She had everything: The Look, stardom and Bogie
“I just wanted to have everything,” Lauren Bacall says more than once in Part 1 of this autobiography, “By Myself,” first published in 1978. For the benefit of the generation of readers that has come along since then, she did just about have everything, fast: Born Betty Joan Perske in 1924, she was a New York theater usher at 17, a fashion magazine model at 18, an international movie star with a seemingly limitless career at 19, the wife of Humphrey Bogart and half of one of the world’s most celebrated couples at 20, a mother at 24, an actress on the wane at 25 and a widow at 32.
“By Myself,” a bestseller here and in many countries, won the 1980 National Book Award for autobiography. All 426 pages of it are republished intact. It is still a compelling read, not only of her life and her need for constant reinvention to keep working, but also for the stories of her all-star roster of friends and of Hollywood when the studios owned actors. It is a story bravely told; she does not stint on revealing her faults and flaws. The 79 pages of “And Then Some” cover the last 25 years, and they offer a rare perch upon which to observe someone who, so much a part of one era, has struggled and managed to be part of those that have followed.
Bacall exploded on the screen in 1944 opposite Bogart in “To Have and Have Not,” and their onscreen romance became their off-screen life. Director Howard Hawks’ wife Nancy had seen Bacall’s picture on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and recommended that he sign the 18-year-old beauty with the sultry look to a contract. (Bogart and Bacall called each other “Slim” and “Steve” in the movie, the names Hawks and his wife used for each other.) Hawks framed what became The Look (chin down, eyes up, come hither if you dare) and had Pygmalion dreams for Bacall. He dressed her, advised her and, through The Look and insouciant style he gave her, redefined sex appeal. But early on in filming he lost his influence on her to Bogart, 25 years her senior. Still, his molding worked and she turned the notion of a sweet young thing upside down:
“If you need anything, just whistle,” she coyly tells Bogart. “You do know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
Bacall managed to be both dewy and worldly, in charge but accepting of help from the right man, and stole the show. The three made another iconic film. “The Big Sleep” (1946) had even more of the wisecracking, sexually suggestive banter that lights up “To Have and Have Not.” But as Bacall was no longer Hawks’ to control, he sold her contract to Warner Bros. for a reported $1 million, which turned her into a mere contract player, assigned to whatever came along.
The studio hadn’t a clue how to use Bacall’s talent and suspended her a dozen times for refusing roles. There were exceptions. She was great with Bogart in “Dark Passage” (1947) and “Key Largo” (1948), and there were later memorable pictures, among them “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953), “Blood Alley” (1955) and “Designing Woman” (1957), though none of these showcased her special talent as well as her first films had.
Bogart’s death from esophageal cancer in January 1957, three weeks after his 57th birthday, ripped Bacall from her moorings. There followed an engagement to Frank Sinatra that was fueled, she realized in retrospect, by her desire to “erase Bogie’s death” but was quickly extinguished by Sinatra’s erratic and sometimes cruel behavior. Still, she says, “He saved me from the disaster our marriage would have been.
“To get out from under being ‘Bogart’s widow,’ ” she and her children Steve and Leslie moved to London in January 1959. Broadway brought her back to New York several months later for a part in her friend George Axelrod’s play “Goodbye Charlie,” which earned her good notices. Then she made an even bigger splash in 1965 with “Cactus Flower” at the Royale Theatre, where she had “once excelled at ushering.” The movie rights were sold, and she looked set for a triumphal return to Hollywood in the part she had created -- until, like Julie Andrews losing the role of Eliza Doolittle to Audrey Hepburn in the film version of “My Fair Lady,” the presumably more bankable Ingrid Bergman was cast.
Bacall’s dealings with men were not helped by the example of her father, who disappeared after he and her mother divorced when she was 5. Sinatra was the first of a string of lovers almost guaranteed to cause her grief. The move to London settled her a bit, but back in New York she was “still looking for recognition, identity and love.” Enter Jason Robards: immensely talented, great-looking, completely unpredictable, a heavy drinker. Bacall was pregnant with their son Sam when they married in 1961. Bogart had known what he wanted in life and a wife; Robards did not. Eventually Bacall’s plain-spoken friend Katharine Hepburn pronounced her “a damn fool” and told her: “The marriage is no good for you.” In 1969, she divorced him.
There were other tough personal losses as well: the deaths of her beloved mother (when Hawks came calling with a contract offer, she and her mother were sharing a bed in the entry hall of their small apartment, and the two remained emotionally inseparable), Spencer Tracy (a rock for Bogart and for her) and Adlai Stevenson. (She had a deep crush on him.) There were also great successes, especially a Tony for “Applause” in 1970. She refers often to her insecurity -- it is the curse of actors (and particularly herself) to need the approval of strangers -- but to her credit, she gets out there and does the work. “For the real stakes in the theatre are high -- they are life stakes,” she says. Her successes have been darkened with much more pain: “At the age of twenty I had grabbed at the sky and had touched some stars. And who but a twenty-year-old would think you could keep it?”
Like every actor, she is who she is, not what her characters might make us think: “Howard Hawks invented a personality on-screen that suited my look and my sound and some of myself -- but the projection of worldliness in sex, total independence, the ability to handle any situation, had no more to do with me than it does now.” Alas, Slim was so original that she was hard to shake.
Though “And Then Some” is written in the same style as “By Myself” -- conversationally -- it has an inescapably different feel. “By Myself” is the memoir of someone still in the middle of her career, “not sure where the next years will take me -- what they hold -- but I’m open to suggestions.”
“And Then Some” is naturally more elegiac. She tells us what those years held (“time flies even when you’re not having fun”), and not surprisingly, they held the deaths of many close friends, each sketched lovingly and tellingly: Roddy McDowall, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Hepburn (Sam’s godmother), Axelrod and his wife Joan, who was Bacall’s schoolmate from an early age. Also Gregory Peck, Adolph Green, Alistair Cooke and Robards, who eventually quit drinking and with whom there was considerable repair. After so much human loss, she has found solace with a papillon, Sophie, her constant companion.
Of her later years, she describes a supporting actress Academy Award nomination for “The Mirror Has Two Faces” in 1996. She had won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, and she seemed a sure thing for an Oscar, the worst position to be in. She tried “to look relaxed as though I was enjoying myself” but knows she wasn’t convincing, and the loss was a hard one. “It’s better to win,” she admits. “In any contest, that is the goal.”
At 80, Bacall continues to work steadily: six films since the beginning of 2003, two with Nicole Kidman -- “Birth” and Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.” (She’s also in “Dogville’s” sequel, “Manderlay.”) Nearly 50 years after Bogart’s death, their marriage, she maintains, was “the match made in heaven,” and the life lessons he gave her are perhaps even more appreciated now.
“I’m hanging in,” Bacall says in summary. Work “keeps me in high spirit.” Her self-confidence is improved “if still a bit shaky.” Critics’ opinions can never be completely ignored, but “what really matters is that I matter to myself.” *