She looked so terrific and strong for such a long time that it was easy to imagine Lauren Bacall might just hang around forever. And who wouldn’t want her to, for the pleasure of hearing her firing off smart, unvarnished remarks about old Hollywood in that husky voice? But the end came at last on Tuesday, when the 89-year-old actress died from a stroke at her home, according to a report on TMZ. The Humphrey Bogart Estate followed with this tweet: “With deep sorrow, yet with great gratitude for her amazing life, we confirm the passing of Lauren Bacall.”
Whether she was trading double entendres with Humphrey Bogart, hawking freeze-dried instant coffee in a TV commercial, or taking a punch as a guest star on The Sopranos, Bacall had no equal at projecting an insolent, imperious, sexy, and slightly impish personality. (Okay, maybe Kathleen Turner came close for a while.) Was Bacall a great, rangy actress? No, but she was a lanky, electrifying presence, and a champion movie and stage star.
In her tough, tart 1979 autobiography Lauren Bacall By Myself (updated in 2005 with 80 fresh pages and the expanded title By Myself and Then Some), Bacall lays out the improbable story of her near-instant ascension in Hollywood at age 19. Spotted on a 1943 fashion-magazine cover by the wife of director Howard Hawks, she landed opposite Humphrey Bogart in 1944’s To Have and Have Not, the first of their four films together. Hawks taught her how to speak in a low, provocative voice and nixed her birth name, Betty Joan. The stars sparked off screen as well as on. “Baby” and “Bogie,” as they called each other, wed in 1945, when she was 20 and he was 45.
She lost Bogie to cancer in 1957, leaving her to raise their son Stephen and daughter Leslie alone, and in the 1960s she had a stormy marriage with heavy drinker Jason Robards Jr. (with whom she had another son, Sam Robards). In the toughest initial post-Bogie years, Bacall moved back East—she’d grown up in New York—to alternate movies with stage roles. She won Tonys for 1970’s Applause and 1981’s Woman of the Year and picked up her lone Oscar nomination for Barbra Streisand’s 1996 middle-aged romance The Mirror Has Two Faces. Bacall’s stage work is spottily archived, but her strongest movies, along with entertaining interviews, are easily found—and eternally pleasurable.
So go dig up the DVDs and do the YouTube searches and say a benediction for Betty Bacall. We’ll miss her leonine jaw, her cool appraising gaze, and her royal growl of a voice. —Steve Daly