There is a special group of people who share a unique circumstance. You may know a person like this yourself. These are folks who had the luck, good or ill, to be born on the very day when much of the world celebrates the birth of one of western civilization’s most influential figures. These boys and girls are forever in his shadow, and unavoidably so: Not too many holidays can compete with the splendor of Christmas, the birthday of a baby more famous than any before or since.
But there was one little fellow who stepped out from the shadow just a little bit. His cultural impact was inevitably much smaller, but during his lifetime, he gained a small, devoted following of his own. One of the more ardent members of his flock was a young lady named Betty Joan Perske, a pretty girl who would eventually answer to the name Lauren Bacall.
The little fellow, of course, was Humphrey Bogart, and although Lauren Bacall was Jewish, Christmas would forever have an important meaning for her: It was the birthday of her husband, one of those special kids born on Christmas day. Bogie’s Christmas birthday was an auspicious beginning for a life – and a romance – that would become the stuff of Hollywood legend.
When he made his debut on Christmas Day, 1899, in New York City, Humphrey Bogart (his real name) seemed like a lad with a promising future. The eldest child of a successful heart surgeon and a commercial artist, baby Humphrey grew up in a wealthy if not warm household. At a young age, he experienced his first brush with fame – literally, since it was his mother’s paintbrush that was responsible for paintings of him used in a national campaign for baby food. After indifferent student years, where he showed little acumen, and a spell in the navy during World War I, Bogart found his calling when a friend of his got him a theater job behind the scenes.
Infected by the acting bug, Bogart made his stage debut in 1921 and spent over ten years doing small roles on Broadway. Like many actors of his generation, the stock market crash of 1929 inspired him to try Hollywood, where opportunities for actors were more numerous. Bogart would commute back and forth from New York to Hollywood for the next several years, trying to make ends meet, the wealth of his family claimed by the crash. Finally, in 1934, he landed the part of vicious criminal Duke Mantee in the play The Petrified Forest. This part would make his name, save his career, and aid in the creation of his durable antihero persona.
While Bogart was still struggling to make his way as an actor, a baby girl was born on September 6, 1924 up in the Bronx. The only daughter of a salesman and secretary, her upbringing was considerably less privileged than Bogart’s. Her father abandoned the family when she was young, but her mother’s successful brother made sure that young Betty received a quality private school education. She attended acting school for a time, but when money ran out, she decided to try her hand at modeling. Already a startling beauty at age 16, she was noticed by Broadway theater critic George Jean Nathan while she was working as an usher at the St. James Theater. She was soon adorning the cover of a magazine he wrote for, Esquire. This cover captured the attention of the wife of director Howard Hawks.
The Petrified Forest was so successful that a film adaptation was inevitable. Although initially not cast for the film, Bogart eventually was chosen to reprise his Broadway performance in the 1936 release. He was a sensation. Soon after that, Hollywood became his permanent home. Bogart’s second marriage suffered from the relocation and soon dissolved, but his career continued to grow, and in 1938, he married fellow actress Mayo Methot. Their tumultuous relationship, which at times degenerated into drunken physical violence, earned them the openly used Hollywood sobriquet “The Battling Bogarts.”
While Bogart may have been suffering on a personal level, he was thriving on a professional level. He starred in The Maltese Falcon in 1941, a critical and commercial hit, and then landed the lead in Casablanca, which was an even bigger hit in 1942 and has come to be regarded as one of the greatest American movies of all-time. Back in New York, Lauren Bacall went with a girlfriend to see this new movie. Her friend thought the guy playing the lead was sexy; Bacall thought her friend was crazy.
Casablanca was so popular that it inspired several retreads of the same basic material in the following couple of years. In 1944, an Ernest Hemingway adaptation, To Have and Have Not, was fashioned into a Casablanca-like piece for Bogart. The movie was to be directed by Howard Hawks. As it happened, Hawks liked the young girl his wife had spotted on the cover of Esquire, flew her west, gave her a screen test, and after some grooming, cast her in the new film. Lauren Bacall was going to star in a film opposite the man she’d found so unsexy just two years before.
From Buddies to Budding Romance
By all accounts, most notably her own, Lauren Bacall was not very interested in Humphrey Bogart at first. Upon meeting, she found him polite and cordial, “a friendly man.” On the first day of filming, however, Bacall was a nervous wreck and could barely stop shaking on camera. Bogart, recognizing the inexperienced girl’s nervousness, told silly jokes to get her to relax. Soon, she did, and the two developed a happy working relationship on the set. He called her “Slim” (after her character in the movie) or “Baby”; she called him “Steve” (his character in the movie) or “Bogie.”
