Lauren Bacall, star of Hollywood’s golden age, dies
Actress with throaty voice shot to fame in 1944 opposite future husband Humphrey Bogart
Lauren Bacall, the actress whose provocative glamour elevated her to stardom in Hollywood’s golden age and whose lasting mystique put her on a plateau in American culture that few stars reach, died yesterday. She was 89.
Her death was confirmed by Robbert de Klerk, the co-managing partner with her son Stephen Bogart at the Humphrey Bogart Estate.
With an insinuating pose and a seductive, throaty voice - her simplest remark sounded like a jungle mating call, one critic said - Bacall shot to fame in 1944 with her first movie, Howard Hawks’ adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel ‘To Have and Have Not,’ playing opposite Humphrey Bogart, who became her lover on the set and later her husband.
It was a smashing debut sealed with a handful of lines now engraved in Hollywood history. “You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve,” her character says to Bogart’s in the movie’s most memorable scene. “You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
The film was the first of more than 40 for Bacall, among them ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘Key Largo’ with Bogart, ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’ with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, ‘Designing Woman’ with Gregory Peck, the all-star ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1974) and, later in her career, Lars von Trier’s ‘Dogville’ (2003) and ‘Manderlay’ (2005) and Robert Altman’s ‘Pret-a-Porter’ (1994).
But few if any of her movies had the impact of her first- or of that one scene. Indeed, her film career was a story of ups, downs and long periods of inactivity. Although she received an honorary Academy Award in 2009 “in recognition of her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures,” she was not nominated for an Oscar until 1997.
The theatre was kinder to her. She won Tonys for her starring roles in two musicals adapted from classic films: ‘Applause’ (1970), based on ‘All About Eve,’ and ‘Woman of the Year’ (1981), based on the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie of the same name. Earlier she starred on Broadway in the comedies ‘Goodbye, Charlie’ (1959) and ‘Cactus Flower’ (1965).
She also won a National Book Award in 1980 for the first of her two autobiographies, ‘Lauren Bacall: By Myself.’
Although often called a legend, she did not care for the word. “It’s a title and category I am less than fond of,” she wrote in 1994 in ‘Now,’ her second autobiography. “Aren’t legends dead?” She also expressed impatience, especially in her later years, with the public and the media’s continuing fascination with her romance with Bogart, even though she frequently said that their 12-year marriage was the happiest period of her life.
“I think I’ve damn well earned the right to be judged on my own,” she said in a 1970 interview with The New York Times. “It’s time I was allowed a life of my own, to be judged and thought of as a person, as me.”
Years later, however, she seemed resigned to being forever tied to Bogart and expressed annoyance that her later marriage to another leading actor, Jason Robards Jr., was often overlooked. “My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure,” she told Vanity Fair magazine in a profile of her in March 2011, adding: “I’ll never know if that’s true. If that’s the way, that’s the way it is.”
Bacall was an 18-year-old model in New York when her face on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar caught the eye of Slim Hawks, Howard Hawks’ wife. Brought to Hollywood and taken under the Hawkses’ wing, she won the role in “To Have and Have Not,” loosely based on the novel of the same name.
She played Marie Browning, known as Slim, an American femme fatale who becomes romantically involved with Bogart’s jaded fishing-boat captain, Harry Morgan, known as Steve, in wartime Martinique. Her deep voice and the seductive way she looked at Bogart in the film attracted attention.
Their on-screen chemistry hadn’t come naturally, however. In one of the first scenes she filmed, she asked if anyone had a match. Bogart threw her a box of matches, she lit her cigarette and then threw the box back to him. “My hand was shaking, my head was shaking, the cigarette was shaking, I was mortified,” she wrote in ‘By Myself.’ “The harder I tried to stop, the more I shook. ... I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up at Bogart. It worked and turned out to be the beginning of The Look.”
Bacall’s naturally low voice was further deepened in her early months in Hollywood. Hawks wanted her voice to remain low even during emotional scenes and suggested she find some quiet spot and read aloud. She drove to Mulholland Drive and began reading ‘The Robe,’ making her voice lower and louder than usual.
“Who sat on mountaintops in cars reading books aloud to the canyons?” she later wrote. “I did.” She also harboured a lasting, painful regret over an action she did not take during her early relationship with Hawks. After he had made a disparaging remark about Jews, Bacall, who was Jewish, said nothing. “I was afraid to - a side of myself I have never liked or been proud of - a side that was always there,” she recalled. During her romance with Bogart, she asked him if it mattered to him that she was Jewish. His answer, she later wrote, was “Hell, no - what mattered to him was me, how I thought, how I felt, what kind of person I was, not my religion, he couldn’t care less - why did I even ask?”
Bacall’s love affair with Bogart began with an impulsive kiss. While filming ‘To Have and Have Not,’ he had stopped at her trailer to say goodnight when he suddenly leaned over, lifted her chin and kissed her. He was 25 years her senior and married at the time to Mayo Methot, his third wife. But to Bacall, “he was the man who meant everything in the world to me; I couldn’t believe my luck.”
