Born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx, New York, to parents that didn't stay married for very long, she later took the Romanian form of her grandmother's maiden name Bacal. While still in her teens she took lessons at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where one of her classmates was Kirk Douglas. However, it wasn't the bit parts in Broadway plays that got Hollywood's attention, but her other line of work as a fashion model:
It's the above cover that caught director Howard Hawk's eye.
He brought her out to Hollywood, gave her a screen test, and added an extra L to her last name. As for her first...
"He felt that Lauren Bacall was better sounding than Betty Bacall. He had a vision of his own. He was a Svengali. He wanted to mold me. He wanted to control me. And he did until Mr. Bogart got involved."
That would be Humphrey, but how exactly did he get involved?
To Have or Have Not (1944)
"You know to whistle don't you, Steve? Just put your lips together and blow."
"I used to tremble from nerves so badly that the only way I could hold my head was to lower my chin practically to my chest and look up at Bogie. That was the beginning of The Look."
The To Have or Have Not trailer. Note the two new fascinating personalities, "Provocative" Lauren Bacall and "Captivating" Delores Moran. Unfortunately for Miss Moran, Bacall ended up captivating as well as provoking. Even more unfortunate when you consider Moran was originally slated to be the female lead. This film was Hawk's own attempt at Casablanca, with a fishing boat substituting for a casino. Moran is supposed to be Ingrid Bergman. She's not quite that, but was, truth be told, a better actress in 1944 than Bacall, whose performance was all one note. But one HELLUVA provocative and captivating note, especially for the 44-year old Bogart, who fell in love with the young actress, and she to him. Hawks disapproved of their little May-December romance (as Bacall hinted in the earlier quote, the director himself would have liked to get her in bed; in a spectacularly creepy move, he gave her screen character his own wife's nickname!) but couldn't deny their on-screen chemistry. The artist in Hawks won over the jilted suitor, and he instructed his writers to give Bacall more dialogue, though her character remain peripheral to the plot as a whole. So what you end up with is a rather odd film, scene after scene of Bogie and Bacall exchanging double-entendres (such as the whistle line), broken up by forays into a life-threatening adventure involving Nazis, corrupt policemen, and French Resistance fighters, but I'm not complaining.
"Stardom isn't a profession. It's an accident."
Was THIS an accident? Hardly. The chief of publicity at Warner Brothers had Bacall jump atop the piano during a visit to the National Press Club in Washington D.C. Then-Vice-President Harry S. Truman didn't seem to mind.
Hawks also cast the two in his next project, The Big Sleep (1944, but not released until '46), based on Raymond Chandler's classic detective novel. And it became a classic detective movie as well, even if no one can remember, including Chandler when asked by a puzzled Hawks during filming, who killed the chauffeur. The romance between the two stars is much more incorporated into the plot this time. More so than the poor chauffeur, come to think about it. Perhaps the giddiest film noir ever made, Bacall's performance, while still basically one-note, shows an incipient talent for comedy in some of her scenes with Bogie. You can read a review of the film here.
Trying to come up with a good horse racing pun to describe the above scene, but I think those two have used them all.
Humphrey Bogart often preferred the company of writers to fellow actors, such as the man above, Louis Bromfield, a best-selling novelist in the first half of the 20th century. With the money he earned he bought 1000 acres near Mansfield, Ohio. There he took up experimental farming. When I first read that I thought maybe he was growing Frankenstein tomatoes. Actually, what was called experimental in the 1940s is what we call organic farming today. Bromfield was clearly ahead of his time. Even as his books have gone all out of print, Malabar Farm, now a state park, thrives. So what's it all got to do with Bacall? Well, as it turned out, Howard Hawks wasn't the only one unhappy about her affair with Bogart. Mrs. Bogart--combative third wife Mayo--wasn't too thrilled about it, either. She filed for divorce, which DID thrill Bogie. He was now free to marry Bacall, but somewhere away from the limelight.
I went to Malabar Farm many, many years ago. I think it's about an hour's drive from Cleveland. My memories of it are a bit dim, but I seem to recall tour guides taking us through fields and into barns and telling us how Bromfield avoided the use of pesticides and was an early practitioner of crop rotations which prevents the soil from being depleted. There's a petting farm and hay rides and a maple syrup festival in the fall. Plenty of things for the whole family to see and do. And of course environmentalists can't get enough of the place. Think of it as a farmers market writ large. All that is to the good...
