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To Have and Have Not

 Matt Tyrnauer
She’s one of the last of Hollywood’s golden-age stars—the girl who stole Humphrey Bogart’s heart at age 19 and has been grappling with their dual legend ever since. Now 86, Lauren Bacall looks back on a lucky, if often difficult, life as she gives it straight to Matt Tyrnauer, talking about the effect of Bogie’s fame on her and their kids; her very brief engagement to Frank Sinatra; her stormy second union, to Jason Robards; and why she hates the Oscar she received, in 2009.

The apartment is cavernous, on a high floor of the Dakota, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Huge windows overlook Central Park, 30 feet above the tree line, with the grand residential buildings of Fifth Avenue in the distance. My meetings with Lauren Bacall, who is 86, are at three P.M. in the winter, so the light is silvery blue in the wood-trimmed parlor, where Bacall has set the scene for our sessions. A tall wooden chair, for her, is positioned in the center of the room, near a low, white-and-green-upholstered club chair, for me. A single lamp burns in a distant corner. She is dressed, every time, in a black shirt, black pants, and black orthopedic shoes. She always has with her Sophie, an excitable papillon, and what she refers to as “my friend,” her aluminum walker, with tennis balls on its feet. The “fucking fracture that I’ve got on the hip” is the result of a bathroom fall a few months back, a frustrating how-do-you-do after a life of near-perfect health. “Can you imagine? It’s the only time I have been in the hospital except for the times when I gave birth,” she says. A fighter by nature, Bacall has begun to venture out, supported by her walker, onto 72nd Street, going alone to physical therapy, for the most part unrecognized, just another senior citizen. “People don’t pay any attention to me or the walker,” she says. “The other night I was going into a doctor’s office, and some son of a bitch came out of the building, almost knocked me over. I said, ‘You’re a fucking ape!’—screaming at him. He never even turned around. Couldn’t care less, this big horse of a man.”
“Patience,” Bacall wrote in her memoir, By Myself (1978), “was not my strong point.”
She hands me a box of Bissinger’s chocolate bark and instructs me to tear off the cellophane. “This is going to be our snack,” she says, explaining that she is the St. Louis-based chocolate company’s spokesperson. “I just said ‘Bissinger’s is the best chocolate’ into a microphone when I was in St. Louis touring with Applause [the Broadway musical, in 1971], and every year the boxes of chocolate keep coming, so I guess I am still their spokesman.” The cellophane is hard to puncture, and she suddenly snaps, “What’s taking you so long to open that box? Get over here and sit down!”
There is a pause as I make a note on this aria.
“Uh-oh, he’s thinking too much,” she says. “You are going to cut me to ribbons, I can tell. What’s the argument for this story? That I am still breathing? I don’t talk about the past,” she proclaims, taking a piece of Bissinger’s and pushing the rest in my direction. Nevertheless, the past is present everywhere in this room and all over the apartment. It is, in fact, never far from her thoughts. She has lived in great comfort in this place since 1961, when she bought it for $48,000. “I called my business manager in California and said, ‘Sell all of my stock’—what little of it I had—and it’s the only smart financial move I ever made,” she says. The north wall of the parlor, which she faces, is a map of memories in the form of framed photos, drawings, and ephemera, testifying to the fact that she knew the greats from a tender age. “It’s not about me. It’s about all the people who were my friends,” she says. The centerpiece is a vermilion portrait of her as the character Schatze in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) by that film’s director, Jean Negulesco. She was at the height of her beauty then.
“My son tells me, ‘Do you realize you are the last one? The last person who was an eyewitness to the golden age?’ Young people, even in Hollywood, ask me, ‘Were you really married to Humphrey Bogart?’ ‘Well, yes, I think I was,’ I reply. You realize yourself when you start reflecting—because I don’t live in the past, although your past is so much a part of what you are—that you can’t ignore it. But I don’t look at scrapbooks. I could show you some, but I’d have to climb ladders, and I can’t climb.”

