Bogart and Bacall were one of the most popular Hollywood couples, onscreen and off, and their 11-year marriage was the stuff of romantic lore. In 1981, their love provided the lyrics for Bertie Higgins‘ 1981 pop hit “Key Largo” — “We had it all, just like Bogie and Bacall.”
They met just before they filmed her first movie, To Have and Have Not (1944), directed by Howard Hawks, her mentor. Although only 19, Bacall and her smoldering cool were the perfect match for the 44-year-old Bogart and his tough guy-persona.
Her best-remembered films, many of them considered classics, were with Bogart: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948).
Bacall received her only Oscar nomination for her supporting role as Barbra Streisand‘s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). She was the recipient of an honorary Academy Award in 2010 “in recognition of her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures,” but that moment did not lead to pleasant memories — she said she always regretted failing to mention her children Sam, Stephen and Leslie in her acceptance speech.
Bacall also enjoyed a splendid stage career. She captured two Tony Awards for best actress in a musical: in 1970 for Applause, the adaptation of All About Eve, in which she played Margo Channing, the role created by her idol Bette Davis; and in 1981 for Woman of the Year in a part originated by Katharine Hepburn, a good friend whom she once called “the female counterpart to Bogie.”
Bacall also received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Career Achievement from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in 1992.
Bacall penned two memoirs, By Myself (1978), which won a National Book Award in 1980, and Now (1994), in which she mused about getting older and living alone.
She admitted that being a “legend” and “special lady of film” unnerved her because “in my slightly paranoiac head, legends and special ladies don’t work, it’s over for them; they just go around being legends and special ladies.”
She was born Betty Jean Perske in the Bronx on Sept. 16, 1924, the only child of Jewish immigrants. Her father left the family when she was 6, and her mother struggled to make ends meet. She attracted attention as a teenage model while studying acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
Crowned Miss Greenwich Village in 1942, Bacall made her stage debut in George S. Kaufman‘s Franklin Street in Washington, then appeared in March 1943 on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.
That cover photo was noticed by Hawks’ wife, Nancy, who showed it to the celebrated director, and he called Bacall in for a screen test. Based on the test, Hawks told her she would star in something with either Bogart or Cary Grant.
“I thought Cary Grant, great. Humphrey Bogart‚ yuck,” she later said. Nonetheless, Hawks had her meet with Bogart and could not help but notice their immediate chemistry, casting her as the femme fatale Marie in To Have and Have Not, an adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel. (Bogart’s character, Steve, nicknamed her “Slim,” which Hawks also called his wife.)
In By Myself, she described meeting Bogart for the first time, on the set of Passage to Marseille (1944).
“Howard told me to stay put, he’d be right back — which he was, with Bogart,” she wrote. “He introduced us. There was no clap of thunder, no lightning bolt, just a simple ‘how do you do.’ Bogart was slighter than I imagined‚ 5 foot 10 and a half, wearing his costume of no-shape trousers, cotton shirt and scarf around his neck. Nothing of import was said‚ we didn’t stay long‚ but he seemed a friendly man.”
But soon, Bacall and Bogart — who at the time was married to his third wife, actress Mayo Methot — began an affair during the filming of To Have and Have Not.
One particular scene in the film stands out: As Bacall stood fetchingly just inside Bogart’s hotel room door, readying to leave, she noticed his tongue-tied interest in her: “You don’t have to say anything, Steve, just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? … You just put your lips together and blow.” She closed the door, leaving Bogart’s character awestruck.
The two married in 1945 on a farm in Lucas, Ohio, owned by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Louis Bromfield, a friend of Bogart, and regularly hosted parties at their Holmby Hills mansion.
“I fairly often have thought how lucky I was,” she told Vanity Fair in a 2011 interview. “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.”
Bacall later admitted her so-called cool was just a way of concealing her jangled, first-movie insecurity. “I used to tremble from nerves so badly that the only way I could hold my head steady was to lower my chin practically to my chest and look up at Bogie,” she said.
Her legendary low, sexy voice, however, hampered a scene in To Have and Have Not where she was supposed to sing. It has always been a point of speculation whether it was Andy Williams, then a teenager, who dubbed in the singing voice for Bacall’s rendition of Hoagy Carmichael‘s “How Little We Know.”
