There is no shortage of biographies or autobiographies (sometimes ghostwritten) of classic film stars — but Lauren Bacall’s By Myself, later updated and re-published as By Myself and Then Some, just might be the best of the bunch. Honest, candid, and thorough, both versions of the book are great reads for any fan of the actress. Bacall discusses the highs and lows of her life, celebrating the good times but not shying away from discussing the bad, either. The writing style is engaging and conversational, making the book a fun and entertaining read.
Of course, the book contains plenty of information about Bacall’s interactions with other classic Hollywood stars — her friendships, her co-stars, her marriage to Humphrey Bogart. All of these bits are treats to read if you’ve seen even a handful of classic films. Bacall outs herself as a major Bette Davis fangirl, sharing humorous anecdotes about high school afternoons spent with a friend, tracking Davis down in New York. Of her first meeting with Davis, she shares:
“I supposed I was literally tongue-tied. I was so nervous, my hands were shaking. She offered us tea, but I didn’t dare pick up a cup and saucer for fear it would fall on the floor and spill all over me. She motioned me to come sit on the other side of her on the sofa. I don’t know how I got there, but I did.”
Davis is described as “my idol” by Bacall, as well as “Queen of Films – the best actress in the world.”
Personally, my favorite aspect of the book is the wisdom that it holds, as much as I enjoy the tale of Bette and Betty and the many other Hollywood stories. Bacall’s experiences and the things that she learned from them can serve as an inspiration to the reader.
Ms. Bacall’s childhood was no walk in the park. She didn’t come from wealth. Her parents divorced when she was young, her mother becoming the sole provider for herself and her daughter. There were plenty of bills to pay, and Bacall’s father stopped visiting her when she was eight years old. By Myself reflects the sense of hope, independence, and determination that grew from having dreams and holding onto them, despite all of the less-than-ideal aspects of her childhood:
“Imagination is the highest kite that can fly. When you have nothing but dreams, that’s all you think about, all that matters, all that takes you away from humdrummery – the fact that your mother was working too hard and didn’t have enough in her own life, that your grandmother, loving though she was, wanted you to get a decent job to help your mother, that you didn’t have enough money to do anything you wanted to do, even buy a lousy coat for $17.95. Dreams were better – that was where my hope lay – I’d hang on to them, never let go. They were my own.”
The devotion to her dreams gave Bacall a perseverance that is clear throughout her autobiography, from stories of her Hollywood career to earlier tales of pounding the pavement and looking for low-level jobs on the New York theatre circuit. Bacall credited her mother for instilling in her a strong work ethic and honorable character:
“She always taught me character. That was the most important thing in life. You did not lie – you did not steal – you did not cheat. You worked for a living and you worked hard. Accomplishment. Being the best was something to be proud of.”
Bacall’s mother wasn’t an “all work, no play” parent, however. Bacall writes that her mother had a great sense of humor even in tough times, and that she supported her daughter in everything she wanted to accomplish, even if her dreams seemed outlandish… like becoming an actress.
A sense of humor, a certain strength and self-confidence, a dedication to work and life and all of their ups and downs – these traits are what make Lauren Bacall such a memorable icon of the classic Hollywood era. She was a woman who took full advantage of the opportunities given to her, opportunities which she had worked hard for, even when assisted by others. She very observant, willing to learn from those close to her, and as a result became someone to learn from.
The ending paragraphs of the first edition of By Myself sum up what I admire most about her:
“I have learned that I am a valuable person. I have made mistakes – so many mistakes. And will make more. Big ones. But I pay. They are my own. What was not real in Howard Hawks’ version of me is not real now. I remain as vulnerable, romantic, and idealistic as I was at fifteen, sitting in a movie theatre, watching, being, Bette Davis.
I’m not ashamed of what I am – of how I pass through this life. What I am has given me the strength to do it. At my lowest ebb I have never contemplated suicide. I value what is here too much. I have a contribution to make. I am not just taking up space in this life. I can add something to the lives I touch. I don’t like everything I know about myself, and I’ll never be satisfied, but nobody’s perfect. I’m not sure where the next years will take me – what they will hold – but I’m open to suggestions.”