The following is an excerpt from Of All the Gin Joints by Mark Bailey, a collection of anecdotes and recipes centered on the escapades of classic Hollywood stars:
It wasn’t a joke, but it damn well should have been. Certainly it began like one: So Humphrey Bogart walks into a bar with two stuffed pandas. Bogart was, by then -- September 1949 -- the biggest movie star in the world, and he was out in New York with an old drinking buddy named Bill Seeman. They’d been carousing since early, the two of them and Bogey’s wife, Lauren Bacall, but she’d gone back to the hotel hours ago. After Mrs. Bogart left, the men found themselves in need of a stand-in that might scare off would-be home wreckers and drunks. Somehow it emerged that a nearby delicatessen sold a historically random nonfood item, as delicatessens have a way of doing: stuffed pandas. Not just any stuffed pandas, mind you. Each of these weighed in at more than twenty pounds, and set you back twenty-five bucks a pop. Perfect.
Bogart and Seeman bought a couple and hopped a cab to El Morocco, where they requested a table for four: two seats for them, two for their dates. They were seated, and that was supposed to be the end of it: getting seated with two pandas. Unfortunately for Bogart, the real end would take four days to arrive, and it wouldn’t be over drinks with his friends -- it’d be in court.
Here’s the thing: Bogart was a gregarious man with a keen sense of humor, but he was only comfortable among friends -- and his social circle was tight-knit. The Rat Pack, later so closely associated with Frank Sinatra, was in fact Bogart’s creation, with Bogart at the center. The mission of the group, Bogart said, was the “relief of boredom and the perpetuation of independence.” Bacall was a member, of course. So was Sinatra. Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy, talent agent Irving Lazar, writer Nathaniel Benchley (son of Bogart’s old friend Robert Benchley) -- they were all part of the
original Holmby Hills Rat Pack. You might see them out at Romanoff’s or on rare occasions in Las Vegas, drinking and carrying on, but if you weren’t part of the Pack, you were an outsider and you weren’t welcome.
Which brings us back to the pandas. If you were to spy Bogart at a nightclub in the wee hours of the morning, propping up an oversized stuffed animal, you might think that it was a not-so-subtle message about the company he preferred to keep. And if you knew anything about Bogart -- which you might, since he was more or less the biggest star in the world -- you wouldn’t consider yourself in on the joke. But a young model named Robin Roberts thought she was special -- as young models often do. She approached Bogart’s table on her way out, laughed, and picked up one of the pandas. And Bogart, given the number of drinks he had put away by this point, happened to be feeling very protective of this panda. So he naturally pulled the panda close to him and told Ms. Roberts to leave him alone, for he was a married man. And then the woman fell over. She said he shoved her. He said she lost her balance. Four days later, he was in a Manhattan courtroom facing legal action.
The panda fiasco immediately hit the tabloids, with Bogart protesting his innocence every step of the way. One reporter asked him if he’d struck Ms. Roberts. He said he would never hit a woman, “they’re too dangerous.” Another reporter asked if he was drunk at the time of the incident. He replied, “Isn’t everybody at four a.m.?”
Fortunately for Bogart, the judge presiding over the case found it as ridiculous as he did, throwing it out after the first hearing. It turns out, being left alone, when you’re the biggest star in the world, requires a lot of people.
See Humphrey Bogart and other classic Hollywood stars' favorite drinks: