The beginnings of one of Hollywood’s greatest power couples
For Hollywood icon Lauren Bacall, there were relationships with Frank Sinatra and Jason Robards. There were crushes on Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck. And then there was Humphrey Bogart.
Later in life, Bacall recalled her past relationships in an interview, “All the men were mistakes — except for Bogart.”
During the 1940s and 1950s, “Bogie and Bacall” were Hollywood’s power couple. Even after Bogart’s death, the couple remained immensely popular. The duo epitomized grace, class and what it meant to be infatuated with love. During their 11 year marriage, the couple had two kids, amounted tremendous memories, and provided incredible support for another in the so-called “game of life”. For Bacall, the marriage to Bogart provided helpful insight to acting and stability while living in a crazy, new Hollywood atmosphere. For Bogart, the marriage to Bacall grounded him and provided a calming, more relaxed life he needed.
They met while making a movie — her first, his 53rd. Together, the couple made four movies, each providing a unique glimpse into their private lives, but also into their talents as performers. The ebb and flow of a relationship seen through these four movies is a fascinating study, but the story of their romance is mystified in Hollywood lore. The reality of their relationship does not compare to any movie.
Betty Perske was born on September 16th, 1924 in The Bronx in New York City. Perske was the child of William and Natalie Perske; the couple divorced soon after her birth and Natalie changed her last name to Bacall. (Lauren Bacall would be known to friends and family as “Betty” all her life. She would change her name during her first film, so the public always knew her as Lauren Bacall).
When her parents divorced when she was five years old, Bacall began a close, personal relationship with her mother — which would last for the rest of her life. Her father barely registered in her mind. This fatherly figure — a trusted man whom she could confide to — would not show up until she walked onto a film set to make her first movie.
Her immediate family were not poor, but she did not enjoy a life of luxury. What she did have was the admiration and care of two great women: her mom and grandma. Despite missing out on a total life of luxury, thanks to wealthy uncles, Bacall attended an all-girls boarding school. She was friendly, yet quiet. Her mind was always elsewhere in school. “The girls always had boyfriends, while all I did was go to class and dream about being a dancer and actress,” Bacall remembered.
By 1941, Bacall became serious about her dreams. She enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, becoming classmates with Kirk Douglas. (She developed a teen crush on Douglas; the two would later have an on-screen romance in Young Man with a Horn). To earn a paycheck, she worked as an usher at the St. James Theater and as a model. She performed in various plays while studying at “the academy”, though nothing of note. It was her first dip into acting, and she fell love with the profession. To earn extra money, she tried out in the world of modeling. Despite some early struggles, Bacall found success. In 1943, she graced the cover of the March issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
Across the country, Slim Hawks picked up an issue of Harper’s; the cover caught her attention. She immediately contacted her husband: film director Howard Hawks.
Roughly 25 years before Bacall was born, Maud Humphrey gave birth to a boy on Christmas Day, 1899. The couple — Maud and Belmont — named the boy Humphrey. Like Bacall, Humphrey Bogart was born in New York City. Belmont was a surgeon; Maud was an illustrator and suffragette. Maud used Humphrey to draw babies for ads for Mellins Baby Food. The Bogarts were wealthy: both his parents earned roughly $70,000, combined, per year. Yet, for young Humphrey Bogart, money could not fill certain voids.
Humphrey Bogart’s childhood was emotionally tough. He had two younger sisters, which provided some relief. But, his parents were cold, especially Maud. The Bogart parents showed little, if any, affection was for their kids. “A kiss, in our family, was an event,” Bogart recalled. These cold instances with his family shaped Bogart as he grew up: his father passed on a love for the outdoors, a place were solitary was a normal occurrence; he became attracted to strong, independent woman.
