Humphrey Bogart (1899 - 1957) holding 'The Maltese Falcon' while smoking a cigarette, in the film directed by John Huston, 1941.
Stephen Bogart may just be that guy. Although he would be the first to tell you he's just a regular guy. He is a television news producer and writer for a New York news station, and one of the founding producers of Court TV. There he was – holding court in a rambling hotel, in the middle of one of New York's most beautiful mountains -- the 'Gunks -- a mere hour and a half from the big city. Ready to tell his story to people who just see the name and think they already know him.
Steve was with what some would call an entourage, but was really just a bunch of friends. With him were his wife Barbara, beautiful blond and mother of his three children; Dr. Michael Baden, famous forensic sleuth and former medical examiner of New York City and his wife Linda Kenney, attorney for such infamous personages as Phil Spector and Casey Anthony.
Bogart was recently at the Mohonk Mountain House – outside of New Paltz -- as the kickoff act of “Celebrating the Academy Awards.” The House was all decked out with film strips, reel cans, life-size cutouts of everyone from Jimmy Dean to Viggo Mortensen. Even Albert Smiley, founder of the Mohonk Mountain House, had his own cut-out. People probably thought Smiley was an old-time character actor.
Stephen began by answering the question he is usually asked first. About his mother, Lauren Bacall. She is just fine, living in New York City and off right now acting somewhere.
His memories about his father commenced with his playing something rarely heard: a 10-minute tape of Humphrey Bogart's eulogy, written and delivered by John Huston on January 17, 1957. “Would you like to hear it,” Steve asked. “It may seem sad, but it was 52 years ago, I'm over it.” His father died of esophageal cancer less than a week after Steve's 8th Birthday.
From those familiar, stentorian tones of John Huston – we heard the raw emotion from that particular moment in Hollywood history, a time most of us may think we know, but really don't. Bogie died with his wife "Betty" (Lauren Bacall) by his side, his children nearby. Huston recalled that Humphrey Bogart just assumed he would get better, teach his son how to sail his boat, the Santana. That he was going to make “fine” pictures. Only “fine” pictures.
Huston characterized Bogart as only a famous Hollywood film director could. There are, he intoned, “in each of the fountains at Versailles a pike which keeps all the carp active; otherwise they would grow over fat and die.” Bogie “took rare delight in performing a similar duty in the fountains of Hollywood.” You got the sense that Bogart, probably fueled by alcohol, liked to stir things up. But, "his victims seldom bore him any malice.” Studio big wigs stayed away from parties where Bogie attended in fear of that pike known as Bogie. Huston recalled, however, that anyone could breathe easy in Humphrey Bogart's home where Bogie "fed a guest's spirit."
Humphrey's son Stephen recalled well the story of his father's last weeks, as Huston described them. Even though by that time Bogie looked pretty bad – emaciated and drawn -- every day around the cocktail hour, he would be dressed up in his finest gray flannels and purple smoking jacket. He would be brought down by dumb waiter from upstairs to greet his guests. And there he would sit with a glass of sherry in one hand. And, a cigarette in another. You had to admire him, remembered Huston, for his “sheer animal courage.” Steve interjects – “I remember that. I remember that.” A son recalls the dumb waiter, though not his father looking as bad as he must have.
After the eulogy, we listened to a scratchy interview with a woman named Jinx Faulkner to whom Humphrey Bogart talked about his relatively normal upbringing. His father was a surgeon (who ultimately died after an addiction to the morphine he'd been prescribed for injuries after falling off a horse). His dad was schooled at Bellevue Hospital, His mother, Maud Humphrey was a talented portrait artist. There is a legend she painted the Gerber baby. She did not, but she did paint for Mellins Baby Food the image of a baby based on her own child. A portrait Stephen still owns.
At the time of the Jinx interview, Stephen has just been born. He was named Steve after the character Bogart played in “To Have and Have Not”. Had Steve been a girl, he would have been named Leslie – after Lesley Howard, one of Betty and Bogie's best friends in Hollywood. In fact, when Steve's sister was born, she was named Leslie. Leslie is now a Yoga teacher in Los Angeles (“because that's what you do in California” joked Steve.)
Steve talked about going back to the house where they lived on Mapleton Drive in Los Angeles, 40 years after they left it. “The dumbwaiter is still there.” He recalled what it was like to grow up in that neighborhood. Two doors down: Judy Garland with Liza and Lorna. Across the street songwriter Sonny Cahn. Also in the neighborhood Art Linkletter, Gloria Graham. To him, growing up, it was just like for anyone else. Can I go next door and play? None of them saw themselves as privileged or special because their parents were celestial talents. Just everyday life. It was only as they got older, that some kids, without a solid foundation, let the fame of their parents get to their heads. “That's what I tried to do with my kids. I impressed upon them the burden of their lineage – if they misbehaved, they'd end up in the headlines these days.” Which they have never done.
Stephen was asked whether he ever considered becoming an actor. “I really wasn't any good. In school (an all-boys school), I played Bianca in Taming of the Shrew. And, I was bad. You know, how do you compare to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall? That's a tough row to hoe!”
What would his father think of him? He talked about Bogie being a “golden rule” kinda guy. He thinks he would have enjoyed how Steve treats other people. He would have liked the fact that his son is humble and doesn't feel like he's anyone special. What would he not like? “Maybe my work ethic. I don't really mind working, but I'd rather go to the beach.” Really, “what he wouldn't like about me is what he doesn't know about me. And, you won't either.” There's that dry Bogie humor again.
Although Bogart was never able to really teach Stephen how to sail, he did take him on trips on the Santana. Only people who could swim were allowed aboard. Betty never sailed, because she got seasick. One trip to Catalina, Stephen swam to the beach and back. His father was very proud of that. He brought back with him some crabs he'd picked up on the shore, placed them into a caged box and tossed it over the side of the Santana to catch some fish. The next morning, he woke up and found no fish, but inside there were several lobsters. Without tails. Steve said it was 20 years before his mother told him that those lobsters were placed into the cage by Bogie after a dinner of lobster tails.
The African Queen is one of Bogie's finest movies to many of us. But, to his son, the filming of that classic was a time when his mother and father left him behind. “I never really understood how they could leave their child for six months.” Although now, as an adult, Steve says he completely understands. Bogie, Bacall, John Huston, Katherine Hepburn. “Who wouldn't have done that!! It was probably the time of their lives.” Though not easy, it was memorable. Bogie and Huston were the only ones who didn't get dysentery, because they didn't drink the water. Brushing their teeth with scotch. It wasn't the kind of living you see from actors these days – trailers and luxury amenities. They were living in tents. One night, Betty got out of bed, touched the floor with her feet and was eaten up by fire ants, who had come into the tent during the night.
Stephen ended his lecture on a very personal note. “The most important thing to me was that I would live until my kids were 18. Which I did. My youngest is 20 years old. I did not want my children to grow up without their father, like I did. That was really important to me. Remember,” he added, “I only had him for eight years.”