As her fame grew in the ensuing months - she attracted wide publicity in February 1945 when she was photographed perched on top of a piano, legs draped over the side, with Vice President Harry S. Truman at the keyboard - so did the romance, particularly as she and Bogart filmed ‘The Big Sleep,’ based on a Raymond Chandler whodunit.
But her happiness alternated with despair. Bogart returned to his wife several times before he accepted that the marriage could not be saved. He and Bacall were married on May 21, 1945, at Malabar Farm in Lucas, Ohio, the home of Bogart’s close friend the writer Louis Bromfield. Bogart was 45; Bacall was 20.
Returning to work, she soon suffered a setback, when the critics savaged her performance in ‘Confidential Agent,’ a 1945 thriller with Charles Boyer set during the Spanish Civil War. The director was Herman Shumlin, who, unlike Hawks and Bogart on her first two movies, offered her no guidance.
“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” she recalled. “I was a novice.” “After ‘Confidential Agent,’ it took me years to prove that I was capable of doing anything at all worthwhile,” she wrote. “I would never reach the ‘To Have and Have Not’ heights again - on film, anyway - and it would take much clawing and scratching to pull myself even halfway back up that damn ladder.”
‘Dark Passage,’ her third movie with Bogart, came after several years of concentrating on her marriage. Had she not married Bogart, she told The New York Times in 1996, her career would probably have flourished, but she did not regret the marriage.
“I would not have had a better life, but a better career,” she said. “Howard Hawks was like a Svengali, he was moulding me the way he wanted. I was his creation, and I would have had a great career had he been in control of it. But the minute Bogie was around, Hawks knew he couldn’t control me, so he sold my contract to Warner Brothers. And that was the end.”
She was eventually suspended 12 times by the studio for rejecting scripts. In 1947, as the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Americans as suspected of Communism, Bacall and Bogart were among 500 Hollywood personalities to sign a petition protesting what they called the committee’s attempt “to smear the motion picture industry.” Investigating individual political beliefs, the petition said, violated the basic principles of American democracy.
The couple flew to Washington as part of a group known as the Committee for the First Amendment, which also included Danny Kaye, John Garfield, Gene Kelly, John Huston, Ira Gershwin and Jane Wyatt. “I am an outraged and angry citizen who feels that my basic civil liberties are being taken away from me,” Bogart said in a statement.
Three decades later, Bacall would express doubts about “whether the trip to Washington ultimately helped anyone.” But, she added: “It helped those of us at the time who wanted to fight for what we thought was right and against what we knew was wrong. And we made a noise - in Hollywood, a community which should be courageous but which is surprisingly timid and easily intimidated.”
Nevertheless, bowing to studio pressure, Bogart later said publicly that he believed the trip to Washington was “ill advised,” and Bacall went along with him. A year after that trip she had what she termed “one of my happiest movie experiences” when she starred with Bogart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor in John Huston’s crime thriller ‘Key Largo.’ It was Bogart’s and Bacall’s last film together. ‘Young Man With a Horn’ (1950), with Kirk Douglas and Doris Day, in which she played a student married to a jazz trumpeter, was less successful.
Bacall’s first son, Stephen H. Bogart (named after Bogart’s character in “To Have and Have Not”), was born in 1949. A daughter, Leslie Bogart (named after actor Leslie Howard), was born in 1952. In a 1995 memoir, Stephen wrote, “My mother was a lapsed Jew, and my father was a lapsed Episcopalian,” adding that he and his sister, Leslie, were raised Episcopalian “because my mother felt that would make life easier for Leslie and me during those post-World War II years.”
Bacall, however, wrote that she felt “totally Jewish and always would” and that it was Bogart who thought the children should be christened in an Episcopal church because “with discrimination still rampant in the world, it would give them one less hurdle to jump in life’s Olympics.”
She was, she said, happy being a wife and mother. She was also “den mother” to the so-called Hollywood Rat Pack, whose members included Bogart, Frank Sinatra, David Niven, Judy Garland and others. (It would evolve into the better-known Rat Pack whose members included Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.)
In 1952 she campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president, and persuaded Bogart, who had originally supported Dwight Eisenhower, to join her. The two accompanied Stevenson on motorcades and flew east to help in the final lap of his campaign in New York and Chicago.
Her film career at this point appeared to be going nowhere, but she had no intention of allowing Lauren Bacall the actress to slide into oblivion. In 1953 her fortunes revived with what she called “the best part I’d had in years,” in ‘How to Marry a Millionaire,’ playing alongside Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable as New York models with sights set on finding rich husbands.
In the early 1950s the Bogarts dabbled in radio and the burgeoning medium of television. They starred in the radio adventure series ‘Bold Venture’ and, with Henry Fonda, in a live television version of ‘The Petrified Forest,’ the 1936 film that starred Bogart, Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. In 1956 Bacall appeared in a television production of No?l Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit,’ in which Coward himself also starred. She would occasionally return to the small screen for the rest of her career, making guest appearances on shows like ‘The Rockford Files’ and “Chicago Hope” and starring in TV movies.
