The Timeless Elegance of Lauren Bacall: A Hollywood Icon
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, few names resonate as profoundly as Lauren Bacall. Known for her distinctive sultry voice, smouldering looks, and undeniable talent, Bacall carved a niche for herself as a legendary actress who captivated audiences for generations. Her legacy remains an enduring testament to the glamour, charm, and sophistication that defined the 1940s. But how did she transform herself from a shy, high-pitched drama school student to one of Hollywood’s timeless alluring and sultry actresses?
Lauren Bacall’s childhood began in New York, born on the 16th of September 1924 as Betty Joan Perske. She was the only child of Natalie Weinstien-Bacal (a secretary) and William Perske (who worked in sales). At the age of five her father abandoned the family due to problems with alcohol, leaving Natalie to raise Betty as a single mother. Bacall didn’t see her father much after his abandonment, and Natalie changed Betty’s name to Betty Joan Bacal (the Romanian spelling for the surname). The pair relocated to Manhattan, where Bacall was brought up in the close-knit Weinstein family, who Bacall grew extremely close to.
Betty Joan Perske
Growing up Bacall was exposed to the vibrant energy of 1930s/1940s New York, fostering a sense of independence and resilience. The influence of her mother, who worked as a secretary instilled in Bacall the importance of determination and self-sufficiency from a young age - likely due to the absence of her father. Bacall and her mother remained extremely close, and Bacall insisted on keeping her mother’s surname (albeit spelt slightly differently) when she rose to Hollywood stardom.
Bacall with her mother, Natalie
Thanks to one of her generous uncles in the Weinstein family, Bacall was able to receive a private education at The Highland Manor Boarding School for Girls in Tarrytown, New York. Here she experienced her first taste of life as a performer in the school’s weekly dramatic programs. She then went on to take lessons at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts where she dated classmate Kirk Douglas for a short time.
Bacall and Douglas later worked together on "Young Man of Music" in 1950
Unfortunately, after a year of studying Bacall could not return to the Academy as her mother and family weren’t able to afford the tuition fees any longer, so she instead began working as a theatre usher at St. James Theatre and as a hostess at the Stage Door Canteen (an entertainment venue for servicemen) to supplement her income whilst keeping her close to the Broadway theatre scene she had grown to love.
Bacall was also encouraged to take up modelling for some extra income, and she started working as a model for The Walter Thornton Model Agency where she eventually landed herself a job modelling for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Bacall features on the cover of a 1943 issue which instantly gained attention from Nancy “Slim” Hawks - American socialite, fashion icon, and wife to Hollywood director Howard Hawks.
Bacall's first Harper's Bazaar cover, March 1943
After seeing Bacall on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, Slim sought Bacall out personally and encouraged her to take a screen test for Howard's upcoming film “To Have and Have Not”. Slim also urged her husband to invite Bacall for a screen test for the film - she saw Bacall as a diamond in the rough and was determined to bring Bacall to Hollywood. Howard originally asked his secretary to do some background research on Bacall - who was this 19-year-old, and why was his wife so enamoured with her?
'Slim Keith', wife to Howard Hawks
As luck would have it, Howard’s secretary misunderstood him and instead sent Bacall a ticket to travel straight to Los Angeles for the screen test: and it may have been the best mistake of his life.
Bacall’s screen test was a resounding success, just as Slim had predicted. Howard snapped Bacall up in a seven-year contract, starting at $100 a week and increasing to $1,250 in the seventh year. But there was still a small issue that needed to be ironed out. Bacall’s voice was naturally high-pitched and nasally (much different than the husky voice she is known for) and spent the rest of 1943 taking singing and speaking lessons to help deepen her voice. Inspired by the voices of her Hollywood idols, particularly Bette Davis, Bacall trained to speak in a lower register, creating an alluring and unique vocal presence.
Screen test shots for To Have and Have Not, trailing different hairstyles
Before “To Have and Have Not” started production, Howard convinced Bacall to change her name from ‘Betty’ to ‘Lauren’ to hide her Jewish heritage (the name Betty is of Hebrew origin, which many sadly wanted to avoid in Hollywood at the time). Bacall was determined to keep her mothers surname, but the spelling was changed to add an extra ‘L’ at the end (again in aid of hiding the Jewish origins of the surname and instead making it sound more French), and thus, Lauren Bacall was born.
