Looking around her apartment in the Dakota above Central Park, Lauren Bacall saw ‘my several lives’ surrounding her. ‘Going from room to room,’ she writes in her 1994 memoir, Now, ‘I am faced with one or more of my collections, my follies: books, pewter, brass, Delft, majolica, tables, chairs, things... how did it happen, the acquiring of all this, the accumulation of it? Now that I have it all, what do I do with it? Who will want it?’ Quite a few people, it turns out: at the auction of Bacall’s belongings at Bonhams last week, every lot sold, from the Henry Moore sculptures to the Louis Vuitton luggage to the Ted Kennedy lithograph of daffodils (the auctioneer joked about the ‘collective gasp’ in the crowd when he announced that this one had ‘lots of pre-sale interest’), to the miniature bronze statue of Bogart in his gumshoe get-up (14 inches high; $16,250).
Yet the familiar clawing for personal scraps, for a piece of a star, was nowhere to be seen. Bacall always appeared oddly invulnerable: the way she appeared in To Have and Have Not, that paradigm of poise and husky sophistication, was mostly a front – she was only 19, a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx; the famous head-down-eyes-to-camera ‘look’ was a trick to hide her anxious shaking; she cried all night over the married Bogie and had to ice her face at 6 a.m. before shooting – but it still impresses.
Last year, a sale of Marilyn Monroe ephemera included a 1954 note from Joe DiMaggio saying he loved her ‘irregardless of anything’ (for those who’d thought that word was a Bushism), a bra, a chest X-ray and an assortment of old make-up: mascara, a lip brush whose ‘signs of use’ were touted in the catalogue and a tube of Johnson & Johnson eyelash glue, half squeezed out. Bacall was not that kind of star, and at Bonhams, the auctioneers occasionally made sly digs at that kind of fan, usually when trying to flog the collection’s few kitschy afterthoughts: ‘Think of who may have perched on this stump,’ one of them said of Lot 96, ‘Glazed Ceramic Tree Trunk Form Garden Seat’. ‘Perhaps Bogie himself, sitting in the shade, sipping a mint julep...’ He’d already elicited awkward laughter with a jokey attempt to drive up the price of a serpentine beechwood banquette by noting that it came ‘with the original Lauren Bacall cushion!’
For the most part, though, the sale room exuded good taste almost to a fault. The auctioneers kept up the old school gentility, although each time one of them said ‘lady’s bid’, I was reminded of the press release that praised Bacall’s ‘intuitive’ and even ‘instinctive’ gift for collecting. The crowd was muted too: for every beauty in a leopard-print coat or bright yellow dress, there were a couple of balding men in sports jackets, bidding on the Hockneys. The collection, too, was missing some movie glamour: Bacall gave a lot of her clothes away decades ago to the Fashion Institute of Technology. They were on show last month. There’s the Norell ‘subway coat’, that keeps its sequinned lining and the matching shift underneath safely out of sight en route to a party; the pink moulded Pierre Cardin dress made of ‘Cardine’, which could be washed, crushed or even burned to no ill effect; and all kinds of 1970s treasures in an exhibition of Halston and Yves Saint Laurent designs (until 18 April). The Bacall pieces in that show are often the loveliest, because they’re always simple even when flamboyant: ‘Put a ruffle on me,’ she said once, ‘and I’m finished.’
At the Bonhams sale I found myself gawping at a Bacall doppelgänger slinking around at the back, and I wasn’t alone. Someone approached her to say how much she looked ‘like Lauren’. She was an actress too, she said, and an acquaintance, but no relation, although everyone always remarks on the resemblance. I supposed we’d have to take her word for that, although her classy denial seemed a paradoxically Bacallish move: what can we make of someone who never seeks attention but always draws it?