Was born Betty Joan Perske on September 16, 1924, in The Bronx, New York, the only child of Natalie (née Weinstein-Bacal), a secretary who later legally changed her surname to Bacall, and William Perske, who worked in sales. Both her parents were Jewish. According to Bacall’s own statement, her mother emigrated from Kingdom of Romania through Ellis Island, and her father was born in New Jersey, to parents who were born in Vistula Land, in the Russian Empire. Soon after her birth, Bacall’s family moved to Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway. She was educated at the expense of wealthy uncles at a private boarding school founded by philanthropist Eugene Heitler Lehman, named The Highland Manor Boarding School for Girls, in Tarrytown, New York, and at Julia Richman High School in Manhattan.
Through her father, she was a relative of Shimon Peres (born Szymon Perski), the ninth President of Israel. Peres has stated, “In 1952 or 1953 I came to New York… Lauren Bacall called me, said that she wanted to meet, and we did. We sat and talked about where our families came from, and discovered that we were from the same family… but I’m not exactly sure what our relation is… It was she who later said that she was my cousin, I didn’t say that”. Her parents divorced when she was five; she later took the Romanian form of her mother’s last name, Bacall. She no longer saw her father and formed a very close bond with her mother, who came to live in California after Bacall became a movie star.
In 1941, Bacall took lessons at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she was classmates with Kirk Douglas, while working as a theatre usher and fashion model. She made her acting debut on Broadway in 1942, at age 17, as a walk-on in Johnny 2 X 4. By now, she lived with her mother on Bank Street, Greenwich Village, and in 1942 she was crowned Miss Greenwich Village. As a teenage fashion model she appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar (the cover has since been described as ‘iconic’), as well as in magazines such as Vogue. She was noted for her “cat-like grace, tawny blonde hair and blue-green eyes”.
Though Diana Vreeland is often credited with discovering Bacall for Harper’s Bazaar, it was in fact Nicolas de Gunzburg who delivered the 18-year-old to his colleague. He had first met Bacall at Tony’s, an East 50s club where habitués gathered to listen to her hyper-sophisticated cabaret artist Mabel Mercer. De Gunzburg suggested that the tawny-haired drama student stop by his Bazaar office the next day. He then turned over his find to Vreeland, who arranged for Louise Dahl-Wolfe to shoot Bacall in Kodachrome for the March 1943 cover. While she was working as a fashion model, Howard Hawks’ wife Nancy spotted her on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. and urged Hawks to have her take a screen test for To Have and Have Not. Hawks had asked his secretary to find out more about her, but the secretary misunderstood and sent her a ticket to Hollywood for the audition.
Hawks signed her to a seven-year personal contract, brought her to Hollywood, gave her US$100 salary a week, and began to manage her career. Hawks changed her first name to Lauren, and Perske adopted “Bacall”, a variant of her mother’s maiden name, as her screen surname. Nancy Hawks took Bacall under her wing. Nancy dressed Bacall stylishly and guided her in matters of elegance, manners and taste. Bacall was trained to make her voice lower, and deeper due to Hawks’ suggestion since she naturally had a high-pitched, nasal voice. Hawks had her lower the pitch of her voice under the tutelage of a voice coach. As part of her training, she was required to shout verses of Shakespeare for hours every day.
During her screen tests for her first film To Have and Have Not (1944), Bacall was so nervous that to minimize her quivering, she pressed her chin against her chest and to face the camera, tilted her eyes upward. This effect became known as “The Look”, and became Bacall’s trademark. Bacall’s character used Nancy Hawks’ nickname “Slim” and Humphrey Bogart used Howard Hawks’ nickname “Steve”. On the set, Bogart, who was married to Mayo Methot, initiated a relationship with Bacall several weeks into shooting and they began seeing each other.
The script was revised mutiple times during shooting to extend Bacall’s part into a lead. Once released, To Have and Have Not catapulted Bacall into instant universal stardom. The performance became the cornerstone of her star image, the impact of which extended into popular culture at large, influencing fashion as well as film makers and other actors. Warner Brothers launched an excessive marketing campaign to promote the picture and to establish Bacall as a movie star. As part of the public relations push, Bacall made a visit to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on February 10, 1945, Bacall’s press agent, chief of publicity at Warner Bros. Charlie Enfield, asked the 20-year-old Bacall to sit on the piano which was being played by Vice-President of the United States Harry S. Truman.
