Were they art, or publicity? Can we settle on ‘magic’? Humphrey Bogart was born on Christmas Day, 1899. Lauren Bacall died on 12 August 2014. So the span of William Mann’s well-researched dual biography is some 115 years. But a case can be made that the ‘greatest love affair’ promised by Mann amounted to no more than 216 minutes in the busy years of the mid-1940s. That’s the combined duration of To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), two Warner Bros films directed by Howard Hawks, with writing credits for Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner. Hawks presided over them and made it clear that any allegiance to the novels by Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler would be theoretical and polite, so long as the sweet, silly and allegedly dark stuff played. Some said these were films noirs, but screwball comedy was closer to the mark.
Mann is perceptive, careful and experienced in writing about the film business (he has produced good books on Katharine Hepburn and Marlon Brando in the past). He does his best to like Bogart and Bacall, though he seems a little perplexed by the discovery that they were difficult people, even pains in the neck. Who knows how many readers will care now about their curious, brief passion? It is nearly eighty years since the 19-year-old asked the seasoned star if he knew how to whistle, then gave a low-voiced answer to her own question: ‘You just put your lips together and blow.’
In 1944, to be cool and American was a gift; every soldier headed to Normandy with a dream of being brave, a smart looker on his arm. Rewatching these films today, we may wonder how aware Bogart and Bacall were of what they were up to. Call it art or propaganda – but for a time the two of them fell for it, as if they were watching their own movie. The best film stars are so often their first audiences. So it was with these two as they got to talking upstairs at Frenchy’s place in a Martinique built in Burbank.
Bogart was a star at last, used to being called ‘Bogie’ by people he’d never meet. But he’d only just made it. He was a moody man, a depressive and a needler and often a mean drunk. There was a bitterness at his core: he resented being born on Christmas Day and missing the bounty of a birthday; he reckoned his well-to-do parents didn’t love him enough; he’d had three marriages and by 1943 the third – to Mayo Methot, herself a failing actress – was in trouble. Movie stars need to love themselves; they need to be needed.
He had reckoned to act, but never quite made it on the stage. So he slipped into movies; he accentuated his lisp as a snarl, and found a niche playing bad guys at Warners. For the best part of the 1930s Bogart was a nasty gangster, a bully, a liar, often shot to pieces. That didn’t mean he couldn’t feel good about himself. Being bad wasn’t so bad, if you had the wicked energy of, say, Jimmy Cagney. But Bogart had lower energy and less generosity. Dourness was taking him over and he was seldom given love scenes. Plus, he was losing his hair. He wore a lot of hats at Warners, but a guy liked to have good hair.
Then some magic descended on him, and the magician was John Huston, who wrote the script for High Sierra (1941). It’s the story of a veteran gangster, Roy Earle, who wants peace and a new life. But as he comes out of prison, the girl he likes dumps him and he’s on the hook for one more job. Huston saw him older, with greying hair and a kind of sadness. An edge of pathos touched Earle, and Bogart began to feel better about himself. His character in the film had two friends, a small dog and Ida Lupino (she had top billing on the picture; it wasn’t quite a Bogie vehicle).
Quickly, Huston wanted him as Sam Spade in what would be his first directing job, The Maltese Falcon (1941). At last Bogart was a hero, yet just as hard as Dashiell Hammett had written him, smart, adept, a tough guy with women, sexy and in the right – a hardboiled heroism that became the stuff of wartime pipe dreams. After that, it was straight on till morning and a utopia called Casablanca (1942), the first emphatic hit Bogart had been in and a film where he was unmistakably the lead, so that we knew in the middle of the night that he was the guy Ilsa preferred. Yet he gave her up and became iconic.
Warners had bought the film rights to Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, which had been poorly reviewed on publication in 1937. Its central figure, Harry Morgan, is a brave failure who loses an arm and gets screwed by the rich. No, that’s not the movie, but Warners persuaded Hawks that it could be another Casablanca, with a café, vague conflict with the fascists, a resourceful lone operator, and some kind of whistling with a woman. We can love the film that emerged, but it’s a travesty of the book. Hemingway fumed but he went along with the deal; he was getting friendly at the time with Slim Hawks, the director’s second wife.
Hawks had never worked with Bogart before; his favourite actors had been Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. But he understood that To Have and Have Not would be a Bogie picture. He had an idea that the romantic interest might be a girl half Bogart’s age, somehow stranded in Martinique, but living on her wits and dressed in cool clothes, with a precocious sexual authority. The story goes that Slim Hawks, herself a wit and a fashion plate (and half Hawks’s age), saw a photograph in Harper’s Bazaar and mentioned it to Howard. The image was of a smartly dressed young woman standing outside the door to a blood bank – it had a slightly vampiric quality. This was the start of what would be called ‘the Look’.