Trailer for To Have and Have Not
At just 19, Bacall was cast alongside Hollywood legend Humphrey Bogart in her debut film “To Have and Have Not” in 1944. The overwhelming success of the film made Bacall an overnight sensation and she instantly shot to fame thanks to her graceful demeanour, cat-like movements, and stunning voice. This film marked not only her major film role but also the beginning of a romance between Bacall and Bogart, leading to one of Hollywood’s most celebrated marriages.
Initially nervous about filming, Bacall kept her head low to keep it from shaking but this calming gesture quickly became one of her most famous gestures which remained throughout her career and was dubbed “The Look”.
Seeing the nerves of the young actress, Bogart made a special effort to put her at ease by cracking jokes to make her feel more comfortable in front of the camera and around him. It’s no surprise that Bogart was popular with the ladies, but Bacall initially wasn’t the least bit interested in him. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2011, Becall recalled that when she went to watch the 1942 film “Casablanca”, starring Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, with her friend who found Bogart sexy, but she “thought she was crazy” and didn’t see the appeal. The Bogart charm must have done its magic when the pair began filming as Bacall quickly changed her opinion of him.
Bacall and Bogart in To Have and Have Not
In her memoir, "By Myself", she recounted how, three weeks into filming, Bogart stopped by her trailer to say goodnight:
“Suddenly, he leaned over, put his hand under my chin, and he kissed me. He took a worn packet of matches out of his pocket and asked me to put my phone number on the back. I did. I didn’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.”
Bacall was referring to Bogart’s at the time wife, Mayo Methot, who married Bogart in 1938. Their marriage wasn’t a happy one, and the press often referred to the couple as the “Battling Bogarts” because of their frequent fights. Both of them had problems with alcohol and Methot even stabbed Bogart in the shoulder. Although Bogart did make an effort to save his marriage, he inevitably fell for his 19-year-old co-star. Despite the difference in their ages - Bogart was 44 at the time - the couple fell head over heels in love.
Bogart and Mayo Methot
When director Howard Hawks caught on to the affair, he tried to put an end to it by upsetting Bacall, telling her it was just a one-time fling, that Bogart would lose all interest and leave her as soon as filming ended. He even threatened to send her to the “lowest studios” in Hollywood where her career would stagnate. Bacall, in her memoir, said:
“Hawks used to say to Bogie, ‘You don’t have to get serious about this girl. Take her downtown to a hotel and get a room with her - that’s enough.’ That was not Bogie's scene at all.”
Despite the empty threats from Hawks the pair continued to grow closer during filming. Bogart loved Bacall’s fun-loving, down-to-earth nature, and Bacall found Bogart to be gentle, sentimental, and loving - much the opposite of the harshness of the characters he usually portrayed. Bacall’s mother, however, wasn’t afraid to voice her thoughts about what her daughter was thinking by pursuing a drunkard married man 25 years her senior.
Bogart and Methot would eventually divorce on the 10th of May 1945, and he and Bacall were married just 11 days later. The ceremony was small and private, held at the country home of Bogart’s close friend, Louis Bromfield, on the 21st of May 1945. The pair quickly became one of Hollywood’s most beloved couples and co-starred in a string of successful films including "The Big Sleep" (1945), "Dark Passage" (1947), and "Key Largo" (1948).
A promotional photo for Key Largo
Despite the pressure of their career and the challenges of life in the public eye, their marriage was mostly happy - but not one without its troubles. Bogart’s drinking was still problematic, just as Bacall’s mother had said, but it didn’t result in the excessive violence of his previous marriage. Bacall loved the nightlife, he loved to stay at home. Bogart loved to be on the sea, but she suffered from seasickness. The relationship was also tainted by mutual infidelity - his with long-term hair-dresser Verita Thompson, and hers with Frank Sinatra. Despite this, the couple remained married and cared deeply for each other until Bogart’s passing in January 1957 due to oesophageal cancer.
