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…