Date of Birth: 16 September 1924, The Bronx, New York, US
Birth Name: Betty Joan Perske
Nicknames: Lauren Bacall
Tall, slim and sultry, with a hoarse voice and a cryptic personality, Miss Bacall was the perfect match for Bogart’s rugged cynicism, “a leggy, blonde huntress,” as one critic noted, “whose cat’s eyes never blinked before Bogart’s scowls”. In each film they created a special atmosphere of dry, terse comedy and tough-guy talk which masked their underlying affection for one another and seemed unique in popular cinema for the balance of power their roles created between the sexes.
Sensual but never sentimental, insolent, sharp-witted, laconic, cool and above all sophisticated, they seemed, as another observer put it, even to kiss out of the corners of their mouths.
Higher brows were moved to compare the tone of these mating games with that of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, though the style owed more to Raymond Chandler or Hemingway than to Shakespeare. At all events, they brought a new and personal chemistry to the screen which made the partnership refreshingly equal at every level.
Although Lauren Bacall was an actress of accomplishment in her own right, it was her acting in only four films with Bogart and their enduring marriage that turned them as a couple into the stuff of legend, and enhanced her own dramatic reputation more than any anything she did elsewhere in films or on stage.
One of her most famous lines was in To Have And Have Not when they were about to go their separate ways after bidding each other goodnight. At the door she turned and said: “You know how to whistle? You put your lips together and… blow.”
As the American critic James Agee wrote: “Whether or not you like the film will depend almost entirely on whether you like Miss Bacall. I am no judge... It has been years since I have seen such amusing pseudo-toughness on the screen.”
Lauren Bacall, who was born in New York City as Betty Joan Perske on September 16 1924, was the only child of William Perske, a salesman of medical instruments from Alsace, and his wife Natalia, of Romanian and German-Jewish extraction. They divorced when their daughter was six. The mother adopted the name Bacal; the daughter added an “l” to stop it rhyming with “crackle”. She always disliked “Lauren”, the name bestowed on her by Hollywood, preferring to be known as Betty.
Educated at the expense of wealthy uncles at a private boarding school, Highland Manor, Tarrytown, New York, and at the Julia Richman High School, Manhattan, Betty intended to be a dancer, having attended ballet classes since infancy. But in adolescence she was drawn to acting.
Inspired by Bette Davis films, she enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when she was 15, dating Kirk Douglas, who was there on a scholarship; but as the academy precluded scholarships for girls, she was obliged to leave after a year before bluffing her way into a job modelling sportswear.
Sacked for being Jewish, or flat-chested (or both), she took another job modelling gowns for a Jewish dress shop and in the evenings worked as an usherette. In 1942 she made her stage debut at the Longacre Theatre, New York, as a walk-on in a melodrama called Johnny 2 X 4, and played the ingénue in a pre-Broadway tour later that year. Then she took a job modelling for Harper’s Bazaar.
Leafing through the magazine in 1943, Mrs Howard Hawks, wife of the Hollywood director, drew her husband’s attention to the girl on the cover. Hawks cabled the magazine asking if she was free; she subsequently turned up on their doorstep.
After a screen test she signed a seven-year contract with Hawks and the producer Jack Warner for $250 a week, changing her name from Betty to Lauren. Hawks went to work on her voice. Taking her to some waste ground, he made her shout Shakespeare and other writers for hours every day in order to lower the tone of what he called her high nasal pipe.
After the daily exercises in the open air her voice became for him (and for the rest of the world) what he called “a satisfactorily low guttural wheeze”. He then insisted that in future she should always speak naturally and softly. Above all, she should ignore suggestions for “cultivating” her voice.
Within a year of her discovery on the front of Harper’s, Hawks had cast her with Bogart in To Have And To Have Not and directed her in such a way that her acting, with its insinuating sexuality and offhand independence, caused a sensation.
Hawks had urged her to play each scene exactly as she felt her character would behave: to act as if she were living the part. If she were true to her own feelings, she would be true to the film.
One scene sprang entirely from her imagination. After an emotional episode in a hotel room with Bogart’s Harry Morgan, Bacall’s Marie left him, according to the scenario, and returned to her own room. Between takes, Bacall grumbled to Hawks: “God, I’m dumb.”
“Why?” he asked. “Well”, she replied, “if I had any sense I’d go back after that guy.” So she did.
At 19 she had become, in her first film, one of Hollywood’s most sensational, relaxed and dominating newcomers: husky-voiced, aloof and shrewdly impervious to insult. This was Bogart’s most interesting screen partner for years, in an otherwise hazy melodrama about the French Resistance at Martinique with Bogart as a sea skipper, edgy, grey-voiced, unsure of this strange girl called Marie.
Some of her lines entered film mythology, such as (after Bogart has kissed her for the second tentative time), “It’s even better when you help.” To everyone’s astonishment, she also sang (or rather croaked and growled, like a trombone) a suggestive song in a seamen’s bar.
She was promoted by Warner Brothers, her studio, as “The Look” because of her way of looking up suggestively with her lynx-eyes from under a high forehead (and through a haze of cigarette smoke) at the rugged, appreciative Bogart.
In 1945 she became his fourth wife; she was 25 years his junior, and the partnership endured until his death nearly 12 years later. Along with her husband, she actively campaigned for the Democrats and protested against Hollywood’s blacklist of suspected Communists.
Lauren Bacall was miscast in Confidential Agent (1945), a thriller derived from Graham Greene’s novel about the Spanish Civil War with Charles Boyer as a Spanish agent; she was, as one critic put it, about as English as Pocahontas, although her “very individual vitality made up for her deficiencies”. The following year, Hawks brought her back with Bogart in The Big Sleep.
