Most of the time, it starts with a dame. You know the type -- tall, blond, and curvy as a country lane. But not this time around. This time, the fella that came calling was Danforth Prince. Prince made his money in the publishing game, digging up dirt. It was the sort of dirt that Humphrey Bogart probably wanted to keep buried. But since he was buried as well, it hardly mattered.
Darwin Porter wrote the book The Secret Life of Humphrey Bogart, and Prince threw it at an unsuspecting public. Seems the big-screen ladies' man was as close to his ne'er-do-well characters as a warm leather glove is to a cold clammy hand. But now I had to answer the big question, the one that haunted my nightmares from the moment I closed my eyes till the time they were forced open by the first rays of sunlight through my bedroom window.
Who was the real sleaze -- Prince or Bogie?
A tough question. I had met Lauren Bacall once, the tough guy's old flame. She called what they had "magical." But Porter and Prince tossed that aside like yesterday's newspaper. The P-Men were more interested in what Bogie did behind the scenes early in his career. Like when he got together with billionaire Howard Hughes. They say Hughes swung like a pendulum, both ways, and that Bogie stepped in to get the reclusive movie mogul the male escorts he needed. It made sense, in a way. Hughes wouldn't be out getting his own boys. He left home as often as a bear in winter.
And then there were the stories of Bogie's own bedroom exploits. Like the time he got in the sack with gossip columnist Louella Parsons for good press. And what about the time he and his first wife, Helen Menken, wound up bedding Tallulah Bankhead? Well, it's easy to see Bankhead taking Bogie to the bank. Rumor had her sleeping with anything that moved; tramping around in her birthday suit in public didn't do a whole lot to dispel those rumors. Prince seemed to have a case.
"Darwin inherited an archive from earlier journalists, including Bogart's confidant, Kenneth MacKenna," Prince said slowly over the phone in a nasal, good-humored voice. "The book's never salacious; it's never gratuitous for its own sake. It documents the fertile ground of Jazz Age, bathtub-gin sexuality. He [Porter] used Humphrey Bogart as a framework to bring in anecdotes from many actors of the 1920s."
A lot of people who review books have stayed away from this one -- no one wants to give the nod to a book that drags Bogie through the mud like a pair of used galoshes. But Prince has a different take.
"This is the best and most comprehensive biography of Bogart's early life ever written," he says, "drawing in anecdotes about other stars of his era, which will be used in the future as a standard text for film studies courses."
Looks like this debate could go on for a while, like a long and pointless metaphor, spinning off slowly into a dark and overcast night.