Born Betty Joan Perske, Lauren Bacall was named the 20th greatest female star of classic Hollywood cinema by the America Film Institute and recieved an Academy Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2009. Known for her alluring, sultry presence and distinctive, husky voice, Lauren Bacall began her career as a model before embarking on her film career.
Early life of Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske on the 16th September 1924 in The Bronx, New York City. Both her mother and father were Jewish who divorced when she was five – after this, she would no longer see her father. Later in her life, she would take the Romanian form of her mother’s last name Bacall.
She was extremely close to her mother who remarried and moved to live in California when Lauren Bacall become a Hollywood movie star. Money from a wealthy family member allowed her to attend the Highland Manor Boarding School for Girls in Tarrytown, New York – the private boarding school founded by philanthropist Eugene Heitler Lehman and then moved on to the Julia Richman High School in Manhattan after this.
Modelling and early acting career of Lauren Bacall
In 1941, Lauren Bacall took lessons at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and was also a classmate of Kirk Douglas. It was during this time that she would also work as a theatre usher for the St James Theatre and became a fashion model. After making her acting debut aged 17 in 1942, she was crowned Miss Greenwich Village..
As a teenage fashion model, she appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and featured in magazines such as Vogue. Life magazine would refer to her “cat-like grave, tawny blonde hair and blue-green eyes” in 1948.
Diana Vreeland is often credited for discovering Lauren Bacall for Harper’s Bazaar, but it was in fact Nicolas de Gunzburg who introduced then-18 year old Bacall to Vreeland. He had first met Bacall at Tony’s, a club. The Harper’s Bazaar cover caught the attention of “Slim” Keith, the wife of Hollywood producer and director Howard Hawks. She urged her husband to have Bacall take a screen test for his upcoming film To Have and Have Not. He would go on to ask his secretary to find out more about Bacall, but she misunderstood and sent a ticket to Hollywood for the audition.
Start of a Hollywood career
After meeting Bacall in Hollywood, Hawks immediately signed her to a seven-year contract with a weekly salary of $100 and began to personally manage her career. He changed her first name to Lauren and she chose her last name Bacall. Slim Hawks would also take the budding actress under her wing, dressing Bacall stylishly and guiding her in elegance, manners and taste. Bacall would also undergo training from a voice coach at Hawks’ suggestion – taking her normal high-pitched, nasal tone and transforming into a lower and deep tone. As part of this training, she was ordered to shout verses of Shakespeare for hours each day. Her height at 5ft 8 1/2 inches was unusual for young actresses of the 1940s and 1950s, further helping her to stand out with her voice being described as a “smoky, sexual growl” by most critics and as a “throaty purr” by others.
During her initial screen tests for To Have and Have Not (relesed in 1944), Bacall was so nervous that to minimise her quivering, she pressed her chin against her chest, faced the camera and tilted her eyes upward. This effect came to be known as “The Look”, was another Bacall trademark alongside her height and sultry voice. Bacall’s character in the film used Slim Hawks’ nickname “Slim”, and Bogart used Howard Hawks’ nicname “Steve”. The on-set chemistry between the two was immediate according to Bacall with the two beginning a romantic relationship weeks into shooting even though Bogart was married at the time to Mayo Methot. Bacall’s role in the film was originally much smaller, but during filming her part was extended into the leading role that it became in the released film. Once released, Bacall was launched into instant stardom with the performance became the cornerstone of her star image; influencing popular culture, fashion and even other film-makers and actors.
Warner Bros. launched an extensive marketing campaign to promote the picture and to establish Lauren Bacall as a movie star. As part of the push, Bacall made a visit to the National Press Club on the 10th February 1945. It was here that her press agent Charlie Enfield asked the 20-year old Bacall to sit on the piano while vice-president Harry S. Truman played.
On May 21st 1945, Bacall and Bogart would wed in Malabar Farm, Ohio with their honeymoon taking place there too. This was the country home of Pulitzer Prize winning author Louis Bromfield who was a close friend of Bogart. They would remain married until he passed away in 1957.
After To Have and Have Not, Bacall appeared opposite Charles Boyer in Confidential Agent (released 1945) which was poorly received by critics at the time.. By her own estimation it could have caused immeasurable damage to her career, but her next performance as the mysterious Vivian Rutledge in Hawks’ film noir The Big Sleep (released 1946) starring alongside Bogart, provided a quick career boost.
Her appearance in The Big Sleep would lay the foundation for her status as an icon of film noir and she would be strongly associated with it for the rest of her career, often being cast for variations of the sultry and independent femme fatale Vivian. Bacall would be cast alongside Bogart for two more films. In another film noir Dark Passage (released 1947), she played an engimatic San Francisco artist.
Lauren Bacall would also appear in John Huston’s melodramatic suspense film Key Largo (released 1948) with Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lionel Barrymore.
Lauren Bacall and her 1950s Hollywood career
Into the 1950s, Bacall would turn down scripts that she did not find interesting which earned her a reputation for being difficult. Despite this, she solidified her star status in the 1950s by appearing as a leading lady in a string of films that won favorable reviews. Bacall was cast opposite Gary Cooper in Bright Leaf and played a two-faced femme fatale in Young Man with a Horn, a jazz musical co-starring Kirk Douglas, Doris Day and Hoagy Carmichael in 1950.
From 1951 to 1952, Bacall would star once again alongside Bogart in the syndicated action-adventure radio series Bold Venture and starred in the first CinemaScope comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) which was a runaway hit among critics and the box office. Co-starring Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable and directed by Jean Negulesco, Bacall would get positive notices for her turn as witty gold-digger Schatze Page.
