A Book With Dinner

It’s not unusual for a woman to go out to dinner alone in New York, although there was a time when others thought it was.  A while ago at Billy’s, a checkered-tablecloth pub on First Avenue that closed soon after Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on smoking, a couple my parents’ age invited me to sit with them. “You must be lonely,” the wife said. “Would you like to join us?”

I thought this was sweet, but I wasn’t lonely and didn’t think I looked it. As I usually do, I was reading a book and sipping a glass of wine while waiting for my dinner. Years earlier I would meet my parents at Billy’s for dinner when they lived on nearby Beekman Place. That evening I’d taken the subway from my small apartment downtown for a night out. Billy’s was fun. Upscale yet welcoming. Upon arrival, the owner Joan, who was Billy’s great granddaughter, jumped up from her seat at the bar, leaving a cigarette, and took me to a table in the back of the paneled barroom. I always sat in the barroom, even though it was smoky. It was lively. Once an older man came in wearing a baseball cap and made a scene when Joan asked him to remove it; everyone in the room stared when he put up a fuss but he relented and hung it on a hook. We all understood the dress code for the neighborhood; he should have known better. I was also fond of the small talk and antics of the older East European waiters and waitresses who’d been there since they’d arrived in New York. Stacked plates of expensive steaks flew from their arms . . .
as they were flung on the table. A neat trick.  But the thought of making conversation with this couple through an entire dinner was a strain.

“That’s nice of you, but I have a book with me.”

Then in her husky gin-soaked voice she said, “Oh, please join us.”

“No, thank you.”  This was getting funny. She was importuning. “Please, please.” I couldn't wait to tell my parents about it. Then she said “Oh, I insist.”

“No!” Maybe I said it a little too loud because she gasped and looked mortified. But I’d ended it and I wasn’t sorry. In New York we all choose the company we keep.

So what book was I reading? I wish I could remember, but I usually read books about old New York when I’m in an old restaurant. The descriptions of the city's past and its neighborhoods make me feel like a part of the story. Like Lauren Bacall's romance with Bogie during To Have and Have Not, a story of nerve. She wasn’t sure how it started, but they had a chemistry on the set and one day he surprised her by coming into her dressing room and giving her a kiss. He was married and she was 19 and inexperienced: a nice Jewish girl who'd had dates but never a boyfriend, would fall for him despite his marriage and their age difference. She hadn’t chased him and wasn’t looking for love. It just happened. I accepted this and read on. I think other women readers who live traditional lives would accept it, too. As she writes about the affair that led to marriage within a year of meeting him, there was a moment when Bogie didn’t want to leave his wife who was struggling with alcoholism. He felt obligated to be with her through rehab, and he would lose half his money in a divorce. Bacall would be his fourth wife, another actress whose star was rising and she might ultimately choose her career over their marriage as his other actress wives had done. Changing circumstances and serendipitous choices both personal and professional determined the outcome, and like many New Yorkers, she had an all-or-nothing outlook. I enjoyed the early chapters about in New York in the 30s and 40s and familiar places: the descriptions of the apartments she lived in with her mother and grandmother, her training at American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and her early jobs as a Broadway usher and model in the garment district. She put herself in the middle of the action. Despite a bad case of nerves, she wasn't afraid to talk to anybody. To stop the shaking, she held her chin down and that came to be called "The Look." Through friends she meets 

Diana Vreeland, editor of Harper's Bazaar, who likes her unique look, and photographs her. The January cover is seen by director Howard Hawks and others, including David O. Selznick and Howard Hughes. But good advice from her uncle who works for Look magazine leads gets her the part that changes her life. The chronicle of the coaching by Hawks and Bogart to create her Slim character is revealing and insightful. The astounding success so young and the choices she didn't make that could have cost her everything are breathtaking. As I read her book I liked her. She doesn't gloat--she worked for what she had and appreciated what came her way. I imagine it’s the kind of New York story that many creative women wish for themselves.