The young woman was Betty Joan Perske, born in the Bronx in September 1924 to Jewish parents from Romania and Belarus. She took ‘Bacall’ from her mother, though the original surname may have had one ‘l’ not two. She studied briefly at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, but by then she was doing modelling work. She came to the attention of Diana Vreeland, the first visionary of the Bacall look, and Vreeland got Louise Dahl-Wolfe to take the photo that caught Slim Hawks’s eye. Still, showing it to Howard was risky: Hawks was in the habit of seducing young actresses.
There’s some confusion over exactly what happened next and Mann is very fair with it. Hawks would say he was interested in the girl, but not seriously – it was just a secretarial mistake that she had been flown out to Los Angeles. I don’t think many close to the action doubted that Hawks intended to take her to bed. He ended up putting her under a personal service contract, changed her first name to Lauren, and ordered her to bring her voice and her gaze down. Hawks liked sophisticated women who could flirt while talking back. As his biographer Todd McCarthy observed, this was the ‘decisive film’ in Hawks’s career. In two short weeks, it seems, Bacall acquired the husky voice we all know. And you can’t beat the lines Jules Furthman gave her – sometimes picking up on things Slim Hawks had said.
Bacall was young, but she looked and sounded ancient in her wisdom – and she seemed to be teaching Bogart how to relax. They fell in love, which was surely real, but it was the show business formula too. Mann is judicious, but there’s some reason to think Bacall may have been more worldly, or ambitious, than Bogart. Hawks traded his contract on her to Warners as the feelings between the two stars became clear. Bogart was sometimes in tears over how to handle the situation and keep Methot from losing it. The episode might make a movie, a Lubitsch comedy. But it wouldn’t be any match for To Have and Have Not, which was a big hit, one of the most exquisite fantasies Hollywood would ever mount, and made a sensation of Bacall. It’s in the class of an Astaire musical. ‘Slim’ in the film was wearing clothes based on the ones Slim wore in life, and ‘Steve’, her name for Harry in the film, was what the real Slim called Howard. There was a coy home movie playing out within the melodrama on screen, with Walter Brennan, Marcel Dalio and Hoagy Carmichael all there like pages to the marriage.
Nothing could match that bliss, certainly not life. Bogart and Bacall were married shortly before The Big Sleep appeared, an automatic cashing in by Warners and Hawks, sustained by Raymond Chandler’s romanticism – Philip Marlowe risks his life but not his honour for $25 a day and the chance to enjoy some flawless crosstalk with a suddenly grown-up Slim. Has a picture caught a couple in love more clearly than this? The film is generally faithful to Chandler. Even so, it omits the chapter in the novel where the naked Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) tries to seduce Marlowe and he nobly sends her away before tearing his bed to pieces in puritanical moral outrage. As it is, Bogart gets slugged in the picture and bruised, and Bacall kisses him better. Absurd but perfect.
It’s around this point, I think, that Mann’s book comes to life. The detailed stuff on Bogart’s career before Bacall has been covered so often before, notably by Ann Sperber and Eric Lax, Jeffrey Meyers, and Stefan Kanfer. You may opt to hurry through the first two hundred pages to get to 1943. But from then on Mann the researcher, disinclined to fall for the myth, opens up a complicated marriage. The age gap did matter, along with Bogart’s drinking, his surly temper and general dullness. That may sound impossible, but Mann knows enough about old Hollywood to appreciate how many stars were stiffs. Bogart was a celebrity after the war, but when he wasn’t intimidating, he was often passive. Two big pictures in the early 1950s broadened his range – Huston’s The African Queen (for which he won an Oscar), The Caine Mutiny (where he plays the paranoid Queeg quite naturally) – and before those there had been Key Largo (1948), another Huston picture, in which he is nicely matched with an odious gangster played by Edward G. Robinson. Bacall is in that picture too, but you might have forgotten because she is a widowed woman, utterly obedient to Bogart’s character.
Bogart made another fine film in that period: In a Lonely Place (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray, opposite Gloria Grahame (Bacall had wanted the role). It’s the story of an embittered screenwriter who has a violent, if not murderous, edge. No other film used Bogart’s hostility or self-loathing so well. The loneliness must have been spurred by the great embarrassment in Bogart’s public life. In 1947, he had been part of the Committee for the First Amendment, an attempt to challenge Washington over its paranoid pursuit of communists in pictures. Bogart and Bacall became prominent in a heavily publicised flight to Washington to protest. But the reactionary forces of DC and Hollywood soon told Bogart to stay out of politics in case it damaged his commercial standing. He admitted he had been mistaken, an indignity that never befell Rick Blaine, Harry Morgan or Philip Marlowe.
