In the 1990’s, I was living in Sonoma County California. This was during the middle of the AIDS crisis, and somehow I had ended up working in a hospice, counseling patients, walking their dogs, cooking, cleaning their houses, arranging memorials… whatever I could do. It was a fulfilling yet exhausting job, sharing last days with patients, many of whom became my friends during their time with me.
On a rare day off, I met an actor who had moved to the area for the summer to take care of his daughter, while his ex-wife was working on a movie. He was famous in Canada, and frequently jetted back and forth to a television studio there, but was rarely recognized in Sonoma. Hanging out together was a mutual escape from each other’s stressful lives. He liked that I couldn’t care less that he was well-known, and I was glad to have another friend with disposable income to join me for dinner. We had a passion for food and wine, and soon became fast friends.
One afternoon after a particularly difficult shift at the hospice, I came home, opened a bottle of wine, and got myself snockered. I still remember – it was a big jeraboam of 1980 Lemmon Chabot Cabernet; old velvet in a glass, a parting gift from someone who had died that day. As I sunk further into the couch, my new actor friend called. He was driving up from the airport and wanted to take me to dinner so that I could meet someone. I said thank you, but that I had just finished a difficult shift, and was working on a very sentimental bottle of wine, and all I really wanted to do was mourn myself into a dreamless sleep.
He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and insisted that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t meet “her”. That piqued my interest. Her? With him? That didn’t compute – let’s just say that women no longer played a big part in his life. Interest piqued, I agreed to join them as long as I could bring my bottle of wine. He said they’d pick me up in about an hour, and that I should think of somewhere to go for dinner that was quiet and out-of-the-way.
45 minutes later, I opened the front door to find a dark suited chauffeur standing there. This surprised me, as I was expecting to have to squeeze the three of us plus my jeraboam into his sports car. In case you don’t know, a jeraboam is four times the size of a regular wine bottle, and could easily fill a child’s car seat. Deciding I may have miscalculated on my choice of a tank top and shorts as evening wear, I asked him to wait a moment while I threw on some real clothes, before I staggered out to the long limousine. Climbing inside, I said hi to my friend, who turned and gestured dramatically to the other passenger. “This, is Lauren”. I was clueless. “Hello”, I said. “I think we should put a seat-belt around my wine. Are there any glasses in here?” She laughed, deep and throaty, and steadied me as the car pulled away, saying over my shoulder, “You were right; I like him already”, and to me, “call me Betty”.
We headed south on Old Redwood Highway from Healdsburg, discussing dinner options. “She wants to go somewhere where we won’t be recognized”, he said. As I mentioned, at the time he wasn’t recognized all that much, but I was happy to play to his vanity since he was obviously trying to impress his mother.
We decided that a Sonoma institution, the old Mark West Springs Lodge would be a good place to eat. The food wasn’t great, but it was a nice, quiet place along the creek; just a bump on the road halfway over the Mayacamas Mountains between the Sonoma and Napa Valleys. I poured a bit of wine and we settled into an easy conversation. I so loved the valley, and used to playing tour guide, so there was no shortage of topics.
The restaurant was well known for a large grape arbor that reached all the way over the highway. I disentangled my wine and was out the door first, where I stood struck by the leggy, statuesque woman who unfolded herself from the car. The waiter, an older gentleman in a black bow tie nearly choked when we walked in, and rushed us to a back corner, even though the restaurant was practically empty. My second hint that something was up, was when I noticed the restaurant staff peeking through the kitchen doors, but other things were on my mind. I realized that I may have made a further miscalculation about my companions when the restaurant was ready to close the kitchen, and the waiter came over, holding his wife’s hand, shyly asking if she could meet Mrs. Bacall. I may have been a bit slow, but dammit, the name Lauren Bacall sounded familiar. There were three of us at the table that night, and I was pretty sure I was the only one who wasn’t being gawked at, so I said, “Wait a minute… aren’t you famous?” She laughed again and said, “I was married to someone who was, that’s all”.
In my defense, when I was growing up television was not allowed in the house, and my interest in movies was limited. Instead, my nose was always in a book, and at the time I had watched few old movies. It wasn’t until I went to work the next day and mentioned the dinner that I found out who she really was.
When the plates were taken away, we had barely made a dent in the bottle of wine, which, for lack of room, had been placed on a nearby table. Betty pointed, laughed and said, “Do you bring this everywhere you go? It could put the entire restaurant on the floor.”
I didn’t say anything, just paused for a while, and then told her about my friend who had died that day. He had been a movie producer. I told her about the time I had been introduced to him at a Christmas party at his Beverly Hills home, where not only was a lighted tree glowing in every room of his mansion, but one was even floating – lighted – in his pool. Bette laughed and then put a hand to her throat. “Oh, I know who you are talking about. We are friends too.”
I talked about the time I stopped at a traffic signal at 2 am, looked over, and saw him frantically waving from the car next to me. We ended up pulling over and sitting on the breakwater, talking until the sun rose. We all laughed when I recalled a dinner that he made from whatever he could find in the kitchen to surprise friends and I one night, when a few of us were in a rather altered state; the secret ingredient being tonic water, which he used in every dish. Beans & tonic. Asparagus & tonic. Pasta & tonic. Chicken & tonic. I’ll never forget it. I told her how completely different we had been, and yet how much his friendship had meant to me, and how, when his friends started to drop from AIDS, he would light a candle for each one on his hallway table, and that by the time he was diagnosed himself, it was completely covered over by sad stubs of melted wax.
Betty reached out and took my hand. “You look so empty… haunted.” My shoulders shook, and I pushed back my chair. “Death is my life”, I said, and made for the patio. The sun had set, and as I stood there in a chorus of crickets, fighting my endless battle to keep it together, Betty came quietly to my side. “So many gone”, she said. “So many candles burned too fast. It’s like our hearts will never be healed. I know you didn’t want to be here tonight, but I’m so glad you shared your evening with us, and I’m so glad I found out about his death from you instead of from the newspaper.”
Later, facade restored and at the bar, I sat with my friend and Betty. There was an easy, warm feeling, and quiet contemplative breaks in a flowing conversation with someone who too had lost many friends. Those moments, when you are so comfortable together, nothing needs to be said. We just sat and watched the firelight flicker up the walls and across the windows.
I have since lost touch with my friend. He became very famous, and famously battled many demons. Though I promised Betty I would get in touch that summer when I was in Los Angeles, I decided I didn’t need a second ending, and never saw her again.
I still have that empty bottle of wine. It sits on my dresser, a reminder of a difficult time, of love, of so many lives lost, friendship and Sunday dinner with Lauren Bacall.