It’s a scene every cinephile has seen at least 100 times and can quote by heart, perhaps the most iconic scene in Hollywood history. It’s from To Have and Have Not, Howard Hawks’ light-hearted 1944 take-off on the previous year’s hit, Casablanca. Lauren Bacall’s character, Slim, a woman of total mystery, is visiting Humphrey Bogart’s character, a hard-boiled charter-boat captain she calls Steve, in his hotel room. During the course of their encounter, she kisses him. “What did you do that for?” asks Steve. “I’ve been wondering if I’d like it,” she answers. Steve gives her a quizzical look, “What’s the decision?” “I don’t know yet,” she says, and she kisses him again.
“It’s even better when you help,” she tells him.
As she prepares to leave the hotel room, she turns toward Steve. “You know, you don’t have to act with me, Steve,” she says. “You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” With that she leaves. Bogart, with the expression of someone who just can’t believe his luck, thinks it over for a minute. Then he whistles to no one in particular, except maybe we in the audience.
And with that we have just grasped the essence of the allure of Lauren Bacall and why she became a star. She was Cool before there was such a thing as Cool. Known for her striking looks and husky, sultry voice, the result of a two-pack-a-day habit, she was the embodiment of the independent woman, a role she played in one form or another until her brand of sass died out in the ‘50s, replaced by the icy aloofness of Grace Kelly and the needy, borderline trashiness of Marilyn Monroe and her seemingly uncountable imitators.
If that wasn’t enough, she went and married the King of Cool himself, Bogart. They became the storybook Hollywood couple. In her memoirs she said “No one has ever written a romance better than we lived it.” She called him Bogie and he called her Slim. She gave him a son, Stephen, named for Bogie’s character in To Have and Have Not, and a daughter, Leslie, named for Leslie Howard. Betty cut back on movie offers to be closer to her young family. It was heaven on Earth . . . while it lasted. Alas, it all came to an end in 1957 when Bogie passed away from cancer of the esophagus at the age of 57. Betty went into a professional and deeply personal tailspin.
Slowly she fought to re-establish herself as an actress, returning to Broadway, where she had not been since 1942. It took awhile, but good stage roles finally came her way and she made the most of them. A second marriage in 1961 to actor Jason Robards, Jr. ended in divorce in 1969, largely due to his alcoholism.
As the Bogart legend began to take off in the ‘60s, she was embraced by the public as his wife and leading lady, yet she felt trapped by it all, seeing herself as defined only as the Widow Bogart. She wanted to be known for her own accomplishments in the arts, but in interviews, she resigned herself to the inevitable. One can’t fight one’s history.
The road to becoming Lauren Bacall was not an easy one. She was born Betty Joan Perske in Brooklyn on Sept. 16, 1924, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Romania, William and Natalie Perske. Her parents divorced when she was six years old; she would have no contact with her father after that. Her mother moved to Manhattan, adopting the second half of her maiden name, Weinstein-Bacal. So Betty Joan Perske became Betty Joan Bacal.
Her mother’s family was close-knit, but not an affluent one. Finances were always a problem as she grew up. Through the generosity of her Uncle Charlie, she was able to attend the Highland Manor School for Girls in Tarrytown, N.Y., graduating from grade school at age 11. She attended Julia Richman High School in Manhattan and studied acting at the New York School of the Theater.
She graduated from Julia Richman in 1940 and became a full-time student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she met fellow student, and first crush, Kirk Douglas. However, she was forced to leave after the first year because her family could no longer afford the tuition. A scholarship was out of the question: the Academy did not offer scholarships to women at that time.
With no other prospects she turned to modeling, landing jobs with David Crystal, a Seventh Avenue dress manufacturer, and Sam Friedlander, who made evening gowns. It was 1941, she was 16, and the jobs, when they came, paid little. During lunch hours she stood outside Sardi’s, hawking Actor’s Cue, a casting tip sheet, and hoping to catch the eye of producers. She also worked as an usher at Broadway theaters, and became a hostess at the newly-opened Stage Door Canteen.
Her efforts eventually landed her a walk-on part in a Broadway play called Johnny 2 x 4. Though it paid only $15 a week and closed in eight weeks, it was a beginning. Meanwhile, her job as an usher led her to make the acquaintance of Paul Lukas, who would serve as an informal mentor, with his advice proving crucial to her career development.
Later that year, producer Max Gordon cast her in Franklin Street, a comedy directed by George S. Kaufman. The play had a hard time catching on with the public and closed out of town for what was called “retinkering.” It would be her last time onstage for 17 years.
