“To watch this lady in action is to appreciate how a legend was built. Here is an actress not living on past celluloid memories… rather adapting to the stage by being unafraid of playing ‘big’, and by bringing to it the great quality of presence. She is quite magnificent.”
MIKE ALLEN, Plymouth Sound
On Monday 8th July 1985 a production of Tennessee Williams’s play “Sweet Bird of Youth”, directed by Harold Pinter, opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London’s West End. The star of the show was the sultry Hollywood star Lauren Bacall, the widow of Humphrey Bogart. It was an appropriate piece of casting. “Sweet Bird of Youth” written in 1959 tells of a fading movie star, Alexandria Del Lago, and her relationship with gigolo and drifter Chance Wayne. One commentator said that the part was written for Bacall, although Tennessee Williams had originally conceived it for Tallulah Bankhead.
The play opened to positive reviews…
“Harold Pinter’s humane and questing production for the most part constrains the play’s indulgences while being unafraid of its emotion.”
ROS ASQUITH, The Observer
“Mr Pinter’s production walks a sure path between exaggeration and meticulous. His concern with what the players do with their hands gives us unexpected delights….Miss Bacall herself striking grand actress attitudes which lead the eye always to the tips of her elegant fingers.”
MARTIN CROPPER, The Times
The day before the play opened, Sunday 7th July 1985 was also the day of the Women’s Singles Final at Wimbledon. To give everyone a catch to enjoy the tennis on television one member of the cast, local actor Simon Rouse playing Tom Junior invited the players over for tea. Adding a little glamour to that hot St Margarets afternoon Miss Bacall - Betty to her close friends - arrived in a luxurious limousine elegantly clad in a haute couture suit. She also brought as a gift a selection of Mexican food.
At the time Simon was one of a group of local men running the Isleworth Ferry from the London Apprentice across the Thames to the Kew bank. As the afternoon was so pleasantly warm he arranged for the ferry boat to be brought up the Crane to his house which backed onto the river … and the entire London cast of ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ clambered aboard and puttered off - including the “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve?” star of ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘To Have and Have Not’. Their final destination was the White Cross in Richmond where Betty, in a fine mood, enjoyed a half pint of beer.
It was a very enjoyable afternoon although Simon remembers being very anxious about the entire trip - the stability of his little boat and the possibility of losing Betty and the entire cast of “Sweet Bird of Youth” beneath the foaming waves! Encouraged by this he did give the main attraction a tatty life jacket.
One local myth is that when Humphrey Bogart filmed ‘African Queen’ at Isleworth Studios some of the ‘pick-up shots’ showing him pulling a boat up a river were shot on the River Crane. Another version of the story says they were shot on the Duke of Northumberland’s river. Yet another version suggests they were filmed inside the studio in a large water filled tank. Apparently Lauren Bacall was unaware of these stories when she visited Simon and boated up the Crane.
Another local myth is the ring-necked parakeets which plague our gardens these days originated from birds brought in as props for ‘African Queen’ which then escaped.
We don’t know if the boat trip up the Crane became a significant day in Lauren Bacall’s life but it certainly marked the lives of others. Simon remembers a crowded house with lots of friends and neighbours who he hadn’t seen for months ‘popping by’ to get a glimpse of a genuine star from Hollywood’s Golden Age. He remembers that Martina Navratinova won the Wimbledon final beating Chris Evert 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 He remembers that “Sweet Bird of Youth” was extended for 3 months and he was moved up the cast to play male lead Chance Wayne. The only other actor to make the cast change from Tom Junior to Chance Wayne was Rip Torn on Broadway.
Simon also remembers that at the end of the day Lauren Bacall stayed around to help with the washing up. “I wasn’t brought up as a society girl or debutante. I don’t have an entourage. I have no live-in help”, she said, reaching for the dish cloth!
If you don’t know how to whistle here is a clip of the classic scene from “To Have and Have Not”, in which 19-year-old Lauren Bacall teaches the technique to Humphrey Bogart. Later she married him!
– from Martyn Day