Lauren Bacall, a friend’s death and a total eclipse of the sun

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Lauren Bacall was wrapping up the pre-Broadway run of ‘Applause’, the stage musical based on the feature film ‘All About Eve’, at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre in February 1970.

After the final curtain in a nearby club rented for the night, my Windsor Star colleague Ron Base and I sat in a booth enjoying the free food and booze waiting for our promised interview with Bacall for a freelance story in The Toronto Telegram and another for our own paper.

Cast and crew were having a lot of fun because they knew they were in a hit. Time was running out for us when Bacall came dancing by only to run into Ron’s long legs that stretched out from the booth. She tripped but I leapt from my seat like Errol Flynn and caught her in a perfect movie catch. Back on her feet, Bacall threw her arms around me and gave me a kiss on the mouth. We explained who we were and she said, ‘Oh, you’re the Canadian boys!’ She had a bad reputation with the press but she joined us and talked about everything and everybody including Humphrey Bogart.

When our interview with Bacall ended, Ron and I drove back to the Windsor Star office to write our stories. We almost didn’t get them done. As we entered the newsroom, an editor told us some terrible news. While Ron and I were having a great time, the bungalow where two of our colleagues – Gord Henderson and Rodger Turner – lived had burned down and one of them had died in the flames. 

It took all our discipline for us to complete our stories and phone one in to Toronto before we went to find out what had happened and, more important, which of our friends had lost his life. Soon, Gord showed up safe and sound. It was Rodger who had died. Gord said he’d been at our local, Lee’s Imperial House, when he got word that there had been a bad fire at the bungalow. Rodger had died from smoke inhalation as he crawled across the living room trying to get to the front door after falling asleep with a pot on the stove. 

We knew that Rodger suffered from trypanosomiasis – sleeping sickness – that he picked up working in Africa with the development organisation CUSO International. It left him with the propensity to fall asleep anywhere and anytime. We were used to him nodding off after only one beer at Lee’s. Gord and I visited the burned out building the next morning and it was horrifying to see how much damage had been done to the interior.

Next day, Rodger’s father flew into town to collect his son’s body. Mr. Turner was a printer from Perth whose clients included small newspapers just outside Ottawa in eastern Ontario. He was pleased to meet Rodger’s friends and stood us all drinks at the Press Club. He said that if any of us would drive Rodger’s car back to Perth near Ottawa in eastern Ontario, he would put us up and fly us back. A few volunteered but when it came down to it, only Gord and I made the trip. Past Toronto, heading east along Highway 401, I was driving when I began to notice that there were fewer and fewer vehicles on what was normally a busy road. 

Soon, it seemed we were the only ones on the freeway. The sky began to darken and I had to turn on the headlights as it became darker and darker. It appeared that the sky had fallen and we were alone in darkness. 

In a dead man’s car. 

We succeeded in freaking out each other before the sky lightened as the moon continued on its path, the sun peeked through the clouds and cars and trucks appeared. Obviously, we concluded, we’d missed something. Consumed by Rodger’s death, we hadn’t noticed that on March 7 in North America there would be a total eclipse of the sun.

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