Returing to New York, a friend introduced her to Nicolas de Gunzburg, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar. He invited her to come to his office the next morning and took her to meet Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor. Vreeland spotted her talent and photogenic potential, and asked her to return the next day to meet the photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe. She took test shots, and a few days later Vreeland called with a job offer. It paid $10 an hour, a substantial sum in those days.
During this time Betty added an extra “L” to her last name to avoid the constant errors in pronunciation. She worked steadily for Vreeland, appearing in a number of advertisements. But it was a full-page, color picture of her standing in front of a window with the words “American Red Cross Blood Donor Service” on it - a poster of a besuited, independent woman caught up in the war effort. Lit rather provocatively and noirishly, the picture caught the eye of Columbia Studios, David O. Selznick, and Howard Hughes, each of whom sent inquiries. But it was a woman she had never met, Nancy “Slim” Hawks, which led to the offer she couldn’t refuse. Slim showed the picture to husband Hawks, who immediately spotted a connection between the young model and his wife. Hawks and partner Charlie Feldman offered to sign her to a seven-year, personal contract. Betty accepted, and, at the age of 18, left for Los Angeles by train with her mother. She would start at the princely sum of $124 per week.
Hawks became a surrogate father and she in turn allowed him to live out his fantasy of becoming a Svengali, taking a kid from nowhere and molding her into a superstar. He renamed her “Lauren,” to add a little glam, as ”Betty” was too friendly. He also had her work on deepening her voice (he disliked women screeching), sitting in her car up on Mulholland Drive reading The Robe aloud by the hour, and the aforementioned two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. She was also on call as a protégé at parties, so Hawks could show her off to various studio heads and the like, all the while searching for the perfect vehicle to launch her film career.
He finally found it in his adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Hawks planned the film to be a wittier take on Casablanca, and, as with all his adaptations, the only resemblance between the original and the adaptation was the title. Hawks created a character for Bacall, a woman of mystery named Marie Browning. From scant clues provided in one of the original drafts of the screenplay, it seems that Slim is a kept woman whose sugar daddy was killed by stray gunfire during a police raid at the hotel where they were staying. However, in the final cut, Hawks dispensed with explanations - they weren’t necessary. We first meet her when she picks the pocket of an obnoxious client (Walter Sande) of the story’s main character, charter ship owner Harry Morgan (Bogart). She quickly develops a flirtatious relationship with Morgan. He calls her “Slim” (Hawks honoring his wife), and she calls him “Steve.” He buys her an airline ticket to take her off the island, but she stays around to be with him.
To Have and Have Not is set on the Caribbean island of Martinique. The original location was to have been Cuba, but the Cuban government complained to Washington, which, in turn, informed Jack Warner. Besides, Martinique was more mysterious and romantic. Controlled by Vichy, it had the natural parallels to Casablanca. The leader of the Resistance approaches Steve to smuggle in an important figure, but he refuses. However, needing the money, Morgan agrees and soon incurs the wrath of the police. Therein hangs the plot.
When Bacall was informed who her co-star would be, she was less than thrilled. Bogart did nothing for the young Betty Bacall. In her memoirs she told of her mother and sister taking her to see Casablanca when it opened in New York. Although they all loved it, Rosalie was gaga over Bogart, proclaiming him to be sexy. Bacall didn’t share her sister’s enthusiasm; her idea of the ideal man was Leslie Howard or Cary Grant. That opinion was soon to change. As she said in her memoir, By Myself: “She thought he was sexy. I thought she was crazy . . . So much for my judgment at the time.”
When she finally met Bogart, she found him to be warm, funny, and supportive of a nervous young actress just embarking on her career. Bacall was so nervous at first that her head shook. To combat the shaking she tilted her chin downward to steady herself. She then looked up with her eyes toward the camera. The result was electrifying. When the film was previewed, audiences were enraptured. Bacall was both provocative and preposterous. If an older actress had delivered those lines about knowing how to whistle, audiences might have broken out into laughter. But when a young woman, trying to convince everyone in the room that she’s worldly, speaks them, the same lines evoke silent admiration. Hawks took advantage of the way she tilted her head, dubbing her as “The Look” in publicity.
Their relationship developed slowly. They became fast friends and the crew could see chemistry developing. One night, according to Bacall, after the day’s filming was finished, Bogart stood behind Bacall in her dresser as she brushed her hair. Suddenly he lifted her chin up and kissed her. Real life transcended their characters and Bacall knew she was in love.