Her distinctive throaty voice did make her a natural for commercials, and later in her career, Bacall voiced numerous spots, including plugs for PBS.
Following To Have and Have Not, her next film was opposite Charles Boyer in Graham Greene‘s Confidential Agent (1945) in which she played an English girl. Bacall considered the experience horrible. “It was the worst movie, a nightmare, and I was terrible in it,” she said. “And as quickly as I had been placed on a pedestal, I fell off.”
But she was cast opposite Bogart again in Hawks’ classic The Big Sleep, a steamy adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel in which Bogart plays the classic private eye Philip Marlowe while Bacall sizzled as the lithesome daughter of Bogart’s rich, sinister employer.
Bacall followed with two more starring roles opposite Bogart, Dark Passage and Key Largo, John Huston‘s classic noir film.
She followed in 1950 in a film without Bogart titled Bright Leaf and did her first comedy, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), starring with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable. Perhaps her most memorable film from the 1950s was Douglas Sirk‘s melodrama Written on the Wind (1956) with Rock Hudson. The following year, Bogart died of esophageal cancer, leaving her with their children, Stephen and Leslie. Bacall was 32 at the time.
Following Bogart’s death, Bacall dated Frank Sinatra and was set to marry him. But days after she accepted his proposal in 1958, The Los Angeles Herald reported on the impending nuptial on page 1 and Sinatra broke things off, refusing to speak to her for two decades. “Frank did me a great favor. He saved me from the complete disaster our marriage would have been,” she told People magazine in 1979. “But the truth is that he behaved like a complete shit.”
She starred in Designing Women (1957) opposite Gregory Peck, The Gift of Love (1958) with Robert Stack and British drama North West Frontier (1959) with Kenneth More before moving back to New York and appearing in a number of Broadway plays.
In 1961 she married Oscar-winning actor Jason Robards, a relationship that lasted until 1969. Their son, actor Sam Robards, survives them. She summed up that relationship in the People interview:
“When I invited a few friends over to celebrate [Robards’] 40th birthday, Jason showed up at 2 a.m., loaded. I grabbed a bottle of vodka, smashed it into the cake and yelled, ‘Here’s your goddamn cake!’ The marriage ended when I came across a letter written to him by his girlfriend.”
Bacall did not make another film until Shock Treatment (1964), a murder mystery set in a mental institution. She followed that up with a light comedy, Sex and the Single Girl (1964), which also starred Henry Fonda, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood.
Bacall had a supporting role in the noir private eye thriller Harper (1966) with Paul Newman, played in the star-studded ensemble Murder on the Orient Express (1974), based on the Agatha Christie play, and co-starred with John Wayne in his final film, The Shootist (1976).
In 1981, she starred in The Fan, a riveting story about an actress being stalked by an obsessed fan (Michael Biehn), but spent the major part of the decade back on Broadway, winning the Tony in 1981 for Woman of the Year. She also starred on Broadway in Cactus Flower and Goodbye Charlie while venturing to London and Australia for Sweet Bird of Youth.
Film historians ascribe her relative lack of movie credits during this period as one of the unfortunate results of the demise of the studio system, an enterprise that for all its faults turned out strong female stars. Admitting that scripts were not “exactly piling up at my door,” she nevertheless returned to the screen with Mr. North (1988) and then Rob Reiner‘s Misery (1990), the Stephen King adaptation starring Kathy Bates.
Later, she performed in several made-for-TV movies, in Robert Altman‘s farce Pret-a-Porter (1994) and with Jack Lemmon and James Garner in the comedy romp My Fellow Americans (1996).
Altman talked about her longevity in a 1997 interview. “She never got locked in any time warp,” he said. “Think about how many social and attitudinal changes that have occurred, and yet Bacall has always remained unique.”
Most recently, Bacall appeared in the French film Le Jour et la Nuit (1997); in Diamonds with Kirk Douglas and in Presence of Mind with Harvey Keitel, both released in 1999; in the TV miniseries Too Rich: The Secret Life of Doris Duke (1998) as the billionaire tobacco heiress; in Dogville (2003) with Nicole Kidman; and in The Forger (2012).
In a 2006 episode of The Sopranos, Bacall played herself getting accosted by a mugger who tried to swipe her swag bag as she left an awards show.