LAUREN BACALL does not suffer fools gladly. "I wish you could follow me around a red carpet one day to listen to the inane questions these little ditsy girls ask," she tells me. "They’ll say, ‘Why are you here?’ To see the movie, you imbecile. Stupidity is not my favourite thing; I cannot deal with it."
Not that Bacall spends much time these days attending glitzy film premires and the endless awards ceremonies with which the industry is forever patting itself on the back. Over the years that she has walked that walk, however, she notes wryly that the more she walks it, the larger her hips - "Until one day they will pass the width of the carpet, which tends to narrow with the budget."
Like the seasoned trouper she is, she’ll be there if there’s a film or a project to promote, but she would far rather stay at home in her New York apartment, in the Dakota building on Central Park West, dining alone, writing, perhaps reading a good book with her beloved, tiny papillon dog, Sophie, curled up by her side, the donor of unconditional love. "I’m becoming something of a hermit nowadays, anyway," confesses the glamorous Hollywood legend, who famously dismissed what she regarded as yet another daft question at last September’s Venice Film Festival, when she and Nicole Kidman were promoting their latest movie, Birth.
One hack asked Bacall, the screen legend, how it felt to be acting alongside Kidman, another screen legend. "She’s not a legend," replied Bacall crisply. "She’s a beginner... she can’t be a legend at the age she is. You have to be older."
All hell broke loose, with Bacall being castigated for being bitchy - or, worse, jealous of Kidman, with whom she had also appeared in Lars von Trier’s Dogville.
Bacall has since said that what she meant was that she didn’t understand why Kidman had to be so labelled and burdened when she still has her whole career in front of her. She also astutely pointed out that usually you have to be dead - like her late husband, the great Humphrey Bogart - to be a legend. "Now Bogie is a legend," Bacall agrees, although she does not regard herself as one.
In any case, if any of the journos who so feverishly whipped Bacall’s remark up into some sort of undignified cat-fight between two luminous movie stars had bothered to look at the cuttings, they would have discovered that more than a decade ago Bacall was railing against the notion that she was a living legend. "I hate the term ‘legend’. It’s all about the past. It has nothing to do with the present. It’s about people who are gone. Dead people. Dead stories. I’m against all that," she said in 1994, when her second book, Now, in which she eloquently discusses work, motherhood, the deaths of her dogs and, ultimately, her own sheer survival, was published.
Playing with the weighty gold rings she wears on the fingers of both hands, Bacall tells me how the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham - "Always so full of herself after her great love affair with Scott Fitzgerald" - once accosted Bogie at a movie premire and asked him what one thing he had learned above all others. "Patience," he growled. "Wasn’t that brilliant?" asks Bacall. "Oh boy, he was so smart, so ironic. Patience! That’s all he said.
"He had no patience, of course, with the likes of Sheilah Graham. But, you know, there isn’t a day goes by when I don’t think of him and the many lessons he taught me, with his great ability to love, to respect one’s work and to do it well, that to risk something in life is more important than being a star. To never sell your soul. And I haven’t."
Today, Kidman and Bacall, who has had a distinguished, award-winning stage career as well as being a movie star, remain fast friends - "to a degree that we feel almost related". Indeed, in her newly published updated autobiography, the acutely observed and stylishly wrtten By Myself and Then Some, and which she finished long before Birth opened in Venice, Bacall writes that she regards Kidman as "not only beautiful - which she is to the extreme - but [she is] very smart, very professional and a first-class actress of broad scope".
Incredibly, Bacall, surely the most fatale of all film-noir femmes ever to grace the silver screen, has never thought of herself as beautiful. "I don’t look in the mirror; don’t like what I see; never have. I am not my idea of a beauty. Never was. This is not false modesty. I’ve just never been enamoured of my face, which of course is magnified umpteen times on screen," she says. For that reason and that reason alone, she reveals, she has twice had botox injections, but never surgery. The camera is cruel, she remarks, adding that "here" - gesturing around the beautiful wide mouth that she curled so insolently at Bogart on screen in The Big Sleep - is the first area to go as a woman ages. "The botox helps a little, but it was nothing to do with vanity - it was necessity."