But for some of us, the chief attraction is the room where, in 1945, two legendary stars were united as one.
"We had it all
Just like Bogie and Bacall
Starring in our old late, late show
Sailing away to Key Largo"
In 1947, Bogart and Bacall marched in support of the so-called Hollywood 10, a group of directors and screenwriters accused of having Communist ties (the web site I snagged this picture from made a point of mentioning Bacall's purse; glamour before McCarthyism.)
If you thought those remarks I made earlier about Bacall giving one-note performances were mean, I only said them because I know how good she got later on. Case in point is Young Man with a Horn (1950). Bacall's former American Academy classmate Kirk Douglas plays Rick Martin, a man who can only find true fulfillment playing jazz on a trumpet. Though the film covers a lot of ground, a large swath of it concerns his marriage to Amy North, a wealthy, seemingly self-absorbed young woman studying to be a psychiatrist (though the film soon makes it clear that she should see one instead) and the emasculating effect it all has on Rick, who is driven to drink. Had Bette Davis or Joan Crawford played Amy (and in 1950 they both still may have gotten away with such a role, even if they were technically too old for the part), they would have bitch-chewed the scenery, tastefully decorated apartment and all. Bacall goes in a different, often distracted direction. Amy's cold, but not inherently mean or full of malice. Though she throws plenty of insults Rick's way, you don't get the sense she really wants to hurt him. She just wants him to keep his distance as she tries resolve some inner conflict. What IS that inner conflict? The film hedges quite a bit on that. At one point she actually tells Rick she's jealous of him (she covets his creativity). Also that she's flunked her finals and has decided she'd rather be an artist, anyway, enraging (and emasculating) Rick even further. From a 21st century perspective, Amy might seem like a protofeminist, not letting a man decide for her what she should do, except the film asks us to view all this negatively. Some film theorists, writing decades after the movie's release, have concluded Amy is a lesbian, though the film couldn't use that word in 1950. She does tell Rick, "I met a girl the other day. Maybe we'll go to Paris." Now, don't think this film is ahead of its time or progressive simply because it has a gay character. Amy is more or less the VILLAIN of the story. As late as the 1990s, Leonard Martin in a thumbnail review referred to her as the "bad girl." Bacall, to her credit, refuses to play Amy as a bad girl. It's an incredibly nuanced performance, that for me, ended up subverting the film as a whole. And the film DESERVED to be subverted as a whole. If you think about it, Rick is every bit as self-absorbed as Amy, unless you see an alcoholic bender as act of magnanimity. Yes, I know it's a disease, but the film doesn't go there. And if it is a disease, than Rick shouldn't be calling Amy "sick" after he finds out about the Paris trip. She's really quite sober when she tells him. Why is Rick's self-absorption--not just his boozing but his search for creative fulfillment which is after all what his wife says she wants for herself--treated more sympathetically in this movie than Amy's? Because it's 1950! A woman should be supportive of a tortured artist, without complicating matters by being a tortured artist herself. It possible, I suppose, that screenwriters Carl Foreman and Edmund H. North meant the whole thing to be ironic. If so, the irony went right over director Michael Cutiz's head, but not Bacall's.
Some great music along with the drama, courtesy of Henry James (but coming out Kirk Douglas' horn.) No wonder Bacall's character was jealous.
A three month African outing probably didn't help matters any. That's Katherine Hepburn on the left. She and Bogart were on the Dark Continent to shoot The African Queen. Bacall wasn't in the film, just along for the ride.
