September 16, 1924, is the birthdate of Lauren Bacall, the sultry starlet who entered the public consciousness at age 20, when in her first movie appearance, what was intended to be a minor part in Howard Hawks’ “To Have and Have Not,” she stole both the movie and its then-married male lead, Humphrey Bogart. Bacall spent part of the rest of her life trying to free her identity from the Bogart legend, while recounting unabashedly that her years with Bogey, who died in 1957, had been the happiest of her life.
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Betty Joan Perske was born in the Bronx, New York, to William Perske and the former Natalie Weinstein. Her father (a distant relative of Israel's Shimon Peres) took off when she was 6: Betty was raised by her mother, who had been born in Romania, and whose family’s original name had been “Weinstein-Bacal” – meaning “wineglass” in German and Russian -- but had been shortened at Ellis Island. When Natalie became single again, she decided to reappropriate the name “Bacal,” and had her daughter do the same.
When she was 8, she began attending, with the financial assistance of an uncle, Highland Manor, a boarding school for girls, in Tarrytown, New York, and in 1940, graduated Julia Richman public high school in New York. By then, she and Natalie were living in Manhattan, where, at age 17, Betty was crowned Miss Greenwich Village.
The prettiest usher
From very young, her ambition was to be an actress – her idol was Bette Davis – and for a year after graduation she studied the profession at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, until the money ran out. Then she began working as a model, as a restaurant hostess, and an usher at Broadway theaters.
In that latter capacity, she was noticed by critic George Nathan, who in his July 1942 column in Esquire magazine praising the best work of the theater season just ended, paid tribute to “the prettiest theatre usher — the tall slender blonde in the St. James’ Theatre, right aisle, during the Gilbert & Sullivan engagement”
Everything changed after socialite and editor Nicholas de Gunzburg caught sight of Bacall at a club in New York, and introduced her to Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Vreeland had Bacall photographed for the March 1943 wartime cover depicting her outside an American Red Cross blood-donation center.
The cover caught the eye of Slim Hawks, the wife of producer-director Howard Hawks, who summoned Bacall to Hollywood for a screen test, before offering her a seven-year contract, beginning with the film “To Have and Have Not.” He and Slim immediately began molding her into their vision of a star. Bette Bacal became Lauren Bacall, she was instructed to lower the register of her voice, making it a “smoky, sexual growl,” as one writer described it.
It was Bacall herself who inadvertently developed the habit of dropping her chin onto her chest, while raising her eyes toward her interlocutor – a come-hither expression that was dubbed “The Look” – as a means of steadying her shaky nerves early on during filming.
After Bogart’s death, Bacall had a brief relationship with Frank Sinatra, who proposed marriage, and then dropped his offer after news of it appeared, thanks to Bacall’s chattering to a friend, in Louella Parsons’ gossip column. She later was married to actor Jason Robards.
Bacall appeared in more than 40 movies altogether, but she was most busy, and most acclaimed, during those early years, when she played opposite Bogart in, for example, “The Big Sleep” and “Key Largo.” Another success was the 1953 “How to Marry a Millionaire,” which demonstrated her talent for comedy.
Her only Oscar was a late-in-career honorary one, but she did win two Tony awards, for her Broadway appearances in the plays “Applause” (1970) and “Woman of the Year” (1981).
Bacall became a best-selling author in 1978, when she published her first memoir, “Lauren Bacall By Myself,” which was followed by "Now," in 1994. Her tendency to tell the truth, and not pull punches, made her an appealing and interesting figure through to the end of her life, in New York, on August 12, 2014.