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She had everything: The Look, stardom and Bogie

By Myself and Then Some Lauren Bacall HarperEntertainment: 506 pp., $26.95

February 27, 2005|Eric Lax | Eric Lax is the author of numerous books, including "Woody Allen: A Biography," "The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat" and, with A.M. Sperber, "Bogart: A Biography."

"I just wanted to have everything," Lauren Bacall says more than once in Part 1 of this autobiography, "By Myself," first published in 1978. For the benefit of the generation of readers that has come along since then, she did just about have everything, fast: Born Betty Joan Perske in 1924, she was a New York theater usher at 17, a fashion magazine model at 18, an international movie star with a seemingly limitless career at 19, the wife of Humphrey Bogart and half of one of the world's most celebrated couples at 20, a mother at 24, an actress on the wane at 25 and a widow at 32.

"By Myself," a bestseller here and in many countries, won the 1980 National Book Award for autobiography. All 426 pages of it are republished intact. It is still a compelling read, not only of her life and her need for constant reinvention to keep working, but also for the stories of her all-star roster of friends and of Hollywood when the studios owned actors. It is a story bravely told; she does not stint on revealing her faults and flaws. The 79 pages of "And Then Some" cover the last 25 years, and they offer a rare perch upon which to observe someone who, so much a part of one era, has struggled and managed to be part of those that have followed.

Bacall exploded on the screen in 1944 opposite Bogart in "To Have and Have Not," and their onscreen romance became their off-screen life. Director Howard Hawks' wife Nancy had seen Bacall's picture on the cover of Harper's Bazaar and recommended that he sign the 18-year-old beauty with the sultry look to a contract. (Bogart and Bacall called each other "Slim" and "Steve" in the movie, the names Hawks and his wife used for each other.) Hawks framed what became The Look (chin down, eyes up, come hither if you dare) and had Pygmalion dreams for Bacall. He dressed her, advised her and, through The Look and insouciant style he gave her, redefined sex appeal. But early on in filming he lost his influence on her to Bogart, 25 years her senior. Still, his molding worked and she turned the notion of a sweet young thing upside down:

"If you need anything, just whistle," she coyly tells Bogart. "You do know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."

Bacall managed to be both dewy and worldly, in charge but accepting of help from the right man, and stole the show. The three made another iconic film. "The Big Sleep" (1946) had even more of the wisecracking, sexually suggestive banter that lights up "To Have and Have Not." But as Bacall was no longer Hawks' to control, he sold her contract to Warner Bros. for a reported $1 million, which turned her into a mere contract player, assigned to whatever came along.

The studio hadn't a clue how to use Bacall's talent and suspended her a dozen times for refusing roles. There were exceptions. She was great with Bogart in "Dark Passage" (1947) and "Key Largo" (1948), and there were later memorable pictures, among them "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953), "Blood Alley" (1955) and "Designing Woman" (1957), though none of these showcased her special talent as well as her first films had.

Bogart's death from esophageal cancer in January 1957, three weeks after his 57th birthday, ripped Bacall from her moorings. There followed an engagement to Frank Sinatra that was fueled, she realized in retrospect, by her desire to "erase Bogie's death" but was quickly extinguished by Sinatra's erratic and sometimes cruel behavior. Still, she says, "He saved me from the disaster our marriage would have been.

"To get out from under being 'Bogart's widow,' " she and her children Steve and Leslie moved to London in January 1959. Broadway brought her back to New York several months later for a part in her friend George Axelrod's play "Goodbye Charlie," which earned her good notices. Then she made an even bigger splash in 1965 with "Cactus Flower" at the Royale Theatre, where she had "once excelled at ushering." The movie rights were sold, and she looked set for a triumphal return to Hollywood in the part she had created -- until, like Julie Andrews losing the role of Eliza Doolittle to Audrey Hepburn in the film version of "My Fair Lady," the presumably more bankable Ingrid Bergman was cast.

Bacall's dealings with men were not helped by the example of her father, who disappeared after he and her mother divorced when she was 5. Sinatra was the first of a string of lovers almost guaranteed to cause her grief. The move to London settled her a bit, but back in New York she was "still looking for recognition, identity and love." Enter Jason Robards: immensely talented, great-looking, completely unpredictable, a heavy drinker. Bacall was pregnant with their son Sam when they married in 1961. Bogart had known what he wanted in life and a wife; Robards did not. Eventually Bacall's plain-spoken friend Katharine Hepburn pronounced her "a damn fool" and told her: "The marriage is no good for you." In 1969, she divorced him.

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