The title of the above book is a little misleading. Or at least all three didn't contribute equally to Hepburn almost losing her mind. Much of the book details the unlikely friendship that developed between the refined New England thespian and the rakish, Hemingway-like director John Huston. They even go on a safari together! From reading this book, I frankly got the impression that the two had an unconscious, unacknowledged, and unconsummated crush on each other. Bogart's mentioned quite a bit, too, though not as often as you might expect seeing that he and Hepburn were in almost every scene of the movie together. It's Bacall that gets short shrift. After all, she was just an onlooker. Still, Hepburn had this to say about her:
"While we're looking at people, let's look at Betty (Bacall's real first name, remember?). In the first place she is young and has lovely tawny skin and the most fabulous sandy hair. Beautiful whether it's straight or curled. In fact, you have never seen her until you've seen her in her bright-green wrapper on the way to the outhouse in the early morning with her hair piled up on her head and no lipstick or anything else. Her sleepy-slanty green eyes and her common-sense look and her lost voice and her lanky figure (Hepburn should talk!) and her apparent fund of pugilistic good-nature. Once she gets on the track of anything, be it picking out a can of baked beans or doing her nails or typing a letter or sunbathing or talking to anyone, don't try to get her on anything else--don't try to hurry her--she is immovable. I gazed at ther and wondered whether I would go mad with jealousy as I compared our ages--our skin--our hair--our natures. No, she didn't sweat much either. She and Bogie seemed to have the most enormous opinion of each other's charm, and when they fought it was with the utter confidence of two cats locked deliciously in the same cage."
Bacall was a staunch, lifelong Democrat. Here she is with two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.
Nothing cracks me up more about Hollywood then the way they dole out credits. On the top poster Bacall's name is listed under both Marlyn Monroe's and Betty Grable. Monroe's star was most definitely on the rise when How to Marry a Millionaire came out in 1953, but I'm bit surprised that Betty Grable got better billing. I associate her more with the 1940s. Now look at the bottom poster. Reading left to right you come to Monroe's name first, then Grable, finally Bacall. Yet look at the three faces. Monroe's right in the center reaching out at you with a nail-polished finger. If someone didn't know better--and young people or those not familiar with old movies might not know better--they'd look at the picture, then the names, and assume Monroe was Grable, and Grable was Monroe! Poor Lauren Bacall comes in last either way, a sign of how her ambivalence toward stardom had taken its toll on her name recognition. Billing aside, I consider Bacall the main character, the protagonist, of this film. Not in looks certainly but in manner she seems the oldest of the three (in fact she was eight years Grable's junior), and her belief that they all need to marry millionaires propels the action. Her particular search for a sugar daddy gets the most screen time. Much has been written about Bacall's deep-throated voice, the seductiveness of it. So it's funny--no pun intended--how well it works for her when doling out one-liners. She plays a particularly sardonic character here, something that would become of later persona.
See how Bacall gave that statue the double-take? Probably wondering how it got past the censor.
This isn't the first time I've shown the above picture, taken at the Hollywood premier of How to Marry a Millionaire. In an earlier post, I describe what was going on in all three participants careers at the time. Here's what I wrote about Bacall:
"Let's move on to Bogart's missus, the woman on the left, Lauren Bacall. Now nearing 90, she's often seen as one of the last living links to that Golden Age. After a strong start, however, her movie career basically sputtered. The strong start being the two movies she made with her future husband, To Have or Have Not and The Big Sleep. Though the inexperienced young thespian was more posing than acting in these films (she had started out as a model, after all) the camera nevertheless loved her, and she became a huge star before she really had a chance to hone her craft. A little later she also appeared with Bogie in Key Largo, another big hit. Then the sputtering began. She reportedly began turning down scripts she found of little interest, and the studios then started losing interest in her. Oh, there were a few critically acclaimed films like Young Man With a Horn, and she was on the verge of another big hit, How to Marry a Millionaire, when this photo was taken, at that movie's very premiere, in fact. However, the devil was in the credits. Though she arguably played the main character, she was billed third behind the other two stars, the first billed of whom is to the right of Bogart. Now, none of this is a reflection on Bacall's acting, which greatly improved as her film career declined, and would improve further still when, a few years after her husband's death, she moved back to New York and became a mainstay of the Broadway stage."
Responding to someone in the comment section, I also wrote this:
"From interviews I've read or seen with Lauren Bacall (the only one in the photo still alive), I get the impression she didn't care about stardom all that much, which is probably why she let it slip away so easily. All in all, she may have had the widest acting range of the three stars in that photo. She just didn't have as many memorable films as Bogart or Monroe."
I'm happy to report I stand by what I wrote. That's not always the case.
