Iowa Writes

My Short, Happy Life with Humphrey Bogart

        I used to think my old man learned to smoke cigarettes from Humphrey Bogart. Pop lit them the same way, held them the same way between his index and middle fingers, and took drags on them leisurely the same way. Their lips would leave traces of moisture on the butts. The two men even lightly spit flakes of tobacco off the ends of their tongues the same way. The only difference I could see was that Bogie smoked Chesterfields while my old man favored Old Golds. He had suffered a bout of tuberculosis before I was born. When he left the sanitarium, he asked his physician if he could take up smoking again.
        "Sure," the stupid physician said. "It'll probably keep the TB from coming back."
        Old Gold cigarettes ran ads that proclaimed, "Not a cough in a carload." That slogan sold my old man.
        Bogie was only six years older than my old man. They even looked alike — except for their eyes. Do you remember the scene when Bogie as Rick is being questioned regarding his loyalty in "Casablanca" by Captain Renaud and Major Strasser? They show Rick his dossier. He reads it and asks, "Are my eyes really brown?"
        Pop's eyes were blue — electric blue — so blue that they seemed to bore holes right through me.
        They also didn't act alike. In "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "The Caine Mutiny" Bogie went paranoid and "In a Lonely Place" he kept losing his temper, but that was acting, and he was good at it. For the most part, Bogie played admirable guys, straight shooters, guys you could trust. When my old man walked into the room, you never knew who was showing up, Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. When he was the latter, my old man slapped me, pulled my ears, and made me take off my belt and drop my trousers and whip me.
        I got so I avoided him as much as possible. I went looking for father figures among teachers, coaches, and my friends' fathers. But my favorite place to look was in the movie theater: Me and Bogie bumping off Edward G. Robinson and his gang in "Key Largo," solving mysteries in "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep," getting Katherine Hepburn down the river in "The African Queen," and helping Ava Gardner in "The Barefoot Contessa."
        Cigarette smoking finally got to Bogie. You could see he was sick in his last film "The Harder They Fall." His face is thin and haggard. His dark eyebrows became bushy. They made his eyes, which often seemed sad and pensive, deeper in remorse. Now they looked hopeless.
        Bogie suffered from esophageal cancer thanks to his smoking. He died January 14, 1957. He was 57 years old. I was 15. But my old man just kept on smoking and kept on living — and kept on living.

About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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Joseph Brisben was born and raised in Enid, Oklahoma.  He received a B.A. degree from the University of Chicago and an M.A. degree from Drake University in Des Moines, both in English.  He has worked as a farmhand and a news reporter and copyreader, done college public relations, and served as a financial adviser.

This page was first displayed
on November 24, 2015

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