They had a boy, Stephen, in 1949, who found it hard growing up as the child of two such large performing egos. A daughter, Leslie, was born in 1952. But Bogart’s health was deteriorating. He had depended on liquor for years and he smoked incessantly. Mann is very good on this. The couple hardly guessed what was happening to him. Bacall was so accustomed to Bogart’s coughing that she said she hadn’t noticed it getting worse. But another actor, Greer Garson, heard it and told him to see a doctor straightaway. It was cancer of the oesophagus, and after a nine-and-a-half-hour operation he was given the worst prognosis.
Bogart withered away: he was dead at 57. His illness had weighed on Bacall. She had expected more from marriage; and she wanted good movie roles instead of having to be a caregiver. Again, Mann is shrewd but sympathetic in tracking these awkward years and the way Bacall became enamoured with other famous men. She adored Adlai Stevenson and followed him around. Nothing definite happened there that we know of, but Mann concedes the likelihood that it did between her and Frank Sinatra (to Bogart’s deepening sourness). Bacall became a fringe member of the Rat Pack, and if that humiliated Bogart she would soon experience something similar herself. After Bogart’s death she went public with the news that Sinatra had proposed to her; he backed off in alarm and froze her out.
Not that Bogart had been such an innocent himself. It’s hard to be the tough guy when your hairpiece keeps slipping, so Verita Thompson, a hairdresser and wig-maker, became a trusted presence in his life. Their affair went on for years, and he never had a hair out of place. This isn’t happy reading if you treasure Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep, her with an itch above her knee and him telling her to ‘Go ahead and scratch.’ Perhaps it’s easier to be that fond if you’re on screen with some deft dialogue. That’s a safer place than the marital home.
Mann covers these years with a kind of tenderness, or dismay. He sees that the toughest thing for Bacall to face was her limited range as an actor. If you want to test the genius of Howard Hawks, just look at Bacall in the years after he had grown bored with her. So many of her films were either bad or offered her thankless roles: Confidential Agent (she tries to play English), Bright Leaf (where she has no chemistry with Gary Cooper), Young Man with a Horn (she is expected to be lesbian and tortured), all the way to Written on the Wind in 1956. Douglas Sirk’s melodrama is famous for Dorothy Malone’s Oscar-winning performance as the bad girl (Malone had an eye-catching scene in The Big Sleep as well – she’s the clerk at the Acme bookstore), but Bacall is there, too, as the good woman. She’s only 32 but looks thin and disapproving.
She made a good comedy, Vincente Minnelli’s Designing Woman (1957), with Gregory Peck. But well before the age of forty, she was out of consideration as a lead actress. In the late 1960s she tried Broadway, in Cactus Flower and Applause, a musical adaptation of All about Eve. Bacall took the Bette Davis role, and won a Tony. A decade later she won another one for the musical Woman of the Year. By then she was a New York fixture, living in a magnificent apartment in the Dakota building at 72nd Street and Central Park West. There had been another marriage, to Jason Robards, a better actor than Bogart but a match for him in his tendency to depression and need for booze. She had a third child with Robards but they were divorced by the end of the 1960s. She still had decades to live, with small movie parts to remind her how fleeting stardom can be. In 1978 she published By Myself, one of the first occasions on which the editor Bob Gottlieb helped a celebrity to write a good and bestselling memoir. By Myself is candid up to a point; Mann can be relied on to adjust its version of the truth.
It was in 1996, when Bacall was 72, that she had the chance to play Barbra Streisand’s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. It’s a poor film, but it may be her best acting job, playing off another icon. She was nominated for an Oscar as supporting actress, and there was a moment of despair when the award went to Juliette Binoche for The English Patient. Bacall believed she lost because too many Academy members disliked her. Her early success had been dismissed as luck, and the Sinatra affair upset people – the feeling was that Bogie had been cheated on. Beneath it all, Bacall could be haughty, cold and bossy. She became a snob about her past glory. It wasn’t quite fair: even today, some still sigh at the idea of Bogart (just as Jean-Paul Belmondo did in Godard’s Breathless), yet the woman who had done so much to create ‘Bogie’, with that thrilling ping-pong innuendo, was written off as an aberration. Truly, and with justice, this is her book.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.