A facelift? "Never! Why would I want to look like someone from another generation? Why do middle-aged women want to look 18? Look at Joan Rivers - she has a completely different face today from the one she started out with." And, anyway, Bacall acknowledges, she has earned every single one of the lines that life has scribbled on her handsome features. She has also learnt that her best side is her left, although she willingly sacrificed even that when she made The Mirror Has Two Faces, directed by and starring Barbra Streisand, who also favours the left side, and for which Bacall won her only Oscar nomination.
Now a deliciously sparky 80, she is a striking-looking woman, a grandmother six times over. "Oh, those numbers," she groans, bemoaning the fact that her name is always accompanied by her age. "It becomes your identity." Clear-skinned, with the sort of bone structure that age cannot wither, she wears her ash-blonde hair swept off her face, has piercingly intelligent smoky-grey eyes and an even smokier voice, although it is 20 years since she gave up cigarettes. "And gained 20lbs into the bargain! After a lifetime of being Miss 24-inch Waist!"
To Bogie, of course, she was always Slim, the sassy, classy slender broad she played so insouciantly in To Have and Have Not, the Howard Hawks movie in which she made one of cinema’s most electrifying debuts, at the tender age of 19. "If you want anything, just whistle," she told Bogart’s character, Harry - whom she insisted on calling Steve. "You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow." It’s one of the most erotic scenes in Hollywood history. As Bacall looks at Bogart from beneath heavily hooded eyelids, the camera closes in on his face and he emits a low wolf-whistle, you can see him falling in love with his very own Slim.
"Sadly, though, I’m not slim any more," laments Bacall, adjusting the zipper on the jacket of her smart black trouser suit and nibbling on a minute shortbread biscuit. "I’m desperately trying to lose 10lbs - just can’t seem to get rid of them."
We meet over coffee - "And lots of it," she requests - in Glasgow, the morning after her flirty appearance on Michael Parkinson’s chat show. She was positively skittish with the silver-haired charmer. "What a sexy guy," she exclaims. "He said to me, ‘I’ve just turned 70.’ I said, ‘Don’t talk to me about 70. Grrrr! I wish I was 70 again.’ But I think he looks good, don’t you? He’s had me on his show four times."
In Scotland to promote her book, she enchanted 2,000 people in the Royal Concert Hall last weekend with tales of Hollywood’s golden age and of her own life and times. This is a woman who was discovered by Hollywood at the age of 18, lost her virginity and her heart to her leading man, Humphrey Bogart, who was 25 years her senior, and was then romanced as a young widow by Frank Sinatra - "He behaved like a s**t," she writes. Her friendships have ranged from Cole Porter to Leonard Bernstein, from Katharine Hepburn to Spencer Tracy, from the Kennedys to the Clintons.
When Clinton underwent his operation for heart surgery last year, Bacall called him and asked if he needed anything. "Send me a copy of your book," he told her. During the run-up to the presidential election (she speaks witheringly of "the self-righteous idiot Bush" and that, she says, is her uncharacteristically censoring herself), she told Clinton she wanted him back in the White House. "He keeps telling me, ‘Things will get better.’ He has a brilliant brain. Oh sure, he’s attractive, because he likes women, although some of his choices are so revolting. Personally, I don’t find him that sexy. But I do like a man with a mind."
The two biggest crushes of her life, she says, were on Adlai Stevenson, the Democrat nominee who lost to Eisenhower in 1952, and the composer Leonard Bernstein. "Both were men of great intellect - they mesmerised me," she sighs, adding that Bogie always knew that neither was a threat to their marriage, which ended tragically in 1957, after just 11 years, when he died of throat cancer.
Her description of his death and her subsequent all-consuming grief is unbearably poignant. "My feelings for Adlai and Lenny were never sexual," she confides. "Bogie was and always will be the love of my life. He changed my life. He was so powerful and he was a very sexual man. We both had a lot of sexual energy back then. In any case, you never forget your first love, do you?"
She is a fund of such warm-hearted confidences, which is what makes her wise and witty book such a terrific read. Born Betty Joan Perske (Bacal was her mother’s maiden name; Hollywood added the extra ‘l’ and the Lauren), she was raised by her mother and an extended family of devoted aunts and uncles and a much-loved Romanian grandmother. Her father, William, who had Polish and French blood, abandoned her and her mother when she was small. "The guy was a disgusting excuse for humanity," she has said of her father. As soon as she found success, he started giving interviews to the press. In her autobiography, she writes that he "contributed nothing to my life except anxiety". His rejection of her as a child affected her deeply, but she insists that Bogie was never a father figure. "He couldn’t have been less so," she says with a wink. "Remember he was Capricorn and I was the vestal virgin, Virgo!"
