The Actress Lauren Bacall – A Short Biography
Lauren Bacall was born on September 16, 1924, as Betty Joan Perske in New York City. She was the daughter of Natalie Weinstein-Bacal, a Romanian Jewish immigrant, and William Perske, who was born in New Jersey to Polish Jewish parents. Her family was middle class, with her father working as a salesman and her mother as a secretary. Her father left the family when she was five, but the divorce did not devastate Betty due to her close relationship with her mother. The departure of her father forced her and her mother to move in with her grandmother and uncle. After high school, she studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Due to a lack of money, she was forced to end her time at the acting school after one term. Betty was a very attractive young women and this allowed her to do some work as a model at local department stores. After quitting as a showroom model, she worked as an usher in a Broadway theater. While working at the theater, she met Gregory Peck, who would become a life-long friend, and eventually they would appear in films together.
To further her acting career, she changed her name from Betty to Lauren and adapted her mother’s maiden name.
A Star is Born
Bacall’s big break came when Slim Hawks, the wife of director Howard Hawks, saw her on a Harper’s Bazaar magazine cover and suggested her husband bring Bacall in for a screen test. Bacall got the part playing the sultry Marie Browning in the 1944 production To Have and Have Not. The move was set on the island of Martinique during World War II. Humphrey Bogart was the lead actor, playing the part of a charter boat captain. One of the more memorable moments in the movie came when Bacall's character tells Humphrey Bogart's character, "You do know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow." The line is ranked on the American Film Institute's list of top movie quotes. Her work on this film launched her film career and introduced her to her future husband, Humphrey Bogart.
TCM Salute to Lauren Bacall Narrated by Gregory Peck
Her Marriage to Humphrey Bogart
In addition to launching Lauren Bacall’s acting career, she fell in love with Humphrey Bogart during the filming of To Have and Have Not. They wed in 1945, when she was 20 and he was 45, and they had two children and remained married until 1957. She often described Bogart as a very sentimental and romantic man who often gave her beautiful jewelry, and almost every piece was engraved with a sweet sentence or thought and his initials or name.
Bacall never lost her working class roots, even though she was able to afford gorgeous, expensive things. She loved knowing the artists who made the pieces she wore, and she felt particularly connected to a couple of private jewelers, Army Moss and Darlene de Sedle. If she was not hurried when she was getting ready to go out, she would always talk to her daughter, Leslie Bogart, about the clothes and jewelry she was wearing. She adored pearls, particularly very big ones from Tahiti and the South seas, and wanted Leslie to follow suit. She always looked fantastic, whether she was wearing pearls or an elegant brooch, along with her many rings; she had a great sense of style and always looked beautiful.
Lauren stuck with Bogart until the very end, as he suffered and finally died of cancer in 1957. She called Bogie the love of her life.
“I put my career in second place throughout both my marriages and it suffered. I don't regret it. You make choices. If you want a good marriage, you must pay attention to that. If you want to be independent, go ahead. You can't have it all.”— Lauren Bacall
Life after Bogie
After his death, she was briefly engaged to Frank Sinatra, but the singer broke it off — to her eventual relief. She told People magazine in 1979, “He saved me from the complete disaster our marriage would have been. But the truth was that he behaved like a complete shit.” Still, that was 20 years earlier. Later, she married Jason Robards, Jr. and with him had another child, Sam Robards, who also became an actor.
Lauren was away from the big screen for five years, but she returned in 1964 to appear in Shock Treatment and Sex and the Single Girl. The latter film was a comedy starring Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis. In 1966, Lauren starred in Harper with Paul Newman and Julie Harris, which was one of the former's signature films. Alternating her time between films and the stage, Lauren returned in 1974's Murder on the Orient Express. The film, based on Agatha Christie's best-selling book, was a huge hit. It also garnered Ingrid Bergman her third Oscar. Actually, the huge, star-studded cast helped to ensure its success. Two years later, in 1976, Lauren co-starred with John Wayne in The Shootist. The film was Wayne's last — he died from cancer in 1979.
