Lauren Bacall, who died this past Tuesday at the age of 89, was a model, an actress, a movie star… and a Jewish mother.
Born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx to a Romanian mother and a father whose parents emigrated from Poland, she had three children herself, Stephen and Leslie with Humphrey Bogart, and Sam with Jason Robards. Her stage name, Bacall, was actually her mother’s maiden name. (She is also a cousin of Shimon Peres on the Perske side.)
In her autobiography, Bacall recalled being fired from an early modeling job because she was Jewish. It was the reason she didn’t tell the reportedly anti-Semitic director Howard Hawks about it, and why she allowed the studio’s PR department to claim that their new star was a descendant of some of America’s oldest families.
She did confess the truth to future husband Bogart, whom she met on the set of “To Have and Have Not.” Bogie, according to Bacall, could not have cared less. Nevertheless, he did have their children raised Episcopalian, complete with Sunday school, as he believed it would make their lives easier. Bacall acquiesced, but did not convert herself, saying it didn’t feel right.
Nevertheless, in a 1981 interview with People Magazine, she described herself as “the proverbial Jewish mother.” (Then again, she also said, “I never want to have to depend upon my children for entertainment. I don’t want them ever to feel: ‘Oh, Christ, there she is sitting alone, moaning and groaning. What are we going to do with her?’ The best thing I can say about myself is that I don’t have enough time to see them, that they’ve got to try and find enough time in their lives to see me.” Hmmmm…. Doesn’t sound like any Jewish mother I’ve ever known.)
I didn’t know that Lauren Bacall was Jewish when I first became a fan of her movies. All I knew was that she was stunning and charismatic and cool in a way that many of her contemporaries, most of whom seemed to be perennially throwing themselves about on-screen while weeping over some man or some sharper than a serpent’s tooth child, were not.
I loved her deep husky voice, her self-confidence, her devil-may-care attitude, her style, for lack of a better word, in everything from lighting a cigarette to sashaying across the room, never needing to glance back and see if a man was looking, because she knew that he always was. Maybe it would be more appropriate to say that I didn’t just admire Lauren Bacall–I wanted to be her.
The movie version, of course. I’ve always been one of those people not particularly interested in actors’ private lives. (I never understood people who are “disappointed” to find out a celebrity is gay. Because now they don’t have a chance with them. Um… did you ever really have a chance with them in the first place?) My interest is exclusively in the work.
And Lauren Bacall turned out some terrific work.
I realize we’re all busy people who probably don’t have time to familiarize ourselves with the entire Bacall oeuvre. So I’ll make it easy for you. Behold, the three quintessential Lauren Bacall movie moments that everyone should see for themselves (rather than just think they’ve seen them, because they’ve been referenced and parodied into infinity):
1. “It’s even better when you help,” after kissing Humphrey Bogart in “To Have and Have Not.”
2. “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.” Again to Bogart, again in “To Have and Have Not.” (Fun fact, her son Stephen was named after Bogie’s character in the movie.)
Both can be seen in this composite clip:
3. Bogart, yet again. This time in “The Big Sleep.” Their discussion about… ehm, horse-racing… was considered too racy for the times and was cut out of the film’s original release.
Yup. Definitely not like any Jewish mother I’ve ever known.
But a girl can dream….