A star encounter

When I think of stars my mind goes right to the golden age of Hollywood.

I love watching Turner Classic Movies and, as I was considering this column, I decided to write about Lauren Bacall because of my encounter with her in the mid-‘80s and my joy in watching her on film.

Lauren Bacall and future husband Humphrey Bogart in her film debut, “To Have and Have Not” (1944). Her swooping hairstyle, oblique gaze and throaty voice would all become part of the Bacall mystique.

She was onscreen as she was in life — strong, glamourous, self-reliant yet vulnerable. She married Humphrey Bogart after filming, “To Have and Have Not” with him.  She was 19 and he was 44. She said, “No one has ever written a romance better than the one we lived.” She explained that even though she was in the world of moviemaking, her marriage came first. She was a woman that you couldn’t help but admire and respect deeply.  

She was honest and open and not afraid to show herself.  My encounter with her, I have come to learn, might have had an effect on her life. I certainly hope I did.  So, here it is:

It was an average day at the Kenneth Salon, a five-story townhouse on 54th Street and Madison Avenue. There were always several celebrities ascending or descending the formal staircase. It seemed everyone fell under the spell of elegant luxury and glamour. There was a back staircase where stylists would gather and peer out into the reception area as we waited for our next clients. It was at one of these moments when the hostess, Miss Parnell, called out to me in her wonderful Latvian accent. “Brian, Kenneth wants you to talk with Lauren Bacall.” I was quite young and already accustomed to seeing and working with celebrities — but this was special.

Kenneth’s styling station was in the center of a large room filled with natural light and, as I approached, I could see Bacall in the mirror’s reflection.  As our eyes connected we shared a look of happy expectation. “Brian,” Kenneth said, “This is Miss Bacall.”  And then, in her distinctively smoky voice, she addressed me. “Brian, Kenneth was telling me that you have been successful at quitting smoking. Would you please tell me how you were able to do that? I have tried unsuccessfully, so please would you let me in on your secret?” I remember the moment with delight. This was a woman with such a depth of heart and warmth and openness. 

I paused to answer the question as Miss Bacall and Kenneth held a rapt attention. I went on to explain. “Well I have tried for two years and was not successful until I finally came to the realization that my failure was due to a moment when after dinner with my girlfriend or in a more intimate moment, the thought would come to mind that I could have a drag or two. After all, I could be kind to myself after enduring several days without smoking. “

 They both smiled as if they identified with the experience. Bacall asked, “So, Brian, how did you stop?”  It became obvious, I explained, that those few drags always led me back to smoking. I decided to make a contract with myself. If I ever took another drag from a cigarette, I would by means of this contract, go out and buy a carton and never again attempt to quit. Now that drag represented a lifetime of smoking. Bacall recognized this as a unique approach and appeared to be quite taken with my suggestion. She thanked me, and I responded, “It was my pleasure.  I hope it was helpful.”

I didn’t realize until writing this piece and doing some research that in 1986, after our conversation, she was finally able to quit. She lived until she was 89.  What a gift to me to think that maybe our talk had the effect I hoped it would. We just don’t know how the small moments that we share with each other can often lead to a course change for the better in someone’s life.  Cherish those moments.

Visit Brian at Warren Tricomi Salon, 1 E. Putnam Ave., Greenwich. To book an appointment with him, call 212-262-8899.

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