Bogart was found to have cancer of the oesophagus in 1956. Although an operation was successful - his oesophagus and two lymph nodes were removed - after some months the cancer returned. He died in January 1957 at the age of 57. Shortly after Bogart’s death, Bacall, by then 32, had a widely publicized but brief romance with Sinatra, who had been a close friend of the Bogarts. She moved to New York in 1958 and, three years later, married Robards, settling in a spacious apartment in the Dakota, on Central Park West, where she continued to live until her death. They had a son, actor Sam Robards, and were divorced in 1969. Robards died in 2000.
Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in Brooklyn on Sept. 16, 1924, the daughter of William and Natalie Perske, Jewish immigrants from Poland and Romania. Her parents were divorced when she was 6 years old, and her mother moved to Manhattan and adopted the second half of her maiden name, Weinstein-Bacal.
“I didn’t really have any love in my growing-up life, except for my mother and grandmother,” Bacall said in the Vanity Fair interview. Her father, she said, “did not treat my mother well.” From then until her move to Hollywood, Bacall was known as Betty Bacal; she added an “l” to her name because, she said, the single “l” caused “too much irregularity of pronunciation.” The name Lauren was given her by Howard Hawks before the release of her first film, but family and old friends called her Betty throughout her life, and to Bogart she was always Baby.
Although finances were a problem as she was growing up - “Nothing came easy, everything was worked for” - her mother’s family was close-knit, and through an uncle’s generosity she attended the Highland Manor school for girls in Tarrytown, New York, where she graduated from grade school at 11. She went on to Julia Richman High School in Manhattan and also studied acting at the New York School of the Theater and ballet with Mikhail Mordkin, who had on occasion been Pavlova’s partner.
After graduation in 1940, Bacall became a full-time student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts but left after the first year; her family could no longer subsidize her, and the academy at the time did not offer scholarships to women. So she turned to modelling, and in 1941, at 16, she landed jobs with David Crystal, a New York dress manufacturer, and Sam Friedlander, who made evening gowns. During lunch hours she would stand outside Sardi’s selling copies of Actor’s Cue, a casting tip sheet, hoping to catch the attention of producers. She also became an usher at Broadway theatres and a hostess at the newly opened Stage Door Canteen.
Her first theatre role was a walk-on in a Broadway play called “Johnny 2 x 4.” It paid $15 a week and closed in eight weeks, but she looked back on the experience as “magical.” Another stab at modelling, with the Walter Thornton agency, proved disappointing, but her morale soared in July 1942, with a sentence by George Jean Nathan in Esquire: “The prettiest theatre usher - the tall slender blonde in the St. James Theater right aisle, during the Gilbert & Sullivan engagement - by general rapt agreement among the critics, but the bums are too dignified to admit it.”
Later that year she was cast by producer Max Gordon in ‘Franklin Street,’ a comedy directed by George S. Kaufman, which closed out of town. It was to be her last time onstage for 17 years. It was about this time that she saw Bogart in “Casablanca. ” She later recalled that she couldn’t understand the reaction of a friend who was “mad” about him. “So much for my judgment at that time,” she said. In 1942 she met Nicolas de Gunzburg, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, who took her to meet Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor. After a thorough inspection, Vreeland asked her to return the next day to meet photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Test shots were taken, and a few days later she was called.
A full-page colour picture of her standing in front of a window with the words “American Red Cross Blood Donor Service” on it led to inquiries from David Selznick, Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks, among others. The Hawks offer was accepted, and Betty Bacall, 18 years old and accompanied by her mother, left for the West Coast by train. She would return to New York less than two years later as Lauren Bacall, star.
In her 70s Bacall began lending her distinctive voice to television commercials and cartoons, and her movie career again picked up steam. Between 1995 and 2012 she was featured in more than a dozen pictures, most notably ‘The Mirror Has Two Faces’ (1996), in which she played Barbra Streisand’s monstrous, vain mother.
The role brought her an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress, and the smart Hollywood money was on her to win. But the Oscar went to Juliette Binoche for her part in ‘The English Patient,’ to the astonishment of almost everyone, including Binoche.
Bacall - who received a consolation prize of sorts when she was named a Kennedy Center Honors winner a few months later - was perhaps prepared for the Oscar rebuff. Shortly before the Academy Awards ceremony, she told an interviewer that she hadn’t been happy for years.
“Contented, yes; pleased and proud, yes. But happy, no.” Still, she said, she had been lucky: “I had one great marriage, I have three great children and four grandchildren. I am still alive. I still can function. I still can work.”
As she said in 1996: “You just learn to cope with whatever you have to cope with. I spent my childhood in New York, riding on subways and buses. And you know what you learn if you’re a New Yorker? The world doesn’t owe you a damn thing.”
New York Times