Lauren Bacall is the brooding blonde of the noir era, whose husky voice and androgynous aspect made her the ultimate femme fatale.
She was born Betty Joan Perske on September 16, 1924 in Manhattan, New York - the only child to Natalie Weinstein-Bacal, a secretary, and William Perske, a salesman – both of whom were Jewish immigrants from Romania and Germany. At five, her parents divorced and Betty subsequently took her mother’s Americanized last name, Bacall. While in New York, Bacall began studying theater at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, working simultaneously as a theater usher and print model. Her first professional role was in 1942 as a walk on in Johnny 2x4 on Broadway.
Bacall garnered some success as a commercial model and caught the eye of Nancy Hawks (wife of Howard Hawks) in an issue of Harpers Bazaar. Nancy showed the image to Howard and urged him to get her a screen test for the upcoming film, To Have and Have Not. Hawks saw potential and immediately flew her and her mother to Los Angeles. In California, Bacall was offered a 7 year contract with Hawks who became her manager. As her manager, Hawks arranged for Bacall to take etiquette classes in addition to voice lessons, where her famous tone was born and developed.
The screen-test inevitably arrived, but, still a newcomer to the business, she was hugely nervous. Out of nervousness, she delivered her lines with a lowered chin, looking up at the camera. “The Look,” as it became known, was mistaken for confidence and sex appeal and Bacall was offered the role.
On set, Bacall met her co-star and on-screen love interest, Humphrey Bogart, with whom she immediately became enamored. Although Bogart was married to Mayo Methot at the time, he was undeniably attracted to Bacall and their relationship developed quickly off-screen.
Bacall’s debut performance was met with good reviews, but she did not received national recognition until photos surfaced of her strewn across a piano, being played by then Vice President of the United States, Harry S. Truman. The photos sparked huge controversy and Bacall became a household name.
Bacall appeared in a number of noir films following To Have and Have Not, including: Confidential Agent (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948), but her selectiveness with scripts labeled her “difficult” in Hollywood circles.
Bacall and Bogart married in 1945 and had two children together. They remained happily married until Bogart’s death. Subsequently, she was famously linked to Frank Sinatra – a widely publicized and tumultuous relationship. Her second marriage was to actor Jason Robards, with whom she had one son.
Though her career began to lose momentum after the end of the noir movement, she continued working in film, television, and theater for decades. Her first Academy Award nomination was in 1996 for her role in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Although she received a Golden Globe for the role, she lost the Oscar to Juliette Binoche.
Bacall still works as an actress, but she will always be synonymous with the dark, mysterious, sensual femme fatale whose air of masculinity only made her more attractive.