first lesson in helping others without looking for thanks. I will continue to think about her whenever I put it into practice.