As a teenager, Bogart drifted. School was not for him; no career options opened up. In 1918, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Most of Bogart’s time in the military was at sea after World War I ended. After his stint in the military, he bounced between jobs: shipper, bond salesman and the Coast Guard Reserve. He eventually found himself on stage — thanks to connections — first appearing in a play where he nervously spoke one line. The nerves did not matter; acting bewitched Bogart.
Bogart liked the attention actors received. He liked the rebellious nature of the business, something he knew his parents would hate. Throughout the 1920s, as young Betty Bacall was growing up, he preformed in plays throughout New York City. Bit parts, but they were parts. The stock market crash of 1929 stalled the theater world, but Bogart was lucky. He signed a film contract with Fox Film Corporation and made more connections. (He met fellow actor Spencer Tracy early on in his career and the pair became fast friends. In 1930, Tracy dawned a new name for the actor: “Bogie”).
By 1930, Bogart was married to actress Mary Philips; his second marriage. It was an unpleasant relationship. (For about a year in 1926, he was married to Helen Menken, another actress). Bogart became depressed and drank to escape his marriage to Philips — a pattern he would take into his third marriage to Mayo Methot in 1938.
Career-wise, however, Bogart found success. He starred in films such as The Petrified Forest, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and High Sierra. Each film added upon the other, as Humphrey Bogart built a successful career from the bottom up. In 1942, as Lauren Bacall was ushering and modeling in New York City and on the brink of discovery, Humphrey Bogart starred in Casablanca — cementing his legacy as a Hollywood icon. The film was a gigantic success. Bogart was a bona-fide movie star.
After filming Casablanca, Bogart went on USO and War Bond tours during World War II. He was a patriotic man, who felt he needed to help in any way he could. After the war, he returned to acting and film director Howard Hawks had the perfect role.
On the recommendation of his wife, Hawks reached out to Bacall and asked if she would like to do a screen test for potential movie roles. After mulling it over (she had various offers from different studios and executives), Bacall agreed to work with Hawks. Though sad to leave her family, Bacall was excited to branch out of New York City. She took a train to Hollywood, nervous yet excited, in her future of being an actress. Once on the train, alone, she told herself, “Well Betty Bacall, this is it. This train is taking you on a new adventure, totally different from anything you’ve ever known.”
Bacall reached Hollywood and soon realized how slow life was on the west coast. Hawks, and agent Charles Feldman, treated her to dinners and social gatherings. They provided her resources to hone in on her acting, singing and dancing skills. But there were no jobs, and Bacall’s nerves grew. Hawks explained he was looking out for the perfect part, and she trusted him. She considered Hawks her “mentor”; he would do what is right for her career. Bacall, anxious, was at least getting paid — she had signed a seven year contract with Hawks earning $100 a week.
Bacall, socially innocent, was kind and easy-going in the electric company of the Hollywood elite. However, she was incredibly shy. During most parties, she stood to the side — observing. One day, actor Robert Montgomery asked for her phone number. To his astonishment, Bacall gave it to him. “Too easy,” he told her. Bacall was not used to “the game” (her words), where it was expected for women to play a little tough. She was an innocent, 19 year old woman. But, playing “the game” was not who she was; Bacall held firm to her personality. More importantly, she had no experience dating or being in a relationship. She simply had no idea how to react to certain situations. “I wanted my romance to be the real thing — total — so I was not good material for that part of the Hollywood scene,” Bacall remembered.
To Have and Have Not
At the end of 1943, Hawks had the perfect part for Bacall — but she still had to screen test for the role. Bacall, despite raging with nerves, was excited at a shot at a job. The screen tests were successful, and she won the approval of the producers and Hawks. Bacall was overjoyed when informed she got the part.
The film was To Have and Have Not, based on an Ernest Hemingway (a friend of Hawks) novel. The film follows a group on the French island of Martinique, dealing with the restrictions of World War II.