After To Have and Have Not, Bacall was seen opposite Charles Boyer in Confidential Agent (1945), which was poorly received by critics and, according to her own estimation, could have caused considerable damage to her career, had her performance as the mysterious, acid-tongued Vivian Rutledge in Hawks’s film noir The Big Sleep (1946), co-starring Bogart, not provided a quick career resurgence. The Big Sleep laid the foundation for her status as an icon of film noir. She would be strongly associated with the genre for the rest of her career, and would often be cast as variations of the independent and sultry femme fatale character she played in the movie; as described by film scholar Joe McElhaney, “Vivian displays an almost total command of movement and gesture. She never crawls.”
She appeared with Bogart in two more films. In Dark Passage (1947), another film noir, she played an enigmatic San Francisco artist. “Miss Bacall — generates quite a lot of pressure as a sharp-eyed, knows-what-she-wants girl”, wrote Bosley Crowther of The New York Times of her performance. In 1948, she was seen in John Huston’s melodramatic suspense film Key Largo with Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. In the film, according to film critic Jessica Kiang, “Bacall brings an edge of ambivalence and independence to the role that makes her character much more interesting than was written.”
Bacall turned down scripts she did not find interesting and thereby earned a reputation for being difficult. Despite this, she further solidified her star status in the 1950s by appearing as the leading lady in a string of films for favorable reviews. Bacall was cast opposite Gary Cooper in Bright Leaf (1950). In the same year, she played a two-faced femme fatale in Young Man with a Horn (1950), co-starring Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, and Hoagy Carmichael. This movie is often considered the first big-budget jazz film. During 1951–1952, Bacall co-starred with Bogart in the syndicated action-adventure radio series Bold Venture.
In 1953, she starred in the CinemaScope comedy How to Marry a Millionaire, a runaway hit among critics and at the box office. Directed by Jean Negulesco and co-starring Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, Bacall got positive notices for her turn as the witty gold-digger, Schatze Page. “First honors in spreading mirth go to Miss Bacall”, wrote Alton Cook in The New York World-Telegram & Sun. “The most intelligent and predatory of the trio, she takes complete control of every scene with her acid delivery of viciously witty lines.” According to her autobiography, Bacall declined the coveted invitation from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to press her hand- and footprints in the theatre’s cemented forecourt at the Los Angeles premiere of the film. At this time, Bacall was under contract to 20th Century Fox. Following How to Marry a Millionaire, she appeared in yet another CinemaScope comedy directed by Jean Negulesco, Woman’s World (1954), which failed to match its predecessor’s success at the box office.
In 1955, a television version of Bogart’s breakthrough film, The Petrified Forest, was performed as a live installment of Producers’ Showcase, a weekly dramatic anthology, featuring Bogart as Duke Mantee, Henry Fonda as Alan, and Bacall as Gabrielle, the part originally played in the 1936 movie by Bette Davis. Bogart had originally played the part on Broadway with the subsequent movie’s star Leslie Howard, who had secured a film career for Bogart by insisting that Warner Bros. cast him in the movie instead of Edward G. Robinson; Bogart and Bacall named their daughter “Leslie Howard Bogart” in gratitude. In the late 1990s, Bacall donated the only known kinescope of the 1955 performance to The Museum Of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media), where it remains archived for viewing in New York City and Los Angeles.
In 1955, Bacall starred in two feature films, The Cobweb and Blood Alley. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, The Cobweb takes place at a mental institution in which Bacall’s character works as a therapist. It was her second collaboration with Charles Boyer and also starred Richard Widmark and Lillian Gish. “In the only two really sympathetic roles, Mr. Widmark is excellent and Miss Bacall shrewdly underplays”, wrote The New York Times. Many film scholars consider Written on the Wind, directed by Douglas Sirk in 1956, to be a landmark work in the melodrama genre. Appearing with Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack, Bacall played a career woman whose life is unexpectedly turned around by a family of oil magnates. Bacall wrote in her autobiography that she did not think much of the role, but reviews were favorable. Wrote Variety, “Bacall registers strongly as a sensible girl swept into the madness of the oil family”.
