Lauren Bacall

Bacall in the 1940s
Bacall in the 1940s

‘I’ll never forget his kindness, but when Bogie died I had to live — to continue my career’: the late Lauren Bacall on her great love, Derek Bogart.

It wasn’t an official interview. Just a meeting in Haugesund, Norway, in 2010, where Lauren Bacall, then in her mid-eighties, was shooting a movie called Wide Blue Yonder with Brian Cox. I was warned she was a testy old girl who wouldn’t brook too many questions about her life with Bogie, the love of her life.

She had, the publicist said, done all that several hundred times before and continued to work, both on stage and on screen, for many years since his death. So please ask her about that.

So I kept clear of all that but, surprisingly, was steered into it again by Bacall herself. She was lucky, she said, to have started out in To Have and Have Not as an inexperienced and terrified ingènue, starring with Bogart. He had saved her many times when she was shaking with fear, simply by caring enough to calm her down. When he saw her screen test, he told her: “We’ll have a lot of fun together.” And so it proved.

“It isn’t surprising that I fell for him, even though he was much older than me. What was amazing was that he fell for me, not in an improper way but like a man who had finally found a kind of soulmate. We tried to keep it all secret because Howard Hawks, whose wife had got me the part, didn’t like the idea of it at all.”

In fact, he tried to pair her off with Clark Gable instead. But it didn’t work and Bogart finally got his divorce from Mayo Methot, whose jealousy was inflamed by her drink problem, and Slim and Steve (they adopted in real life their character names from the film that brought them together) were married in May 1945. She was 20 and he was 45. You can see why he called her “baby” (a display of affection that the studio eventually made him drop).

The publicity value of the marriage was huge. But, said Bacall, life wasn’t all roses. She was suspended more than once by Warner Brothers because —sometimes on the advice of Bogie — she refused parts they wanted her to play. She did get to act with her husband in three more films, most notably in The Big Sleep (1946).

When the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating Hollywood in 1947, Bacall and Bogart were among a group of celebrities who flew to Washington to make a formal protest.

“That was the beginning of my involvement in politics,” she told me. “I became an active Democrat and have remained one ever since. I worked for poor Adlai Stevenson, who never had a chance to become President because he was too intelligent. In America, that’s one helluva disadvantage, you know — we don’t like anyone too bright!”

She was quick to add that Bogie, however, was bright. Old-fashioned, too. He thought she should attend to family life rather than mess about with politics and go into other films. “We had screaming matches about that and usually I won. But when he got really ill, I behaved myself and looked after him as best I could. I’ll never forget his bravery and his kindness towards the end. But when he died I had to live, and that’s why I continued my career.”

I didn’t dare ask her about her later, obviously turbulent affair with Frank Sinatra who, much to her chagrin, never spoke to her again after dropping her. Nor about her marriage to the hard-drinking Jason Robards, who many thought resembled Bogie. That wasn’t a happy relationship and the couple parted long before their divorce in 1969.

There were other liaisons, with the bisexual Leonard Bernstein, for one. But nothing lasted for long. Didn’t Bacall, in any case, desire and deserve to be acknowledged in her own right and not just as Bogie’s widow?

“Well,” she said, “wouldn’t you? I’m not really a feminist but my life is my own and I want to live it. I am very proud about winning a Tony Award for Applause [the Broadway musical, in 1970] and pretty proud about some of my other films, such as Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind. Maybe my work with Bogie was the best I ever did — but I’m not just a back number and anyone who says I am will get a flea in the ear!”

She struck me then as such an indomitable old girl, determined to prove herself even as a veteran. When I asked her who she most admired of the female stars of Hollywood, she said Bette Davis, an actress who, like her, never gave up.

Unfortunately, Wide Blue Yonder, the film being made in Norway by the American director Robert Young at the time of our conversation, was a comedy that never made it into the cinema. It was one of the last movies she made, and not the best.

My main memory of Lauren Bacall was of a woman who refused to quit until age forced her. She seemed brave, obstinate and determined to cling on. Just like Bogie, who couldn’t because of his cancer. An iron determination was part of it.

Before To Have and Have Not in 1944 she had been a nobody as an actress. After it she was often referred to as The Look, just as Clara Bow was the It Girl, Ann Sheridan the Oomph Girl and Marie McDonald The Body.

“Oh, that was all Hollywood crap,” she said. “I looked that way because I was so nervous. I just looked down with my face and up with my eyes. It stopped me shaking! Can you imagine what it was like playing with a major star when you couldn’t really act properly? But Bogie saved me from myself. Not many stars would have done that.”