When Lauren Bacall, all of 19 and fresh from the Bronx, asked Humphrey Bogart if he knew how to whistle in the film version of Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not” (1944), a star was born. Bogart and Hemingway were, of course, already stars (Hollywood’s most sardonic leading man and American literature’s most macho adventurer respectively). But it was Bacall, with her husky voice and slinky sexiness, who wrestled the movie away from the Big Boys. Over the years her street savvy has been embellished by a cosmopolitan elegance, but even into her seventies she remains a formidable performer and perhaps an even more formidable personality.
Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in New York City on September 16, 1924. Her parents split up when she was six and young Betty stayed with her mother, later adopting her mother’s maiden name when she went into films. Natalie Bacall encouraged her daughter’s artistic aspirations, enrolling her in dance classes and, briefly, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Betty supplemented her formal arts instruction by cutting classes to go to the movies. The late 1930’s and early 1940’s were the heyday of strong female stars, and the aspiring actress could not help but see how Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck redefined feminine appeal by celebrating their power and resourcefulness.
Lauren Bacall’s first film was her big break. Howard Hawks, the director of “To Have and Have Not,” cast Bacall on the advice of his wife, Slim Keith, who had seen her picture on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. After she stole the picture from Bogart (and started a torrid affair with him in the process, eventually marrying him in 1945), Warner Brothers furiously promoted her career. She starred with her new husband in “The Big Sleep” (1945) and went on to leading roles in “Key Largo” (1948) and “Young Man With a Horn” (1950). Fighting a reputation for being “difficult” (i.e. not taking every mediocre part Warner threw her way), she balanced her career with her personal life and raised two children, Stephen and Leslie. She did wonderful work in “The Cobweb” (1956) and “Designing Women” (1957), but when Bogart died in 1957, her enthusiasm for the film business cooled along with her career.
The 1960’s found Bacall working more and more on the New York stage. She won raves for her performance in “Cactus Flower” (1965) and “Applause” (1970), for which she won a Tony Award. She won another Tony for “Woman of the Year” (1981). During the 1960’s Bacall married—and divorced—the actor Jason Robards, a union which produced a son, Sam. Bacall has worked in a mixed bag of films since the 1970’s, but had notable successes in “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) and “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (1996) for which she won a Golden Globe and an Oscar® nomination.