Monday, September 14, 2015

Lauren Bacall -- You Do Not Have a Small Mind -- September 14, 2015
This post is part of  the Lauren Bacall Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.  "After the success of my Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, I’ve decided to host another blogathon dedicated to Lauren Bacall, the famed actress who was known for her husky voice, sultry beauty and her blossoming marriage to Humphrey Bogart that would make for the screens' most celebrated couple." 

I didn't remember until I started writing this essay that the first time I became aware of Lauren Bacall was when I was very young and I was looking through a book my father had about US presidential elections.  The book was published around 1950, and there was a full page photo of Lauren Bacall draped on a piano played by Harry Truman, who was then Vice President.  I have always liked that photo.  I later learned that Lauren Bacall was actively involved in politics for most of her life.
The first time I saw and heard Lauren Bacall in a movie, perhaps in To Have and Have Not or The Big Sleep or Dark Passage on television, I was further hooked.  I have always had a thing for voices.  I have told many people that I would gladly trade my voice for Robert Donat's, George Sanders' or Ronald Colman's.  As an adolescent boy, I also appreciated her appearance, especially her famous "Look," with her chin down and her eyes raised.  In time, I read more about her in books about film and came to understand that she had an unusual career in Hollywood. 

In an 06-May-2005 interview with Larry King, Lauren Bacall said "I'm a total Democrat. I'm anti-Republican. And it's only fair that you know it . . . I'm liberal. The L word!"  She continued, saying "I love it. 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 ... You want to welcome everyone."  (Larry King Live, 06-May-2005 transcript,
Betty Joan Perske was born in The Bronx on 16-September-1924.  Her mother had come to the United States from Romania and her father's parents had come from a part of Poland which then belonged to the Russian Empire.  Her family was Jewish.  They moved to Brooklyn.  When Betty was five, her parents divorced; she saw little of her father after that, and chose to take her mother's family name, Bacal in place of Perske.  Betty grew up during the Great Depression and watched Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal rescue America from fascism and Communism.  FDR was a hero to her, as he was to many people. 

Betty worked as an usherette at the Saint James Theatre on Broadway in 1941.  Among the productions the theater hosted that year was Pal Joey with Gene Kelly and Vivienne Segal.  The theater is still active and was used as the location for the movie Birdman

"'George Jean Nathan wrote in Esquire that I was the most attractive usherette,' she said, 'only he didn't mention my name.'  "How'd you know he meant you?'  I surely had her there.  'He told me later when he saw me.'  'Oh.'" ("Lauren Bacall Was Theater Usherette", Earl Wilson, Miami Daily News, 11-November-1945, page 12). 

New York Tribune, 31-March-1889.
Betty also modeled clothes in showrooms and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the oldest acting school in America.  She was not in the production of Sophocles' Electra advertised above ;0)

Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall model clothes in How to Marry a Millionaire
In 1942, Betty made her Broadway debut as a member of the ensemble in Johnny 2x4 by Rowland Brown. 

Harper's Bazaar, March, 1943.
Nicolas Louis Alexandre, Baron de Gunzburg, an editor at Harper's Bazaar, met Betty at a nightclub.  He invited her to visit the Harper's office the next day, where he introduced her to editor Diana Vreeland, who set up a session which produced the March, 1943 cover.  Blood donation was an important act of support for the war effort.
Nancy Keith, Lady Keith, called "Slim," was a socialite who had married director Howard Hawks in 1941.  Slim Hawks saw the cover of Harper's Bazaar and persuaded her husband to consider Betty for a part in To Have and Have Not, a loose adaption of a novel by Ernest Hemingway.  Slim Hawks taught Betty how to dress and behave elegantly, and had her work with a coach to lower her high, nasal voice into the throaty voice that caught my attention.  Howard Hawks had Betty change her name to Lauren.  Betty Bacal decided to add one more "l" to her last name.  Her friends continued to call her Betty for the rest of her life.
And of course in To Have and Have Not, Lauren Bacall met Humphrey Bogart.  They fell hard for each other and got married in 1945, soon after he divorced his third wife, Mayo Methot.  They stayed together until he died in 1957.
Here is another shot of Lauren Bacall, Harry Truman and the piano.  On 10-February-1945, Harry Truman was playing the piano at a canteen for servicemen operated by the National Press Club in Washington, DC.  Lauren Bacall visited the canteen as part of a tour promoting To Have and Have Not.  Warner Brothers publicity chief Charlie Enfield told her to sit on the piano.  The photos made a big impression. Truman's wife Bess was not amused.  On 12-April-1945, President Franklin D Roosevelt died and Truman became president.  The photos with Lauren Bacall gained even wider distribution.

