Jewish-American Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall dies at 89

Jewish-American Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall dies at 89

Lauren Bacall began her career as a model
Lauren Bacall began her career as a model

Lauren Bacall, the award-winning actress and Humphrey Bogart’s on and off screen partner, has died at 89 after suffering a stroke.

She was pronounced dead at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Centre yesterday.

Born Betty Joan Perske, “a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx” as she described herself, Bacall was the only child of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Romania. She was the first cousin of former Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Bacall was a movie star from almost her first moment on the silver screen.

A fashion model and bit-part New York actress before moving to Hollywood at 19, Bacall achieved immediate fame in 1944 with one scene in her first film, To Have And Have Not.

Leaving Humphrey Bogart’s hotel room, Bacall murmured: “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.”

With that cool, sultry come-on, not only was a star born, but the beginning of a legend. Her title burnished over the years with pivotal roles, signature New York wit, and a marriage to Bogart that accounted for one of the most famous Hollywood couples of all time.

Bogart and Bacall met on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944, beginning one of Hollywood's most famous romances
Bogart and Bacall met on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944, beginning one of Hollywood’s most famous romances

The Academy-Award nominated actress received two Tonys, an honorary Oscar and scores of film and TV roles. But, to her occasional frustration, she was remembered for her years with Bogart and treated more as a star by the film industry rather than as an actress.

Bacall would outlive her husband by more than 50 years, but never outlive their iconic status.

They were “Bogie and Bacall” – the hard-boiled couple who could fight and make up with the best of them. Unlike Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall were not a story of opposites attracting but of kindred, smouldering spirits.

They starred in movies like Key Largo and Dark Passage together, threw all-night parties, palled around with Frank Sinatra and others and formed a gang of California carousers known as the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, which Sinatra would resurrect after Bogart’s death.

She appeared in movies for more than half a century, but none brought her the attention of her early pictures.

In 2009 Bacall won the Academy Honorary Award, which honours exceptional career achievements wihin the film industry
In 2009 Bacall won the Academy Honorary Award, which honours exceptional achievements within the film industry

Not until 1996 did she receive an Oscar nomination – as supporting actress for her role as Barbra Streisand’s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Although a sentimental favourite, she was beaten by Juliette Binoche for her performance in The English Patient.

She finally got a statuette in November 2009 at the movie academy’s Governors Awards gala. “The thought when I get home that I’m going to have a two-legged man in my room is so exciting,” she quipped.

Her persona paralleled her screen appearances: She was blunt, with a noir-ish undertone of sardonic humour that illuminated her 1979 autobiography By Myself (she published an updated version in 2005, By Myself And Then Some).

Bacall was born on September 16 1924 and was raised by her Romanian immigrant mother after her parents split when she was a child. Her mother took part of her family name, Bacal; Betty added the extra L when she became an actress.

As a young woman, Diana Vreeland, the famed editor of Harper’s Bazaar, thought she was ideal for fashion modelling and Bacall appeared regularly in the magazine. The wife of film director Howard Hawks saw her on a magazine cover and recommended her as film material and she went to Hollywood under a contract.

Hawks became her mentor, coaching her on film acting and introducing her to Hollywood society. He was preparing a movie to star Bogart, based on an Ernest Hemingway story, To Have And Have Not, with a script partly written by William Faulkner.

Bacall's dazzling looks helped her achieve instant fame with her early films
Bacall’s dazzling looks helped her achieve instant fame with her early films

By this time she had acquired the professional name of Lauren, though Bogart and all her friends continued to call her Betty.

She wrote of meeting Bogart: “There was no thunderbolt, no clap of thunder, just a simple how-do-you-do.”

Work led to romance. The 23-year age difference (he called her Baby) failed to deter them, but they faced a serious obstacle – Bogart was still married to the mercurial actress Mayo Methot, with whom he engaged in much-publicised alcoholic battles. She was persuaded to divorce him, and the lovers were married on May 21 1945.

“When I married Bogie,” she remarked in 1994, “I agreed to put my career second because he wouldn’t marry me otherwise. He’d had three failed marriages to actresses and he was not about to have another.”

But the party began to wind down in March 1956, when Bogart was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. On the night of January 14 1957, Bogart grabbed his wife’s arm and muttered: “Goodbye, kid.” He died in the early morning at 57.

After a period of mourning, Bacall became romantically involved with Sinatra, but when an “engagement” was mistakenly leaked, the singer blamed her and terminated the romance.

Still mourning for Bogart, Bacall left Hollywood in October 1958. She made a film in England and did a critically panned play that was significant because she would meet her second husband during her time on Broadway: Jason Robards.

He was similar to Bogart in that he was an accomplished actor, hard drinker – and married. After Robards was divorced from his second wife, he and Bacall married in 1961 but Robards’ drinking and extramarital affairs resulted in divorce in 1969.

Applause in 1970 and Woman Of The Year in 1981 brought Bacall Tony awards. Her later movies included Murder On The Orient Express, The Shootist and Robert Altman’s Ready To Wear. She played Nicole Kidman’s mother in the 2004 film Birth and in recent years appeared as herself in a cameo for The Sopranos.

For decades she lived in Manhattan’s venerable Dakota, where neighbours included John Lennon and Yoko Ono. She was ever protective of the Bogart legacy, lashing out at those who tried to profit from his image.

Bacall became friends with Faulkner when he was writing scripts for Hawks. One of her prized possessions was a copy of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on which he wrote that she was not one who was satisfied with being just a pretty face, “but rather who decided to prevail”.

“Notice he didn’t write ‘survive’, ” she told Parade magazine in 1997. “Everyone’s a survivor. Everyone wants to stay alive. What’s the alternative? See, I prefer to prevail.”

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