Cork director: Nothing prepares you for having a Hollywood icon whisper in your ear

Producer/director/dramatist Patrick Talbot recalls 
Cork director: Nothing prepares you for having a Hollywood icon whisper in your ear

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo.

TWENTY years ago in New York. Manhattan is scorched by midsummer sunshine. The avenues and streets thronged. Every nationality it seems is represented in the heaving masses of pedestrian traffic.

I am the Production Manager of Dublin’s Gate Theatre and we are participating in a festival at the Lincoln Centre, marking the 70th birthday of legendary London playwright Harold Pinter.

A total of nine of his plays are staged in a three week period and it is the culmination of over six months of planning and logistical preparation.

We are staying in the five-star Meridian Hotel, just a block away from Carnegie Hall.

My room on the 38th floor has a breathtaking view. One wall consists entirely of glass. I wake in the morning, press a button, and the window curtains magically open, revealing an astonishing vista of trees and greenery, looking down on Central Park, the already hot morning sun perched above Harlem a few miles away.

The first performance of our production of Pinter’s The Homecoming is to be the gala opening of the festival. It has a top notch cast led by Ian Holm, Ian Hart, Lia Williams and John Kavanagh. It has already had a hugely successful run at the home base in Dublin and when it finishes its New York stint it will transfer to the West End of London.

The then Irish Minister for Culture, Sile de Valera, flies to New York especially for the opening. She will make a speech at the post-show reception in the hotel ballroom.

The performance is a triumph. The gala audience, made up of many American/Irish VIPsand politicians, instantly rises at the final curtain to give the actors a standing ovation.

The guests then make their way to the hotel. I get delayed at the theatre and by the time I get to the hotel, the ballroom is overflowing with people. I slip in at the back. Minister de Valera has already begun to speak.

It is the very expensive scent that wafts below my nostrils that first grabs my attention. A perfume that has such a seductive sensuality to it, I want to instantly turn my head to find out who is wearing it. But I don’t get a chance to turn my head as I feel a warm breath in my left ear. Then, an unmistakeable lady’s voice, deep in tone, even in a whisper, is asking me, with reference to the Minister: “Who is this dame?” 

I steal a furtive glance at my questioner.

Actress Lauren Bacall.
Actress Lauren Bacall.

It is Lauren Bacall.

Nothing prepares you for having a Hollywood icon whisper in your ear. 

I am momentarily concussed and speechless. This is Lauren Bacall, screen legend, one time wife of Humphry Bogart, and star of such films as The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and Sex And The Single Girl. If there is such a thing as Hollywood royalty, this lady is its Queen.

But she has asked me who the woman speaking is. I need to respond. Having regained some composure, I try.

But it is quite surreal trying to explain to Lauren Bacall, the ‘20th Century’s greatest female star of classic Hollywood cinema’ — as the American Film Institute honoured her — who Sile de Valera is. The name doesn’t ring any bells for her, she says.

I mention that her grandfather, Éamon de Valera, had been born in America and was a major figure of Irish history. No, she responds, she hasn’t heard of him either. But, nodding in the direction of the still speaking Minister, she confides: “But hey, good for her.”

And that was that.

It transpires that Miss Bacall, or Betty as she preferred to be called (her real name was Betty Joan Perske) was a very close friend of Pinter. He had directed her in Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams at the National Theatre in London many years before and they had remained very close.

Betty becomes a part of our entourage. She attends all the plays in the festival and socialises with us regularly. She is extremely down to earth, devoid of any airs and graces, and happy to chat to anybody.

The festival is a huge success and it is wonderful to be at the centre of it.

I eventually fly back to Ireland, feeling I have been part of something special. And I never forget of course that special whisper in my ear.

September 11 was merely weeks away.

  • Patrick Talbot is a producer/director/dramatist. His play Two Lord Mayors, co-written with Jim McKeon, will be filmed later this year for streaming.

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