Months ago, when we first came to New York, I recall whining in print (this is also known as writing) about seeing no celebrities. It’s all gotten better since then. To paraphrase Lily Tomlin in The Late Show, which you should see because it’s so damned funny, we’ve now done the whole star trip.
It started a couple of months ago at Hale & Hearty Soups. My husband, who was standing in line next to me, started rolling his eyes and twitching uncontrollably. It’s usually my role in life to do that — not his — so I knew something was up.
“That guy,” he whispered loudly to me, his eyes bulging, “is famous.”
“Are you sure?”
“He’s in the Senate!”
OK, so after this totally inarticulate introduction, I realized that was Al Franken standing two inches away from us. I then disgraced myself by tapping him on the shoulder and gushing about how happy I was he was in the Senate.
“I know I’m not supposed to do that, am I?” I asked my husband later. “I’m supposed to be cool and pretend not to notice famous people.” My husband agreed, but later, my native New Yorker friend Grace reassured me it was perfectly OK to say complimentary things to famous people in public, as long as you didn’t make too big a racket. “They like that a lot,” she said.
After that everything was quiet for a while. We’re usually so intent on wandering around the city without barreling into other pedestrians or getting squashed by taxis that we simply have no time to look around for famous people. Besides, I am just miserable at recognizing people. They never look like I expect them to look. If they want me to know they’re famous, they should be wearing nametags with extra-big print in case I don’t have my reading glasses on.
But then, we stumbled into a restaurant in the Theatre District after a play last night. My husband hissed to me that he’d just seen Jack Black go to the bathroom. “You know, that funny guy who’s on Jon Stewart,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure.” He nodded vehemently in the direction of a big guy with glasses who was walking past our table.
“You mean Lewis Black?”
After that, we were on fire. Forget the food, the drink. Our heads swiveled like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. We were clearly in a celeb watering hole.
“My God,” I said to my husband. “Don’t turn around and stare. But I think that’s the young actor from the play we just saw. His last name was Bogart, remember? And he’s with an older woman who’s really glamorous. It must be Lauren Bacall.”
“His last name was Robards,” my husband pointed out.
“Lauren Bacall was married to Bogart and Jason Robards,” I said. (When my friends Joyce Harris and John Anders aren’t around, I’m always responsible for genealogical and marital information like that; it can be a lonely, thankless business.) “It still must be her. My God. Lauren Bacall. He must be her grandson.”
I tried to look blase and concentrate on my salad. Then, disaster. “They’re leaving,” I said. My husband and I pivoted in our seats, trying not to look obvious. The turbaned grandmother and handsome grandson swept out of the restaurant like royalty.
The restaurant hostess walked by our table and I gestured at her. “Did you see Lauren Bacall here?”
She froze. “Where?”
“Two tables away from us.”
“I’ll find out from the waiter,” she said. “That’s really exciting.”
When we finally calmed down and paid our bill, we stopped to talk to the hostess. “It wasn’t Lauren Bacall,” she said. “That wasn’t her name on the credit card. It was Robards.”
“That’s because she was married to Jason Robards,” I said, wondering how many times I was going to have to go through this whole explanation.
The hostess waved the waiter over. He reported the young actor had called the woman “Mom.” He ran through his credit-card receipts. “Her name was Lois Robards.”
“That’s her,” my husband said loudly and confidently. “That was Lauren Bacall.”
“Anybody else famous here tonight?” I asked them. “We know all about Lewis Black.”
“Tony Shalhoub,” the waiter said. “You know, the guy in Monk.”
“He’s married to Blair Brown,” I interjected. “She must be here, too.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” the waiter said.
Once we got home, I googled Lois Robards. As it turns out, she was Jason Robards’ last wife, whom he was married to when he died. Lauren Bacall’s successor, but not Lauren Bacall herself.
It was disappointing and all that. But at least I learned something: New Yorkers are as slavish as any tourist when it comes to celebrities. I’m no longer ashamed of being a celebrity whore. I guess that’s what happens when you almost see Lauren Bacall.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about being nice to writers and journalists