Screen icon of Hollywood’s golden age

Lauren Bacall: September 16th, 1924 - August 12th, 2014

Sat, Aug 23, 2014, 01:00

Lauren Bacall, who has died aged 89, was one of the great screen icons of the 20th century but was so nervous aged 19 in To Have and Have Not, her first screen role, that her head shook uncontrollably. To steady it she tilted down her chin and was forced to look up from under at the camera. She stood at the bedroom door of “a hotel in Martinique”, actually the Warner Bros lot in Hollywood, looked up, and asked Humphrey Bogart for a match. And thus a star, and a sex symbol, was born.

Bacall, born Betty Joan Perske on the wrong side of Manhattan, was a stage-struck teenager whose poor family finances bought her a bare year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where a fellow pupil was Issur Danielovitch, later Kirk Douglas. She had to pay her way by working as an usherette and model until her photogenic potential was spotted by Diana Vreeland, fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Her photograph, on the cover of Harper’s, was seen in Hollywood by David O Selznick and Columbia pictures; both inquired after her but the first to screen-test her was Howard Hawks.

Bacall sweated for months through vocal exercises designed to lower her voice: Hawks disliked women “screeching”; she bottomed out close in tone to a trombone, a two-packs-a-day habit helping. Fantasy of a generation At last Hawks developed a character for her, a near-tramp named “Slim” in an adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, starring Jack Warner’s alpha male, Humphrey Bogart. “Slim” became the fantasy of a generation when she growled at Bogart that he need do nothing but whistle – “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.”

Bogart was 44 and on his third marriage, to the hard-drinking Mayo Methot. Bogie and Bacall called each other by their screen characters’ names, joked, lit each other’s cigarettes and fell in love.

Hawks next cast the pair in an adaption of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946). The edgy ruefulness of that movie may well have derived from the circumstances of their relationship during the shooting; Bogart wanted to marry his fresh start but also to behave like a gent towards Mayo; Bacall was obsessed with her adoring hero. Bogart missed days on set, drunk and depressed: then he made up his mind. As his divorce crawled through, he sent her a wire: “Please fence me in Baby – the world’s too big out here and I don’t like it without you.” They married in 1945. Bacall walked willingly into his world – the pals of his generation, his continuing affair with his toupee-maker, his liquor consumption (high, but controlled).

The playwright Moss Hart told her: “You realise from here you have nowhere to go but down.” She was cast with Bogart again in Dark Passage, and in John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), but in both she was sombre and self-effacing rather than sassy.

In 1947, she went to Washington with Bogart and John Huston to protest against the bullying of the House Un-American Activities Committee; five years later she campaigned for the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson. She bore Bogart’s children, Steve and Leslie, but did not appear in many movies.

Hawks sold her contract to Jack Warner, who suspended her 12 times for refusing poor roles; 50s models of women were rolling off a new production line. Class now meant the aloofness of Grace Kelly and sass the vulnerable trashiness of Marilyn Monroe. None of them were as sensual as Bacall had been, as direct or as brave. Bogart’s death Warner Bros had been planning in 1956 to team Bogart and Bacall again but the film was never made as Bogart died from cancer that year aged 57. Her second marriage, to Jason Robards, produced her third child, Sam, but foundered because of his drinking.

She was just 42 when she took a cameo as a jaded invalid in the noir-lite Harper (1966), and most of her subsequent film turns exhibited her as a matron. She needed the money; Bogart had bequeathed her custodianship of the legend but not a fortune, since the studio system never generated millions for its stars.Real work satisfaction came more from her long-delayed Broadway career. In 1970, she grabbed the Bette Davis role in a musical adaptation of All About Eve, in which she appeared, as Alistair Cooke wrote, as “fragile as a moose”.

A late magnificence was visible in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter (1995), and in her awesome matriarchs in Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005) and Jonathan Glaser’s Birth (2004). In 2009 she received an honorary Oscar.

Lunching with her was like an audience with the last empress of Byzantium, imperiousness interspersed with a really dirty laugh, perhaps the sound of her true self. Every online search sends you back to that picture of her at 19 giving The Look: “You know, Steve, you don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to whistle.”

She is survived by her children, Steve, Leslie and Sam.