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The true story of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s romance could have been the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster
Anybody got a match?” Those were the first husky words spoken on the set of To Have and Have Not by a leggy, 19-year-old actress who’d only just left behind a childhood as Betty Joan Perske to become the starlet, Lauren Bacall. Despite her recent comment to friends on the subject of Humphrey Bogart being “yuck”, she appeared suddenly consumed with nerves playing opposite him in her first professional role, visibly shaking as the crew filmed her character, Marie ‘Slim’ Browning, putting a cigarette to her lips.
For the 45-year-old Bogart, in the middle of a tumultuous marriage to his third wife Mayo Methot which had earned them the gossip column epithet of ‘The Battling Bogarts’, this sweet, young – and strikingly beautiful – rabbit in the headlights was enchanting. Realising Bacall’s inexperienced nervousness, he started making silly jokes to try to put her at ease, calling her ‘Slim’ or ‘Baby’ while she called him after his character ‘Steve’ or ‘Bogie’.
Three weeks later, the pair were fooling around as usual in her dressing room when Bogart suddenly leaned over, put his hand under her chin and kissed her. He dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out a worn-out matchbox – maybe a reference to her first words in the film – and asked for her phone number.
From that moment, the on-screen chemistry between ‘Bogie’ and ‘Baby’ was no make- believe and co-stars later recalled how the pair would walk hand-in-hand on set, or sometimes disappear together for a few stolen moments of romance. After work, she would drive at any hour to meet him on his boat or at a spot on Highway 101.
Meanwhile, the film’s director Howard Hawks, whose wife was largely responsible for helping put the young Bacall’s name in lights, was appalled by the budding romance – as was Bacall’s disapproving mother – and both tried to derail the relationship. But the only person who had the power to do that was Bogart’s then still wife, Methot, who, promising to cut down on her drinking, wanted her and Bogart to give their marriage another go. Bacall was heartbroken and colleagues remembered finding her applying ice packs to her eyes, they were so swollen from crying.
But on December 4, 1944, not long into filming for Bogart and Bacall’s next film together, The Big Sleep, the media announced that Humphrey and Mayo had separated once more – and this time it was final. Bogart’s divorce came through quickly and on May 21, 1945, Lauren Bacall became Mrs Humphrey Bogart at a small wedding ceremony in Ohio attended only by the couple’s closest friends. It was to be Bogart’s last – and his happiest – marriage.
In her later memoirs, Bacall recalled how Bogart openly sobbed his way through their wedding vows, his sometimes aloof on- screen persona giving way to a gentle, vulnerable man who was overcome with emotion to be marrying the woman he’d once said in a letter to her was “my last love and all the rest of my life I shall love you and watch you and be ready to help you.”
As husband and wife, they were one of the most powerful couples in Hollywood’s golden age and were evidently mad about one another. Which is not to say their marriage was always easy. When Bacall announced she was pregnant with their first child, the 48-year old and until then childless Bogart was reportedly furious, yelling at Bacall that he hadn’t married her just to lose her to a baby.
The age gap between them also caused ructions as Bacall still yearned for the thrill of Hollywood nightlife, while Bogie preferred to go sailing on his beloved boat Santana – something a usually seasick Bacall despised. Meanwhile, both had affairs, Bogart with his hairdresser Verita Peterson and she with her husband’s mate and old crooner, Frank Sinatra. Nevertheless they continued to love each other completely and when he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in the winter of 1956, she nursed him tenderly throughout his illness until his death on January 14, 1957.
At 33, Bacall was left a widow with two children to look after. While Bacall and Sinatra continued their somewhat erratic courtship, forever blowing hot and cold with each other, it ended suddenly the following year when Bacall revealed to a newspaper columnist that they had secretly become engaged.
They would never be reconciled. A few years later in 1961, Bacall wed the actor – and another old friend of Bogart’s – Jason Robards but by 1969 the pair had separated, in large part because of his alcoholism. But, to much of the world and even to her second husband, Lauren Bacall would remain known as the Widow Bogart, living until her death in 2014, in the shadow of the man who had meant so much to her. And a relationship so all-consuming and extraordinary that it stayed with her right until the last credits. As she later wrote in her memoirs “No one has ever written a romance better than we lived it.”