Thursday, 26 July 2012

Betty: The life of a star

Lights out, silence please. The movie is about to start. Halfway across the room, sits a child, fists pressed in excitement, her tiny heart pounding out of her chest. She is eight years old, but for the last few weeks she has been saving up her allowance penny by penny. When the screen lights up she recognizes that face instantly. Oh, Bette! I would give anything to be like you! The movie flies by like a lightning and after it, she just sits there soaking up the energy and magic of the movies.
Betty Bacall reached up to her mother’s hand and, together, they walked back to reality. Reality, to that 8-year-old, was called Brooklyn, New York, where she lived with her Uncle Charlie and her mother Natalie. Dream higher was the motto in the Bacall household and encouragement was the law. The faith in little Betty’s talent was never shaken. When Betty Joan Perske, was born a Jewish baby on both sides, on September 16th 1924, her mother’s marriage to bottle-popping William Perske could barely stand on its feet. It took surprising six years for Perske to finally flee, leaving wife and daughter unattended. But the strong woman that was Natalie Perske quickly changed the family name to her maiden name Bacall and was ready to move on. All the while, Betty was living in a world of her own, every day with a dream shining vividly in her heart: to be on the stage. Every year that went by, Betty was a more distinguished and honored member of her school’s drama club. Teachers were impressed at her talent, and recommended that her mother enrolled her on a prestigious acting academy, where the likes of Kirk Douglas paved his way to stardom. Classes were to take place on Saturday mornings as to not interfere with Betty’s academic preparation, and she was to work with the best teachers in New York City. What could possibly go wrong?
Betty Bacall, photographed in 1942, at 17 years of age

What went wrong is that Betty could get any job in the world - except an acting one. Now a teenager, she was growing increasingly frustrated when her talent, so recognized by schoolteachers and acting coaches, seemed to go unnoticed by the theatrical scene in New York. Modeling, yes, she was good at that. Pretty face, strong eyes, good body, no need to be trimmed and plucked to perfection. But it was not what she wanted. After several exhausting photo shoots and years of broken dreams going by, Betty found herself with a twofold opportunity: A leading role in the small production Claudia, and a centerfold feature on the oh-so-glamorous Harper’s Bazaar. She took both. The play flopped, but the magazine was a smashing hit. “Young actress Betty Bacall on the cover”, it read. She didn’t know it yet, but that cover and that caption would make a world of difference in her life.
What was it that attracted Slim Hawks, wife of Hollywood mogul Howard Hawks, to that skinny teenager on the cover of that magazine? Where resided her power to attract attention, to turn heads, to light up a room? Nowadays, some call it, much simply, “it”. But, over the decades, no one was able to put a finger on what “it” is. Betty Bacall had “it”. And only a few months after she blew eighteen candles on her cake, she was all alone in a train to Hollywood, on her way to meet Howard Hawks, with the possibility of a silver screen contract. The theatre, Betty thought, could wait.
Howard Hawks had always dreamed of building his ideal woman. Since he became a movie producer, he fantasized about finding a young girl, who he could mold into an unreal image he himself had painted, carefully and precisely. And in Betty Bacall he saw the face, the body, the sultry magnetism and subdued sexuality he had envisioned. The magazine said she was a young actress. A few screen tests later and the youngster was under personal contract. Bacall – like Hawks – was thrilled.
Betty’s dreams were coming true at such an overwhelming speed that the teen started to question if she was up to the task. In her first picture, Papa Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, a leading role, starring opposite one of the best actors of her day: Either Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart. Cary Grant, she thought, was irresistibly handsome and a thrill to work with. Bogart on the other hand… Too bad for Betty, Bogart was the chosen one.
Filming started on the fall of 1943. Her insecurities almost took the best of her, and Bogie did everything he could to make her feel at ease. As it turned out, the twosome hit it off faster than a bullet, and before anyone realized, they were like old friends. While Betty recorded her singing scene with Hoagy Carmichael, Hawks and producer Charlie Feldman discussed a new name for her. How about Lauren? Looks good on a marquee! Lauren Bacall she is. And thus a star was born. 
Three weeks into filming and Bogie visited her co-star’s trailer to whisper his wishes of good night, as usual. But, this time, he put two fingers under her chin, and, looking far into her retinas, gave her a kiss. Oh, the fireworks! Oh, the butterflies! That married, 44-year-old man made her teenage heart take flight! Love and fame were both catapulted into Betty’s life at the same incredible speed. Was she equally prepared for both? Was she prepared at all? Before she could find out, she was a glamour girl in love, with no idea of what to do next. What’s more, since she told him all he had to do was whistle, he was on his knees. He loved his Baby – that’s what he called her – just as much as she loved him.
Betty, still incredulous at her superstar boyfriend (and her superstar self!)
But he was married! A troubled marriage certainly - he and his wife were known as “The Battling Bogarts” - but a marriage still! How could they be together? Bogie and Bacall started a secret romance, of moonlit meetings and ardent love letters. Five in the morning, hair blowing in the wind, she would run to her lover, who waited in a god-forsaken corner of a god-forsaken road somewhere outside of L.A. They would hold each other all night, until the sun came up and brought reality back with it. Back home to the alcoholic wife for Bogie, and to being a lonely teen for Betty. But, with the obligatory distance, the love in their hearts only grew uncontrollably strong. They could no longer live apart. After more sweat and tears than any couple in love should have to endure, they were married on May 21st 1945, in a good friend’s farm in Ohio. It was all bliss from then on. By then, they had already starred another hit picture: The Big Sleep, delightful whodunit based on the work of Raymond Chandler.
In 1948, Bogie found out he would be a father at the age of 49: Betty was expecting a baby boy. Steve, as they ultimately called him, after Bogie’s character on To Have and Have Not. Their second swell addition to the clan came in 1952, and it answered to Leslie, after Leslie Howard, Bogie’s friend and early mentor. 
Bogie and Baby, at wedding anniversary numero uno
But, before Leslie even came into this world, precisely on the summer of 1950, both Bogie and Katharine Hepburn were lured by John Houston to board an aeroplane to sunny Leopoldville, Belgian Congo where a picture set in the deep hearts of Africa was to be shot. Betty went along simply to accompany her husband, and ended up acting as a cook, a nurse and a confidante of a distressed cast and crew, encountering any number of problems, from dysentery that nearly caused Ms. Hepburn to go back home to a leaky bathroom straight over the Bogarts’ bed. The Bogarts, Katharine, and eventually Katharine’s beau Spencer Tracy, became great pals.  It was a life of many trips for Mrs. Bogart, as her husband was taken on various locations and she went along, providing moral support and unconditional love. She was exulting to be able to live that life with the man she adored – and who worshipped her above all things – and she couldn’t imagine what would happen if it ended. Only it did.
In 1956, Humphrey Bogart was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and she devotedly nursed him for a whole year. The prospect of her husband’s death meant the end of her world. She would be a widow at 32 and was so devastated by what was about to happen that she thought she would never be the same again. Three weeks after Bogie’s fifty-seventh birthday, he passed away. Betty, alone with two small children, was more desperate than ever.
She eventually would find a shoulder to cry on – and what a shoulder – that of Mr. Frank Sinatra. An old friend of the family, he had supported them through sickness and health and was ready to keep supporting Lady Bogart, perhaps even more than before. The two experienced a quick, flaming romance. He took her mind off the horror of losing Bogie and offered her a moment of peace, a loving hug and the possibility to live someone else’s life for a few brief seconds. Betty also provided Frank with more support than he liked to admit. He, too, had lost his love: Ava Gardner, to divorce. The relationship, however, did not survive a misunderstanding involving a newspaper. The pair broke it off after six months.
Perhaps the sexiest couple ever to grace the face of the earth: Bacall and Sinatra
In 1961, began a marriage that Betty speaks little about, one to actor Jason Robards. At the wedding, a very small celebration, rather deprived of glamour, the judge of peace did not believe Bacall was a widow. He demanded to see a death certificate despite Bogie’s death having been highly publicized. A turbulent wedding kicked off a turbulent marriage. The marriage produced, however, one son, Sam Robards, Betty’s pride and joy to date. As the late sixties approached and so did the end of her marriage, a crisis struck her circle of friends. Spencer Tracy, the joker, the life of the party, had died from a heart attack. Katharine Hepburn was crushed to the ground and needed all the help she could get to climb back on her feet. Betty was a very trusted friend and an instrumental part of Katharine’s recovery. So much so that the two women ended up not having any more serious romantic involvements in their lives. Kate all but willingly, Betty otherwise.
So much had happened that Betty had almost forgotten what her initial dream was: To be an actress on the stage. What reminded her was an unexpected proposal: Broadway! The musical “Applause”, to be precise, an adaptation of the movie “All about Eve”, starring her beloved idol Bette Davis. She accepted in a heartbeat and performed so memorably she wound up being presented with a Tony Award later that year. Various plays figure on Betty’s repertoire, the most notorious of which being, after Applause, Woman of the Year, in which she played Tess Harding, a character previously played by Katharine Hepburn in the 1942 movie version. She would beat Hepburn for the Tony Award forty years later.
Lauren Bacall performing on Broadway, in 1970

