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Bacall, Laurenfree

(16 Sept. 1924–12 Aug. 2014)
  • Brenda Scott Royce

Bacall, Lauren (16 Sept. 1924–12 Aug. 2014), actress, was born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx, New York, the only child of William Perske, a salesman, and Natalie Weinstein-Bacal, a secretary. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she was raised in Manhattan by her mother and grandmother, both Romanian Jewish immigrants. Betty attended Highland Manor school in Tarrytown and Julia Richman High School in Manhattan. At sixteen, longing for a career in the theater, she enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, alongside future film star Kirk Douglas. Her tuition put a strain on the working-class family’s finances, and she left the school after one year.

In 1942 at age seventeen she made her Broadway debut as a walk-on in Johnny 2 x 4. Though she had no lines, the short-lived play got her into Actor’s Equity, the stage actors’ union. George S. Kaufman gave the aspiring actress her first speaking part in his Broadway-bound comedy Franklin Street, but the show closed during out-of-town tryouts.

It was modeling that led to her breakthrough. Diana Vreeland, fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, put her on the magazine’s cover in March 1943. The photo caught the attention of director Howard Hawks, who invited her to Los Angeles for a screen test and signed her to a personal contract. Feeling that “Betty” was too plain a name for his new protégé, Hawks christened her Lauren. She had already changed her surname, adopting the second half of her mother’s maiden name and adding the final “l” so that people would pronounce it properly.

Hawks cast Bacall opposite Humphrey Bogart in the World War II adventure To Have and Have Not (1944), a Warner Bros. release. The studio took a chance on the unknown actress in exchange for a stake in her career: Hawks sold them half-interest in Bacall’s personal contract.

As the worldly wise Marie Browning, newcomer Bacall held her own against Bogart, a seasoned professional known for playing tough guys. The film catapulted Bacall to instant stardom, thanks in part to her husky voice and provocative dialogue. One line—“You know how to whistle don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow”—was ranked in the top 100 film quotes of all time by the American Film Institute in 2005.

During filming, Bacall and the much older, thrice-married Bogart fell in love. Hawks vehemently disapproved, and their disagreement over the relationship was among the factors that caused the director to sell his remaining interest in Bacall’s contract to Warner Bros. (In 1950, frustrated with the roles offered her by the studio, she bought out the remainder of her contract.)

Bacall married Bogart in 1945. The couple’s two children were born in 1949 and 1952. They costarred in three subsequent films—The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948), as well as a radio series, “The Bold Venture” (1950–1951). The “Red Scare” that gripped Hollywood during this period sparked Bacall’s zeal for political activism. She and Bogart were among the founding members of the Committee for the First Amendment, which publicly denounced the 1947 House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings into alleged Communist infiltration of the film industry. The staunch liberal later campaigned for Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 Democratic presidential bid and Robert Kennedy’s 1964 run for the U.S. Senate.

Though Bogart insisted that Bacall’s career take a backseat to their marriage, she managed to make time for work, starring opposite some of the top leading men (and occasionally leading women) of the time—Kirk Douglas in Young Man with a Horn (1950), Gary Cooper in Bright Leaf (1950), Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), John Wayne in Blood Alley (1955), Rock Hudson and Robert Stack in Written on the Wind (1956), and Gregory Peck in Designing Women (1957)—proving equally adept at dramatic and comedic roles. The marriage ended with Bogart’s death in 1957. A brief, well-publicized engagement to Frank Sinatra fizzled in 1958.

An offer to star in Goodbye Charlie on Broadway in 1959 revived Bacall’s early ambitions of stage stardom. The lead role—of a tomcatting writer reincarnated as a woman—was written by George Axelrod (who also directed) specifically with Bacall in mind. Though the lackluster show closed just three months into its run, Bacall decided to stay in New York. She purchased an apartment in the Dakota—the building later made famous as John Lennon’s residence and the site of his murder—on Central Park West, which remained her primary home for the rest of her life.

She married actor Jason Robards in 1961; they had one son, born in December of that year. The marriage was troubled from the start due to his alcoholism. They divorced in 1969.

Abe Burrows’s situation comedy Cactus Flower gave Bacall her first Broadway hit. The play opened at the Royale Theatre—where, as a teen, Bacall had worked as an usher—in December 1965. She left the production two years later.

Broadway stardom did not translate into film offers, and Bacall’s screen roles during this period were few and far between. A notable success was the star-studded Agatha Christie mystery, Murder on the Orient Express (1974), in which she scored raves for playing a garrulous socialite.

Bacall earned an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for her portrayal of Margo Channing in Applause (1970–1971), the musical adaptation of the classic film All About Eve. She reprised the role for a North American tour and an eleven-month London engagement, and she was nominated for an Emmy Award for a televised version that aired on CBS in 1973. A second Emmy nomination resulted from a 1979 guest appearance on the detective series The Rockford Files, starring James Garner. In 1980 her bestselling memoir Lauren Bacall By Myself won a National Book Award.

Another Broadway hit—and a second Tony Award—came with the musical Woman of the Year (1981–1982). Bacall played the career-minded Tess Harding, a role originated on film in 1942 by Katharine Hepburn, whom she had befriended on location in Africa during Bogart and Hepburn’s filming of The African Queen (1951).

By the 1990s, Bacall’s film roles were largely supporting ones. She played James Caan’s agent in the Stephen King thriller Misery (1990), a former first lady in My Fellow Americans (1996), and a brothel-keeper in Diamonds (1999) opposite her old friend Kirk Douglas. Her only Academy Award nomination came for her supporting role in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), playing star (and director) Barbra Streisand’s overbearing mother. Bacall lost the Oscar but won several other honors, including the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for best supporting actress. In 1997, the Kennedy Center Honors paid tribute to Bacall for a lifetime of contribution to American culture, and the Motion Picture Academy gave her an honorary Oscar in 2009.

She returned to Broadway in 1999 in a lackluster revival of Noel Coward’s Waiting in the Wings, set in a home for aged actresses. Her later film roles included some of the boldest choices of her career, including the art-house films Dogville (2003), Birth (2004), and The Walker (2007). Her final role was an episode of the animated television series The Family Guy in 2014. She died in Manhattan.

While her career spanned six decades and more than sixty films, Bacall’s legacy is forever entwined with that of her first husband. The phrase “Bogie and Bacall” is pop culture shorthand for the kind of all-consuming passion that they embodied on screen. Yet Bacall achieved her greatest success in her own right—as star of two long-running Broadway musicals and author of two critically acclaimed memoirs. The steely attitude and commanding personality that helped launch her career in 1944 no doubt enabled its longevity, making her one of Hollywood’s enduring icons.


Bacall donated a collection of scrapbooks, photographs, screenplays, and other papers to Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center in 2010. She penned two memoirs, Lauren Bacall By Myself (1978, updated as By Myself and Then Some in 2005) and Now (1994). An unauthorized biography, Howard Greenberger, Bogey’s Baby (1978), focuses on Bacall’s relationship with Bogart. Brenda Scott Royce, Lauren Bacall: A Bio-Bibliography (1992) chronicles the actress’s career to that date. An obituary appeared in the New York Times on 12 Aug. 2014.