Bogart and Bacall with their boxer, the household's breed of choice
Through the late 1940s and 1950s, Bacall was known to reject scripts that she did not find interesting and thereby earning her a reputation for being difficult. However, she further solidified her status by appearing as the leading lady in a string of successful films that won favourable reviews, especially for her Femme Fatale performances. Bacall’s confidence and magnetic presence on and off screen solidified her status as a Hollywood icon, with one critic writing “Lauren Bacall has cinema personality to burn… she has a javelin-like vitality, a born dancer’s eloquence of movement, a fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness… plus a stone crushing self-confidence and a trombone voice”.
After Bogart’s death, Bacall got engaged to her long-time affair partner Frank Sinatra in 1957. Sinatra had explicitly told Bacall that he wanted the engagement to remain private and not to discuss their relationship with the press, and it came as a shock and anger when he discovered news of their engagement being spread by the Hollywood gossip press. He called off the engagement instantly, thinking that Bacall had gone directly against his wishes. However, in her memoir, Bacall mentions that she was out with her friend Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar when they encountered gossip columnist Louella Parsons, who Lazar told the news of the engagement. The damage had already been done before Bacall could do anything, and she said that Sinatra only found out the truth years later.
Bacall and Frank Sinatra at a dance party following the 1955 Academy Awards
Bacall would go on to meet actor Jason Robards in the 1960s with the pair planning to marry in Vienna, Austria, on the 16th of June 1961. The wedding ended up being cancelled, however, as the Austrian authorities refused to grant the couple a marriage licence as Robards couldn’t provide proof of divorce from his previous marriage and Bacall did not have the death certificate for Bogart. The exact same issue prevented them from getting married in Las Vegas too. After two failed attempts, they were able to marry after driving to Ensenada, Mexico, on the 4th of July, 1961. Just eight years later in 1969, Bacall divorced Robards due to his abuse of alcohol.
Bacall and Robards at their wedding, 1961
BEYOND THE SILVER SCREEN
Bacall’s contributions to the world of cinema extended her roles as an actress. She was an advocate for civil rights and an outspoken voice on political and social issues. Her unwavering determination to speak her mind and challenge societal norms positioned her as a role model, especially for Jewish women.
When Bacall first shot to fame, she was never publicly known as a Jewish actress. Warner Brothers' first press release on Bacall incorrectly stated that her parents and family had been in the US for several generations - but her family were first-generation immigrants. Aware of the prejudice against Jews expressed by many people in power in Hollywood, Bacall did not loudly proclaim her roots but didn’t denounce them either. There was constant economic and social pressure on Bacall to hide or relinquish her Jewish identity, but she remained proud of her Jewish heritage, which was rooted primarily in her love for the Weinstein family. Her values and identity as a Jewish woman were firmly fixed by her upbringing in their midst.
Bacall was also active in US politics in support of liberal democrats, and along with Bogart and other Hollywood personalities sent a telegram which protested the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigations of Americans suspected of adhering to communism. This telegram said that investigating individuals’ political beliefs violated the basic principles of American democracy. Bacall wasn’t in support of Communism by any means, but the repression and persecution in the wave of McCarthyism was a great concern to her.
Bacall continued to act through to her older years. She graced both big and small screens, continuing to impress audiences with her performances. In 2009 she received an Academy Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recognition of her contributions to the Golden Age of Motion Pictures.
Bacall backstage at the 2010 Academy Awards
She also found success and popularity with younger audiences for her major supporting roles in the films "Misery" (1990), "Dogville" (2003), and the English dubs of animated films "Howl’s Moving Castle" (2004) and "Ernest & Clementine" (2012).
Behind the scenes footage of Bacall recording lines for Howl's Moving Castle
Unfortunately, just a month before her 90th birthday, Bacall suffered a massive stroke and passed away on the 12th of August 2014. Her ashes were buried next to Bogart at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, California. It’s reported that Bacall left $10,000 in her will specifically so that her dog, Sophie, was taken care of. Two loyal employees received $10,000 and $15,000. The rest of her vast $26.6 million estate was shared between her three children, with $250,000 being set aside to pay for her grandsons' college tuition.
Lauren Bacall’s impact on Hollywood and timeless elegance, smoky allure, and memorable performances have cemented her status as a cinematic legend. Her ability to command attention and leave an undeniable mark on every role she portrayed remains unparalleled. Her legacy lives on through the countless films she graced and the lives she touched. Lauren Bacall will forever remain an embodiment of the glamour and sophistication that defined an era.