The level-pegging of their partnership was curious, unusual and, in those days unexpected in films. One theory was that Hawks’s dislike of Bogart was behind it. Before The Big Sleep, the director was reputed to have said to Bogart: “You are about the most insolent man on the screen and I’m going to make the girl a little more insolent.”
And so it proved. In their second film together, in which she played the rich antagonistic daughter of Bogart’s employer, in a fine adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel, she proved every bit as cool and independent as she had been in To Have And Have Not.
Neither of their other two films together was a patch on their predecessors. In Dark Passage (1947), Lauren Bacall sheltered a heavily-bandaged Bogart in his attempt, as an escaped convict, to prove that he had not murdered his wife. All that Delmer Daves’s screenplay proved was that without sharp dialogue, an element of sexual rivalry or a more intelligent scenario, Bogart and Bacall were not themselves.
John Huston’s Key Largo (1948) was a far better film, but it still failed to find any of the old style of banter for them to exchange in its tense tale of a bunch of gangsters who invade a hotel run by Miss Bacall, a war widow.
It was as if, having awakened public interest in the pair as a screen partnership, Warner Brothers could not find material to keep their characters effectively together. This was the film in which, to get the right facial expression from Lauren Bacall, Huston twisted her arm. He got the right expression but he never got her into another of his films. Key Largo was also her last film with Bogart who, unlike Lauren Bacall, went on to make some of the finest films of his career.
In 1950 she was the socialite who married Bix Beiderbecke (Kirk Douglas) in Young Man With A Horn, and appeared with Gary Cooper in Bright Leaf. Her gift for acid comedy came out nicely in Jean Negulesco’s How To Marry A Millionaire (1953), with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, and in the same director’s A Woman’s World (1954).
As an occupational therapist and Richard Widmark’s mistress in Vincente Minnelli’s Designing Woman (1957), she was miscast as a scatterbrained fashion queen opposite Gregory Peck.
In Douglas Sirk’s Written On The Wind (1957) she was supposed to have been swept off her feet by an oil millionaire. Was the baby his (Robert Stack’s) or his best friend’s (Rock Hudson’s)? Nobody much cared, least of all Miss Bacall, for Bogart died that year .
Two years later, after playing a tough-talking American governess in the British melodrama North-West Frontier, with Kenneth More, Lauren Bacall decided to return to the stage after an absence of 17 years. As Charlie in Goodbye Charlie (Lyceum, 1959), the story of a man’s return to earth after death as a woman, she played with considerable success opposite Sidney Chaplin.
In 1961 Lauren Bacall married the actor Jason Robards. (There had been earlier talk of marriage to Frank Sinatra, “but Frank just couldn’t cope with the idea” she said years later).
In the 1960s her films became less reliable . In Shock Treatment (1964) she played a batty psychiatrist; in Sex and the Single Girl (1965) a squabbling neighbour (with Henry Fonda); and in Jack Smight’s Harper (1966) a vindictive wife in a film which paid homage to Bogart, with Paul Newman as a private detective.
After that she worked mostly on Broadway. Apart from more than a year’s run as Stephanie, the nurse, in Abe Burrows’s comedy Cactus Flower (Royale, 1965), which some admirers considered the best role of her career, she spent three years as Margo Channing, a stage star threatened by a young rival, in the musical Applause, first in New York (Palace, 1970), for which she received a Tony award, then in Toronto, Chicago and on tour, before making her London debut in the same part at Her Majesty’s (1972).
Her role in Applause was the one Bette Davis had filled more flamboyantly in the film All About Eve. Lauren Bacall’s stage acting showed the same agreeable insouciance as her film acting .
She returned to the screen in 1974 in the Agatha Christie derivation, Murder On The Orient Express; and two years later faced, with admirable and stylish antagonism, John Wayne in Don Siegel’s The Shootist. This brought together one tough hombre and one tough cookie, and was the sharpest match since Bacall had first met Bogart.
As an indefatigable journalist in the musical Woman of the Year on Broadway in 1981, she took a slight story, according to the The Daily Telegraph’s John Barber, and injected into it “all the dynamism of a fascinating personality”.
In 1985 she was back in the West End in Harold Pinter’s revival of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth (Haymarket).
The Fan (1981) brought her back to the screen as a successful actress entangled with a young man in her first Broadway musical, and seven years later she contributed to another all-star Agatha Christie film, Appointment With Death. She also stole a child in a psychological film thriller, Tree of Hands (1989).
Of her many television appearances the most notable included Blithe Spirit and The Petrified Forest in 1956 and a role in the Frederick Forsyth Presents drama series.
Lauren Bacall was, perhaps, an actress more famous for whom she was thought to be than for what she actually did. “It was those pale eyes framed by a tawny mane, a way of walking that suggested a panther in her family tree, and a husky voice that could set a spinal column aquiver,” noted one reviewer.
She kept up the image of a sharp-tongued, no-nonsense feminist in interview after interview down the years. Journalists were slightly scared of her. But in truth — and unlike, say, Katharine Hepburn — she did not go on to create a substantial body of work. Her fame continued to rest largely on the early films with Bogart.
Her memoir, By Myself, appeared in 1978, followed in 2005 by And Then Some by way of an addendum. In this she described working visits to Paris making Robert Altman’s satirical Prêt à Porter (1994) and to Britain, where she starred in The Visit at the Chichester Festival in 1995.
Lauren Bacall received a Golden Globe and an honorary Oscar. In 1996 she was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role as Barbra Streisand’s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. She continued to make occasional appearances on screen, including, in 2006, appearing as herself in an episode of The Sopranos. In 2004 she had a supporting role alongside Nicole Kidman in Birth, a psychological drama directed by Jonathan Glazer.