During the filming of African Queen (1951) Bacall and Bogart became friends with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She also began to mix in non-acting circles, becoming friends with historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr and journalist Alistair Cooke. In 1952 she gave campaign speeches for Democratic presidential contender Adlai Stevenson. Along with others in Hollywood, Bacall was a strong opponent of McCarthyism.
After the success of How to Marry a Millionaire, she was offered the coveted invitation from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to press her hand and footprints in the theatre’s cemented forecourt. With Bogart’s support she declined and felt that at the time “anyone with a picture opening could be represented there, standards had been so lowered” and didn’t feel she had yet achieved the status of a major star, and was thereby unworthy of the honor. “I want to feel I’ve earned my place with the best my business has produced.”
At the time, Bacall was under contract to 20th Century Fox, and following How to Marry a Millionaire appeared in another CinemaScope comedy directed by Jean Negulesco, Women’s World (1954). This failed to meet its predecessor’s success at the box office.
A television version of Bogart’s early film success, The Petrified Forest (1955) was performed as a live installment of Producers’ Showcare, a weekly dramatic anthology. Bogart would once again feature as Duke Mantee, Henry Fonda as Alan and Bacall as Gabrielle; the parts originally played in the 1936 movie by Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. Bacall would also star in two feature films, The Cobweb and Blood Alley, both released in 1955. Directed by Vincente Minelli, The Cobweb takes part atr a mental institution where Bacall’s character works as a therapist. This was her second collaboration with Charles Boyer with the film also starring Richard Widmark and Lillian Gish.
Many consider her next starring role Written on the Wind (1956) which was directed by Douglas Sirk to be a landmark melodrama. Appearing alongside Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack, Bacall plays a career woman whose life is unexpectedly turned around by a family of oil magnates. Bacall would later go on to write that she did not think much of the role, but the reviews were favorable. Even while struggling with Bogart suffering with terminal esophageal cancer, Bacall starred in Designing Women (1957) with Gregory Peck to solid reviews. This musical comedy was her second feature with director Vincente Minnelli and was released in New York on May 16th 1957 four months after Bogart had passed away in January 1956. Bacall would go on to appear in two more films in the 1950s, The Gift of Love (1958), co-starring alongside Robert Stack and North West Frontier (1959) – the British adventure film which would go on to become a box-office hit.
Bacall would have a romantic relationship with Frank Sinatra after Bogart’s death. During an interview she stated that she had ended the relationship, but would later write in her autobiography that Sinatra abruptly ended the relationship after becoming upset that his marriage proposal had been leaked to the press, believing Bacall to be responsible. The gossip columnist Louella Parsons was actually responsible to whom Bacall’s friend Irviny Lazar revealed the news. Sinatra only found our the news years later.
Lauren Bacall’s career after the 1950s
Following Bogart’s passing, Bacall would take more of a backseat during the 1960s, only appearing in a small number of feature films.
Bacall met and began a relationship during this time with Jason Robards. They planned to marry in Vienna, Austria on 16th June 1961, but this was shelved when Austrian authorities refused to grant a marriage license to the couple on account of Robards being unable to produce divorce documents from his previous marriage and Bacall being unable to produce Bogart’s death certificate. They were also refused a marriage license in Las Vegas due to similar documentation issues. They would eventually wed on the 4th July 1961 after the couple drove to Ensenada, Mexico. They would divorce in 1969 – according to Bacall she divorced Robards because of his alcoholism.
She would start a successful Broadway run, winning two Tony Awards for her performances in Applause (1970) and Woman of the Year (1981).
She would also go on to star in horror movies during the 1980s and even had a small role in Misery supporting Kathy Bates and James Caan. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her supporting role in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) but lost to Juiliette Binoche for her role in the English Patient. This nomination was her first after a career spanning more than 50 years.
Bacall also recieved the Kennedy Centre Honors in 1997 and was voted one of the most significant female movie stars in history by The American Film Institute in 1999. During the same year, she would star on Broadway in a revival of Noel Cowards Waiting in the Wings.
During this period her career has a bit of a renaissance and she attracted respectful notices for her performances in high profile projects including Dogville (2003) and Birth (2004) both with Nicole Kidman. She would also voice the role of the Witch of the Waste in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Her commercial ventures during the early 2000s including being a spokesperson for the Tuesday Morning discount chain and producing a jewellry line with the Weinman Brothers. Bacall was also a celebrity spokesperson for High Point Coffee and Fancy Feast cat food.
In 2006, Bacall made a cameo appearance as herself in The Soprano’s episode Luxury Lounge and in September of this year she was awarded the Katharine Hepburn medal from Bryn Mawr College. This award recognises women whose lives, work and contributions embody the intelligence, drive and independence of Hepburn.
In July 2013, Bacall would express interest in the film Trouble is my Business. In November, she joined the English dub voice cast for StudioCanal’s animated film Ernest & Celestine. Her last role was in 2014 as a guest voice appearance in the Family Guy episode Mom’s the Word.
Bacall had two children with Bogart and one with Sam Robards. She also wrote two autobiography’s Lauren Bacall by Myself (1978) and Now (1994).
Bacall died on August 12th 2014, just a month before her 90th birthday of a stroke. She had and estimated $26.6m estate with the bulk being divided among her three children. She also left $250,000 to each of her youngest grandsons, the sons of Sam Robards for college.