While struggling at home with Bogart’s battle with esophageal cancer, Bacall starred with Gregory Peck in Designing Woman to solid reviews. The musical comedy was her second feature with director Vincente Minnelli and was released in New York on May 16, 1957, four months after Bogart’s death on January 14. Bacall appeared in two more films in the 1950s: the Jean Negulesco-directed melodrama The Gift of Love (1958), which co-starred Robert Stack, and the adventure film North West Frontier (1959), which was a box office hit. Bacall’s movie career waned in the 1960s, and she was seen in only a handful of films. She starred on Broadway in Goodbye, Charlie in 1959, and went on to have a successful on-stage career in Cactus Flower (1965), Applause (1970), and Woman of the Year (1981). She won Tony Awards for her performances in the latter two.
Applause was a musical version of the film All About Eve in which Bette Davis had starred as stage diva Margo Channing. According to Bacall’s autobiography, she and a girlfriend won an opportunity in 1940 to meet her idol Bette Davis at Davis’s hotel. Years later, Davis visited Bacall backstage to congratulate her on her performance in Applause. Davis told Bacall, “You’re the only one who could have played the part.” The few films Bacall made during this period were all-star vehicles such as Sex and the Single Girl (1964) with Henry Fonda, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood; Harper (1966) with Paul Newman, Shelley Winters, Julie Harris, Robert Wagner and Janet Leigh; and Murder on the Orient Express (1974), with Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Martin Balsam and Sean Connery.
In 1964, she appeared in two episodes of Craig Stevens’s Mr. Broadway: first in “Take a Walk Through a Cemetery”, with then husband, Jason Robards, Jr. and later as Barbara Lake in the episode “Something to Sing About”, co-starring future co-star Balsam. For her work in the Chicago theatre, Bacall won the Sarah Siddons Award in 1972 and again in 1984. In 1976, she co-starred with John Wayne in his last picture, The Shootist. The two became friends, despite significant political differences between them. They had previously worked together in Blood Alley (1955).
During the 1980s, Bacall appeared in the poorly received star vehicle The Fan (1981), as well as some star-studded features such as Robert Altman’s Health (1980) and Michael Winner’s Appointment with Death (1988). In 1990, she had a small role in Misery, which starred Kathy Bates and James Caan. In 1997, Bacall was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), her first nomination after a career span of more than fifty years. Bacall had already won a Golden Globe and was widely expected to win the Oscar, but lost in an upset to Juliette Binoche for The English Patient. Bacall received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1997. In 1999, she was voted one of the 25 most significant female movie stars in history by the American Film Institute. Her movie career saw something of a renaissance and she attracted respectful notices for her performances in high-profile projects such as Dogville (2003) and Birth (2004), both with Nicole Kidman. She was a leading actor in Paul Schrader’s The Walker (2007).
Her commercial ventures in the 2000s included being a spokesperson for the Tuesday Morning discount chain (commercials showed her in a limousine waiting for the store to open at the beginning of one of their sales events) and producing a jewelry line with the Weinman Brothers company. She previously was a celebrity spokesperson for High Point (coffee) and Fancy Feast cat food. In March 2006, Bacall was seen at the 78th Annual Academy Awards introducing a film montage dedicated to film noir. She made a cameo appearance as herself on The Sopranos, in the April 2006 episode, “Luxury Lounge”, during which she was mugged by a masked hoodlum (played by Michael Imperioli). In September 2006, Bacall was awarded the first Katharine Hepburn Medal, which recognizes “women whose lives, work and contributions embody the intelligence, drive and independence of the four-time-Oscar-winning actress”, by Bryn Mawr College’s Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center. She gave an address at the memorial service of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. at the Reform Club in London in June 2007. She finished her role in The Forger in 2009.
