By Laurie Bogart Wiles
I WAS EIGHTEEN when I first saw one of her films. It wasn’t because I was curious. It was because I’d just seen Lauren Bacall on Broadway in Applause. And I was mesmerized by the sheer energy of her performance. Never had I seen a woman hold an audience in the palm of her hand. Lauren Bacall was one of the most iconic women of her time and an inspiration to women everywhere, across the years—as she was, almost a half-century ago, to me. “I think women are much more willing to take chances with their lives, are much more honest and are generally better friends,” Bacall said in an interview a few years before her death in 2014 at age 89.
“My mother was a great example. She was the greatest influence of my life. More than anyone, my mother had the greatest effect on me.” Born Betty Joan Perske in The Bronx, New York, in 1924, she was the only child of Natalie Weinstein (1901-1977), a daughter of Romanian Jewish immigrants who settled in Brooklyn. In 1923, Natalie married a man she did not love and a year later delivered Betty—appropriately—in a movie house.
When Betty was five, her parents divorced, and she never saw her father again. This left her with a sense of rejection and need for approval. She left behind those negative feelings every Saturday afternoon, when she took in a double-feature matinee at the 68th Street Playhouse, star-struck by Hollywood legends such as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Myrna Loy and Ginger Rogers. Her favorite, however, was Bette Davis. “I used to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes in the restroom. I wanted to be just like Bette Davis. She made me feel more than anyone else did.” When she was fourteen, she met her idol. “You’re Betty Bacall,” Bette Davis declared. “So, you want to be an actress?” “I was so in awe of her,” Bacall remembered. “I couldn’t think. The tension was indescribable.” She saw Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (“She was so beautiful. We got fifty-cent seats, and I almost fell out of the balcony”) and Vivien Leigh and Lauren Olivier in Romeo and Juliet. (“I was hit between the eyes”). Betty was determined to be come an actress.
She enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Her written evaluation states, “Good proportions, blonde, pleasing personality, voice—low, New York regionalism, Jewish but does not look it.” Her mother could only afford the first year’s tuition, so Betty worked as an usher at the Lyceum Theater to pay for school. She turned to modeling to make money and was noticed by the legendary fashion editor, Diana Vreeland. “I was scared to death,” Bacall said of their first meeting. “She put a suit on me, told me which makeup to use—but very little. ‘Betty, I don’t want to change your look.’ When all was done, she put a scarf around my neck—knew just how to tie it, a little off-center, —and I was ready for my first sitting with Harper’s Bazaar.” Vreeland recalled, “Betty’s always been what used to be called a ‘good kid.’ She’s always kept her own thoughts and her own dreams. She literally had nothing to offer but her existence. But I was so interested in her.” The March 1943 cover of Harper’s caught the eye of Slim Hawks, wife of Hollywood producer Howard Hawks, who summoned her to L.A. for a screen test. She was only eighteen. “I was so ambitious, so anxious to have another life,” Bacall said. She was put under contract for $100 a week and several weeks later, won the role of Humphrey Bogart’s love interest in the screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and To Have Not. As she was walking into Hawks’s office, “Bogie was coming out. ‘I’ve just seen your test,’” Bacall recollected. “‘We’ll have a lot of fun together.’ Little did he know.”
At 45, Bogart was now one of Hollywood’s biggest names. A seasoned professional, he was thoughtful and helpful to his young leading lady, who was 25 years his junior. “He could tell how nervous I was,” Bacall said. She would hold her trembling head at a certain angle, chin down, looking up with her famous cat-like eyes. It became known as “The Look.” Bogie and Bacall were falling in love. They would arrange clandestine meetings on his schooner, Santana. A friend, Peter Stone, said, “Bogie became nuts over her. She had the poise and the manner of a much older woman.” To Have and To Have Not was released in 1944 and became a huge box office success.
With his tumultuous, seven-year marriage to Mayo Methot over, Bogie proposed to Bacall—with a proviso; “I want a wife, and I want my wife with me,” he told Bacall. “Promise not to go off on location.” She agreed. “I wanted to give him what he never had. I wanted to give him a family life. He had reached a point where he never thought he’d have a family, that it was never meant to be, never have children or a really happy marriage. I made that promise, and I stuck to it. In view of the fact we had such a short life together, I’m glad I did.” Her classic line would prove as true in their lives as it did in To Have and To Have Not. “You don’t have to do a thing, not a thing. Just whistle. You know how to whistle, Steve. You put your lips together and blow.”
