My dearest Betty,
In my mind, I've baked you a cake. It's vanilla and mint, soft and feisty. Eighty-eight candles are on top of it. We sing happy birthday and you put your lips together and blow. The light is pointed at you and your face is glowing. You are smiling. Before you know it, a spectrum of images begins to appear, ever so dimly, behind you. Frank Sinatra. Judy Garland. Leonard Bernstein. Adlai Stevenson. Slim Hawks. Katharine Hepburn. Spencer Tracy. Natalie Bacal. Humphrey Bogart. They're young. They're alive. They're honored to be there. For a second, you seem young too. Your smile gets brighter, your heart pounds faster. You blink. They disappear. They turn into three adult children and a hyperactive puppy. But, somehow your smile keeps shining on. You look up and thank your lucky stars to be standing here today.
I call you my joie de vivre for a reason. It's the French expression for joy of life, the ability to find sheer happiness in the simple fact that you have flesh, bones and a beating heart. The truth is, anyone your age, with virtually no one else to live for, would sit back and wait for death to come. It's like one minute you are desperate over your first wrinkle - until your superstar husband kisses you in the cheek and says you're beautiful, naturally - and the next you have children who have wrinkles themselves and said husband is long gone from this earth. Yet you live on. You seem to be my constant, that safe port I can refer to every time I need some serious grounding. If I'm down and out, no matter what is going on, I can see you. All I have to do is switch one button on my DVD, or open up one of your books, or simply look at my desk, where a picture of you, strong and tall, stares at me every day and night. And every time I look at you, I see that unbreakable statue of titanium and roses, that beautiful thing we sometimes call integrity. It's you, Baby, and it is real.
You have changed superficially. Your face changed, your body changed, your mind changed, hell, even your voice changed, but the essence is still there. It's been there since September 16th 1924 and it will be there until the day you die. It's that essence that you will never let go.
While with today's stars we often ask ourselves who will they be tomorrow, what mask will they put on and will it vary according to what their audience wants them to be, with you I never had to wonder.
You are Betty Bacall, from New York City. You are five foot eight and you have blond hair and green eyes. You are sultry and mysterious, powerful and striking, funny and joyous, talented and smart. You speak your mind, even if its 1947 and McCarthy is running after everyone who does. You are fearless, even when your home is crashing down in front of you, with children who can't keep up with your schedule and a husband you no longer love. You are happy, even if hell has poured down upon you and everything you knew has faded away. Integrity.
In films, you became whatever you needed to be. But, in real life, you were still the same. Shy and insecure at a first glance, with tired eyelids that kept half your eyes shut nearly all the time. Whenever you were surprised, you'd open them abruptly, revealing a unique and bewitching shade of green. You almost never opened up that smile to those you didn't know so well, you kept a mystery, a seriousness about you no matter how young you were. But, to those who knew you, not only did you smile 24/7, but you also made them smile too, simply by arriving with your colorful presence. You lit up the room. You still do.
And the happy excited teenager became a wisecracking woman, with charmingly witty humor and a laugh that smells like roses.
The stage was your initial dream, one you made come true. Two Tony Awards! Who was surprised with a voice like that? In one of them, you became an actress who was seeing her empire tumble down before her eyes. You didn't relate: She was previously played by your idol Bette Davis and now she was played by you. Your empire stood strong. On your second Tony, you were one of the gals who's one of the guys. She had been played by Katharine Hepburn. You beat her for the Award.
You were the queen of film noir. At the studio, you were so natural you seemed to have been born in those shadows. The sexy lines seemed to roll off your tongue with the ease of an expert. You know how to whistle, don't you?(1) In front of the cameras, it was goodbye virgin teenager and hello alluring adult. With Bogart by the side, you created magic. But that husky laugh in your head was a little too loud and you had to turn to comedy.Next thing I know, he hits me with a chicken! (2) Alongside Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, you shined through. You were hilarious by nature. You brought laughter wherever you went. And in the toughest year of your life, no one could make you laugh but yourself. I eat like a fool when I'm in love! (3) Gregory Peck joined you and you got your mind off the hell your life was turning into. Losing Bogart. Losing your first and only love. Losing the man who gave you your whole life and more. Losing everything.
Bogie left you. Or, in all truthfulness, he was yanked from your loving arms. He didn't have your unconditional willingness to live. Bogart felt his life was worth nothing in plenty of moments, I'm sure. But the moment where he did have his life slip between his fingertips was probably the one time he wanted to live the most. You were his doll, his Baby, his Slim. He thought you were so fragile, he wanted to protect you, he wanted to take care of you, he wanted to give you everything he had. He loved you so. He said he'd die before he let anything bad happen to you. I'm afraid he was right about that. Your love for him, however, is eternal. Nothing would've stopped it, nothing will stop it, and if there is such a thing as an afterlife, you know with whom you will be spending yours.
At first, you felt your life was over at thirty-two. You, the happiest person in the world, had lost your will to get out of bed in the morning. Many people were there to offer you solace. Sinatra worshiped you. The Voice, The Blue Eyes, dragged you into his life completely. You needed him and he was yours, but you were never his. Your children were the lights in your eyes, the reason why your heart yearned to keep beating. As time went by, Bogie became a memory. The sea had erased his footprints and you could no longer smell him on your bed sheets. Steve and Leslie no longer knew the man who raised them. How frustrating it must've been to tell them about their own father, striving to maintain a memory that was so faint in their minds, but yet so alive in yours. It didn't take long until they realized the true magnificence of the situation. Play it, Sam. (4) Their father was extraordinary.
What really saved you was your unsinkable heart and your unmatched talent for love. You loved, Baby. You loved and you loved and you loved. And each time your heart expanded you got happier. And each time you got happier, you were ready to love some more. You could love the whole world.
And now you're there, turning 88 years old. My heart fills up with warmth and joy that someone like you has received such a gift. I think you found that a long, healthy life is the best weapon one has at hand. Time to make mistakes, time to live with them, time to grow from them. Time to know yourself, time to know others, time to realize your place in the world. Time to love and to be loved. You have done so much gloriously. And I hope you know you left us something that we will never be able to pay you back for: You left a little of yourself in everything you did. There was no way you wouldn't.
And now I have nothing to do but thank you. Thank you for your constancy, your integrity, your solidness. Because when nothing was in its place, you were there. And you were mine.
Like you sang your way to your first Tony Award: "I feel groggy and weary and tragic! Punchy and bleary and fresh out of magic, but alive, but alive, but alive!"
There you have it, Baby. You've woken up to 88 years' worth of mornings. And you get a new one every day. Keep doing it justice.
I love you and happy birthday.
P.S. (1) To Have and Have Not, 1944
(2) How To Marry a Millionaire, 1953
(3) Designing Woman, 1957
(4) Casablanca, 1942
P.P.S. All the photos in this post are a result of my very patient, and much too delightful sifting of 175 pages of pictures on fuckyeahlaurenbacall on tumblr.