Bogart and Bacall: A Chemistry That Crossed Over From the Screen to Married Life

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jeanine Basinger headlined “A Match Made in Hollywood”:

Hollywood is famous for successfully pairing acting couples, some “married” on screen (Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon), some musical (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), and some who became involved both off-screen and on (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy). The gold standard of the on-screen romance that becomes an off-screen love affair is the one that contains a good lesson on how to whistle: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who first starred together in “To Have and Have Not.”

Their relationship was unexpected and unlikely but ultimately enduring and finally legendary, which is why nearly 80 years later William J. Mann has published “Bogie and Bacall: The Surprising Story of Hollywood’s Greatest Love Affair.”

The author of several books on film, including a well-researched biography of gay silent film star William Haines, Mr. Mann clearly states his purpose regarding Bogart and Bacall: “to trace myths back to their origins and to draw connections between what was said at the start of their careers and what was said later.” He puts the famous couple under an informed scrutiny, giving the full background of both stars before they met and questioning everything they did after.

He pins down every rumor or error connected to their histories: Bogart’s naval service (he saw no action), the origin of his famous lip scar, the legend of Bacall’s discovery and arrival in Hollywood, their encounters with the House Un-American Activities Committee, his part in the original Rat Pack, her infatuation with presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and so on. He was a child of wealth, a heavy drinker, “a drifter and idler” who bungled into acting. She was the only child of an impoverished single mother, and she knew from the beginning that she wanted to be a star.

Humphrey DeForest Bogart was born on Christmas Day in 1899. “I got cheated out of a birthday,” he always crabbed. His father was a New York society doctor and his mother a successful commercial artist who used him as a baby model. Bogart claimed, “There was no affection in my family, ever.” In his youth, he made a mess of everything, including boarding school, early jobs and his World War I service.

After Bogart’s discharge in 1919, the Broadway producer William A. Brady (father of his best friend) took pity on the hapless 20-year-old and gave Bogart a nonacting job. From that day forward, Bogart never left show business. Mr. Mann calls Brady “the most influential figure of Humphrey’s early life.”

There was no overnight stardom for Bogart. His climb took 17 years. Throughout the 1920s, he worked in theater, playing “tennis anyone?” young sophisticates, rejected lovers and, wearing elevator shoes, an Italian gigolo in a 1925 Broadway comedy, “Cradle Snatchers.” He made three trips to Hollywood before becoming firmly established in movies. His breakthrough came at 35, after he returned to Broadway to appear as gangster Duke Mantee in the hit play “The Petrified Forest.” His success as the menacing killer inspired Warner Bros. to offer him a new, revised contract with a start-work date of Jan. 6, 1936.

Mr. Mann defines that date and the role of Duke Mantee as the point where today’s legend of Bogart begins, but even then he had to continue proving himself. Most people today picture Bogart as the finished product: a “like me or don’t like me, I don’t care” tough guy who hates snobs and lives by his own rules, letting a hard exterior cover the heart of a pained romantic. Yet even in the late 1930s, Bogart was often ridiculously cast: as a formerly dead scientist in 1939’s “The Return of Dr. X,” and a fast-talking wrestling promoter in a hillbilly musical, “Swing Your Lady” (1938). He later called that the worst movie he ever made.

Bogart’s stardom was hard-earned, but never deserted him after it arrived, having been born from such films as “High Sierra” and “Maltese Falcon” in 1941 and “Casablanca” in 1942. Today Bogart ranks as the American Film Institute’s No. 1 most popular actor in film history. (Bacall is No. 20 on the women’s list.)

Her road to fame was smoother. Born in the Bronx in 1924 as Betty Joan Perske, she was determined to become successful and moved quickly. Mr. Mann shrewdly points out that “she wondered when . . . not if ” success would arrive, already impatient by age 13. In 1941, at 17, she started modeling. Mr. Mann describes her as “savvy, confident, and resourceful,” adding she was also “a fawning young woman who was drawn to older men and had already proven her ability to charm them.”

After Bacall posed for an issue of Harper’s Bazaar, director Howard Hawks invited her to Hollywood to take a screen test. He was not impressed: “She had a high nasal voice and no training whatsoever.” In October 1943 he took her to the set of “Passage to Marseille” and introduced Bogart. He was 44, 5-foot-8, a big star and married. She was 19, 5-foot-9, a nobody and single. They said hello and shook hands. Bacall said: “There was no clap of thunder, no lightning bolt.” Not yet.

“To Have and Have Not” began filming in March 1944. Nobody expected much from it, but the atmosphere on the set began to crackle. What happened can be seen on the screen. Bacall’s lack of experience and minimum of talent is overcome by her casual confidence, unusual looks and an insolent, slightly sullen manner. She’s fresh and different, and what Bogart sees in her is in his eyes and his amused little smile.

It became a short story: They met in 1943, filmed in 1944, married in 1945 (after Bogart’s divorce) and remained together until Bogart’s death of esophageal cancer on Jan. 14, 1957. (“Goodbye kid,” he said to her.) He died with one Oscar (for 1951’s “The African Queen”), 75 films, two children with Bacall and a marriage that had lasted nearly 13 years. (In terms of Hollywood unions, that’s a lifetime.)

Mr. Mann’s dissection of the marriage—and how its perception was shaped for the public—is the book’s most interesting section. In his pre-Bacall life, Bogart had been famous for two things: drinking and marrying actresses (he was really good at the first, not so good at the second). His first two wives, Helen Menken and Mary Philips, were performers, and Mayo Methot, the woman he was married to when he met Bacall, had started her career at age 8. His earlier wives were heavy drinkers, but Methot surpassed the others in keeping up with Bogie, who was regarded as an alcoholic. Wed in 1938, the two of them had their own press mythology as “the Battling Bogarts.”

Their drunken fights made good copy when treated as charming love spats, and Methot became his media partner-in-crime, a sort of female Bogie. “She changed the narrative of his life,” claims Mr. Mann. But the author makes a strong case that, after their divorce, Hollywood’s publicity machine demonized and redefined Methot in order to promote Bacall. Methot died in 1951 at age 47 and a friend said “she never stopped loving Bogart.”

After Bogart’s death, Bacall lived another 57 years, as long as Bogart’s entire life. She wrote three memoirs detailing her own story, including a debacle of a love affair with Frank Sinatra and a third child in an unsuccessful marriage to Jason Robards Jr. She won two Tony awards, and her later movie roles included a Best Supporting Actress nomination for “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (1996).

She led a ritzy life in the famed Dakota apartment building as a living legend, but became known for her “huffs and her hissy fits.” (I was an eyewitness to one, at an event honoring John Huston.) She became a friendless old woman in a wheelchair and, Mr. Mann writes, “only a few were present to watch” as her ashes were deposited next to Bogart’s after her death on Aug. 12, 2014. “I wasn’t put on earth to be liked,” she once said.

“Bogie and Bacall” nails the basic star problem: “Fame creates tension between their public and private lives.” With a contemporary understanding, Mr. Mann locates who Bogart and Bacall were inside their manufactured images. Having kicked the tires on all sides, he officially declares their legend secure.

Jeanine Basinger is the co-author, with Sam Wasson, of “Hollywood: The Oral History.”

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