There were two obstacles to their happiness. One was Hawks, who quickly caught on to what was happening. Jealous (he was intent on having her himself), he warned her not to risk ending her career just as it began. He also threatened to send her to Monogram Studios, sure death for a young actress on the rise. When she told Bogart later, he calmed her by pointing out that Hawks had too much invested to ship her to Monogram. He was proved correct when Hawks next cast the two in The Big Sleep. Hawks and the studio basked in the success of To Have and Have Not, and there was no way they would allow the private romance to derail further business, especially when they could build on said rumored romance to stir ticket sales.
The other obstacle was more daunting: Mayo Methot. She was Bogart’s third wife and his most tempestuous relationship. Known about town as “the Battling Bogarts,” they endured many a physical confrontation, usually brought on and fueled by large quantities of alcohol. The difference between the two was that while Bogart liked to drink, Mayo was a full-blown drunk whose worst side came out when loaded. She was not only dangerous, but also potentially lethal - once stabbing Bogart in the back during one of their fights. Bogie and Betty had to take care not to arouse Mayo, who, at any rate, was always suspicious of her husband.
During the filming of The Big Sleep Bogart told Bacall that he was giving Mayo one last chance. She had agreed to sober up, and it was the decent thing to do. Bacall was devastated. Their off-screen relationship affected the on-screen relationship as their innuendo took on new meaning. Bogart also began to miss days on the set. He was drunk, depressed, trying to save his marriage. He finally walked out on Mayo after coming home one day to find her liquored up and on the warpath. He took an apartment at the fabled Garden of Allah and began divorce proceedings. As his divorce wore on, the lovesick Bogey wired Bacall, “Please fence me in Baby - the world’s too big out there and I don’t like it without you.” When he was finally granted the divorce from Mayo, he and Bacall were married on May 21, 1945, at Malabar Farm in Lucas, Ohio, the home of Bogart’s close friend, writer Louis Bromfield. Bogie wept freely as he saw his bride walk up the aisle. He was 45; she was 20.
After their honeymoon it was back to work at Warner’s. Hawks had acknowledged defeat by selling her contract to Warner Bros. Bacall’s next assignment was the 1945 thriller, Confidential Agent, with Charles Boyer and Peter Lorre. Herman Shumlin was the director, and unlike Hawks, offered no guidance to the fledgling actress. The result was a performance that came off cold, not cool, without the zing of her Hawksian characters. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” she said in her memoir. “I was a novice.”
What helped her at the time was that while The Big Sleep had finished before Confidential Agent, it wasn’t released until the next year, 1946, due to changes and reshoots Hawks made to expand Bacall’s character. It also helped that her next two movies, Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948) were shot with Bogart as her co-star, though in both movies, the sassy Bacall was nowhere to be seen, replaced by a more self-effacing and low-key Bacall. She was beginning to wind down her movie career to concentrate on her marriage and start a family. And, in keeping with the Warner’s tradition, she was eventually suspended 12 times by the studio for rejecting scripts.
One other thing Bacall took time off for was politics. The Bogarts were among 500 Hollywood personalities to sign a petition protesting what they termed as the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ attempt “to smear the motion picture industry.” They flew to Washington as part of a group known as the Committee for the First Amendment, which also included Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, John Garfield, Ira Gershwin, and Jane Wyatt. Later, bowing to studio pressure, Bogart stated publicly that he believed the Washington trip was “ill-advised.”
The new Mrs. Bogart’s son, Stephen (named for Bogart’s character in To Have and Have Not), was born on January 6, 1949. Daughter Leslie (named for Leslie Howard) followed in August 23, 1952. Still under contract to Warner Bros., Betty cranked out two films in 1950. The first, Young Man With a Horn, co-starred Kirk Douglas and Doris Day. The second, Bright Leaf, co-starred Gary Cooper. Both were considered decent films, but both fared badly at the box office. It wasn’t until 1953 that she had a box-office hit, playing the gold-digging Schatze Page in Jean Negulesco’s How to Marry a Millionaire, along with Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe.
She also remained active in politics, supporting Adlai Stevenson for president in 1952 and 1956. Back on the domestic front, she helped her husband host informal parties at their home in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles, sometimes as frequently as five times a week. She accompanied her husband to various film locations, and also ruled as den mother for what became known as the Hollywood Rat Pack. According to legend, the group got its name from Lauren Bacall after seeing Bogart and his friends return from a night in Las Vegas. “You look like a goddamn rat pack,” she said, and the name stuck.
Tired of suspensions from turning down crappy roles, Bacall bought out her contract with Warner’s. But it didn’t pay off the way she hoped, for all she got was a role in Douglas Sirk’s overrated soaper, Written on the Wind (1956), an unbilled cameo in Jed Harris and Rod Serling’s Patterns (1956), and a career girl who impulsively marries Gregory Peck in the passable Designing Woman (1957). Fortunately, there were other avenues to travel.
