One of the great actors of the 20th century, Lauren Bacall was also a discerning collector of art and antiques. Lucinda Bredin visits The Dakota, the star's home for 50 years, to find out more
The Dakota on Central Park in New York is so stately that one feels the apartment building inhabits its residents rather than the other way round. There aren't many who can hold their own amongst the neo-Gothic staircases, gargoyles and statues and the acreage of polished wood-panelling. But Lauren Bacall, who lived there from 1961, was one person who certainly could.
Until her death in August last year, the great actress lived in a nine-room apartment that she had once shared with her husband the actor Jason Robards, her three children, Stephen, Leslie and Sam and a small, assertive dog called Sophie that had her own footstool.
Sam Robards is standing in his former home, wondering at the changed landscape, the vast empty spaces left behind, now that his mother's huge collection of art and antiques has been packed away. Dressed in a baseball cap and t-shirt, Robards, himself an actor, is trying to convey what the room looked like and, above all, felt like with his mother's super-sized presence. We walk into what was the drawing room. "I remember when she painted the room this colour," he says wistfully, staring at an expanse of duck-egg blue wall. "My mother had the [Henry] Moore prints here, the Audubons were over there ..." We walk into a smaller room, painted a more conservative beige. "This is the library, the gathering place. Our holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, were always here, with the fire going. Not that it ever gave off much heat." He points to three nails on the fireplace where the three siblings hung their Christmas stockings, before sweeping his hand through the air. "And the piano was covered with pictures of her family and great friends."
The Dakota had its fair share of celebrities. Robards remembers singing Christmas carols with Leonard Bernstein, and how when he was a young child, he opened the door "and Boris Karloff was there. I freaked out and ran screaming. He felt so bad he gave me a record of himself reading Just So Stories." From his descriptions, Sam evokes a household that was a centre to which people naturally gravitated.
"My mother was socially very democratic. She'd say 'C'mon up. Who's available, who's in town?' Our apartment was a jumping-off point." Bacall not only collected people – she also had an extraordinary array of art and antiques, of which 750 items from the collection will be offered at Bonhams New York in March. It is not what one would think of as a classic film star's collection. But then Bacall was not a classic film star. Jon King, the Bonhams specialist who became her friend, joins us in the study. He points out that the actress was unusual in that she was someone who was absolutely sure of what she liked. "She had a sharp intelligence about a wide range of subjects. And you can sense her questing mind and highly developed taste in the diversity of her collection. Her furniture, contemporary art, faïence, African works of art, symbolist art, majolica ... They weren't just an assemblage of items, each piece was collected for a reason."
King first met Bacall five years ago when he was asked to come to The Dakota. As he remembers, "Bacall's daughter, Leslie, had mentioned that her mother wished to place something at auction – which turned out to be a Toulouse Lautrec lithograph entitled Confetti. It had been a Christmas present from Sam and Mildred Jaffe on the occasion of Bacall's first Christmas together with her late husband and co-star, Humphrey Bogart. Jaffe was Bogart's agent, and his wife Mildred became a close friend who initially guided Bacall in developing her collector's eye."
King's visit was the start of a friendship which led to Bacall inviting him to The Dakota every few weeks, and these visits soon acquired their own traditions. According to King, "I would arrive and be seated in the Library, and then Ms Bacall and Sophie, her Papillon spaniel, would join me. We would speak for a while – as our relationship deepened, the visits lengthened (the longest lasted seven hours) while we talked about all sorts things; music, literature, politics, our families ... Ms Bacall had very firm opinions, but she would listen, even if she didn't agree."
At some point during the visit, Bacall would lead King on an expedition through the vast apartment, discussing various pieces she might wish to offer at auction. "She loved running her hands over sculptures and admiring them. With the furniture, she would always remark on the patina or the colouring of the wood. And she loved sculptures, particularly her Henry Moores and the works by Robert Graham of female figures which she called 'her girls'."
I ask Sam Robards what was the motivation behind the collection. He thinks for a moment: "Some people collect because they want the complete set; some because they like to have things in a room, and some because they get enormous pleasure from individual items and they have to have them. My mother just liked things and to be surrounded by them. That was my impression."
But perhaps it was more than that. Indeed, there's a moving passage in her memoir, Now, when Bacall writes, "I filled my house with wonderful furniture and art to satisfy my aesthetic sense and as a way of building a solid life, surrounding myself with antiques, tradition, subconsciously thinking that all that would bring me stability, permanence."
The world Bacall created in The Dakota lasted some 50 years. Her family have donated works to the Lauren Bacall Archive and Bacall herself gave more than 700 costumes and gowns to New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. But now her admirers have an opportunity to acquire a part of her legacy and to pay tribute to one of the greatest actresses of the golden age of stage and screen.
Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.