Lauren Bacall had one of those incredible lives.
The wife and co-star of Humphrey Bogart. A Tony Award-winning actress. A National Book Award-winning author. A fashion icon. A friend of the Kennedys. One of the last survivors of Hollywood’s studio age. A star almost from the moment she appeared on screen to the day she died, on Tuesday at the age of 89, at a New York hospital.
“Stardom isn’t a career,” Ms. Bacall once observed, “it’s an accident.”
What a lucky accident it turned out to be.
Her career was one of great achievement and some frustration. she received a Golden Globe and an honorary Oscar and appeared in scores of film and TV productions. But not until 1996 did she receive an Academy Award nomination – as supporting actress for her role as Barbra Streisand’s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Although a sentimental favourite, she was beaten by Juliette Binoche for her performance in The English Patient.
Ms. Bacall would outlive her first husband by more than 50 years, but never outlived their legend, which began in their first movie together, To Have or Have Not, when she uttered to him one of the most sultry lines in movie history (in part because of her come-hither delivery): “You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
They became “Bogie and Bacall” – the hard-boiled couple who could fight and make up with the best of them. They were A-list glamour and B-movie danger. Unlike Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall were not a story of opposites attracting but of kindred, smouldering spirits. She was less than half Mr. Bogart’s age, yet as wise, and as jaded, as he was. They threw all-night parties, laughed at the snobs, palled around with Frank Sinatra and others and formed a gang of California carousers known as the Holmby Hills Rat Pack.
After Mr. Bogart’s death, she continued to forge her own distinct path. On television, in films, in her books, she was blunt, sardonic, demanding, loyal. Pity anyone who knocked Mr. Bogart, crossed one of her friends or voted Republican.
She was born Betty Joan Perske in New York, the daughter of Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx. Her parents divorced when Betty was 8, and her mother took Bacal, part of her maiden name, as their new surname; Betty added the extra “L” when she became an actress.
At first she dreamed of becoming a dancer, but thought herself too “gawky” and acting became her ambition. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and played a few walk-on roles in Broadway plays.
She was 18 when Diana Vreeland, the famed editor of Harper’s Bazaar, recognized that the slender, long-limbed young actress was ideal for fashion modelling. Nancy (Slim) Hawks, the fashionable wife of film director Howard Hawks, then recommended the beautiful young woman to her husband for the big screen. Ms. Bacall went to Hollywood under a contract and her first film, To Have and Have Not, came out 1944.
In her memoir, By Myself, she wrote of meeting Mr. Bogart: “There was no thunderbolt, no clap of thunder, just a simple how-do-you-do.”
She was just 19. On her first day of filming, her hands were shaking so much that she couldn’t manage a simple scene of lighting a cigarette. “I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin almost to my chest and eyes up at Bogart. It worked, and turned out to be the beginning of ‘The Look,’” she later wrote.
Work quickly led to romance. Their quarter-century age difference (he called her “Baby”) failed to deter them, but Mr. Bogart was still married to his third wife, mercurial actress Mayo Methot. She was persuaded to divorce him in Reno, and the lovers were married on May 21, 1945.
The couple made three more movies together, and bantered best in the classic adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. She took time out from working to bear two children (son Stephen and daughter Leslie), and to accompany her husband as they roughed it in Africa for The African Queen, which co-starred Mr. Bogart and Ms. Hepburn.
Ms. Bacall also became active politically, joining her husband in protesting against the Hollywood blacklist of suspected Communists and campaigning for Democrats. Few could forget the picture of her slouched on top of a piano, legs bare and dangling, with Harry Truman, then the U.S. vice-president, seated at the keys.
But the party began to wind down in 1956, when Mr. Bogart was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. For the next 10 months, his wife rarely left home in the evening. She organized late-afternoon cocktail parties where such friends as Mr. Sinatra, David Niven, Ms. Hepburn and Mr. Tracy buoyed her husband’s spirits with jokes and gossip.
On the night of Jan. 14, 1957, he grabbed her arm and muttered, “Goodbye, kid.” He died early the next morning at the age of 57. “At the time of his death, all I wanted … was to believe that my life would continue,” she told The Guardian newspaper in 2005.
Ms. Bacall later had a brief, disastrous engagement to Mr. Sinatra and a troubled, eight-year marriage to Jason Robards Jr., another leading actor, with whom she had a son, Sam.
Professionally, she thrived on the stage and remained busy in films. She won Tonys for the Broadway musicals Applause (1970) and Woman of the Year, the latter a 1981 production in which she revived the role immortalized by her friend Ms. Hepburn on screen. She was also memorably obstinate in an all-star film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974), co-starred with long-time friend Anjelica Huston in Mr. North (1988), and appeared in Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003) and Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter (1994). In recent years, Ms. Bacall played herself in a brief cameo for television’s The Sopranos, in which she cursed out a robber and was rewarded with a punch in the face.
Ms. Bacall was also a writer, and in 1980 won a National Book Award for the first of her two autobiographies, Lauren Bacall: By Myself.
Although often called a legend, she did not care for the word. “It’s a title and category I am less than fond of,” she wrote in 1994 in Now, her second autobiography. “Aren’t legends dead?”
She also expressed impatience, especially in her later years, with the public’s continuing fascination with her romance with Mr. Bogart, even though she frequently said that their 12-year marriage was the happiest period of her life.
“I think I’ve damn well earned the right to be judged on my own,” she said in a 1970 interview with The New York Times. “It’s time I was allowed a life of my own, to be judged and thought of as a person, as me.”
Years later, however, she seemed resigned to being forever tied to Mr. Bogart. “My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure,” she told Vanity Fair magazine in a profile of her in March, 2011, adding: “I’ll never know if that’s true. If that’s the way, that’s the way it is.”
In the 1940s, she became friends with William Faulkner when he was writing scripts for Mr. Hawks. One of her prized possessions was a copy of Mr. Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on which he wrote that she was not one who was satisfied with being just a pretty face, “but rather who decided to prevail.”
“Notice he didn’t write ‘survive,’” she told Parade magazine in 1997. “Everyone’s a survivor. Everyone wants to stay alive. What’s the alternative? See, I prefer to prevail.”
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