In 1948, Lauren Bacall was old enough to vote for president.  She campaigned for Harry Truman, who won despite this famous headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune

During the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States were allies, fighting against fascism.  After the war, anti-Communism flared up in this country.  The House Committee on Un-American Activities began investigating alleged Communist influence in the entertainment industry.  In 1950, a right-wing organization called American Business Consultants Inc published Red Channels, a booklet accusing 151 people, actors, writers and musicians, of being Communists.  Many of these people wound up getting blacklisted.  The era of McCarthyism was named after Senator Joe McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin.
In October, 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities held hearings in Hollywood on Communist infiltration.  Producer Walt Disney and Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan testified that there was a real Communist threat.  Disney named several people who had been involved in a strike against his studio.  The committee subpoenaed many people in the film industry, and some were not willing to testify.  Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, director John Huston and others created the Committee for the First Amendment in an attempt to defend peoples' rights to their own political beliefs.

Ten people (Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo) refused to state whether they had ever been members of the Communist party and were held in contempt of Congress.  The Committee for the First Amendment travelled to Washington DC in an attempt to support the Hollywood Ten, but came under great pressure from the studios.  Warner Brothers forced Humphrey Bogart to write an article saying that he was not a Communist.  Jack Warner, head of the studio, was nervous about some progressive films that he had made in the 1930s, and so he came down hard on anyone who was mentioned in the same breath as Communism.
Most of the Ten probably were Communists at one time, but I have never seen any convincing evidence that they produced any movies with Communist propaganda.  What is Communist about Lardner's screenplay for Woman of the Year?  What is Communist about Dalton Trumbo's screenplay for Roman Holiday

Many people in the United States joined the Communist party before World War II because it was the only party fighting against fascism.  In the United States, it was only predominantly white organization that opposed lynching and favored racial integration.  Many people left the party in 1939, unable to stomach the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.  Others left in the 1950s when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin's many crimes against humanity.  Still others left after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 or the Prague Spring in 1968. Others just grew up and moved on to other things.
In 1952 and 1956, Lauren Bacall was an active supporter of Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, when he unsuccessfully ran for president against Dwight D Eisenhower.  They became friends and Humphrey Bogart became concerned about the amount of time she spent with him.  Lauren Bacall wrote in her autobiography By Myself:
“I was as selfish as many others in that I didn’t want him. I wanted — for my own sake — to have my hero governing this country. He was my first emotional hero since Roosevelt, but Adlai wasn’t a father figure as Roosevelt had been for me. He was someone I could look up to — his mind excited me — and his flirtation encouraged me. And some of his friends encouraged me — they said it was good for him to have me around, he enjoyed my company, felt easy and relaxed with me, I took his mind off his heavy responsibilities. Almost anything that good for Stevenson I was all for. So short of leaving husband and home — which I had no desire and intention of doing — I would see him when I could and keep the thread of my presence alive in his consciousness.”
In 1952, she published an article in Look Magazine titled "Why I Hate Young Men."  She listed some men on whom she had intellectual crushes.  They included Adlai Stevenson, Alistair Cooke, Nunnally Johnson and John Huston (shown above).

