Director Howard Hawks wanted to design his ideal woman for the screen. He found his tabula rasa on the cover of the March 1943 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. He flew the 18-year-old unknown model from New York to Hollywood and offered her an unusual deal—she wouldn’t work directly for a studio, but instead sign a personal contract with him.
Before the ink was dry, he patterned her dress and manner after his wife Slim, a chic style icon who was named to the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 1944. He arranged for singing lessons. He taught her to control her naturally deep voice to ensure it never went shrill.
Hawks personally supervised her screen test, patiently coaxing a performance out of the nervous newcomer that won her a role opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not.
As script development progressed and filming began, Hawks continued to cultivate his protégé with an unusual amount of attention. Onscreen, she would portray an insolent woman who was supremely self-assured.
Offscreen, he imagined her kneeling at his feet, looking up at him with grateful and adoring eyes.
Maybe he’d sleep with her, maybe he wouldn’t. He could decide that later.
As a final touch, he discarded her given name “Betty” and added an “L” to her surname.
And that’s how Howard Hawks invented Lauren Bacall.
For the first three weeks of shooting, everything went according to plan. Then one night after filming, Humphrey Bogart went into her trailer, put his hand under Bacall’s chin and kissed her. He handed her a matchbook and asked her to write her phone number on it.
And just like that, the Svengali lost control of his Trilby.
At eighteen, she was ambitious but overwhelmed. She loved the hype, but she never fully bought into it. Unlike Howard Hawks, she never forgot that Lauren Bacall didn’t exist. Perhaps that’s why until the day she died her friends still called her Betty.
The Lauren Bacall of Hawks’ imagination was in love with Howard Hawks.
But Betty wanted Bogie.
PART TWO: Bogie & Bacall
In his hotel room on the island of Martinique during World War II, boatman Harry “Steve” Morgan (Bogart) looks up to find a woman leaning in his doorway. Slim (Hawks named Bacall’s character after his wife) is wearing a checkered jacket with a long matching skirt and cinched handbag.
Looking right at him, she asks, “Anybody got a match?”
That’s how Steve met Slim, and how the world met Lauren Bacall.
Some have called To Have and Have Not a low-rent Casablanca, a critique with stinging accuracy. Many of the same elements are there—Bogart playing an outwardly cynical loner who ultimately decides to “stick his neck out” for someone who needs help. There’s a charming piano player (this time played by real life songwriter Hoagy Carmichael), a mysterious woman who catches Bogie’s eye (Bacall) and a tense atmosphere as the supporters of the Free France movement chafe under Vichy rule.
Audiences went nuts over the film. It opened at the Hollywood Theater in Manhattan and ran for sixteen weeks, becoming one of the most successful openings in the theater’s history. All around the country people were clamoring to watch Bogie fall in love with Bacall.
There’s a magnetic pull between them; you can see it on the screen, and everyone could feel it on the set. Today’s films are unrestrained by the production code or the sensibilities of modern audiences. They’re racy and revealing.
But they’re not sexier than Bacall slapping Bogie and telling him to shave in To Have and Have Not. Or telling him, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
In the film Slim loves Steve, but she doesn’t wilt like a flower in his presence. She gives as she good as she gets and both Steve and the audience love her all the more for it. And unlike Casablanca, the lovers stay together in the end.
Bogart and Bacall had a ball making the film. Bogart sent her flowers constantly, they held hands, and disappeared into trailers during breaks and came back with mussed clothes and hair. They joked, they laughed, they teased one another.
He called her his Baby, and when he phoned her in the middle of the night, she always picked up.
Howard Hawks fumed. Bacall turned out not to be as malleable as he’d hoped. He insisted she break it off with Bogart—he threatened to sell her contract to Poverty Row, where she’d be stuck making ‘B’ films that would ruin her career. He told her that Bogart would forget about her when filming was over.
Hawks wasn’t the only one who felt Bacall was getting ahead of herself about a future with Bogart. Though it was obvious Bogart was smitten with Bacall, her own mother was skeptical that a forty-five year old man would leave his six year marriage after a dalliance with his teenage leading lady.
If Bacall was wrong, she’d be heartbroken, humiliated, her promising career destroyed.
But I already told you this was a love story.
So you already know Betty wasn’t wrong about Bogie.
- Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. 1997.
- De La Hoz, Cindy. Bogie & Bacall: Love Lessons from a Legendary Romance. 2015.
- Bacall, Lauren. By Myself. 1978.
- McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. 1997.
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