National Press Club

NPC in History: The Club’s most famous photo

May 18, 2019 | By Gil Klein | gilbert.klein@yahoo.com

This image of Vice President Harry Truman and actress Lauren Bacall at the National Press Club on Feb. 10, 1945, is one of the most famous depictions of a moment in Club history.

This image of Vice President Harry Truman and actress Lauren Bacall at the National Press Club on Feb. 10, 1945, is one of the most famous depictions of a moment in Club history.

Of the untold thousands of photos taken at the National Press Club, one stands out for its widespread distribution at the time it was shot and its enduring appeal many decades later. It was taken on Saturday, Feb. 10, 1945. It shows movie actress Lauren Bacall, then just 20 years old but already a huge Hollywood star, sitting atop an upright piano her shapely legs hanging over the front as she looks down on Harry Truman, just three weeks into his vice presidency, as he looked up at her while playing.

Therein lies a tale.

It begins in November 1942 when the Club received a call from the chaplain of the H.M.S. Essex, then being refitted at the Norfolk Navy Yard. The chaplain had 80 sailors seeking to come to Washington for sightseeing. Where should they go for entertainment? A few members got together, arranged for the sailors to come to the Club and drink all the beer they could hold.

It was such a hit that the Club quickly made it a weekly affair sponsored by its American Legion Post, which had been formed in 1923 with World War I veterans and included Gen. John J. Pershing as an original dues-paying member.

Dubbed the National Press Club Canteen, every Saturday the ballroom was open to any American or Allied serviceman who wanted to come. It soon became a principal port of call for every soldier or sailor on weekend leave. Up to 700 showed up each week.

The affair was for enlisted men. No brass need apply. But the Club thought the servicemen would like to see some representatives of the nation who were sending them around the world to fight. Senators, representatives, Cabinet members, and even eight out of nine members of the Supreme Court showed up. (Some of the men found it amusing that they were eating frankfurters with Justice Felix Frankfurter.) The politicians could make informal remarks, but they were limited to no more than two minutes.

Military bands showed up –- the Marine Band, the Army Band, the Air Corps Band, the Coast Guard Band. Bands from local military bases appeared. They played boogie-woogie. Entertainers showed up for impromptu performances, including the entire chorus of Earl Carroll’s Follies.

And that brings us to Feb.10, 1945.

Lauren Bacall’s big breakthrough hit, “To Have and To Have Not,” had just been released. She and Humphrey Bogart had begun an affair that was capturing some headlines. As part of the movie’s publicity, Warner Bros. studio wanted her to appear at the Club Canteen. At first, she balked, saying she wanted to be with Bogie, but after a personal appeal from Jack Warner, she relented. Her press agent, Charles Einfeld, came with her.

At the same time, Truman, still relatively unknown after Roosevelt plucked him out of the Senate to be his running mate, was living in an apartment on Connecticut Avenue. He had been Vice President for three weeks. He told his wife, Bess, that he was going to the Club to entertain the troops. After all, he was an accomplished piano player. It was an all-men’s Club. How could he get in any trouble?

In her memoir, “By Myself and Then Some,” Bacall remembered the day this way:

“The club was jammed that day –- Vice President Truman was coming over. When he was introduced –- after me! –- he sat down to play the piano, which had conveniently been placed onstage. Charlie, who was standing to one side of the floor, edged toward me on the corner of the stage and said, ‘Get on the piano.’ I felt a bit silly … but I did it. Cameras started flashing. The Vice President and I exchanged a few words, and the resulting pictures hit the front pages all over the world in a few days, Charlie Einfeld was worth every cent and more that Warner paid him. Truman was not wild about the picture after he became President, but I loved it.”

Truman may not have been wild about the photo, but Bess was livid. She found it demeaning of a man of Truman’s stature, and didn’t let him forget it. Fifteen years later, when Truman made a post-Presidential visit to the Club, he said how wonderful it was to be back at the Club, even though “some smart press fellow” had “caused me a hell of a lot of trouble at home.”

Nearly 50 years after the incident, when Truman’s daughter, Margaret, spoke at the Club, she still was not amused. Years after that, when Margaret’s son, Clifton Daniels, Jr., sat down at the piano, he confided that the Truman women had no sense of humor about that photo.

The piano itself suffered. So many people got on top of it to recreate the Bacall pose that the cabinet had to be replaced. But the innards are the same. Now in the suitably named Truman Lounge, the piano is one of the Club’s major attractions.

And when Bacall died in August 2014, reporters and obituary writers called the Club to get the story of the photo. It had not been forgotten.

This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 111-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, society, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.