Back in the day, young actors were asked to change their names, eliminate traces of any accents, remain silent about their origins and alter their looks to fit a certain mold in Hollywood. The major studios were frequently involved in manufacturing new identities and pushing certain narratives about their talent.
Lauren Bacall understood early on that her Jewish-sounding name might close a lot of doors for her in the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s. It was a period when it was expected to have an American name and persona to prove your Americanization. Also, many influential people in Hollywood were anti-Semitic including director Howard Hawks. Bacall did not hide her Jewish origins but, in the first half of her life, she worried that she might lose her job because of it.
A 19-year-old Betty Joan Perske signed the contract for her first film “To Have and Have Not” (1944) under a new name. It was Hawks’ idea, and he came up with “Lauren”. She decided to take her mother’s Romanian last name-Bacal and add another “l” at the end. Her close circle of friends and family continued to call her Betty while her first husband Bogie (Humphrey Bogart) preferred “Baby”.
Both of her parents were Jewish. Her dad’s family came from Belarus, while her mom Natalie Weinstein-Bacal emigrated from Iasi, Romania through Ellis Island when she was just a little girl. The couple divorced when Bacall was six years old. A few years later, Bacall stopped being in contact with her father William Perske. She never saw him again.
In her first memoir “Lauren Bacall, By Myself” (1978) which received the National Book Award, the actress said that she was remarkably close to her grandmother Sophie (born Iosipovici), and the rest of the extended Weinstein-Bacal family.
Warner Brothers implied in its first press release about Bacall that she came from an upper-class family that had been in the United States for several generations. The truth is that her maternal grandfather Max was born in Iasi, Romania, worked in the wheat business for a while then sold everything to bring his family to the promised land. He got a job as a push-cart peddler soon after he moved to New York in 1903 and then bought a small candy store in Bronx with his savings. After his death at 55 years old, Sophie Weinstein-Bacal managed the store by herself. Bacall’s uncles-Charlie and Jack were able to earn law degrees while her mom raised her by working as a secretary. They all continued to speak Romanian while living in New York. As a little girl, Lauren heard her mother and grandmother switching to Romanian or German whenever they had family secrets to hide. Her grandmother Sophie used to sing German songs to her and read many books in different languages. Sophie was religious and Bacall saw her lighting a candle every Friday for her husband and going to the Temple. “She had a fierce temper and was a marvelous cook. She made the most delicious cookies and stuffed cabbage and kreplach”-the traditional Jewish dumplings. “I’ve never tasted those dishes anywhere in the world to match hers” Bacall wrote in her autobiography.
“True, I didn’t go to synagogue, but I felt totally Jewish and always would” she emphasized in “By Myself”, her memoir. She also admonished herself for not being more open about her Jewish identity. “People who don’t know me—even some people who do know me—know that I say what I think” she wrote.” Very few people want to hear the truth. Bogie was like that, my mother was like that, and I am like that. I believe in the truth, and I believe in saying what you think. Why not? Do you have to go around whispering all the time or playing a game with people? I just don’t believe in that”. She continued “there are a lot of people who don’t like me at all, I’m very sure of that. But I wasn’t put on earth to be liked. I have my own reasons for being and my own sense of what is important and what isn’t, and I’m not going to change that”. That frankness and honesty was and still is a rare thing in Hollywood.
Some of Bacall’s best performances were in the films “The Big Sleep” (1947), “Young Man with a Horn” (1950), “Designing Woman” (1957), “The Shooter” (1977) and “The Walker” (2007). She had notable supportive roles in “Dogville” (2003) and “Birth” (2004).
Lauren got her Oscar nomination and Golden Globe award in 1997 as supporting actress for her role in “The Mirror Has Two Faces”, a romantic comedy directed by Barbra Streisand. The film, overall, is mediocre, but Bacall’s performance is a real treat. In 2010 she received an honorary Oscar.
It was in theater, however, where Bacall felt she had truly found herself as an actress. “There is nothing as rewarding as being on stage for an actor” she told Dick Cavett in a 1979 interview, “because there is an instant exchange with the audience, an instant reaction and you get a chance to develop a character. Film is a director’s medium while theatre is an actor’s medium”.
Indeed “Cactus Flower” was a big success on Broadway in 1965 where it played for almost three years. Bacall won her first Tony Award for “Applause”, the 1970 musical adaptation of “All About Eve”. She described it later as “the most rewarding work experience of my life”. The second Tony Award came in 1981 for “Woman of the Year”. She played a part that was initially created on screen for her dear friend Katharine Hepburn.
Lauren Bacall died in 2014, at her apartment in The Dakota, in Upper West Side. About the city where she lived most of her life Bacall said “I spent my childhood in New York, riding on subways and buses. And you know what you learn if you are a New Yorker? The world doesn't owe you a damn thing!”.
Guest contributor: ANDREEA DROGEANU