Today we associate the Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra, but it was originally a name for a group of people whose leader was Humphrey Bogart, slumped in his chair on the left. Fellow Rat Packers in the above picture, from left to right, are producer Sid Luft (Lorna's father), Bacall (who some say came up with the name after viewing the aftermath of an especially raucous party at the Bogart home) , Luft's wife and Lorna's mother Judy Garland, Las Vegas Sands manager Jack Entratter (that's his wife to the left), phony Russian prince and Hollywood restauranteur Mike Romanoff (born Hershel Geguzin, he had once been a Brooklyn pants presser), Sinatra (whose face is partially obscuring the great Russian prince), Romanoff's wife Gloria, David Niven, and Niven's wife Hjördis. Members not pictured include John Huston, agent Swifty Lazar, writer Nathanial Benchley (Robert's son, he wrote a biography of Bogart in the 1970s), Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, George Cukor, Rex Harrison and songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen. Now, Sinatra idolized Bogart (even though the acerbic movie star, upon first meeting the young blue-eyed crooner, said, "They tell me you have a voice that makes young girls faint. Make me faint.") and when he died, decided to start a group of his own. Called the Clan, its members included Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr., Shirley Maclaine, Joey Bishop, Juliet Prouse, Peter Lawford, and, when he was in town, Lawford's brother-in-law Senator John F. Kennedy. The group went public (and became all-male) with the release of the original Ocean's Eleven in 1960. That also happened to be an election year, and they all stumped for their friend Kennedy, who was running for president. His campaign, however, had concerns that the Clan sounded a little too much like the Klan, not a good thing when you're trying to secure the black vote. So the name Rat Pack was dusted off and given to reporters curious as to what to call the candidate's celebrity friends. More Sinatra to come.
In Designing Woman (1956) Gregory Peck and Bacall play a sports writer and fashion designer who have nothing in common. What other kind of romance do you expect in a romantic comedy?
I said before that Frank Sinatra started his own version of the Rat Pack to be like his hero, Humphrey Bogart. Well, that's not the only way he wanted to be like him. Withing a year of Bogart's death, Sinatra was wooing Bacall, who proved receptive. The last thing she wanted was to be known as, in her own words, a "professional widow." So the two dated, and eventually got engaged. The engagement was leaked to gossip columnist Louella Parsons,whom Sinatra did not care for (she attacked him in print after he dumped his wife for Ava Gardner, and then took gleeful delight a few years later when Gardner in turn dumped him) and he called the whole thing off. Years later in her autobiography, Bacall said he behaved like a "complete shit", and, in an interview with Barbara Walters shortly after it was published, expressed surprise that he should take it personally! Hollywood unconfidential.
Whenever I do one of these obituaries, I usually leave the subject's personal life out of it, as it's the career I'm interested in, especially if he or she is in the arts. Not long ago, I did an "In Memoriam" on Mickey Rooney, and never said the names of his eight wives. When Eli Wallach died, I did bring up his spouse Anne Jackson, but that was because they often worked together. James Garner? One of the longest marriages in Hollywood, and I didn't even tell you his poor wife's name (though I did mention Polaroid commercial co-star Mariette Hartley, whom for a while everyone THOUGHT was his wife.) As you can see, I've taken a different tack with Bacall, shown you a picture of where she was married, cutting the wedding cake, cuddling with her kids, on a set of a movie she didn't even act in but her husband did, and attending that same husband's funeral. That's because her career was so intertwined with her personal life, her legend, that I've found it impossible to separate.
At least impossible to separate until Bogart died in 1957. Well, I suppose the canceled engagement with Sinatra is a kind of salacious postscript, but the career and personal life finally diverged in 1960, when Bacall wed actor Jason Robards Jr. Not a legendary marriage at all, very easy to forget. Well, I'm sure THEY both remembered it, and their son probably attached some importance to it. They were together just under ten years, divorcing in 1969, after which Bacall went back to being Bogie's widow, in the public's mind if not her own.