After Humphrey Bogart died in 1957, Lauren Bacall was left with two small children to support.  She continued to work in movies and on television.  Later she returned to the stage.
In 1961, she married actor Jason Robards, Jr.  His drinking problem led to their divorce in 1969.
In 1964, Lauren Bacall campaigned for Robert F Kennedy when he ran for the Senate from New York.  Here we see RFK, his son Douglas and Lauren Bacall at a party.  Kennedy had served as counsel for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, appointed by family friend Joe McCarthy.  Later he served as his brother's Attorney General.  He worked for progressive causes while he was in the Senate.  In 1968, he ran for president.  On 05-June-1968, he was assassinated. 

AP Photo
Lauren Bacall supported RFK's brother Edward, who served in the Senate for many years and promoted progressive causes.  Here they talk before he gave a speech at a Nuclear Freeze rally on 05-October-1982.
Lauren Bacall went on to support other Democrats including Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and many men and women running for other offices.  Michael Tomasky wrote: "She wasn’t a 'cause' person. Many Hollywood stars today care about the environment, or gay rights, or animal rights, or what have you. Bacall wasn’t a single-cause person. She was a worldview person. That, I think, bespeaks a much deeper commitment." (Michael Tomasky, "Lauren Bacall Was Deeply Liberal and Deeply Anti-Communist", The Daily Beast, 13-August-2014.
Lauren Bacall died on 12-August-2014.  She was one of the last links to classic Hollywood and one of the shrinking number of fighters for the ideals of the New Deal and against McCarthyism. 

This post is part of  the Lauren Bacall Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.  Thank you to Crystal for all the hard work.  Thank you to everyone who visited and I encourage you to read and comment on as many posts as you can.  Bloggers love comments. 

This post is my seventh blogathon post of 2015 and my 38th since 2007.  This is my 20th blogathon.    This page has a list of all my blogathon posts. 


  1. Fantastic post. Thoroughly enjoyed all the depth you put into it. Such a fantastic woman is nice Jewish girl made good Betty.

  2. bnoirdetour -- Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I had fun doing the research and writing it.

  3. I found this fascinating reading. Ms. Bacall's commitment to her ideals is certainly laudable.

  4. Very enriching and well-researched! Thank you for reming us that Miss Bacall was so much more than a pretty face! I love that she had intellectual crushes :)
    Summer Reeves | | Twitter: @kitschmeonce

  5. Thanks for sharing all your research and all those great photos with us. I liked that she wasn't a "single cause" person and that she had a larger worldview.

    Great post!

  6. Such an interesting post, and I could easily picture her as being Liberal, but I didn't know she was anti-communist. I always suspected she was as intellectual as the female characters she always portrayed which meant she had to be sharp as a tack and not easily swayed.

  7. Caftan Woman -- I'm glad you liked it. I found her commitment to be admirable.
    Summer Reeves -- Thank you. I learned a lot while researching. I had to include that bit about intellectual crushes. She was a lot more than a pretty face.
    Silver Screenings -- You are very welcome. I thought that was a nice point Michael Tomasky made. A lot of stars today do seem to spend all their time on one issue.
    Carissa Horton: I'm glad you found it interesting. I always thought she was really a smart person, and not just playing one.

  8. Great article! I loved the little bit about "the most beautiful usherette". It was great to point how Lauren was involved with politics throughout her life.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  9. Hi Lê - I'm glad you liked the bit about the most beautiful usherette. No one would write an article like that today. Thanks for visiting. I'm looking forward to your contribution. I'm plowing through the posts reading each one and commenting when I can.

  10. Fascinating post and great to read about Bacall beyond the beauty (and the voice). That Look article sounds hilarious - will have to see if I can find it. I'm interested to read her bio too, although have quite a few already waiting on the bookshelf!

  11. Thanks, girlsdofilm. I didn't want to do another movie review. It must have been memories of the Truman photo that inspired me.


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