In the early ‘50s, the Bogarts began starring in radio dramas., such as the adventure series Bold Venture (in part based on To Have and Have Not). They expanded this in the mid-1950s to include television, starring with Henry Fonda in a live television version of The Petrified Forest, the 1936 film that starred Bogart, Bette Davis and Howard. Bogart reprised his role as Duke Mantee, while Bacall played Davis’s idealistic waitress, and Fonda played the dreamy Howard role. In 1956 Bacall co-starred with Noel Coward in a television production of his Blithe Spirit.
In 1956, Warner Bros. had bought the rights to John P. Marquand’s novel, Melville Goodwin, U.S.A., a love story about a military man and a journalist based on Claire Boothe Luce. The studio pitched the idea to the Bogarts to star. Their last film together was Key Largo in 1948. The couple accepted, but even before pre-production planning began, Bogart told his wife that he’d had lunch with Greer Garson. Greer said she didn’t like his cough and insisted he go to see her personal physician, Dr. Maynard Brandsma, an internist at the Beverly Hills Clinic.
Brandsma examined Bogart and found an inflamed esophagus. Upon further testing, cancer was discovered. Bacall decided to put her career on hold to nurse her husband back to health and provide the children with an anchor during the troubled times. In By Myself, Bacall takes us through the painful details of Bogie’s demise and ultimate death. She notes his weight loss and his inability to eat solid food, the odor of decay in their bedroom and on his lips, the dumbwaiter he used to go from his room on the second floor to the first floor when guests arrived, and the never-ending hope they both had in a recovery until the doctors finally confessed to Bacall that everything they tried to eliminate the cancer had failed. She also described wearing the old robe she had worn in Dark Passage on the night he died in their bed, the sack in which Forest Lawn crematorium took Bogie’s lifeless body away, and how she tried to hide it from the children.
At Bogie’s funeral she displayed a model of his beloved boat, the Santana. She found keeping the real one too painful and, after a last trip during which she cleaned out his personal effects, she sold it. In trying to recover from her husband’s death, she fell into a relationship with Frank Sinatra that nearly bloomed into marriage; that is, until Frank got wind their engagement was leaked to the press and, blaming Bacall, cut her off cold. It turned out that Swifty Lazar had spilled the beans, but their relationship was over, and Bacall, in her memoirs, counts it as a blessing.
She was becoming disenchanted with Hollywood, noting that “Film is not a woman’s medium,” and that “If you weren’t the hottest kid in town, men stayed away from you.” It was probably this disenchantment that led her back to the Broadway stage. In 1959, she starred in the George Axelrod comedy, Goodbye Charlie, playing a womanizer who is killed and returned from the grave as a woman. It only lasted for 109 performances, but her next parts would all be in hits.
Meanwhile, she met, and married, actor Jason Robards, Jr. While the union produced her third child, Sam, it ultimately failed due to Robards’ drinking. While Bogart could be a heavy drinker, there was a difference: Robards was a full-blown alcoholic, Bogart was not. Bacall, a non-drinker herself, was astounded at what alcohol did to her husband. When sober, Jason was fast, quick-witted, fun to be around, the loving parent. But, under the influence, he became surly, abusive, and neglectful of his children, leaving it to his wife to fill both parenting roles. Bacall, for her part, took time off to raise Sam. She also became a regular on the salon circuit between New York and Washington. Before she met Robards, Bacall moved to New York, purchasing a large apartment at the Dakota on Central Park West. This would be her home for the rest of her life.
As Sam got older, and to put space between her and Jason, Bacall took a lead role in Abe Burrows’ 1965 play, Cactus Flower, playing the prim assistant to a womanizing dentist played by Barry Nelson. Cactus Flower, based on the French play, Fleur de cactus by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy, was a huge hit, eventually playing for almost three years and 1,234 performances - ironically at the same theater where Bacall ushered in the early ‘40s. When I.A.L. Diamond adapted it into a movie, Bacall was overlooked in favor of Ingrid Bergman, who won a Golden Globe in the part.
As for Hollywood, Bacall appeared in only three films during the ‘60s. Shock Treatment (1963), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), with Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis, and Paul Newman’s semi-noir, Harper (1966).
She divorced Robards in 1969 after learning he was having an affair. She notes in By Myself that the marriage was dead long before the discovery, and that the years allowed her to become less dependent on the men in her life.