Bacall’s next film, Confidential Agent (1945), with Charles Boyer, was a fiasco. To salvage her career, Warner reteamed Bogart and Bacall in three successive films, The Big Sleep (1946, also directed by Hawks), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948). Their passion for one other was even more real off screen than on, their private life more important than the limelight, and they rarely missed a weekend on the Santana.
After Key Largo, Bacall got pregnant with their son, Steve. “When I told him I was pregnant,” she said, “we argued because he realized something was coming between us. Of course, he loved what happened.” Two years later, Bogie agreed to film African Queen with director John Huston on location in Africa. Bogie wanted Bacall with him, so Natalie took care of Steven while they spent six months in the bush, filming with a crew and cast that co-starred their friend, Katherine Hepburn. Bogie was thrilled to win an Oscar for African Queen and to learn he was going to be a father again. “She was his flower,” Bacall said of Bogart’s love of his baby daughter, Leslie, “always tiptoeing around, touching her fingers, holding her hands, looking at her with wonder.” Bogart finally had it all: a happy marriage, children, a beautiful home and a tremendous career—but not for long. In 1956, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. “I remember going to the hospital and thinking, I’ve never been to doctors, and now I’ll probably spend the rest of my life going to them,” he said. At his urging, Betty filmed Designing Woman after the prognosis. Her co-star, Gregory Peck, recalled Bogie saying to him, “Hey, kid, I hear you’re a Catholic. Say a Hail Mary for me.” After filming, Bacall stayed home to care for her husband. “Betty stays home with me,” Bogie told a friend. “That’s how you can tell the ladies from the broads.”
On Sunday, January 13, Bacall went to pick up the children from Sunday school. “Goodbye, kid. Hurry back.” They were the last words Bogie ever spoke. By the time she returned home, he had fallen into a coma. Humphrey Bogart died the following day at the age of 57. “The word to describe Bogie and Betty,” their friend Gregory Peck said of that terrible time, “is gallantry.”
Widowed at 32, with two young children to support, Lauren Bacall was forced to face a harsh reality. “I had a series of bad events after Bogie died. I was not thinking straight at all. I behaved perfectly acceptably, but Hollywood seemed more and more bleak. They just thought of me as Mrs. Bogart, never thought of me seriously after Bogie died. I had to get out and make a living, but movie rolls had slowed down. So, I went back to New York. It was time to go on the stage and see if I could do it.” Bacall opened on Broadway in Goodbye Charlie, “I got onstage without a nerve in my body, ice cold and tough. I found out that I could do it. That was a great reward for me; after all, it was my original ambition.”
In 1961, she met Jason Robards, Jr. “We were instantly attracted to each other,” she said of the actor most famous for his roles in Eugene O’Neil plays. They were married and shortly after, their son Sam was born. She returned to Broadway in 1965 in the smash hit, Cactus Flower. Her career was back on track—but her marriage was falling apart. She was 40 when she took on the part of Margo Channing, one of her idols, Bette Davis’, signature roles, in the musical adaptation of the classic film, All About Eve. She took daily voice lessons to prepare her for Applause and spent endless hours in rehearsal. “Don’t be nervous darling,” Noel Coward wired her on opening day. “It all depends on you.”
“When you spend a lot of your life in the shadow of somebody else,” Bacall said of her life as Mrs. Bogart, you need to have an accomplishment of your own. I think I felt it solidly for the first time in Applause. She would win a Tony in 1970 for Best Actress in a Musical and that same year, a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical. But she received her greatest compliment backstage one night from Bette Davis. Bacall said, “She stood at the dressing room door and said, ‘Nobody could have done this but you, and you know I mean that.’” She toured the world in Applause for five years never missing then, or any time in her life, a single performance. In 1974, she appeared in the major motion picture, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, with an all-star cast, and in 1976, appeared in The Shootist, starring John Wayne. In 1977, her beloved mother, Natalie, died of a massive heart attack. “You never get over it, that loss,” she mourned, “but after all, that’s who’s given you life.” Her autobiography was published in 1978 and won the National Book Award. Then, in 1981, she returned to Broadway in Woman of the Year, the stage adaptation of the classic Tracy and Hepburn comedy, for which she was awarded her second Tony for Best Actress. In 1984, Bacall triumphed on the London stage in Sweet Bird of Youth. The London Times wrote, “If the audience had imagined that they heard some applause, it was probably Bogie sitting with the gods applauding his baby.” Among the numerous honors she received for her work in film, on stage and radio, Bacall won the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997 and received an honorary degree from Columbia University. “We all have to get through our lives the way we can get through them, but I don’t dwell on that. You just have to give it everything you’ve got.”