Best remembered for her film collaborations with her husband Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in New York City on September 16, 1924. While still in high school, Perske began taking classes at the New York School of the Theater. Through her uncle, Perske was introduced to her screen idol, BETTE DAVIS. Davis told her that she had to be certain she wanted to act because “it’s hard work and it’s lonely.” Ever the realist, Perske continued pursue her goal despite Davis’ s warning. After a year of study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Perske turned to modeling. Her lean figure and sharp features caught the attention of magazine editor Diana Vreeland, who put her on the cover of the March 1943 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Several Hollywood luminaries, including David O. Selznick and Howard Hughes, tried to sign Perske to a film contract. Renamed Lauren Bacall, she accepted an offer from director Howard Hawks. In his film To Have and Have Not (1945), he cast her as Bogart’s love interest, though she was 25 years his junior.
Hawks carefully orchestrated Bacall’s film debut. He told her how to move, speak, and behave, using his stylish wife, Slim, as a guide. Bacall herself, however, originated the most distinctive aspect of her character. When acting with Bogart, she was so frightened that she held her chin close to her neck to keep her head from trembling and looked at him through upturned eyes. Dubbed “the Look,” the posture became a new symbol of confident female sexuality. To Have and Have Not was an enormous success and won Bacall enthusiastic reviews. During the filming, she also began a romance with Bogart, though he was still involved in a turbulent marriage. They kept their affair quiet until he could obtain a divorce. On May 21, 1945, Bacall and Bogart were married. They eventually had two children, Stephen and Leslie. Conceding to Bogart’s wishes, Bacall made home and family her first priority, though she continued to appear in films. Her second movie. Confidential Agent (1945), was a failure, prompting many critics who had earlier praised her work to question whether she could act at all. Realizing that her reception depended heavily on the quality of her material, she began fighting for better roles. Bacall soon revived her career with several onscreen pairings with Bogart, including The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948). She also proved herself a deft comedian in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), which costarred MARILYN MONROE and BETTY GRABLE.
In 1956 Bogart was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Bacall devoted herself to nursing her husband until his death the following year. The loss of Bogart devastated Bacall. Selfdescribed as “desperate for companionship,” she was briefiy engaged to Frank Sinatra. He later ended their romance. Bacall then fied Hollywood for Broadway, where she starred in the unsuccessful comedy Goodbye, Charlie (1959). In New York, she met actor Jason Robards Jr. whom she married in 1961. They had one son, actor Sam Robards. Bacall devoted much of her time during their eight-year marriage to their family life. She did, however, appear in three films, including Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and Harper (1966), and starred in the Broadway hit Cactus Flower (1965). After divorcing Robards, Bacall returned to work full time and had one of the greatest successes of her career. In 1969, she played the lead in Applause!, a musical based on the classic Bette Davis film All About Eve (1950). Her performance won Bacall a Tony Award.
After an eight-year hiatus, Bacall returned to film in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Throughout the rest of the decade, she took on occasional roles in such movies as The Shootist (1976) and H.E.A.L.T.H. (1979). Bacall also wrote By Myself (1979), an autobiography that focused on her relationship with her mother and with Bogart. As the title implied, she wrote the book without the assistance of a ghostwriter. For her effort, she won the National Book Award in 1980. In the 1980s, Bacall triumphantly returned to the stage in Woman of the Year (1980), for which she won her second Tony. In London, she also starred in a production of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth (1985) directed by playwright Harold Pinter. The film industry, however, seemed to find little place for Bacall. Although she publicly proclaimed her desire to work in movies, she insisted that there were very few roles available to women her age. In most of her later film appearances, she has been relegated to small roles in which she is asked to play a witty, urbane woman much like herself. The best of these parts came in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1997), a romantic comedy costarring and directed by BARBRA STREISAND. Bacall’s insightful performance as Streisand’s vain and lonely mother earned her her first Oscar nomination. Though Bacall remains best loved as a film star, she has since acted most often in commercials and on the stage, including a production of Noel Coward’s Waiting in the Wings in 2000.
Bacall, Lauren. By Myself. New York: Knopf, 1979. Now. New York: Knopf, 1994.
Royce, Brenda Scott. Lauren Bacall: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1992.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Big Sleep (1946). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.
Intimate Portrait: Lauren Bacall. Unapix, VHS, 1999.
The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). Columbia/Tristar, DVD/VHS, 2001.
To Have and Have Not (1945). Warner Home Video, VHS, 2000.