In 1970, she returned to Broadway in the hit musical Applause, an adaptation of the 1950 film classic, All About Eve, with Bacall as the aging diva, Margo Channing, a role made famous by Bette Davis. Although she wasn’t much of a singer, the role was a perfect fit. It was also another hit, opening at New York’s Palace Theater and running for 896 performances. She won the 1970 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. When Bacall’s contract was up in 1971, she bowed out and, in an ironic note, was replaced by Anne Baxter, who had played Eve Harrington in the original film. Bacall would go on to play in the London production of the show and star in a 1973 TV-movie adaptation, using the London cast.
In 1981, she won another Tony for starring in the musical adaptation of the 1942 Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn classic, Woman of the Year. It opened at the Palace Theater and ran for 770 performances.
Her film work in the ‘70s, like the ‘60s, was sparse. She appeared as Mrs. Hubbard, one of many suspects, in the all-star Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and played the landlady in John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist (1976).
It turned out that her best work in the ‘70s was in a completely new field. Her 1978 memoir, Lauren Bacall: By Myself was a best seller and in 1980, won a National Book Award for Biography and Autobiography.
The 1980s were a mixed bag as far as Bacall’s film appearances went. She began with Robert Altman’s uneven ensemble piece, HealtH, in 1980. She then starred in the critical and financial bomb, The Fan (1981). She also appeared in the star-studded Appointment With Death (1988), with Peter Ustinov as Agatha Christie’s master detective, Hercule Poirot. Despite good reviews, it performed poorly at the box office.
She also returned to her first love, the stage, in 1985, as Harold Pinter directed her in the first London production of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth. The ‘90s - and her late ‘60s - arrived, and Bacall continued to work. As she said in By Myself, “My goal in life has always been to work. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I had nothing to do but wander.”
To be honest, Bacall also needed the money. Although Bogart left a decent estate when he died, the government glommed over half. Maintaining an apartment at the Dakota and a house in the Hamptons costs real money, lots of it. Which is why, as age broadened her features, she restyled herself with the help of a trainer and a make-up artist. She also found time to pen a second volume of memoirs, titled Now, in 1994.
In 1990, Bacall had a small role as pulp fiction writer James Caan’s supportive agent in Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. She spent most of the ‘90s appearing in guest roles on television or in TV movies. As for theatrically released films, she had a minor role in Robert Altman’s all-star Pret-a-Porter(1994), and a really great role in Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces (1997), where she played Streisand’s narcissistic, yet vulnerable, mother. It was perfect casting and Bacall was nothing short of brilliant. The role brought her an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress.
Having won the Golden Globe and the Screen Actor’s Guild awards for Best Supporting Actress, the smart money was on her to win. But astonishingly, the Oscar went to Juliette Binoche for her part in The English Patient. I’ll never forget the look on Bacall’s face when Binoche was announced as the winner. I was dumbfounded. Hollywood had the chance to do the right thing and award an Oscar to a legend that blew away critics and public alike in her role. It wasn’t as if it were charity, giving an award to someone who had clearly seen better days. Bacall’s nomination in 1997 was her first, despite some 40-odd years of superb performances. It’s been put forward that Miramax Films, which produced The English Patient, campaigned heavily for their movie. However, consider some of the other travesties in Oscar’s history. Simply put, Bacall was screwed out of the award. Even Binoche was astonished by her victory.
However, Bacall was tougher than people supposed. The year before, she was given the Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar, for her lifetime body of work. Two years prior she was presented with the Commadeur des Arts et Lettres by the Minister of Culture, Jacques Toubon. Shortly after the Oscars, Bacall was selected as a Kennedy Center Honors recipient. In 1999, the American Film Institute voted her one of the 25 most significant female movie stars in history. As for the Academy, it took them until 2009 to present Bacall with a statue for “lifetime achievement.”
It was also during the ‘90s that Bacall began using her distinctive voice in television commercials and cartoons, doing everything from being a spokesperson for the Tuesday Morning discount chain to producing a line of jewelry with the Weinman Brothers Inc. to using her voice to hawk High Point coffee and Fancy Feast cat food.
As the new century dawned, her taste in films changed. No longer looking to secure parts in commercial movies, she instead looked to independent films. She appeared in two films for Danish director Lars von Trier, Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), Birth (2004) for Jonathan Glazer (2004), and The Walker, for Paul Schrader (2007).
She also did a cameo in The Sopranos (2006) as herself, and is mugged by a masked man, who later turns out to be Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), mugs her. Her last listed credit was in 2014 as the voice of Evelyn in the cartoon Family Guy.
Bacall passed away on August 12, 2014, in her home at the Dakota from a stroke. She was 89 years old. Sons Stephen Bogart and Sam Robards, daughter Leslie Bogart, and six grandchildren survive her.
If she had lived, she would be doing what she loved best – working.