Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Night With Lauren Bacall...

About a lifetime ago, I worked in television. Well, Italian public television which is really in a league of its own. I was a producer/editor on a daily variety show and one of my duties was to take care of the foreign guests. The conductor, Paolo Limiti, loved old Hollywood stars so we had guests like Cyd Charisse, Sophia Loren, ect. When I heard Lauren Bacall was coming I was just as excited as everybody else. My colleague, Roger Mazzeo, and I were told to pick her up at her hotel one night and accompany her to a secret location. Her first question: "And what are you two doing here?" was a real ice breaker and when she saw the white limo that was specially ordered for her, she gasped: "I hate Bentleys, especially white ones." As we drove, she dished out the pleasantries: "Oh God, cobblestones... Tell me again, why are you two here and why on earth are you coming to dinner with me? Who are you?" Here, I was strongly tempted to put my philosophy degree to use (finally) and offer a possible existential answer but Roger who is very sweet tried to explain: "We work on the show and..." She bluntly cut him off with a rhetorical: "No, I mean, who ARE you? And where the hell are we going?" So that was the small talk sorted, then.
     At this point, we were further and further away. Each mile into the foggy Lombard countryside, a personal affront. The chauffer whispered to me in Italian that we were going to a secluded dinner club open especially for us. I had a pretty strong feeling that this wasn't exactly the dream dinner location  a star like Bacall wanted to go to. "Why are we going so far?" she complained. Roger took the bait and innocently answered: "Because Paolo wants to give you a special treat?"
"If he wanted to give me a special treat I wouldn't be sitting in a white stretch limo with you two driving to who the f@#k knows where!" She did have a point.
Once there, she refused everything that was offered to her and asked the waiter (owner/good friend of Paolo): "A simple green salad? How hard is that to make?" Then, when Paolo told her about this delicious burrata that they sell in Milan, she replied: "Well, if it's so good, why didn't you buy one for me?"
     Since a big part of my job was to simultaneously translate, it was hard to stop especially since Paolo was happy for me to edit what he was saying, by adding little anecdotes, like: "He has the top rated variety show on television," or "He was just voted most popular Italian TV host". So we were both taken aback when she just turned towards me and ordered: "Will you PLEASE stop talking to me?"
This was right after I mentioned that my brother had gone to an apartment viewing in the Dakota (where she lived in NY) and had mentioned what a beautiful building it was. "Why on earth would YOUR brother go to the Dakota?" I decided not to bring up the fact that he actually lived just a couple of blocks down.
The restaurant's wall was covered with photos of actors like Sylvester Stallone or Sharon Stone posing with the owner so, when he came over to ask if she minded taking a picture with him, nobody was too surprised. But she was ready.  "Of course I won't take a picture with him. I know what these people are like. They'll put it on the wall so that it seems as though we are friends." (The week before Cyd Charisse had happily obliged). This was especially embarrassing since the owner was clearly a good friend of Paolo.  At this point, Paolo's assistant motioned to me to follow him to another room. "We have a small problem. Who knew Lauren Bacall would be such a iena (Italian for 'not so nice')? We are going to need you to escort her out of the restaurant and act surprised by all the journalists and photographers waiting outside."
     I was pretty sure she wouldn't believe journalists had spontaneously followed us all the way to this secluded club on the outskirts of Milan. And it was raining. Oh good, maybe she would hit me over the head with an umbrella. She seemed to particularly have it in for me. I fell in that category of unimportant people. I could always tell the real stars, those were the ones who treated the 'unimportant' people well. Even though they didn't have to. Made me wish I was the daughter of an important film director she would some day be auditioning for. I could stand next to my Dad, the film director, as she was about to read her lines and say: "Remember me?"
    The week before, I had accompanied poor Cyd Charisse, a real trooper, to the bathroom in the TV studio. When she discovered it was a squat toilet, she merely said: "Oh, interesting."
I didn't wait around to hear what Lauren Bacall said when I brought her into the same bathroom. In her defence, it was pretty grim and in true Italian bureaucratic spirit, this was a toilet that could only be opened by one special janitor we had had to look for and who arrived with an air of extreme importance as she indicated that she had the key to this 'special' toilet hanging from her neck.

P.S. The picture above is the way I like to remember Lauren Bacall.