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UPDATE: Did Ben Bradlee Almost Leave Sally Quinn for Lauren Bacall?

The former Post columnist remembers the late actress by writing about the time her husband and Bacall sneaked away together on Long Island.
Bacall. Photograph by Kai Hecker via Shutterstock.

If you’re still unclear about the meaning of “humblebrag,” check out former Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn’s valedictory tweet for Lauren Bacall, who died Tuesday from a stroke at 89, that sneaks in a reference to Quinn’s husband, former Post editor Ben Bradlee.   

There’s no doubt that Bacall and Bradlee went way back. A 2005 Washington Life interview with Bradlee and Quinn mentions Bradlee as one of Bacall’s many suitors over the years, and Bacall’s second husband, Jason Robards, went on to play Bradlee in the film adaptation of All the President’s Men. And, courtesy of Post columnist Richard Cohen, writing his own remembrance today, comes a side dish of Bacall making yearly appearances at Bradlee’s birthday parties.

But Quinn’s tweet nips at the possibility that Bradlee and Bacall might actually have been an item. It’s not a new charge from Quinn. In 2009, Quinn told guests of a Paris Review party about meeting George Plimpton in the Hamptons and “losing her now-husband in the dunes to Lauren Bacall for an hour.” According to Women’s Wear Daily, Quinn’s solution “was to befriend Bacall and make her feel incredibly guilty for apparently cuckolding her.”

Did Bradlee and Bacall actually hook up? That’s only for them, perhaps Quinn, and the beach grass of Long Island to know. If an affair did happen, of course, Quinn’s inference is that one of American cinema’s most beautiful grandes dames was no match for her own sexual prowess. 

In the annals of memorials that are actually tributes to the one giving them, this one is pretty spectacular. 

UPDATE, 5:50 PM: If you wanted more details on what happened that night at Plimpton’s more than 40 years ago, today’s your lucky day. In a feature-length remembrance for the Post’s Style section, Quinn provides a fuller description of the time Bradlee met Bacall. In a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a Harlequin bodice-ripper, Quinn suggests that Bacall very nearly swiped away her man:

When it came time for dinner, I went to find him and he had disappeared. Coincidentally, Betty was also nowhere to be found. I could see the pitying looks on the faces of my friends. I pretended to be unconcerned, got my plate and joined a group, but I was frantic. Ben and I had only recently gotten together, and now I was about to lose him to the sexiest movie star alive. It was at least an hour before they emerged from the dunes, laughing and talking as though they had no concept of time. Ben looked so pleased with himself I could have belted him. He was a bit sheepish when he joined me, and I looked hawkishly for signs of dishevelment, lipstick on the collar. I found nothing, but still. . . . It was no consolation when Betty came over to me as we were leaving and confided in me that Ben was the only man who had ever reminded her of Bogey.

Quinn goes on to write that she then had to decide whether to exclude Bacall from her and Bradlee’s lives or welcome the actress into the fold; she chose the latter, potential cuckoldry aside. In fact, the sexual tension enhanced the relationship. “I actually fell in love with her myself, and Ben seemed to be under control,” Quinn writes. “In fact, their interest in each other became an inside joke among all of our friends.”

Make sure you grab a damp towel when you open up tomorrow’s edition of the Post.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.