Had death not so rudely ended Bacall first marriage, would she and Bogart remained together had he lived another 20, 30, or 40 years? In her memoir, Bacall writes she divorced Robards because of his drinking. Well, Bogart drank. He drank a lot. According to Katherine Hepburn, Bogart and John Huston were the only ones on the set of The African Queen who didn't get sick because they sipped only whiskey, whereas everyone else drank bottled water that turned out to be contaminated. When asked by a reporter the purpose of the Rat Pack, Bogart replied, "to drink a lot of bourbon and stay up late." In Nathanial Benchley's biography, he writes of a sloshed Bogart coming to blows with another actor as to who had the more courageous stunt double! Yet no biographer that I'm aware of has dared called Bogart an alcoholic. There might be some good reasons not to. After all, he was highly functional, coming to work on time and always remembering his lines. But I think the main reason is that alcoholism gets in the way a great third act, when Bogart finally found true love and everlasting happiness with wife number 4.
Aside from drinking, there are a few other things that might have shortened the marriage had Bogart's life itself not been shortened. The age difference. Their interests didn't always match up (he loved sailing, she was prone to seasickness.) One biography claims Bogart had an affair with a studio assistant, one who liked to sail. Bacall found out and got a trip to Europe by way of apology. So they very well may have broken up.
Or not. Whenever asked in interviews about her marriage to Bogart, and she was ALWAYS asked in interviews about her marriage to Bogart, Bacall described them as the happiest years of her life. Maybe they would have ended up an old acting couple like Eli Wallach and Anne Jacknon, or Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Not equally old. Had he survived Bacall, Bogart would be 114 now.
I do know one thing. Bogart's relatively early death--he was 56--ensured his marriage to Bacall would go down in Hollywood legend. I have to admit it's a legend I find highly seductive. I mean, look at me. I'm trying to bring this obit into the 1960s, but can't shake off a man who died in 1956!
With Natalie Wood, the title character in 1964's Sex and the Single Girl, of the few films Bacall made in the '60s. The movie offers weren't coming as often, so she packed her bags and headed for...
Bacall won her first Tony playing Margo Channing in 1970 musical Applause. Bette Davis, who had originally portrayed the character in the 1950 movie All About Eve (which wasn't a musical), went backstage and told Bacall how much she liked her performance. Winning praise from that particular diva may have been even more of an achievement than winning a Tony!
Bacall still occasionally appeared in movies. Here she is as a talkative American socialite and murder suspect (one of many) in 1974's Murder on the Orient Express. That's Albert Finney,as Agatha Christie's famous detective, Hercule Poirot.
Liberal Democrat Bacall played opposite conservative Republican John Wayne in the Duke's final film, The Shootist (1976). No political gridlock there. By all accounts they got along fine.
They don't seem to be getting along too well in this scene, but later on in the film they have a nice little romance.
In 1978, Bacall came out with the best-selling autobiography, By Myself. She must have liked the experience (and her publisher liked the sales) as two more books followed.
She returned to Broadway in another musical based on an old movie and won her second Tony. The original had starred Katharine Hepburn.
As one of the boys, the famous deep voice is particularly appropriate here, huh?.
This is the famed Dakota apartments in New York where Bacall lived for many years. Back in the 1970s John Lennon was a fellow tenant. I don't know if the two ever met, but they were linked by a morbid coincidence that at the time got a lot of attention. In December 1980, Lennon was shot and killed by an obsessive fan outside the Dakota.
A few months later, The Fan came out, a movie in which Bacall played a movie star stalked by an obsessive fan. Ronald Reagan subsequent shooting by an obsessed fan didn't hurt its timeliness, either. All that aside, it's merely an OK thriller with a good performance by Bacall and a nicely creepy one by Michael Biehn as the title character.
Surprise! Didn't expect to see Jason Robards again, did ya? I just felt I owed him one. This was taken in 1982, when both appeared at a rally to save a couple of New York theaters. 13 years after their divorce they still seemed to be friends.
That same year she played former President Jack Lemmon's former First Lady in the comedy My Fellow Americans.
A Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2009.
Near the end of her book, Katherine Hepburn notes that though Bogart was gone, she, John Huston, and Lauren Bacall were all still alive. That was in 1987. Huston died shortly after the book came out. Hepburn herself left in 2003. And now, Lauren Bacall is gone, too.
"I am not a has-been. I am a will-be."