The Hollywood legend passed away Tuesday in New York at the age of 89, the cause reported to be a massive stroke. The tributes that have since flooded the airwaves and our social media are celebrating her beauty and style in equal measure to her talent, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Those indelible images we associate with Bacall—impeccably dressed in “Designing Woman,” smoldering in “To Have and Have Not,” or simply her stunning face, with her pouty lips and fantastic brows—not only represent the best of Hollywood’s Golden Age, they also allow our idea of her to live forever.
Lauren Bacall wasn’t her real name, of course; she was born Betty Joan Perske in New York City, but the studio system that ran Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century took care of that (though friends would call her Betty for the rest of her life). Her story reads like a script of that era: Tall and lanky, 18-year-old Betty decided to try modeling and soon found herself in the offices of legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland. Faster than you can say “overnight sensation,” Betty was gracing the March 1943 cover of “Harper’s Bazaar.” Slim Hawks, wife of director Howard Hawks, saw that image and pointed out the beauty to her husband, suggesting he test her for his upcoming film. That was 1944’s “To Have and Have Not”; now known as Lauren Bacall, the film changed her life, not only cementing her stardom, but also introducing her to the man she’d forever be associated with: Humphrey Bogart, whom she would marry in 1945 (their marriage was far too short, however, with his passing from throat cancer in 1957). One of Bacall’s lines in the film also became one of cinema’s most celebrated, partly due to her whiskey-voiced delivery:
“You don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow.”
Chin down, eyes cast up: Bacall’s smoldering stare was such a hit with audiences, she was quickly dubbed “The Look.” But in her 1978 autobiography, “By Myself,” Bacall discussed the irony of her trademark: “I used to tremble from nerves so badly that the only way I could hold my head steady was to lower my chin practically to my chest and look up at Bogie. That was the beginning of The Look,” she wrote. Her model’s body and perfect posture also made her a favorite among Hollywood costume designers, from the menswear-inspired suit designed for her by Milo Anderson for “To Have and Have Not” to Travilla’s chic dresses for 1953’s “How to Marry a Millionaire.” But if you’re seeking a true feast of Bacall style, check out 1957’s “Designing Woman,” with Bacall’s character, a celebrated fashion designer, outfitted superbly in a variety of chic looks by Helen Rose.
And then there are those brows; more than 70 years later, we’re still talking about them. In the 1930s Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow had perfected a style of ultra-thin, dramatically curved brows that was widely copied, but Bacall’s thicker, more natural brows (Vreeland demanded she not alter them) set a new beauty standard in the 1940s. Combined with her mane of hair and that arresting face, is it any wonder it was love at first sight for Bogart? And doesn’t every one of us know how he feels?I count myself in that number and unabashedly admit I am mourning her today as a devoted fan. Not long after I moved to New York in 2000, I was rounding the corner of 5th Avenue and 55th Street, and out the door of the Peninsula Hotel came Lauren Bacall. She was wearing a black cape, and in what seemed like one dazzling motion, she closed the cape by flinging one side over her shoulder with perfect panache, then strode like the fantastic dame she was into the waiting car. The whole thing stopped me in my tracks. You get used to seeing celebrities in New York, but this was a GENUINE MOVIE STAR.
Just a few months after that, I found myself interviewing Stephen Bogart, one of two children she had with Bogie (Stephen has a sister, Leslie; Bacall also had a son, Sam, with her second husband, Jason Robards). Stephen oversees the licensing for his dad’s estate, and at the time a furniture collection for Ethan Allen was set to debut. Anyway, I told him of that moment outside the Peninsula, and he said, “Did you say anything to her?” I replied that I didn’t, because I didn’t want to bother her. He said, “Oh, you should have, she would have liked that.” This thought, of course, only made me love her more.Rest in peace, beautiful Betty. No one ever did sultry as well as you, and it’s a sure bet no one ever will.