The story of Lauren Bacall’s life is almost as seductive as her celebrated voice. The daughter of an immigrant Jewish single-parent mother, she not only realized her dream of becoming an actress—she married Hollywood’s leading man and became part of the most glamorous couple in town.
“Young people, even in Hollywood, ask me, ‘Were you really married to Humphrey Bogart?’” Bacall recalled before she died earlier this year. “‘Well, yes, I think I was,’ I reply.”
It must, at times, have seemed unreal to Bacall; she was only 19 years old when she and her beauty beguiled Bogart. By the time she died, she had been single for 45 years, and had spent more than half a century living in her Central Park West apartment in The Dakota, which in her later years she shared with her papillon spaniel Sophie. Neighbors often saw the lady whose seductive, throaty voice made, one critic claimed, “the simplest remark sound like a jungle mating call,” walking her dog by the park, thousands of miles and three-quarters of a lifetime away from the movie studio lot that would change her world.
Betty Joan Perske was born in the Bronx on September 16, 1924. Her father, William Perske, was from a family of Russian Jews. Through him, Betty was a cousin of legendary Israeli stateman Shimon Peres, who was born Perski. Her mother Natalie was a Romanian Jewish immigrant. William was abusive and adulterous, and left his wife and daughter when Betty was just six years old. Two years later, the young girl dropped her father’s name and took her grandmother’s, Bacal, to which she added an extra ‘l’ to aid with pronunciation. Growing up, Bacall did not let the family’s relative poverty diminish her dreams—she had her heart set on becoming an actress, more precisely the next Bette Davis.
Not only beautiful but intelligent and determined, while Bacall studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, she assiduously—or pushily—pursued contacts she thought might help. This included showing up at theater producers’ offices uninvited and schmoozing other working actors. But it wasn’t just her efforts that led to Bacall’s big break; rather she had the good fortune of having the right person see her at the right time.
When Bacall appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine as an 18 year old, she grabbed the attention of the wife of director Howard Hawks. Convinced she had the looks of a movie star, Slim Hawks encouraged her husband to consider Bacall for a role in his upcoming film. He agreed and, Bacall told Vanity Fair, “Howard Hawks who changed my life. Despite all of his great accomplishments—Bringing Up Baby , Scarface , some of the best pictures to that date—his one ambition was to find a girl and invent her, to create her as his perfect woman. He was my Svengali, and I was to become, under his tutelage, this big star, and he would own me.”
When she arrived in Los Angeles for her screen test, Bacall’s deep velvety voice struck Hawks. Determined to shape her, he encouraged the teenager to deepen it further through practice. Hawks decided to cast Bacall in his film To Have and Have Not, which was based on a Hemingway novel and starred Humphrey Bogart. He thought the two should meet before shooting, so brought the young actress to the set of Bogart’s current film.
“Howard told me to stay put, he’d be right back—which he was, with Bogart,” Bacall recalled. “He introduced us. There was no clap of thunder, no lightning bolt, just a simple how-do-you-do. Bogart was slighter than I imagined—five feet ten and a half, wearing his costume of no-shape trousers, cotton shirt, and scarf around neck. Nothing of import was said—we didn’t stay long—but he seemed a friendly man.”
Evidently Bacall made more of an impression on Bogart in the course of filming. A few weeks after work on the movie started, Bogart stopped by his costar’s trailer to wish her goodnight, he claimed. Bacall was brushing her hair when, standing behind her, “suddenly he leaned over, put his hand under my chin, and kissed me,” Bacall recalled in her autobiography, By Myself.
“It was impulsive—he was a bit shy—no lunging wolf tactics. He took a worn package of matches out of his pocket and asked me to put my phone number on the back. I did. I don’t know why I did, except it was kind of part of our game. Bogie was meticulous about not being too personal, was known for never fooling around with women at work or anywhere else. He was not that kind of man, and also he was married to a woman who was a notorious drinker and fighter.”
Her first big role had not only made Bacall a star—it had landed her one, too. Sure, he was married, but Bogart, who was 25 years her senior, would leave his third wife for the young New York girl. Bacall asked her older man, who was also from New York but from an established WASP family, if her Jewishness was an issue for him. “Hell, no,” Bacall wrote he replied. “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?”
Bogart left his wife, and Bacall broke free from the jealously of Hawks, and the couple married in May 1945. Having been born in 1899, Bogart called himself “a last-century boy” and was 45 years old; Bacall was 20. Two years after marrying, Bacall and Bogart were among 80 Hollywood notables who signed a petition in protest of the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the now-infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. Taking a stand, the pair were among those who argued the committee was violating American democracy, although later Bacall doubted “whether the trip to Washington ultimately helped anyone.” Still she knew that taking a stand “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.”
The most glamorous couple in Hollywood, Bacall and Bogart had two children, Stephen and Leslie, whom they raised Episcopalian. “My mother was a lapsed Jew, and my father was a lapsed Episcopalian,” Stephen wrote. They chose to raise their children Christian, he continued, “because my mother felt that would make life easier for Leslie and me during those post-World War II years.” Bacall wrote that it was Bogart’s decision, based on the fact that “with discrimination still rampant in the world, it would give them one less hurdle to jump in life’s Olympics.”
Bogart died of cancer at the age of 57. It was 1957 and Bacall was just 32. Shortly after she moved back to her hometown of New York, settling in the large Upper West Side apartment that would remain her home for almost 60 years. After she had had a brief but highly publicized relationship with Frank Sinatra, she married actor Jason Robards in 1961, with whom she had a third child before divorcing in 1969. Although her family often took precedence over her career, Bacall enjoyed considerable professional success, winning two Tony awards for her starring roles in musicals.
By the time she died, Bacall was a legendary figure, at once the quintessential New Yorker, walking her dog in Central Park, and a reminder of Hollywood’s finest days. “My son tells me,” Bacall recalled shortly before she died. “‘Do you realize you are the last one? The last person who was an eyewitness to the golden age?’”