On the first leg of their journey to Africa together, Lauren Bacall boarded a plane in Rome and discovered Katharine Hepburn hiding in the restroom. “I opened the door and there was Katie laughing uproariously at having outwitted the press,” Lauren remembered in her memoir By Myself.

The exotic set of 1951’s The African Queen began a close friendship between Katharine and Lauren, or “Kate” and “Betty,” as they called each other. Over the next 50 years, the two silver-screen legends shared secrets, sorrows and advice. They leaned on each other when tragedy struck and put friendship first when show business pitted them against each other. “To be accepted as a true friend despite the difference in our ages,” wrote Lauren, who was 17 years Kate’s junior, “is it any wonder I adored her?”

As a young woman in New York, Lauren had seen Katharine onstage and came into the relationship already a fan. To support her husband, Humphrey Bogart, she traveled to the set of The African Queen, where Katharine sized up the younger actress. “She has lovely tawny skin, and she has the most fabulous sandy hair,” Katharine recalled in her memoir The Making of The African Queen. “I gazed at her and wondered if I would go mad with jealousy.”

Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall's 50-Year Friendship
AFP via Getty Images

Instead, they bonded over the shared difficulty of the shoot. Brutally hot and wet weather complicated moviemaking, and the cast’s quarters became infested with fire ants. The entire group, except Bogie and director John Huston, who only drank whiskey, suffered from illness. “I nearly died of the dysentery because the water was poison,” said Katharine, who nonetheless considered making the film one of the greatest adventures of her life.

Back home, Katharine and her partner, Spencer Tracy, became constant companions of the Bogarts. Lauren and Bogie were some of the only people trusted with the romantic nature of Katharine’s relationship with her married frequent costar. “She was a woman in love, blindingly, unquestionably in love,” revealed Lauren in the 2005 update of her memoir. “There was no doubt in my mind, or anyone else’s who saw them together, that they were totally committed to one another.”

During the last months before Bogie died of esophageal cancer in 1957, Katharine and Spencer were nightly visitors. Katharine also supported Lauren at the funeral. “Devoted Kate,” said Lauren, “she was the first one in the church, arriving early to avoid the press, and in a skirt, not her usual trousers.”

Forever Friends

Lauren married Jason Robards in 1961, and when their son, Sam, was born, Katharine became his godmother. The women continued to see each other whenever they were in the same city, and Katharine was one of the few people Lauren confided in when her marriage went sour. Katharine advised her friend to leave the hard-drinking actor.

In return, Lauren stood by when Katharine lost Spencer in 1967, commiserating on their shared experience. “It created a special bond between us,” Lauren admitted. “Me without Bogie, followed by her without Spence.”

Hollywood has a way of creating competition between friends, but the women never let accolades affect their relationship. Oscar-nominee Katharine didn’t win for The African Queen, but she still attended Lauren’s party celebrating Bogie’s victory. Likewise, when both Lauren and Katharine were nominated for Tonys in 1970 and the younger woman won, Kate sent her friend a watercolor portrait she had painted of her and a letter of congratulations. “You conquered and none could be more pleased that I,” Katharine wrote.

In the last years of Katharine’s life, Lauren stopped in frequently at her Connecticut home to share stories from their friendship when dementia began robbing the great actress of her memories. “It was always sad to leave her. She had had a full life, a life of her choice,” said Lauren of her friend, who passed in 2003. “Even so, I had hoped that she would live forever.”

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