Lauren Bacall: Life and loves of the last femme fatale
She was the girl from Brooklyn whose sultry beauty lit up the silver screen in the 40s and 50s, and defined the look and attitude of her era. Julia Molony remembers a movie legend.
In 1945, the world was ready for a new kind of woman. The crisis of confidence that dogged the 30s was over, the war was won. The advent of TV was more than a decade away and the power of Hollywood, and the studios who built it, was unassailable.
Into this world stepped a brand new face from New York. A teenager and a virgin, Lauren Bacall was, in many ways, still a girl. But to the outside world, as soon as she appeared on screen, she was immortalised as the archetype of a new, powerful femininity. Tall, and haughty, with a low voice and commanding bearing, she was all woman in a man's world.
Already a living legend, Humphrey Bogart, her co-star in her first film To Have and Have Not, was twice her age. He was rumoured to have slept with more than 1000 women, including many of the famous female stars of his generation: Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Marlene Deitrich and Ingrid Bergman. But he spotted something completely original in the young Bacall. On screen, she was pure, molten lava.
Born Betty Joan Berske in 1924 into a solidly middle-class, Romanian Jewish family, Bacall was an only child, raised by her mother single-handedly after her father abandoned the family when she was small. Soon after, the family took back her mother's maiden name, Bacal, which she later changed to Bacall. Her resourcefulness and grit were inherited from her mother, and fostered by the struggles of her childhood.
“I grew up believing that women had the upper hand — got things done — were listened to,” she said. “It's women I admire more, for character, honesty, daring, courage.”
From childhood, Betty dreamed first of being a dancer. But when she discovered she was too tall, her ambitions shifted to acting. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and, as a student, she stalked Broadway, working as an usher at the St James Theatre, and going around pestering and pleading with everyone she met for a break. But it was her beauty that got her noticed. She was spotted by the legendary editor Diana Vreeland, who hired her as a model and put her on the March 1943 cover of Harper's Bazaar.
Just at that moment, Howard Hawks, producer, Svengali and a major player in Hollywood, was on the hunt for a new kind of star. His wife showed him her copy of Harper's, and he hired the young model on the spot.
“His one ambition was to find a girl and invent her, to create her as his perfect woman. He was my Svengali, and I was to become, under his tutelage, this big star, and he would own me. And he would also like to get me into his bed, which, of course — horrors! It was the furthest thing from my mind,” she told Vanity Fair.
He got the star he was looking for in Bacall, “a woman with a masculine approach, insolent, someone who could give as good as she got”.
When she stepped in front of the camera in her debut, Bacall seemed a femme fatale fully formed. Still just 19, she delivered a performance that was flinty and formidable, with devastating poise. But the truth was that she was cripplingly shy in front of the camera.
In the opening scene, when her character, Slim, makes her entrance, leaning against a doorway and demanding a light for her cigarette, she found she couldn't deliver her line without her head trembling. The only way she managed it was to drop her chin to her chest, and peer up at Bogart through her lashes. The effect was so striking, it became her trademark — known to the world simply as ‘the look'.
Bacall knew the value of her beauty, but it was never, in itself, of great interest to her. “Looking at yourself in a mirror isn't exactly a study of life,” she once said.
Howard Hawks had handed his new star the keys to the kingdom, but, despite being married, he guarded her jealously. Through his influence, the usher-turned-model-turned- actress was carried to the heart of the movie industry. He insisted she change her name from Betty to Lauren. Perturbed by her nasal, New York accent, he trained her to practise speaking at a lower register, a tone which better matched her sultry type of heavy-lidded beauty.
The image Hawks constructed suited her perfectly, but she never accepted the name. She always insisted that friends and family call her Betty.
Very quickly, Hawks began to recognise a smouldering chemistry growing between his two stars. And though it wounded his ego, he was savvy enough to exploit it, cutting the role of another female star to place the Bogie-Bacall dynamic centre stage.
The real-life affair between the two stars began tentatively. Bogie came to her dressing-room one night on set and, out of the blue, leaned in and kissed her. But there was a complication — he was married, “to a woman who was a notorious drinker and fighter. A tough lady who would hit you with an ashtray, lamp, anything, as soon as not,” said Bacall.
Mayo Methot was Bogart's third wife, and undoubtedly a problem, so for six months, the couple conducted a secret affair.
