Bacall’s legend more than just acting and Bogart
NEW YORK – 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 giant of fashion. 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, Tuesday, at age 89, at a New York City hospital.
“Stardom isn’t a career,” 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. The actress 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 favorite, she was beaten by Juliette Binoche for her performance in “The English Patient.”
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 Bogart among the sultriest lines in Hollywood history: “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 were “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. 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.
Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx, the daughter of Jewish immigrants. Her parents divorced when Betty was 8, and the mother took part of her family name, Bacal (Betty added the extra L when she became an actress).
She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and played a few walk-on roles in Broadway plays. Diana Vreeland, the famed editor of Harper’s Bazaar, recognized the slender, long-limbed actress as ideal for fashion modeling. The wife of film director Howard Hawks recommended her for movies, and Bacall went to Hollywood under a contract. “To Have and Have Not” came out in 1944.
In “By Myself,” she wrote of meeting Bogart:
“There was no thunderbolt, no clap of thunder, just a simple how-do-you-do.”
Work led to romance. The quarter century age difference (he called her “Baby”) failed to deter them, but Bogart still was married to his third wife, the mercurial actress Mayo Methot. She was persuaded to divorce him in Reno, and the lovers were married on May 21, 1945.
Bogart and Bacall made three more movies together, and bantered best in the classic adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.” She took time out to bear two children, and to accompany her husband as they roughed it in Africa for “The African Queen,” co-starring Bogart and Hepburn.
But the party began to wind down in 1956, when Bogart was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. For the next 10 months, his wife rarely left home in the evening.
On the night of Jan. 14, 1957, Bogart grabbed his wife’s arm and muttered, “Goodbye, kid.” He died in the early morning at the age of 57.
“At the time of his death, all I wanted, I think, was to believe that my life would continue,” she told The Guardian in 2005.
Bacall had a brief, disastrous engagement to Sinatra and a troubled, eight-year marriage to Jason Robards Jr., with whom she had a son. Professionally, she thrived on the stage and remained busy in films. She won Tonys for the Broadway musicals “Applause” and “Woman of the Year,” the latter a 1981 production in which she revived the role immortalized by her friend Hepburn on screen. Meanwhile, she was memorably obstinate in an all-star film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” co-starred with longtime friend Anjelica Huston in “Mr. North,” and in recent years appeared as herself in a brief cameo for “The Sopranos,” in which she curses out a robber and is rewarded with a punch in the face.
In the 1940s, Bacall became friends with William Faulkner when he was writing scripts for Hawks. One of her prized possessions was a copy of 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.”