The British gent Lauren Bacall told me had covered up Prince Philip's philandering: An astonishing claim in the second part of our deliciously mischievous series
07:14 GMT, 6 August 2012
Lauren Bacall was one of the most difficult people Lord ever interviewed
For 40 years journalist and literary critic Graham Lord interviewed the world’s most famous stars. On Saturday, in the first extract from his sparkling new book, he exposed the truth about Jackie Collins’ schoolgirl affair with Marlon Brando. Now he recalls his encounters with Hollywood’s most difficult woman — and a riotously tipsy Poet Laureate . . .
Of all the people I ever interviewed, the Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall was by far the most difficult.
Bacall and her first husband, Humphrey Bogart, had been great friends of David Niven, and it was good of her to agree to talk to me about him in 2002 when I was writing the great actor’s biography. But trying to fix an interview with her was a nightmare.
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David Niven with his jealous wife, a former Scandinavian fashion mode., Hjordis. Bacall claims he helped cover up Prince Philip's alleged dalliances
I was starting to feel I’d just about had enough of this. Who did this woman she think she was
‘No, Miss Bacall, I haven’t set anything up,’ I said, ‘for three reasons. Firstly, I didn’t know whether you’d object to being recorded. Secondly, I didn’t know whether you wanted to do the interview here or in another room. And thirdly, I thought it would be bloody rude if I started littering your living room without your permission.’ She glared at me.
I picked up my briefcase and tape recorder. ‘Obviously this is not a convenient moment for you,’ I said, ‘so I’ll be off, and I won’t bother you again. I’ll see myself out. Goodbye.’
She stared at me. Suddenly she guffawed. I’d obviously passed some sort of Alpha male test. ‘OK!’ she said. ‘Siddown! Let’s do it.’
And do it we did, for nearly 45 minutes. She gave me some great material for the book, often chuckling wickedly.
Absurd claims: Bacall told how Niven covered up Prince Philip's alleged dalliances
She told me how Niven had been so grief-stricken after the death of his beloved first wife, Primmie, he had become sexually insatiable. She told me what a jealous, selfish, adulterous, drunken bitch his Swedish second wife, Hjrdis, had been — and how unbelievably cruel to Niv when he lay dying of motor neurone disease.
She told me what great fun Niven had been, ‘one of the best friends I’ve ever had, hysterically funny and a flirt’, and claimed that Niven had been one of the ‘beards’ who helped to cover up Prince Philip’s alleged dalliances: ‘The rumour was that Prince Philip always had women and they covered for him and pretended that his women were their women.’ Absurd gossip, obviously.
But she also told me how Grace Kelly was ‘very active with men’, perhaps even after she married Prince Rainier of Monaco, and that Rainier was often horrible to her.
It all made wonderful copy, and afterwards I skipped out of the Dakota building whistling all the way down West 72nd Street. Bacall had been worth it, despite all the hassle — but my God, she was a difficult woman.
No wonder the secretaries kept leaving. Even Bogie and Sinatra, tough as they were, must have had their hands full.
As a child, John Betjeman had enjoyed frightening adults by lying beside the road near his Cornish home pretending to be dead, and when I first met him decades later he was just as mischievous. Talking to him was a shambolic riot of laughter, confusion and hysteria.
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Bacall claims that Grace Kelly, pictured, was very active with men, perhaps even after she married Prince Rainier of Monaco, and that Rainier was often horrible to Kelly
I interviewed him again a year later, just before Christmas, when he was being strongly tipped to succeed John Masefield, who had just died, as Poet Laureate. Betjeman’s publisher had sent him a Christmas present of Bollinger champagne and Guinness, and although it was not yet midday, he was already riotously tipsy.
‘Have a glass!’ he cried. ‘Have a bottle! Bung-ho!’ and he bleated with laughter.
He was standing on somebody’s unfortunate manuscript and knee-deep in telephone directories and 500 unposted Christmas cards, each of them carrying, bizarrely, an Isle of Man stamp ‘because I like them.’
His ample buttocks flirted dangerously with the blazing gas fire, his young secretary was wandering about barefoot, the telephone rang constantly and the clock struck 12 so loudly that he had to shout into the receiver. ‘Right!’ he yelled. ‘Bung-ho!’
And then he remembered suddenly that he was due any minute at the BBC to record a charity appeal for alcoholics. ‘Alcoholics!’ he giggled helplessly. ‘That’s frightfully funny! I’m absolutely tight!’
He departed in a chaotic whirl by chauffeured limousine only to telephone in a panic a few minutes later: he’d left his BBC script behind.
Betjeman had no pretensions about his writing. He also confessed he had hated T S Eliot’s obscure poem The Waste Land when it was first published and that both he and his university tutor, C. S. Lewis, had thought it was pretentious nonsense. ‘I don’t like stuff I can’t understand,’ he told me.
He said he was always broke, couldn’t afford to buy a house, and couldn’t retire because he had never saved for a pension. ‘Nobody can live by writing poetry,’ he said mournfully. ‘I’ve had to prostitute myself to live comfortably and get plenty to drink.
