With the Look, Bacall still delivers whistle lessons


Washington -- You know how to do The Look, don't you? You put your chin down, your eyes up and you blow a hole through the collective consciousness of everyone from your co-star to the people in the cheap seats of the theater.

Still works, at least for Lauren Bacall.

Yesterday, Ms. Bacall, who inadvertently created The Look some 50 years ago as a way of controlling her nervous shaking during the filming of her first movie, cast that trademark glance at each of the some 250 fans who lined up in a bookstore here for her to autograph her newly published second book, "Now," or her previous best seller, "By Myself."

She signs, she Looks, you melt.

Almost more devastating than The Look, though, is The Voice. It's the Lamborghini of voices, a finely tuned, downshifting of the vocal cords that turns even the standard book-promotion tour into something you could sell tickets to.

"I figured at the rate we're going, everyone's going to be so sick of me," she says, laughing at a statement that even she doesn't believe.

She wrote "Now" (Knopf, $23) not so much as a sequel to her first book, an autobiography, but as a way of speaking her mind fTC -- on topics from work to motherhood to empty houses to dying dogs to, ultimately, sheer survival.

"I had all these thoughts and I wanted to get them out," Ms. Bacall says.

"When thoughts come again and again, there's a reason for it," she says during a breakfast that will fuel a full day of interviews, a radio show, a book signing and a live Larry King chat. "It's much easier to write things down than to say them."

"Now" is a surprising book in some respects. You may think you know all about her life, her marriage at 20 to 45-year-old Humphrey Bogart, his tragic death just 12 years later. Her movie and stage career, from her golden start as the Howard Hawks heroine in "To Have and Have Not" and "The Big Sleep" through her Tony-winning Broadway shows. Her tumultuous marriage to Jason Robards, which ended in divorce, her romances with the likes of Frank Sinatra.

But the book tells the reality of living as a legend -- of producers thinking, surely, you already have other projects, of men who think, surely, you have a line of dates outside your door. Of phones that therefore don't ring as often as you'd like.

"I hate the word legend," she says of the term invariably used about her. "It's all about the past. It has nothing to do with the present. It's about people who are gone. Dead people. Dead stories. I'm against all that."

There's no mistaking her for dead. At 70, she's still incandescent: the crown of blond hair, the intelligent blue eyes topped by the thick eyebrows that director Howard Hawks wouldn't let the make-up people pluck. She's wearing a trim navy Georgio Armani pantsuit, gold bangles and the sort of confidence that's earned not borrowed.

From a woman like this, it is something of a scandal to hear the all too familiar single-woman's lament.

"The couple society, which is stultifying -- that's what life is about," she says. "To be an extra woman in the middle of that scene is difficult, and it's also uninteresting. It doesn't matter whether you're well-known or successful, if you're a woman and alone, you are always aware of it.

"There are almost no men around. I travel all around, and I sure as heck don't see them," Ms. Bacall says. "I haven't met anyone who has stopped me dead in my tracks."

The search for Mr. Right -- yes, that's what she calls him, and what's wrong with a 70-year-old still looking for him? -- isn't all involving.

She works, voraciously, whenever she can. She recently finished filming Robert Altman's eagerly awaited "Pret-a-Porter," a dissection of the fashion industry. She plays a Vogue editor, which as her life tends to do, puts her full circle.

She was an aspiring actress and sometime model in her native New York City and ultimately landed on the cover of Harper's Bazaar after the legendary (there's that word again) editor Diana Vreeland discovered her coltish beauty. Mr. Hawks' wife saw her in the magazine, pointed her out to her husband, and, well, it's one of those Hollywood stories that never seem to happen anymore.

She was cast in "To Have and Have Not," released in 1944, and, by virtue of smoldering scenes such as the one in which she taught Humphrey Bogart how to whistle, was launched. She then put her career on the slow track to be with him and the two children they had.

Today, the Bogie in her life is Paul Bogaards, Knopf's head of publicity, and a willing foil to her never-ending repartee as they shuttle from appearance to appearance. "Isn't that strange?" she drawls in a mocking tone. "Isn't that peculiar?"

She continues to find work in movies, TV and theater, but rues the course her industry has taken.

"Imagination is something that's almost disappeared. Now you see everyone running around in the buff, doing it, they're killing, there's all this violence," she says. "They show you how it's done. There's nothing left for you to discover."

Still, she works, doing the occasional voice-over for commercials and waiting, waiting for decent roles.

"I love to work," she says. "What else is there?"

Politics, for one thing. She's been a passionate Democrat her entire life -- she only supported Eisenhower until she discovered Adlai Stevenson, unabashedly putting herself in the group of glamorous women -- Pamela Harriman and Marietta Tree among them -- who flocked adoringly around him.

She loves being in the capital -- she extracts a promise from "Bogie" to be taken to the Lincoln Memorial at least once on this trip, as she does on every trip here -- and calls out "Go Al, go get Ollie" as she's driven past the vice president's house. (She's thrilled that Mr. Gore went after Virginia senatorial candidate Oliver North.) And she jokingly wonders "what's wrong with Bill" that he hasn't invited her to the White House since her one and only visit shortly after the inaugural.

She's a Kennedy family friend as well, and gleefully jumped out of her chair when she spotted surprise visitors during yesterday's book signing at Super Crown in Dupont Circle: Sargent and Eunice Shriver.

"Actually, I bought [her book], put it on my table, and my sister came over, and said, 'Can I take this?' before I could read it," Mrs. Shriver said as she bought another copy. "We've known her for more than 30 years. She's a marvelous human being and she's always available for any benefit -- Special Olympics, the arts. I'm a big fan."

She's not alone -- the line for her autograph is filled with people playing hooky from work or school from as far away as Ocean City. It's quite a testament to her enduring draw.

"I think this was the highlight of my life," Juan Navas of Springfield, Va., says. Admittedly, at 17, maybe there's not too much competition yet for that honor. But he's a true believer, having discovered her when he joined his mother, a Marilyn Monroe fan, as she watched the movie, "How To Marry a Millionaire."

"Marilyn Monroe was cool," he shrugs, "but Lauren Bacall! She had -- what would be the word? -- presence."

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