Bacall was selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to receive an Honorary Academy Award. The award was presented at the inaugural Governors Awards on November 14, 2009. In July 2013, Bacall expressed interest in taking the starring role in the film Trouble Is My Business. In November, she joined the English dub voice cast for StudioCanal’s animated film Ernest & Celestine. Her final role was in 2014: a guest vocal appearance in the twelfth season Family Guy episode “Mom’s the Word”.
On May 21, 1945, Bacall married actor Humphrey Bogart. Their wedding and honeymoon took place at Malabar Farm, Lucas, Ohio, the country home of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield, a close friend of Bogart. The wedding was held in the Big House. Bacall was 20 and Bogart was 45; thus, she was nicknamed “Baby”. They remained married until Bogart’s death from esophageal cancer in 1957. Pressed by interviewer Michael Parkinson to talk about her marriage to Bogart, and asked about her notable reluctance to do so, she replied that “being a widow is not a profession”. During the filming of The African Queen (1951), Bacall and Bogart became friends of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She began to mix in non-acting circles, becoming friends with the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and the journalist Alistair Cooke. In 1952, she gave campaign speeches for Democratic Presidential contender Adlai Stevenson. Along with other Hollywood figures, Bacall was a staunch opponent of McCarthyism.
Shortly after Bogart’s death in 1957, Bacall had a relationship with singer and actor Frank Sinatra. During an interview with Turner Classic Movies’s Robert Osborne, Bacall stated that she had ended the romance but in her autobiography, she wrote that Sinatra abruptly ended the relationship after becoming angry that the story of his proposal to Bacall had reached the press. When Bacall was out with her friend Irving Paul Lazar, they ran into the gossip columnist Louella Parsons, to whom Lazar revealed the details of the proposal. Bacall later met actor Jason Robards. Their marriage was originally scheduled to take place in Vienna, Austria on June 16, 1961; however, the plans were shelved after Austrian authorities refused to grant the pair a marriage license. They were also refused a marriage in Las Vegas, Nevada. On July 4, 1961, the couple drove all the way to Ensenada, Mexico, where they wedded. The couple divorced in 1969. According to Bacall’s autobiography, she divorced Robards mainly because of his alcoholism.
Bacall had a son and daughter with Bogart and a son with Robards. Her children with Bogart are her son Stephen Humphrey Bogart (born January 6, 1949), a news producer, documentary film maker and author; and her daughter Leslie Howard Bogart (born August 23, 1952), a yoga instructor. Sam Robards (born December 16, 1961), her son with Robards, is an actor. She wrote two autobiographies, Lauren Bacall By Myself (1978) and Now (1994). In 2006, the first volume of Lauren Bacall By Myself was reprinted as By Myself and Then Some with an extra chapter.
Bacall was a staunch liberal Democrat. She proclaimed her political views on numerous occasions. In October 1947, Bacall and Bogart traveled to Washington, D.C., along with other Hollywood stars, in a group that called itself the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA). She appeared alongside Humphrey 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. Bogart and Bacall distanced themselves from the Hollywood Ten and said: “We’re about as much in favor of Communism as J. Edgar Hoover.” She campaigned for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 Presidential election and for Robert Kennedy in his 1964 run for the U.S. Senate. In a 2005 interview with Larry King, Bacall described herself as “anti-Republican… A liberal. The L-word.” She added that “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.”
Lauren Bacall died on August 12, 2014, at her longtime home in The Dakota, the Upper West Side apartment building overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. According to her grandson Jamie Bogart, the actress died after suffering a massive stroke. She was confirmed dead at New York–Presbyterian Hospital. Bacall was 89 and was survived by three children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Bacall had an estimated $26.6 million estate and in her will she left $10,000 to her youngest son, Sam Robards, so he would be able to take care of her dog, Sophie. Bacall also left money to two of her employees, Ilsa Hernandez and Maria Santos. Hernandez received $15,000 while Santos received $20,000. Bacall left $250,000 to each of her six grandchildren and the majority of her estate was divided between her three children, Leslie Bogart, Stephen Humphrey Bogart and Sam Robards.
- September, 16, 1924
- Bronx,New York
- August, 12, 2014
- Manhattan, New York
Cause of Death
- Forest Lawn Memorial Park
- Glendale, California