The Night We Sort of Saw Lauren Bacall

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?”

“Yeah, whatever.”

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

17 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    And to think that back home in Austin you’ve only got light-weights like Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey.

  • Thank God, I’ve spent so much time trying to act blase, and all for what? NY waiters are entertained by this? Of course they might be better at it, I’m truly terrible, forever seeing famous people who are dead, or lost at sea. And my husband, always disgusted, leaves me, convinced I live in Iowa, to him, the land of the confused celebrity gawker. I do not, but I am a bit confused.
    I love your blog, it is such fun to read. I just posted a review on the weekly curator at She Writes, one of my three favorites. My best, Ally

  • The only celebrity I ever encountered was Judy Collins.  I was behind her in an airport security line in Bellingham where she had given a concert the night before.  The line took a long time because all her accompanying musicians had to have their instruments xrayed.  We fell into a conversation about catboxes — I forget how it started — but I told her about a cat I had that used to pee in the toilet.  She was really impressed.

  • Winston Link

    Oh, I could just see it now.
    Ruth:  Oh, Miss Bacall!  I would know you anywhere.  You’re wonderful!
    Lois:  (Icy stare) Madam, you would not!  I am Mrs. Jason Robards.

    Ruth:  I know you married him, but…
    Lois:  AFTER he left HER!
    Ruth:  …oh. (Open floor, fall through)
    Ruth, perhaps long-johns are a good idea whenever you’re out in public– but wear them over your head.  That would explain all.

  • Linda Cox Link

    In 1982, I once drove by Willie Nelson in Austin, braids and all in a big Mercedes. That’s my brush with fame.

  • Here in Austin I used to distract my children in the car (years ago) by pointing to any especially fit guy in stretchy clothes on a bike saying brightly “Look kids!  It’s Lance Armstrong!”.   That usually bought me at least a 4 minute respite from the “He’s breathing on me!” type sibling whinery.  So yes, THAT is why I resolutely check out fit men riding bicycles to this very day.  My story and I’m sticking to it.

  • Cindy A Link

    I did meet Lance Armstrong and wildly succeeded in embarrassing myself.  Last year, I was supposed to be shepherding around my company’s CEO at a pre-press conference reception of only about a dozen people.  I was taking photos with my eye in the viewfinder of my camera when I lost track of where Mr. Armstrong was. I passed the viewfinder all around the room and couldn’t find him.  When I finally lowered the camera, he was standing directly in front of me with his hand outstretched to shake my hand.  Like an idiot, I just stood there holding my camera and someone else reached out and shook his hand.

    I would have been way more than happy for the floor to swallow me.

  • What a fun post, Ruth!
    I was a celebrity once, briefly, in Paris.  The radio station promoted my talk show with enormous photos of me wearing an American flag (t-shirt) and eating a hamburger.  The posters were all over the city, especially on the sides of buses, which embarrassed my kids no end.  “Look!  There’s your mom again,” their friends would say whenever the school bus passed a poster.
    Strangers would recognize me, too, only not completely.  I would be sitting on the metro, and, yes, I did still travel by subway, and fellow passengers would stare as if trying to remember where they had seen my face.   Some figured it out, some didn’t.  Fortunately, the promotional campaign only lasted a week.

  • Chris Link

    I lived and worked in the Napa Valley for a number of years, and celebrities were omnipresent.  Danielle Steel in the Oakville Grocery wearing jean short overalls, with diamonds covering every knuckle, looked like a deer in the headlights when I saw her but I just ignored her.  A friend later went to work for her for about 18 months.
    I have stories.
    Judy Collins doing a concert at Robert Mondavi Winery with a rider as to the color of the jelly beans in her dressing room.
    Harry Belafonte getting pissed off at me because people were taking his picture during his concert sound check.
    Coming face to face with Tony Bennett – make that eye to eye – he’s short and so am I.  Nice man.

  • This is so funny. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a celebrity. Though since I never know who they are I wouldn’t know it if I did!

  • omigod.. this made me bust out laughing. The conversations you have with your husband sound SO much like the ones *I* have. I love it that you know who is married to whom.  That’s my husband’s department.
    A few years ago I pushed my little boy in a swing in a park on Shelter Island. The woman beside me said his eyes were beautiful (they are). I thanked her and made some equally complimentary comment on her baby. Then I looked at her and said, “You know who you look like?  You look exactly like that woman from the show….” and she just looked at me and I realized she WAS the woman (whose name I did not know–I’m terrible that way. I recognize voices, but have no idea what their names are.. my husband would have known.) (FYI, she’s the costar on Law & Order Criminal Intent. To be fair, I never watch it, just see the commercials for it.)  Anyway.. I blushed and said, “oh.. sorry.. ”  She smiled, took her baby out of the swing,  and then quickly left.

  • I think you’d be so much fun to hang out with. Everything is an adventure, celebs or not!

  • BTW Ruth–do you know who Claudine Longet is? Do you know who she was married to? What about Spider Sabbitch? (I learned this at 5yrs old since I heard it so frequently… other than that.. I don’t know who is married to whom) 😉 I’m very impressed with your knowledge…

  • I can’t believe that waitress told you the name on the credit card!!
    I’ve spotted some real gems over the years. Glen Close running around the reservoir was pretty sweet.

  • I just love your writing, Ruth. It’s as if you are talking to us personally. It’s really a gift to be that funny.

  • Ruth, you crack me up. I do the same thing when I’m in either NYC or LALAland, though I thought it was just a foreigner kinda thing.
    I’ve seen Steve Martin in Manhattan and Kim Bassinger was so close to me in the bathroom at the Mark Taper Forum in LA, where I’d gone to see the miraculous Angels in America, that I could feel her breath.
    Are you suitably impressed?

  • Winston Link

    Sarah Henry, what a shocking commentary on today’s stars.  They are just no longer made of the right stuff.  Why in the 40’s, no star would have done anything so mundane as to appear in a public bathroom.  No, she would have dispatched her personal secretary to handle that for her!

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