LAST night, she tells me, her Glasgow audience thrilled her by giving her a standing ovation, and she sold and signed hundreds of copies of her book. We’re talking in the seventh-floor executive lounge of her hotel, which is occupied by a pair of German tourists and a good-looking young couple from London, who wait patiently for an hour and a quarter for the interview to end so that they can get her autograph and photographs of her. She effortlessly charms the pair of them, wanting to know all about their children, their relationships and their work.
Bacall and I face each other across a small but impressive boardroom table. "Welcome to Grande Dame Enterprises," purrs Bacall, whose sense of humour is, well, legendary. Our conversation ranges from her upbringing as a nice Jewish girl in New York (she still can’t believe that as such a well-brought-up teenager she had an affair with Bogart, then a married man, even though it turned out to be "a match made in heaven") to her abiding love for her mother, Natalie. "I will carry the pain of her loss with me to the end," she writes in By Myself and Then Some.
"I think of her almost every day," she tells me, describing her mother, a single parent, as an early feminist and a truly remarkable woman. "I promise you, I don’t dwell on the past, but she and Bogie made me what I am. They gave me character. They taught me self-respect and they showed me how to be my own woman - never to lie, never to lose my sense of humour and always to treasure my friends." Although, she adds, she finds it hard to cope with the fact that so many of her dear friends have died. "These losses work their way insidiously into your head," she says philosophically. "It’s a way of preparing you for what is to come, I guess; that these golden years are less than golden."
She shows me pictures of her dog, Sophie ("5lbs of ravishingness"), with whom she shares her life nowadays, since there hasn’t been a man around for many years. She relishes living alone. "I don’t have an entourage," she says. "In fact, I have no live-in help."
When she won her first Tony award, for her stunning performance in the Broadway musical Applause - based on the Bette Davis film All About Eve - she remembers her friend Johnny Negulesco saying to her after the curtain came down, "You can never have a high like this anywhere else. You don’t need a man - there isn’t a man alive who could ever make you feel the way that audience makes you feel."
Wrong!, she thought at the time. She was still only in her 50s - "And the juices were still flowing." There were other relationships - with her Applause co-star, Len Cariou, and later a leading British actor, now dead, who was married and whom she refuses to name for his family’s sake - but there was never to be another great love affair. "I reached the heights with Bogie. How could anything ever top that?"
Her three children and six grandchildren live variously in California and Denmark. Bacall can’t disguise her pride in her family, all of whom she says have turned out well, "decent people, despite having had their individual monkeys on their backs". It is not easy, she sighs, to be the child of a famous father.
With Bogart she had a son, Steve, and a daughter, Leslie, who have seen their father elevated to cult status. Her second marriage, in 1961, was to the renowned actor Jason Robards, with whom she had one son, Sam, also an actor. Robards, who died in 2000, was an alcoholic and the marriage ended after eight years. But, she says, the first line of her obituaries will be about "the widow Bogart". Despite having made her own career since Bogie’s death, she says she has always had to fight her past. "I can’t dwell on it, though."
Currently unemployed, she says that neither Woody Allen nor Martin Scorsese, the two great New York movie-makers, has ever cast her, a native New Yorker, in one of their films. She would be a great Mafia momma, but Scorsese just laughs and tells her she’s not Italian. This year, she appears in two films - she has a long scene in Von Trier’s Manderlay, and stars alongside Anjelica Huston and Terence Stamp in These Foolish Things, which was shot in England last year. It tells of a young actress’s attempts to emulate her mother’s glittering career on the London stage just before the Second World War.
The publicist twice interrupts the interview to remind us that time’s going by. Bacall sends her away, saying that she likes me because I’m "a lovely woman", although she admits that she gets tired of talking about herself - "I was never my favourite subject."
Finally, we part and she gives me a hug and kisses me. "I’ve had such a pleasurable time with you, although I hope that you aren’t one of those journalists who seem really nice, then go away and kill me," she says, naming names and adding that if she ever meets a certain broadsheet scribe again, well...
Fixing me with her direct, dark-grey gaze, she says, "Don’t be mean to me." Listen, Miss Bacall, if you want anything, just whistle.
By Myself and Then Some, by Lauren Bacall (Headline, 20) is out now