Hawks informed Bacall she would co-star alongside Humphrey Bogart. “Yeech,” thought Bacall at the time. She wanted someone like Cary Grant to star alongside her, a much more appealing man, she thought at the time. To help ease Bacall into the film, Hawks introduced Bacall to Bogart; their first meeting was uneventful. “There was no clap of thunder,” Bacall wrote of the meeting, “Nothing of import was said — we didn’t stay long — but he seemed a friendly man.”
Filming of To Have and Have Not began in 1943. Bacall was 19; Bogart was 44. Even with the excitement of securing a role, Bacall was a nervous wreck. Incredibly unsure of her talents, she tended to shake her head and raise her voice during lines. With the help of Hawks (and Bogart) she solidified two aspects of her career to which she would be known for: her sultry voice and “the Look”. Instead of raising her voice during emotional scenes (as Hawks implied most women did), Hawks had her work on keeping her voice low — which helped providing a seductive quality to her part. “The Look” became synonymous with Lauren Bacall: chin down, eyes forward and staring with a piercing, flirtatious stare. This kept her head firm; the shaking stopped. She’d use a version of “the Look” the rest of her career.
What is now known as the “whistling scene” became Bacall’s most quoted scene — but the scene also gives viewers a glimpse of her personal life. The head remains low; the lows, ever-piercing, invite Bogart to something more than friendship. It’s the beginnings of “the look” that would drive audiences to see her movies. The double entendre nature of the dialogue raises the stakes in the film, but also holds a ring of truth between the two actors. Bacall does not deliver the line the way she does if not for Humphrey Bogart.
As soon as filming began, Bacall and Bogart hit it off — though, at first, only as friends. To help calm her nerves, Bogart joked around with Bacall. “He did everything possible to put me at ease,” Bacall remembered. Though the two began becoming friendly, Bogart and Bacall were not flirty toward one another. Bogart never dreamed of being together with a co-star; Bacall described herself as a flirt, but never, at first, with Bogart.
The complete opposite happened on-screen. The two showcased passionate chemistry that, though the script called for Bogart’s character to be with someone else, the film’s plot changed: Bogart and Bacall’s characters had to end up together. Hawks and the rest of the crew made sure to provide more “whistling” type scenes for Bogart and Bacall.
While watching the movie, there is a stiffness to Bacall’s acting. (If I may put on my movie critic hat: the stiffness works. It’s her first role, but the stiffness is subtle and adds a certain quality that works for her character). Her wardrobe is sharp (physically and aesthetically), just like her dialogue. Bacall snaps incredible wit to Bogart’s calm, cool character. As the movie went on filming, the two could not help it: they were falling in love.
Three weeks into shooting, Bogart bid Bacall goodnight. “We were joking, as usual, when suddenly he leaned over, put his hand under my chin, and kissed me,” Bacall said. Bogart was a bit shy, yet asked Bacall to write her phone number on a matchbook he pulled from his pocket. She did. A relationship began to blossom.
As Bogart and Bacall’s relationship changed, so did their on-screen personas. Bacall became much more relaxed on screen; Bogart remained calm, but retorted wit right back. (It’ll be more apparent in future movies). Both were professionals, but their personal lives began to dominate each of their lives. Bogart was unhappy, often drinking and calling Bacall during the night. Bacall happily answered and was ready to help whenever he needed. He would drop by at her apartment at 1 am; the two would just talk. Bogart rattled on about his unhappiness, Bacall would listen. The studio had no idea, but “anyone with half an eye could see that there was more between us than the scenes we played,” Bacall remembered.
Not everyone was oblivious. Howard Hawks knew and tried to stop them. Toward the end of filming, Hawks called Bacall to his house and warned her of the dangers “fooling around with Bogart”. Hawks’ ultimate point: she had a career to focus on, not dating. Hawks petrified Bacall with his disapproval. Bacall was worried that Hawks could ruin her career if he did not like what she did. The strong feelings of love overpowered her fear; her and Bogart were fated to be with one another.