The Prettiest Usher

‘Bogie was 25 years my senior,” she begins. They were married on May 21, 1945, when she was 20 and he was 45, at Malabar Farm, in Lucas, Ohio, the home of Bogart’s great friend the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Louis Bromfield. Bogart liked to refer to himself as “a last-century boy,” having been born in 1899. “I fairly often have thought how lucky I was,” she tells me. “I knew everybody because I was married to Bogie, and that 25-year difference was the most fantastic thing for me to have in my life.” She points to the wall—to signed photos of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Robert Benchley, Clifton Webb, Noël Coward, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, John Gielgud, and Truman Capote—and says with a sigh, “It’s like all the talent’s gone. It’s very sad.
“Bogie started in the theater not as an actor but as a stage manager, and he got on the stage by accident, because one of the actors did not show up for a performance one evening, so he went on for him. And he said, ‘O.K., this isn’t too bad.’ I don’t know why he ended up in California, because he was brought up in New York. His mother was an artist, Maud Humphrey. His father was a doctor, Belmont DeForest Bogart. How do you like that for a name? He was Humphrey DeForest Bogart.”
There may be some mystery as to how Bogart ended up in Hollywood, but how Lauren Bacall got there, 67 years ago, from her native New York is the stuff of legend.
She was born Betty Joan Perske, in the Bronx, on September 16, 1924. Her mother and mother’s mother were Jewish immigrants from Romania. Her father, William Perske, abusive and unfaithful, fled when Betty was six. She took her grandmother’s name, Bacal, at age eight, eventually adding the second l to make it easier to pronounce. The family’s finances were always shaky. Bacall’s mother worked multiple jobs to support her only child. Betty’s dream from her very early years was to be an actress, specifically the second coming of Bette Davis, whom she worshipped, imitated, and literally stalked when Davis was in New York in the early 40s, staying at the Gotham Hotel, off Fifth Avenue.
While a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in Manhattan, Bacall relentlessly pursued a theatrical break: barging into the office of Broadway producer Max Gordon and begging for a part, striking up a friendship with the actor Paul Lukas, selling the casting tip sheet Actor’s Cue outside Sardi’s, going on an age-inappropriate date with the notoriously lecherous star Burgess Meredith, whom she had met while volunteering at the Stage Door Canteen. (Bogart always believed that Meredith had taken her virginity and later confronted him about it. Meredith and Bacall denied it, but, she says, “Bogie didn’t believe him.”) During this period she was also an usher at the St. James Theatre, and she got the first augury of immortality—if you don’t count being crowned Miss Greenwich Village 1942—when the theater critic George Jean Nathan gave her a glowing notice. As she recalled in By Myself:
The day after her 18th birthday, Bacall made her stage debut in a George S. Kaufman play,Franklin Street, which closed after its Washington, D.C., tryout. However, the smoldering good looks that had caught Nathan’s eye landed her in front of Diana Vreeland, then the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, for a model casting. She made the cover in March 1943, and that photo of her, standing in front of a Red Cross office door, caught the attention of Nancy “Slim” Hawks, then the wife of movie director Howard Hawks, who suggested to him that he give Bacall a screen test.