In 1981, Lauren played an actress being stalked by a crazed admirer in The Fan. The thriller was absolutely fascinating, with Lauren in the lead role. After that production, Lauren was away from films again, this time for seven years. In the interim, she appeared on the stages of Broadway. When she returned, it was for the filming of 1988’s Mr. North. After Misery, in 1990, and several made-for-television films, Lauren appeared in the 1996 movie, My Fellow Americans. It was a wonderful comedy romp following Jack Lemmon and James Garner, as two ex-presidents, and their escapades.
In 1996, 51 years after her auspicious entry, at age 19, into Hollywood’s stratosphere via To Have and Have Not, and her marriage to Humphrey Bogart, she celebrated what she called “her best year yet” as a bona fide movie star — a run of three major films in a row. Bacall’s newest role that year was as Hannah Morgan in the Barbra Streisand-directed film, The Mirror Has Two Faces. She played a lonely, vulnerable woman living in the afterglow of her youthful beauty. Bacall recounted about Streisand that she was a brilliant director and a perfectionist. Bacall attributed her banner year and a half, not surprisingly, to old-fashioned hard work, persistence, and good luck.
While Bacall’s public presence waned a bit over the years, with her most marketable asset being her voice, she was mostly heard in commercials for cat food and cruise ships — which heated up the interest again. This pleased Bacall so much, and her status as a consummate professional and not just a player has never dimmed. Bacall’s 1979 autobiography By Myself, told the reason why she was a legend even as a Jewish girl from Manhattan’s West Side. She was picked from a Harper’s Bazaar cover to explode as a star, went to Hollywood before she was 20, made lots of movies, and married two famous actors.
Living in Bogart’s shadow for decades had its ups and downs. Understandably, Bacall has been known to bristle when his name is mentioned in interviews, but after all, he was the love of her life and easily the man who influenced much of who she was. Her standards became so high in life, which of course restricted her in many areas.
It was during her early years of marriage to Humphrey Bogart, knocking about with Bogie at parties and nightclubs, that Bacall got a reputation as a tough-talking, wisecracking, cynical lady, an image heightened further by her strong and formidable on-screen persona. From all of the numerous interviews with Bacall, it was quite obvious she has more to do with a keen, loud, interested, and colorful mind than anything else. She later discussed the misconceptions about her, particularly her aura of supreme self confidence, in her book published in 1994, stating, “Angst is a natural state for me,” and justified that idea of her being always in control simply came out of her first movie. She received mail from people who were very generous in complimenting her as a role model, as a strong woman who always spoke her mind.
Who is your favorite actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood?
Awards and Honors
Following her Hollywood success, Bacall eventually transitioned to a career on Broadway. She won a Tony Award for role in Applause in 1970. For her work in the Broadway production Woman of the Year, she won a second Tony Award. For her 1996 performance in the movie The Mirror Has Two Faces, she received her first Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. Despite the mark she left on movie history, Bacall never won an Oscar for her work, though she did receive an honorary award from the Academy in 2009. She was also named the greatest actress of the 20th century by the American Film Institute.
Bacall The Author
In addition to being an accomplished actress, wife, and mother, she wrote three books during her lifetime. All three were autobiographies. The first book came out in 1978, titled By Myself, and it won the National Book Award for 1980. This was followed by Now in 1994. Her final work, By Myself and Then Some, was published in 2005.
“Hey! She got to be Lauren Bacall. And that’s a pretty great way to go through life.”— Stephen Bogart
The Final Scene for a Great Actress
Despite her advanced age and deteriorating health, she made a small-scale comeback in 2004 in the English-language dub of Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle. The movie was based on the young adult novel by Diana Wynne Jones.
Lauren Bacall died on August 12, 2014, at her longtime home in The Dakota, the Upper West Side apartment building overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. She was 89, about five weeks short of her 90th birthday. According to her grandson, Jamie Bogart, the actress died after suffering a massive stroke. She was confirmed dead at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Most importantly, Bacall was survived by three children, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
© 2015 Doug West