As her children grew up, and the people in her life started to pass (her mother, in 1969, Leonard Bernstein, in 1990, Frank Sinatra, in 1998), Betty refused to believe her life was reaching its twilight. She felt – and feels – that as long as she has a working head and a beating heart, there is much more she can offer the world. She was proved right when her first book “By Myself”, an autobiography published in 1978, won the National Book Award. Her story is thrilling and her writing style is impeccable. Her second novel “Now”, published in 1994, was less in the autobiographic side and revealed a wiser, older Betty, who wrote in a nearly self-help voice sharing the lessons she gathered in her then 70-year life. “By Myself” was republished with a few additional chapters in 2003, after Katharine Hepburn, the last standing pillar of her youthful life, passed away.
Betty Bacall is 87 years old as of September of 2011 and lives alone in New York City, in an apartment she has owned for almost forty years in the infamous Dakota Building. As if she hadn’t witnessed history enough, in 1980, when former Beatle John Lennon was murdered, she is said to have woken up to the shots. Her son Stephen is a real estate agent in Naples, Leslie is a Los Angeles based yoga instructor and Sam is an actor on the Hollywood screen.
Lights out, silence please. The movie is about to start. Halfway across the room, sits an elderly woman, fists pressed in excitement, her heart pounding out of her chest. She is eighty years old, but she still remembers that day as if it were yesterday. You know how to whistle, don’t you? The memories are clear as a cloudless morning. When the screen lights up, she recognizes that face instantly. Oh, Betty! I would give anything to be like you again!
With grown-up children and lost friends and lovers, Betty Bacall's face shows nothing but strength. 

The remaining Bacalls

Betty, eternalized. 


  1. Jeez, you're a fantastic writer! Wow. I felt like I was reading Bacall's By Myself all over again. You captured that tone of stage-struck wonder and wit that Bacall wrote so well. She had "It" and more. Beautiful, beautiful job!

    1. OMG THANK YOU SO MUCH! This is one of the loveliest comments I've ever gotten! I'm so in love with Betty it's ridiculous and she seems so underrated to me! Do you have a blog? I'll be sure to check yours out! Thank you so much again my dear!!