Her Own Svengali

‘Of course, it was Howard Hawks who changed my life,” Bacall tells me. “Despite all of his great accomplishments—Bringing Up Baby [1938], Scarface [1932], some of the best pictures to that date—his one ambition was to find a girl and invent her, to create her as his perfect woman. He was my Svengali, and I was to become, under his tutelage, this big star, and he would own me. And he would also like to get me into his bed, which, of course—horrors! It was the furthest thing from my mind. I was so frightened of him. He was the old gray fox, and he always told me stories of how he dealt with Carole Lombard and Rita Hayworth, how he tried to get them to listen to him and they didn’t, so they never got the parts they should have gotten, and their careers took much longer to take off.”
Hawks and his producing partner, Charles Feldman, put her through Hollywood boot camp. She was in awe, and scared to death. “You can’t imagine how beautiful L.A. was then. Of course, it’s all ruined now,” she says. She aced her screen test, but, as she wrote in By Myself, the Hollywood machine “was so much more complicated than I had thought, so much grander.” Slim Hawks and Feldman’s wife, Jean Howard, both social paragons, took her under their wings and showed her off around town. Elsa Maxwell gave her a 19th-birthday party and invited Hedda Hopper, who wrote about it. Bacall started to appear at Cole Porter’s regular Sunday-night dinners at his house in Brentwood. In By Myself, she recalled:
He always had a few soldiers who had no place to go—no home nearby—to dinner and always invited young actresses to dine and dance with them One day I was having lunch at his poolside and was the last to leave. Finally he walked me to the door. At that moment the door opened. Standing there in white shirt, beige slacks—with a peach complexion, light-brown hair, and the most incredible face ever seen by man—was Greta Garbo. I almost gasped out loud as Cole introduced me to her. No make-up—unmatched beauty. It was the only time I saw her at anything but a distance.
Studio makeup artists attempted to alter Bacall, putting her in terror as they moved in to pluck her eyebrows, shave her hairline, and straighten her teeth. She thwarted their efforts: “Howard had chosen me for my thick eyebrows and crooked teeth, and that’s the way they would stay.” She insisted on doing her own hair, in the style that would become her trademark: “The wave … on the right side—starting to curve at the corner of my eyebrow and ending, sloping downward, at my cheekbone.”
Hawks had been thinking hard about a new name for his discovery. “At lunch in the green room one day,” Bacall wrote, “Howard told me he had thought of a name: Lauren. He wanted me to tell everyone when the interviews began that it was an old family name—had been my great-grandmother’s.” Previously he had asked her what her real grandmother’s name was. “Sophie,” Bacall answered. That, clearly, would not do. Hawks, determined to make her into a sex symbol for every warm-blooded American man, was, she feared, an anti-Semite. “He once made some remark about a Jew and I turned cold,” she noted. “I’m sure I paled visibly I was panic-stricken.” She prayed he would never ask her about her religion. It’s a small irony that she has never been comfortable being called Lauren Bacall. Her friends call her Betty. Bogart and his compatriots called her Baby.
On a Saturday morning in 1942, in New York City, Bacall’s mother and her aunt Rosalie had taken her to the Capitol Theatre to see Casablanca. “We all loved it,” Bacall wrote in By Myself.“And Rosalie was mad about Humphrey Bogart. I thought he was good in it, but mad about him? Not at all. She thought he was sexy. I thought she was crazy I couldn’t understand Rosalie’s thinking at all.”
That was when Betty Bacall was 18. Now, at 19, Hawks had in mind casting her opposite Bogart or Cary Grant. “I thought, Cary Grant—terrific! Humphrey Bogart—yuck!” she tells me. In the end, Hawks decided to put her in To Have and Have Not, an adaptation of a Hemingway novel, with Bogart. He presented the ingénue to the star one day on the set of the film Passage to Marseille.
The filming of To Have and Have Not was marked by two bombshell experiences for Bacall. The first was her discovery that she was so terrified in front of the camera that she could barely function. No matter what Hawks tried, she couldn’t gather her wits to perform her role as the femme fatale Marie, whom Bogart’s character in the film, Steve, nicknames Slim (in homage to Slim Hawks). She recalls being “ready for a straitjacket [on the first day of shooting]. Howard had planned to do a single scene that day—my first in the picture. I walked to the door of Bogart’s room, said, ‘Anybody got a match?,’ leaned against the door, and Bogart threw me a small box of matches. I lit my cigarette, looking at him, said ‘Thanks,’ threw the matches back to him, and left. Well—we rehearsed it. My hand was shaking. My head was shaking. The cigarette was shaking. I was mortified. The harder I tried to stop, the more I shook. What must Howard be thinking? What must Bogart be thinking? What must the crew be thinking? Oh God, make it stop! I was in such pain.”
The only way she could “hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to the chest, and eyes up at Bogart.” That stance accidentally became Bacall’s signature attitude on-screen, known as The Look.

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