September 16, 1924– Betty Joan Perskey:
“You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”
It is my all-time favorite film quote. It’s from Howard Hawke’s To Have Or To Have Not (1944). In the 1990s I had a variation of it as my outgoing message on my answering machine (do you remember answering machines?) until I got too many complaints that it was salacious. She famously uttered those words, but she didn’t write them. Jules Furthman wrote the screenplay based on an Ernest Hemingway novel. It is a testament to her acting that the words seem to be hers.
Betty Joan Perske was born in The Bronx, the only child of Jewish parents. She grew-up in Brooklyn. Her parents divorced, but thanks to a set of wealthy uncles, she attended private school.
When she was 17 years old she enrolled at the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts, where Kirk Douglas was a classmate. She made her stage debut on Broadway in 1942 in a small role in Johnny 2 X 4. By then, she was living with her mother in Greenwich Village, where she entered a contest and won the title Miss Greenwich Village.
She found work as a theatre usher and as a fashion model. Diana Vreeland was introduced to her by a friend that had met her in a nightclub and the next day she was photographed in the new Kodachrome for the March 1943 cover of Harper’s Bazaar, a cover that is now considered iconic.
The Harper’s Bazaar cover was admired by Howard Hawks’ wife Slim Hawkes. She suggested Betty Joan be screen-tested for his new film, To Have And Have Not. Hawks asked his secretary to find out more about her, but the secretary misunderstood and sent Betty Joan a ticket to come to Hollywood. At 19 years old, she landed the starring role opposite Humphrey Bogart. The pair married a year later and went on to make five films (and 2 children) together, including The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948). She was with him until his death in 1957.
Hawks had signed her to a seven year contract with a weekly salary of $100, and the right to manage her career. She smartly changed her name to Lauren Bacall (her mother’s name had been Bacal). Slim Hawks guided Bacall on how to dress stylishly and prompted her in all things elegant and tasteful. Remember, Bacall was still a teenager.
During her screen tests for To Have And Have Not, Bacall was so nervous that she pressed her chin against her chest, faced the camera and tilted her eyes upward to calm her quivering. The effect came to be known as “The Look”. Bacall made more than 75 films between 1994 and 2012. In a career lasting more than 50 years, Bacall was nominated for an Academy Award only once, for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) as Barbra Streisand’s mother. In 2009 she was honored with a special Oscar for “A Lifetime Of Superior Work In Films”. I love that she continued to work into her golden years. Bacall appeared with Nicole Kidman in two films: Dogville (2003) and Birth (2004). Her final film was a crime caper The Forger (2012); she was 88 years old and still looked seductive.
Her film career slowed down in the 1960s and 1970, so Bacall turned to Broadway, first in the sparkling comedy Cactus Flower (1965) and winning Tony Awards for her roles in Applause (1970) & Woman Of The Year (1981).
After the passing of Bogart in 1957, Bacall had a sizzling affair with Frank Sinatra right after his marriage to Ava Gardner had ended. Bacall wrote that Sinatra abruptly ended their relationship after becoming furious that the story of his marriage proposal to Bacall had been leaked to the press. She was married to actor Jason Robards from 1961-69 and is the mother of actor Sam Robards.
Bacall was a staunch Democrat and defender of liberal causes. 69 years ago, Bacall and Bogart traveled to DC, along with other Hollywood stars, in a group that called itself The Committee For The First Amendment. She appeared alongside Bogart in a photograph printed at the end of an article he wrote, titled “I’m No Communist” in the May 1948 edition of Photoplay magazine, written to counteract negative publicity resulting from his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. She costarred opposite John Wayne in his last film, The Shootist (1976). They became close friends, despite very real political differences.
“I am an anti-Republican… A liberal. The L-word. Being a liberal is the best thing on earth you can be. You are welcoming to everyone when you’re a liberal. You do not have a small mind.”
Bacall has produced two volumes of exceptionally written, dry, self-deprecatingly witty, forthright memoirs: By Myself (1978) and Now (1994), plus she published an updated version with a new final chapter published By Myself And Then Some (2004).
Bacall left this world just a month before her 90th birthday in 2014. She took that final bow at her longtime apartment in my favorite NYC residential building, The Dakota on the Upper West Side overlooking Central Park. I really loved her and I was sad when I heard the news, but I reflected on the career that lasted from 15 years old until her late 80s, a life well-lived.
When I was living in NYC in the 1970s, I once followed her for 14 blocks. At one point I allowed myself to be right beside her. I considered offering myself as her escort to her destination, but just as I finally got up the nerve, she stopped in front of The Russian Tea Room where she greeted Liza Minnelli with a kiss and they swooped inside. A truly great NYC gay moment for me.
“I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that.”