Betty Joan Perske was born in the Bronx in 1924, an area as tough as the lady she became: Lauren ‘Betty’ Bacall. Born into a family of Russian/Romanian Jewish immigrants, it was clear in the early life of young Betty, that toughness and drive were the only routes to success. As the only child of parents strapped for cash she had needed to have these qualities in order to haul herself out of the grime of New York into a dazzling career in Hollywood.
By the time she was 17, the ambitious Betty was already attending theatre school (with Kirk Douglas as a classmate) and modelling in her spare time.
Her movie career began when the wife of Howard Hawks (a well-established director) saw the young Betty on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and, in true Hollywood fashion, had her brought out to Hollywood for a screen test, changed her name, taught her how to speak and walk and dress: an opportunity which led to instant fame and fortune in her first movie, To Have and Have Not. The film contained one of the icon’s most famous phrases when she asked Bogart: “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together ... and blow.”
So frightened was she of working with established star Humphrey Bogart, that she cast her chin down to stop it trembling, brought her eyes up, and immediately created one of Hollywood’s most sultry and iconic ‘looks’. Her career rocketed along with her relationship with Bogie (whom she married when she was just 21) “As a woman she holds all the cards,” Bogart told journalist Donald Zec.
Together they worked on The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo, and a television version of The Petrified Forest. She became associated with film noir, not least due to her ambivalent, enigmatic and powerful charisma.
However, she was a dab hand at comedy as well, holding her own against Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable in How to Marry a Millionaire. Alton Cook in The New York World-Telegram & Sun wrote, "The most intelligent and predatory of the trio, (Bacall) takes complete control of every scene with her acid delivery of viciously witty lines.”
Work slowed down during the mid -1950s when Bogart was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and Lauren nursed her husband at home until his death in 1957. She married again, but not well, to the actor Jason Robards: it was clear that Bogie had been the love of her life.
Little work of note appeared in the 1960s and 70s, and her appearances tended to be in huge, star-studded films such as Appointment with Death, which were popular but not critical successes. She did receive an Oscar nomination for The Mirror Has Two Faces, in which she played a typically abrasive character, but perhaps her more interesting films were The Walker, directed by Paul Shrader, co-starring Kristen Scott Thomas and Dogville, directed by Lars Von Trier. Over her career, she made over 50 films, as well as starring on Broadway on over a dozen shows.
Lauren Bacall remains an icon of Old Hollywood, a reminder of an era in which women were groomed to be goddesses: an irony for a woman who always maintained she disliked seeing her face magnified on screen. Her toughness, sass and intelligence were a formidable combination: when one added in her incendiary glamour, it was unbeatable. Farewell, Betty Bacall: you really were a legend.