A great deal of the fascination with the husky-voiced, pouty-lipped actress stemmed from her May-December romance with husband Humphrey Bogart, or Bogie, as he was known to fans. Bogie and Bacall met on the set of To Have and Have Not. She was 19; he was 44.
The chemistry between the hard-boiled couple was obvious. In To Have and Have Not, in her first line, Bacall’s character Slim Browning purrs, asking for a match to light a cigarette dangling from her pouty lips. Bogart’s character Steve throws her one, and she lights the cigarette, nonchalantly tossing the match over her shoulder. The whole exchange is silent, but the scene hums with sensuality.
In her memoir By Myself, Bacall writes that during that the third week of filming the movie, Bogie, who was in the midst of a troubled marriage, upped the ante beyond friendly banter. After a day’s shooting, she said, “He leaned over, put his hand under my chin, and kissed me. It was impulsive—he was a bit shy—no lunging wolf tactics. He took a worn package of matches out of his pocket and asked me to put my phone number on the back. I did."
The connection had not been an instant one. At first, To Have and Have Not director Howard Hawks told Bacall that she was going to star opposite either Bogart or Cary Grant. The svelte young actress said that she thought, “Cary Grant—terrific! Humphrey Bogart—yucch.”
At 19, however, Bacall was merely breaching adulthood. As she revealed in her memoir, she kept her budding relationship with Bogie a secret from her mother. He called her one night after he had been drinking with star Jackie Gleason, and she snuck out of bed to meet him on Rodeo Drive. Her mother caught her, ordering her back to bed, but she continued out of the house to meet him.
She described the occasion: “I ran up the street—arms open wide, hair flying—to Bogie’s smiling face and safe embrace. We sat in the car for a while—Gleason didn’t know or care what was going on—it was just that Bogie had to see his Baby. What it felt like to be so wanted, so adored! No one had ever felt like that about me. It was all so dramatic, too. Always in the wee small hours when it seemed to Bogie and me that the world was ours—that we were the world. At those times we were.”
The smoldering duo married in 1945, after which they made three more films, including The Big Sleep in 1946, Dark Passage in 1947, and Key Largo in 1948. Together, they protested the blacklisting of actors purported to be Communists, campaigned for the Democratic party, and produced two children. She liked nightlife; he was a homebody. He loved seafaring; she suffered from seasickness. However, the two were kindred spirits who discovered their balance.
Bogart, who had experienced three failed marriages to actresses, preferred that Bacall not continue to pursue an acting career. He told her, “If you want a career more than anything, I will do everything I can to help you, and I will send you on your way, but I will not marry you. I’ve been through it, and I know it doesn’t work.”
The marriage lasted until Bogart’s death of esophageal cancer in 1957, the result of near-constant smoking and drinking. The night before he died that January, he took her arm and muttered, “Goodbye, kid,” reminiscent of the famous line he delivered to actress Ingrid Bergman in the dialogue of Casablanca. Later, Bacall had a relationship with Frank Sinatra and an eight-year marriage to actor Jason Robards. Although she outlived him by 50 years, Bacall’s le grand amour was always Bogie.
After Bogart’s death, Bacall left California to appear on Broadway, earning a Tony Award in the early 70s. She ultimately continued her film career, later asking, “What is the point of being here if you’re not involved? I’ve never understood why people spend their lives working really hard so they could retire. So they can stop and do nothing? … I need work. For myself. It’s what I want to do with my life. My career is essential.”
In a 2011 Vanity Fair interview, Bacall said prophetically, “My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure.” Of course, it was. Yet, no one can deny that both of them were essential components of that legendary on-screen romance that burned passionately off-screen—and no one will soon forget the sultry ingénue who taught Bogie how to whistle.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and serves on the board of directors at Corinth Theatre-Arts. She loves being a downtown Corinth resident.)