Remembering Lauren Bacall: The Early Years
Lauren Bacall was the girl with “The Look,” a sultry, sensuous beauty with a husky voice and a hard-as-nails façade that let the world know that she was a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps best known for her marriage to actor Humphrey Bogart, Bacall was once described as a combination of Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, and Bette Davis, with overtones of Veronica Lake and Barbara Stanwyck and undertones of Mae West and Jean Harlow.
Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx, New York, on September 16, 1924, the only child of William, of Alsatian descent, and Natalie, who was born in Romania. When young Betty’s parents separated in 1932, Natalie assumed the last half of her maiden name, Weinstein-Bacal, and her daughter became Betty Bacal. Betty moved with her mother to Manhattan and attended the Highland Manor school for girls in Tarrytown, where she experienced her first taste of life as a performer in the school’s weekly dramatic programs. Next, Betty enrolled at the Julia Richman School for Girls. As the actress wrote in her 1995 book, Now, attending girls’ schools and being raised by her mother fostered her belief that “women had the upper hand – got things done – were listened to.” This would be a conviction that would typify the star’s actions throughout her personal and professional life.
During her high school years, Betty participated in Saturday classes at the New York School of the Theatre, and her high school senior yearbook photo featured the caption, “May your dreams of being an actress overflow the brim.” After her graduation, she set about making those dreams come true. She spent a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (while there, she dated fellow student and future co-star Kirk Douglas), but could not return because her mother was unable to afford the tuition. Instead, she turned to modeling, securing her first job at the age of 16 and earning $30 a week.
While working as a model, Betty spent much of her time pursuing her big break on Broadway. Walgreen’s Drug Store on 44th Street was one of her favorite haunts, where she poured through copies of Actor’s Cue, a publication that included listings of road tours and plays being cast. She also sold Actor’s Cue outside Sardi’s Restaurant, a popular theatrical retreat, boldly making herself known to a variety of notables, including producer Max Gordon, director George Kaufman, and actor Paul Lukas, whom Betty called her “first important friend in the theater.” After six months of modeling, Betty got a night job as an usher, spending her days seeking work in the theater.
Betty’s first job on the stage was a walk-on in Johnny 2 x 4. (By the time she’d signed the contract to appear in this play, Betty had added an extra ‘l’ to her last name, to avoid mispronunciation.) Her excitement over securing her first job in the theater was short-lived, however; the play closed after eight weeks. In 1942, she landed her first speaking part in Franklin Street, but following tryouts in Washington and Wilmington, this show, too, was unsuccessful.
Undaunted in the wake of her disappointing entry into the world of the theater, Betty returned to modeling, landing a job with Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Her second appearance in the publication featured the lithe young beauty in a two-page spread and, although she was incorrectly identified as “Betty Becall,” her pictures attracted the attention of a number of Hollywood big shots, including David O. Selznick, Howard Hughes, and Howard Hawks. A photo on the magazine’s cover led to an offer by Hawks for a screen test in Hollywood, and on April 3, 1943, Betty boarded the train for California. She was 18 years old.
Betty’s test resulted in her signing a seven-year contract with Hawks, starting at $100 a week and increasing to $1,250 in the seventh year. Her mother moved to California and the two settled into a small furnished apartment in Beverly Hills. Betty spent the remainder of the year taking singing lessons, reading aloud for voice training, and hounding Hawks’s agent, Charlie Feldman, for a screen role. Shortly after Christmas 1943, Hawks gave Betty what she called “the only present I wanted from life,” a test for his new film, To Have and Have Not (1944). She got the part and a new moniker – which Hawks instructed her to tell the press had been her great-grandmother’s name – and the world was introduced to Lauren Bacall.
In addition to being her film debut, To Have and Have Not was also notable for its introduction of Bacall to her future husband, Humphrey Bogart. From the first day of shooting, Bacall said that Bogart made a special effort to put her at ease: “He was quite aware that I was a new young thing who knew from nothing and was scared to death,” she stated. The on-screen rapport between the two soon developed into something more. Although Bogart was married to actress Mayo Methot (together they were called the “Battling Bogarts” because of their frequent fights – Methot once stabbed Bogart with a knife and set fire to their house), Bacall and Bogart began seeing each other off the set. “Anyone with half an eye could see that there was more between us than the scenes we played,” Bacall said.
Despite the difference in their ages – Bacall was 19 and Bogart was 44 – the couple fell head over heels in love. “We shared so much, understood so much about each other,” Bacall once said. Bogart loved Bacall’s fun-loving, down-to-earth nature (“She’s a good joe,” Bogart said), and Bacall found Bogart to be gentle, sentimental, and loving – quite unlike his hard-boiled screen image. After several separations, Bogart and Methot were divorced on May 10, 1945, and he and Bacall were married 11 days later.
Meanwhile, Bacall’s first film catapulted her to stardom, with one critic raving, “Lauren Bacall has cinema personality to burn. . . . She has a javelin-like vitality, a born dancer’s eloquence of movement, a fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness . . . plus a stone-crushing self-confidence and a trombone voice.” With her standout performance in this feature, Bacall was on her way – and the rest, as they say, is history.
The world lost this “fierce female” on August 12, 2014 – but Lauren Bacall’s striking beauty, undeniable talent, and indomitable spirit live on. As she once said, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I’m not foolish enough to think I’ll never make another one. I’ve lived well, but I’m not going to sit around. What else could I do – sit around and give soirees for the rest of my life? That’s not where my head is at. I’ve got to keep moving. If I fall on my ass, I’ll pick myself up, dust myself off, and go on.”
“This adventure is not over.”