Actress Lauren Bacall, who died Tuesday at the age of 89, was famous for her films, memorable lines, husky voice, and marriage to Humphrey Bogart. But she also challenged gender norms on screen, and was an advocate for freedom of speech and unapologetic liberal. Here are a few things you might not know about about her.
What’s in a name? (Jewishness): Lauren Bacall was actually Betty Joan Perske, born to Jewish parents, a Polish father, William Perske, and Romanian mother, Natalie Perske, née Weinstein. Bacall lived in Brooklyn until she was six, when her parents divorced and she and her mother moved to Manhattan. Her mother changed their last name to Bacal. Bacall would ultimately add another L to the last name, and in Hollywood, she exchanged Betty for Lauren. But her friends and family never stopped calling her Betty.
But her Jewish roots were kept a secret. A Warner Brothers press release claimed Bacall was the “daughter of parents who trace their American ancestry back several generations.” Bacall recalls being fired from a modeling job as a teenager after telling a colleague she was Jewish; being dumped by a boyfriend after her religion came up; and concealing her Jewish identity from director Howard Hawks because ”he was anti-Semitic and scared the hell out of me…He made me so nervous so I didn’t say anything. I was cowardly, I must say. I was not proud of myself.” Her husband and co-star Humphrey Bogart raised their children Episcopalian because “with discrimination still rampant in the world, it would give them one less hurdle to jump in life’s Olympics.”
The L-Word: Bacall was s staunch liberal. During the McCarthy era, she and Bogart joined the Committee for the First Amendment, which included Danny Kaye, John Garfield, Gene Kelly, John Huston, and Ira Gershwin, among others, and flew to Washington DC to protest the House UnAmerican Activities Committee’s attempt “to smear the motion picture industry.” Bogart stated: “I am an outraged and angry citizen who feels that my basic civil liberties are being taken away from me.” Over thirty years later, Bacall would reflect, “It helped those of us at the time who wanted to fight for what we thought was right and against what we knew was wrong. And we made a noise — in Hollywood, a community which should be courageous but which is surprisingly timid and easily intimidated.” In 1952, she campaigned for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson and convinced Bogie, who had initially supported Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, to get on board. In 2005, she told Larry King, she was “anti-Republican… 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.”
Her own person: Bacall was a trailblazer who literally revolutionized how women were presented on the silver screen. She challenged gender norms with looks that were considered unconventional in Hollywood, a husky voice — which she practiced keeping low by reading out loud — and a no-nonsense but suggestive attitude, which had no place in the cookie cutter era of the 1950s, when her career went through a relative dry spell. She was picky with her roles, which earned her a reputation as being “difficult.” As blogger Jill Filopovic explained in an e-mail to me today, “Bacall exuded a confidence in her sexuality and herself, and her characters were self-assured and sexual without being just sexy. She was plucked out of obscurity by a man who wanted to mold her into his perfect woman; she didn’t let that happen.”
Indeed, Bacall was frustrated by being defined be her relationship to her husband, as she told Vanity Fair in 2011 “My obit will be full of Bogart, I’m sure. I’ll never know if that’s true. If that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.” But she was also sure of her own worth: ”I think I’ve damn well earned the right to be judged on my own. It’s time I was allowed a life of my own, to be judged and thought of as my own person, as me.
There have been some Bogie references, for sure, in this post and in the other obits published since her death. But she is already going down in history as her own person. She damn well earned it.
Katie Halper is a blogger, comedian and filmmaker.