Bacall instantly told Bogart what Hawks told her. “I do mean what I say to you,” Bogart told Bacall, “We must be very careful. I don’t want to hurt you.” Bogart reassured Bacall that his feelings were not a fling and that Hawks hated losing control. Up until this point in her early career, Bacall always followed Hawks’ judgement and opinion. As she expanded and grew into a Hollywood socialite, those feelings changed. She began trusting new people, Bogart being one. With Bogart’s pleas for love, the romance went into high gear.
Bogart and Bacall began leaving the studio together, getting lunch together and going on drives. They would sit in Bogart’s car, hold hands and “say all the things we couldn’t say at the studio”. Bacall dreaded parting with Bogart, always waving good-bye as he drove away. “It was romantic; it was fun,” Bacall remembered.
Soon, Bacall began having a revelation: she, without a doubt, fell in love with Humphrey Bogart. “I wanted to give Bogie so much that he hadn’t had. All the love that had been stored inside of me…,” Bacall admitted. She convinced herself, but she had no idea how to tell her family. Once when her mother was visiting, Bogart called and asked to see her. She put on clothes, as her mother watched. When she told her mother she was going to see Bogart, her mother replied: “Are you crazy? Get right back into bed!” Bacall was halfway out the door. (Bacall ultimately explained the nature of the relationship to her mother. First, she was not pleased. Natalie Bacall would warm up to Humphrey Bogart and became a loving mother-in-law.)
Once filming ended, Bacall became sick: “If you were separated from someone you loved, how was it possible to derive pleasure from anything?” With no more film to shoot, and Bogart married, Bacall found it harder to be with Bogart. Yet, it was not just Bacall in which sadness hit: Bogart found himself missing Bacall. Both hit a funk, unknowing how to proceed with their feelings.
Bogart wished things were different and promised that they would be together soon. He began sending letters to Bacall, professing his love and feelings he could not openly admit. Reading his letters, there is not doubt where his heart is at: “I want to make a new life with you — I want all the friends I’ve lost to meet you and know you and love you as I do,” he wrote. In another letter, “You’ll be here soon, Baby, and when you come you’ll bring everything that’s important to me in this world.”
The letters were quintessential love letters, filled with affection and pronouncing that he had no idea what love was until he had met Bacall. “I wish I were your age again — perhaps a few years older — and no ties of any kind,” Bogart wrote to Bacall. Bogart was madly in love and guilty he could not act on his feelings. Though, he would “rather die” than hurt Bacall.
On top of providing examples of his love, Bogart advised Bacall — most notably to stay away from “Hollywood folk — the ones who thrived on gossip and other people’s troubles”. Bacall would hold onto this for the rest of her life. She trusted Bogart; her character judgement was spot on. He was a good-natured human who absolutely wanted the best for her. She recognized his good character, which made her fall deeper in love.
But Bogart’s situation was difficult and taxing. He constantly called, late and usually drunk. Bacall always went out to meet him, wherever he was. Sometimes that was a mutual meeting point or sometimes that was on the side of the road. (Bacall, who was new to driving, always “hugged the shoulder”. Despite her novice driving skills, she always found Bogart). For Bacall, the location never mattered. “I was in love, I was on my way to meet my man — that’s all that mattered,” Bacall admitted.
To Have and Have Not was released on October 11th, 1944. Audiences loved it, mostly because of the on-screen chemistry of Bogart and Bacall. The film depicts a couple so obvious in love, it adds incredible amount of passion and tension to the story. Anyone who watches the performances instantly realizes the chemistry. To Have and Have Not is infectious to watch.
But just like the beginning of their careers, Bogart and Bacall were at a crossroads. Both were head over heels in love with one another, but life — as currently constituted — would not let them be. Studios were weary of Bacall falling for a man, slowing her movie career. Of course, Bogart was married. This was a love to be, however, and fate would somehow swoop in. Before an official relationship could happen, Bogart and Bacall would fall deeper into despair and loneliness.
In the mean time, their second film was in the works.