Eventually, Bogart announced that he would divorce Methot and marry Bacall.
He was 25 years older — the same age as her mother — who didn't approve of Betty's engagement to a heavy-drinking actor with three divorces already behind him, no matter how much of an icon he was.
Later in her life, she dismissed out of hand the idea that in Bogart she'd found the father figure she'd been searching for as a child. In any case, she didn't like to talk about her father.
Throughout her career, she spoke very little of him, and when pressed on the subject, would dismiss him as irrelevant to her life.
It was, in many ways, an authentic Hollywood romance — they were devoted to each other, though the lines between business and pleasure were occasionally blurred. When they married in 1945 a crew from Paramount was present to film the event.
After the wedding, they lived happily for over a decade with Bacall giving birth to a son, Steve (named after Bogart's character in To Have or Have Not) followed by a daughter, Leslie, who was just a toddler when Bogart agreed to go and see a doctor about a persistent cough that had been bothering him for some time. Tests were ordered and the results, when they came, shattered the couple's happy family. It was cancer of the oesophagus.
Just weeks after Bogart passed away, Bacall was hotly pursued by one of his dearest friends, Frank Sinatra. They had become close when, in the final months of Humphrey's illness, the singer had started visiting the family at home. When Bogart died, Bacall was heartbroken and, in her confusion, receptive to Sinatra's advances.
The pair went public early, after being photographed out together at a cinema in Hollywood, and were an item for eight months, during which time they got engaged.
News of the engagement was made public after Bacall failed to deny it to a gossip columnist.
A few days later, Sinatra called her to suggest a cooling off. Then, at a party a few weeks later, he didn't even acknowledge her. Humiliated and stung, she realised it was the end of their affair.
“Frank did me a great favour. He saved me from the disaster our marriage would have been. But the truth is that he behaved like a complete s**t,” she said.
In some ways, her romantic history was to repeat itself when she was introduced to the actor Jason Robards at a party.
Like Bogart when she first met him, he was married and also a heavy drinker. But he was also charismatic and charming, and she fell for him. Their liaison was clandestine at first, but by the time Jason's quickie Mexican divorce from his wife came through, Bacall was already pregnant with his baby.
After some dispute about what to do, a marriage was hastily arranged, but a legal fiasco followed when it transpired that the Mexican divorce wasn't legal in America. To solve the problem, the couple flew to Mexico and got married there, in Spanish.
“When our baby boy, Sam, was born, Jason showed up drunk to take me home from the hospital in a Rolls-Royce,” she remembered, as things between them started to slide. “I'd have preferred he was sober in a taxi. We were certainly not your average newly-weds starting a great life.”
Three years later, she left him on the advice of her close friend Katharine Hepburn.
Jason was to be the last of her public and significant love affairs. For the remainder of her life, she fell back on the well-developed self-sufficiency she'd learnt from her mother.
Though always loyal to the memory of Bogart, in her later years, the fact that she was always referenced in relation to him begun to rankle. After all, she was only 20 when they married, and she lived the majority of her adult life without him. And the life that they shared together, though personally very happy, had its limitations. “He wanted a wife, he didn't want an actress,” she said. Ultimately, it was her survivalist self-sufficiency rather than her marriage that best defined her. According to Maggie Smith, her dear friend, “she has always said living alone is not as bad as living with someone you can't stand.”
Even in her heyday she had a reputation for being difficult, which she simply acknowledged and made no apologies for. She remained defiantly irascible until the end. “Patience was not my strong point,” she said. “There are a lot of people who don't like me at all, I'm very sure of that. But I wasn't put on this earth to be liked. I have my own reasons for being and my own sense of what is important and I'm not going to change that.”
Bacall had a fatalistic, defiant approach to life, refusing to engage with the simplistic Hollywood myth of final redemption and happy ever after. “I don't think anyone who has a brain cell can really be happy,” she told an interviewer late in her life. “What is there really to be happy about? If you're a thinking human being, there's no way to divorce yourself from the world.”
She did have some reasons to be grateful, though. She gave one of her last interviews, a few years ago, aged 86, and was still sharp as a tack, having enjoyed a lifetime of near perfect health. But nearing the end, there was still one slightly bitter pill to swallow. “My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I'm sure,” she said. She wasn't wrong.