Three weeks later, they were joking around as usual in Bacall’s dressing room when Bogart impulsively kissed her and asked her for her phone number. She wrote it on a matchbook Bogart dug out of his pocket (possibly a cute reference to her first line in the film, “Anybody got a match?”), and the tenor of their relationship changed when he called that evening. Although nothing developed very quickly, they lingered with each other on set and spent time more time with each other off set. Their interest in each other was reflected in the film they were shooting: Scenes from To Have and Have Not would glow with the genuine chemistry between its two stars.
Director Hawks disapproved of the budding romance between his two leads. He thought Bogart unprofessional and Bacall foolish. He tried to quash the relationship by telling Bacall that Bogart was just playing with her affections and would drop her after the shooting was over. He even threatened to derail her career. What Hawks wouldn’t acknowledge was that Bogart was not playing around. For Bogart, his feelings for Bacall were the real thing. In one of many love letters, he wrote “I never believed that I could love anyone again…you are my last love and all the rest of my life I shall love you and watch you and be ready to help you.”
Bacall’s mother, who came to visit her in California, was even less happy about the affair than Hawks. Bogart was 25 years older, married, and a heavy drinker. What was her daughter thinking? But Bacall remained steadfast in her devotion.
To Have and Hold
Upon release, To Have and Have Not was a huge hit, largely because of the interplay between its two stars. A re-teaming was a commercial inevitability, and the new film, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s detective yarn The Big Sleep, allowed Bogart and Bacall to continue both their professional and personal association. They would sneak off together to hold hands or kiss in the car, and eventually they made a leap into greater intimacy. Their relationship showed no signs of abating, and even Bacall’s mother gave up trying to convince her daughter to stop seeing him. Several weeks into the shooting for the new film, Bogart finally asked his wife for a divorce and moved out of their house.
A scene from 'The Big Sleep':
Bogart’s divorce was granted in fairly short order, and on May 21, 1945, Bogart and Bacall got married in a small ceremony in Ohio attended by a handful of friends. It would be Bogart’s final and happiest marriage.
An Enduring Romance
Humphrey Bogart would celebrate ten more Christmas birthdays with Lauren Bacall. They would make two more movies together, have two children together, battle the status quo together during the McCarthy era, and come to be regarded as one of the most successful couples of Hollywood’s golden era. Not too shabby for a May to December romance.
Hollywood being what it is, however, you can be sure that behind the smooth veneer of what the public saw, there was something more going on behind the scenes. Like any marriage, Bogart and Bacall’s was not all smooth sailing. Unavoidably, the vast disparity in their ages would indeed become an issue. Bogie’s idea of a good time was to spend his weekend sailing on his beloved boat Santana; Bacall got seasick and rarely accompanied him. Bacall, still a young woman, loved the nightlife, seeing and being seen; Bogart had long since gone cold on the Hollywood circuit of nightclubs and the fabulous people in them.
One area in which age was not a factor was in the couple’s amorous appetite. Bogart, who had a reputation as a ladies’ man going back to the 20s, continued a sporadic relationship with his hairdresser Verita Peterson that had begun during his third marriage (Verita loved sailing and drinking, Bogie’s two favorite pastimes). Bacall, meanwhile, took a shine to one of Bogart’s pals, a 40s crooner who was just making a professional comeback: Frank Sinatra. Once Bogart was diagnosed with the esophageal cancer that would kill him in less than a year, Bacall was more and more drawn to the brash and healthy Sinatra. In fact, a year after Bogart’s death in 1957, Sinatra would propose marriage, although the engagement would end abruptly when Bacall leaked news of the affair to the press against Sinatra’s wishes. The couple split on bad terms and never reconciled.
Despite these hairline cracks in the fairytale veneer of their marriage, Bogart and Bacall maintained a united front and never ceased to care deeply about each other. Bacall tacitly accepted Bogart’s long-time mistress, while Bogart understood that his wife would need a mate after he passed. Bogart may have envisioned his friend Frank Sinatra in the role, but eventually the actor Jason Robards would become Lauren Bacall’s second husband a few years later. Reportedly, the effects of Bacall’s first marriage lingered long into her second, with Robards occasionally referring to his wife as “The Widow Bogart.” Bogart would prove a tough act to follow.
The unusually enduring nature of the union between Bogie and Bacall was reflected in the obituaries that appeared this past summer when Lauren Bacall died at age 89. In most cases, Bacall continued to be identified as much for her marriage to Humphrey Bogart as for her own years of accomplished work as an actress on film and on the stage. Although Bacall sometimes chafed at the long shadow cast by her first husband over her career, she herself recognized how special the relationship was. “No one has ever written a romance better than we lived it,” she wrote.