PETER FROST remembers one of Hollywood’s greatest stars who also spent a lifetime fighting for progressive causes
LAUREN BACALL, one of the last remaining icons of Hollywood’s golden age, has died at her home in Manhattan. She was 89.
Bacall became known for acting opposite her husband, Humphrey Bogart, in several 1940s classics including The Big Sleep, Key Largo and Dark Passage.
Picture Courtesy of the Tony Butcher International Movie Memorabilia Collection
She will best be remembered for two things. Teaching Bogart to whistle. “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” It might have been her first film but was without doubt among the most memorable lines of all time.
She will also be remembered as one of those golden Hollywood female stars who despite, or perhaps because of, all the glitz and the glamour were such effective voices in campaigning for so many liberal, progressive and left-wing causes in US politics.
The list is a long one, from Marilyn Monroe to Jane Fonda, and today from Susan Sarandon to Daryl Hannah.
Lauren Bacall was one of the earliest stars to put her career on the line by nailing her political colours to the mast.
She campaigned for democrat Harry S Truman for president — she even posed sat on the top of a piano while Truman played.
In October 1947, Bacall persuaded her husband of two years Humphrey Bogart to join her in Washington to protest at the investigations of Hollywood and the entire US film industry by the red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Bogart was 45, Bacall just 20.
In her first autobiography, By Myself, Bacall tells us that protest would be her “first grown-up exposure to a cause,” and it would start a lifetime of political campaigning.
Bogart himself felt strongly about HUAC’s McCarthite witch-hunts, but it was Bacall’s passion that persuaded him to go with her to Washington.
She was thrilled to be standing up for what she believed in. The protest didn’t stop the disgraceful blacklisting, first of the Hollywood Ten (below) and then of hundreds of talented writers, musicians, actors and other film makers.
Bacall and Bogart helped form a Committee for the First Amendment. Or picture shows them leading a protest with the Group. It called itself a non-political group of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, campaigning only for “honesty, fairness and the accepted rights of an American Citizen.”
The Committee made a short film called Hollywood Fights Back and the deep female voiceover spells it out: “This is Lauren Bacall. Have you seen Crossfire yet? … The American people have awarded it four stars. The Un-American Committee gave the man who made it a subpoena.”
Bacall and Bogart’s actions led to a media campaign accusing them of being communists — they weren’t. A frightened Bogart even wrote a press article entitled I’m No Communist. Bacall was made of sterner stuff.
She told the Washington Daily News: “When I left the HUAC building I couldn’t help but feel that every American who cares anything at all about preserving American ideals should witness part of this investigation. It starts with Hollywood, but I’m sorry to say I don’t think it will end with us.”
Bacall and Bogart demand to be heard at the HUAC Hearings.
Her experience in that early political campaign began a life for her as an outspoken champion of so many causes.
Perhaps her proudest moment was her enthusiastic support of the Nuclear Freeze Movement in the 1980’s. She spoke at meetings and rallies all over the country helping to make this a key chapter in the history of US anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons movements. Here she joins Ted Kennedy at a Nuclear Freeze Movement meeting.
Over her long life and career she used her name and fame to help and support many Democratic Party leaders including Adlai Stevenson, Robert Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and much more recently Hillary Clinton.
Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske on September 16, 1924, in The Bronx. Her Jewish background brought its share of anti-semitism and in life she learned to hate all kind of racism and intolerance.
Much later she would discover that Shimon Peres who became the prime minister of Israel was a family relative. Although she did visit him in Tel Aviv on one occasion there is no evidence that she offered him any political support.
After graduating from high school, she entered the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and worked as a model, landing on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.
That is where the wife of director Howard Hawks first saw her and suggested her husband give her a screen test. Hawks changed her name from Betty to Lauren. The last name Bacall was the maiden name of her mother.
In 1944 Hawks cast Bacall in the role of Marie “Slim” Browning in the film To Have And Have Not based on a story by Ernest Hemingway. The choice for the male star was between Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. Lauren rather fancied Grant.
Bogart, of course, got the part and by the spring of 1945 they were married. Bacall had two children with Bogart. He died from oesophageal cancer in 1957.
A year later, she became engaged to Frank Sinatra, but he broke off the match. “He behaved like a complete shit,” Bacall said later.
She coined the term “The Rat Pack” to describe Bogart, Sinatra and their friends.
From 1961 to 1969, she was married to actor Jason Robards, with whom she had another son, Sam.
When it seemed Hollywood had tired of Lauren Bacall she moved from the silver screen to the live theatre and continued to win both awards and public acclaim.
There was a brief but successful return to making movies and more recently her career continued with TV and animated voiceovers. The honours and awards kept coming as her career wound down.
So let’s sum up and leave the last word to the star herself. In 2005 Bacall told TV’s Larry King that she was “anti-Republican and a liberal. The L-word. Being a liberal is the best thing on Earth you can be. You are welcoming to everyone when you’re a liberal. You do not have a small mind.”