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 (in part because of that 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 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. Unlike Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall were not a story of opposites attracting but of kindred, smoldering spirits. She was less than half 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 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 Bogart, crossed one of her friends or voted Republican.
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.)
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. 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.”
She was 19 and on her first day of shooting, her hands were shaking so much that she couldn’t manage a simple scene of lighting a cigarette. Hawks helped by breaking the scene into short takes.
“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 led to romance. The quarter century age difference (he called her “Baby”) failed to deter them, but Bogart was still 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. She also became active politically, joining Bogart in protesting 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, while Harry Truman (then vice president) was seated in front of the keys.
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. She organized late-afternoon cocktail parties where such friends as Sinatra, David Niven, Hepburn and Tracy buoyed Bogart’s spirits with jokes and gossip.
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.”
“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.”