‘I live entirely by journalism. Most of us freelances are penniless. If I got ill I’d be sunk.’
Sadly, he did get ill — very ill. The last time I saw him he had become Poet Laureate at last but was still living in a small rented Chelsea house because he couldn’t afford to buy one. He was 67 but looked much older, his eyes hurt and vulnerable, his air completely unworldly, and he was suffering shakily from the early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.
But he kept his sense of mischief right to the end and when he died at the age of 77 he was buried in the wackiest graveyard you can imagine: at St Enodoc’s church at Trebetherick in Cornwall, right in the middle of a golf course and close to the road where as a boy he’d alarmed the adults by pretending to be dead.
I can hear him cackling about it now. Bung-ho, dear boy! What fun! Let’s have another glass. I’m absolutely tight! A marvellous man.
A RATHER less entertaining Poet Laureate was the chain-smoking Cecil Day-Lewis, whom I met at his Georgian house in Greenwich, South London. He was 65 but looked much older and had been in and out of hospital several times in the previous four years.
As a child John Betjeman had enjoyed frightening adults by lying beside the road near his Cornish home pretending to be dead
He was about to publish a new collection of poems, many of them celebrating his native Ireland.
But he told me he was having trouble writing his 21st crime novel in a series that he had been working on for more than 30 years under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake —– novels upon which he depended for a living because he confessed that, like Betjeman, he made very little from his poetry.
‘I think I’ve come to the end of that furrow,’ he told me dejectedly. ‘I don’t expect I’ll be writing any more novels, partly because I just can’t think of any plots. It’s become so bad that when I met Agatha Christie at a party recently I asked her if she would sell me some of her unused plots. “Certainly not!” she said. “I’m going to write them all myself!”’
He told me lugubriously that being Poet Laureate had brought him neither fame nor fortune. He had recently been asked to write a brochure about Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, ‘so I went to see it but I couldn’t find it. I started wandering around, interfering with services, and a couple of vergers said: “Go! Out! Out!” They were absolutely brutal men.
‘I said: “Now look here: I’m the Poet Laureate and I wish to get into Poets’ Corner before I’m dead.” The effect was electrifying: they practically went down on their knees!’
He, too, was worried about money. ‘I pay my first wife alimony and now I have two expensive children at public schools. It could be a problem in the future.’
He did not, sadly, have much of a future to worry about: he died of pancreatic cancer two-and-a-half years later, and he never did finish that 21st novel. Once again the Westminster Abbey authorities refused to let him into Poets’ Corner, believing that his writing was not sufficiently important.
He is buried close to the grave of one of his heroes, Thomas Hardy, in Stinsford churchyard in Dorset. A sad footnote to his story.
Along with wine, women and Mozart, Jeffrey Bernard’s great love was racing, and his adventures on and off the track made him a legend of the turf as well as of the numerous publications for which he wrote.
He died in 1997 after 65 outrageous years of bad behaviour and political incorrectness and after enjoying a great many wives (four of them his own), about 500 girlfriends, at least 20,000 bottles of vodka, whisky and champagne and half a million untipped cigarettes.
Despite all the boozing and bad behaviour, however, Jeff was not just another sad, dishevelled, alcoholic loser. Sometimes he was inspired, even touched by genius — and not only in his writing.
Jeffrey Bernards great love was racing, and his adventures on and off the track made him a legend of the turf
When he attempted to drive home one dark night to his remote cottage in Lambourn, Berkshire after a drunken session with friends — on the wrong side of the road, without any lights, insurance or driving licence — and crashed through the fence of his local hostelry, The Queen’s Arms in East Garston, he decided wisely that it was time he gave up driving all together.
This left him without any transport to waft himself each morning the three miles from his home back to the pub for his daily 9am heart-starter with Lambourn’s equally alcoholic vet.
Jeff’s solution to the transport problem was brilliant. Every morning, before his own trembling fingers raised the first glass to his lips, he posted himself an empty envelope with a first-class stamp. You could rely on the first-class post in those days, so the next morning the postman drove all the way up to Bernard’s cottage to deliver it, where Jeff was waiting at the gate to cadge a lift back into the village.
There, the first thing he did was to post himself another empty first-class envelope. For a few pence a day he had fixed himself up with a regular taxi.
After a few days the postman realised what was going on. ‘Jeff,’ he said. ‘Save the postage. It’ll be much easier if I just come and pick you up every morning.’
Despite his drunkenness, awesome selfishness and appalling behaviour, Jeff seemed to be irresistible to women. Even when he had to have half a leg amputated he still managed to get it over.
Shamelessly he seduced even the wives of his closest friends, including Peter Cook’s.
One racehorse trainer accosted Jeff in a pub one night and accused him of having slept with his wife. ‘Yes,’ said Jeff, ‘and your mother and daughter as well.’ Now that’s class!
■ Extracted from Lord’s Ladies And Gentlemen: 100 Legends Of The 20th Century by Graham Lord, published by Fern Hill Books at 17.40 plus p&p from fernhillbooks.co.uk. Also available as an ebook for 6.99 from amazon.co.uk. Graham Lord 2012.