Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in 1924 to an immigrant mother and a first-generation father. She was a product of Brooklyn, New York, but Bacall’s parents were European Jews who divorced when she was five. Betty Joan Perske eventually became Lauren Bacall, using part of her mother’s maiden name, Weinstein-Bacal, and Americanizing the name to fit into Hollywood. However, she would not totally escape anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic sentiment; early on in her career, as a young model, Bacall was often told she “did not look Jewish” and was abashed at the other models’ ignorance and lack of tolerance. She did not hide her Jewish roots, but she was careful. Despite the conflict toward her Judaism, Bacall could not escape her heritage—one more reminder of her Jewish connection came through her relation to Shimon Peres, former President and Foreign Minister of Israel. Originally a Perske (sometimes spelled Perski or Persky) from Poland, Peres met with Bacall while she was filming a movie in Israel in 1987 and reminded her “there are not too many Perskes in the world, and most of them are related.”
In 1944 at the age of 19, Bacall was discovered by the wife of famed director Howard Hawks. Hawks cast Bacall in her first movie, “To Have And Have Not,” alongside Humphrey Bogart, which began not only a lifetime of movie roles but also kicked off one of Hollywood’s most notable romances. Her line of “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow” snagged Bogart, and the two married the following year and remained so until his death from throat cancer in 1957. They had two children, Stephen Bogart and Leslie Bogart.
Despite the love between Bogart and Bacall, there were still moments of conflict due to religious differences. According to Bacall’s autobiography, “By Myself,” Bacall struggled with Bogart’s request to have the children christened. She did not attend synagogue, and was ambivalent about her Jewish roots, but she “felt totally Jewish and always would,” according to the biography. So when Bogart made the request to have the children baptized, Bacall bristled at the idea. But according to Hasia Diner, professor of Hebrew and Jewish history at New York University, “Being Jewish was too much of a liability in an environment in which one had to walk that tightrope” [between being Jewish in private and appearing otherwise in public].
After Bogart’s death, Bacall continued acting, but being a widow was overwhelming, and she took a five-year break from Hollywood following disappointing productions. She dabbled in Broadway and enjoyed the live work—and in 1964 returned to Hollywood, working with John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Tony Curtis, and Paul Newman, among others, and earned her third Oscar. She returned to Hollywood again in the 1990s and acted in several films until deteriorating health forced Bacall to slow down and make smaller-scale films.
Outside of her well-known love affair with Bogart, Bacall was also married to Jason Robards for eight years, between 1961 and 1969; they had one child together, Sam Robards.
Bacall had an extended history that included film, stage and radio. On August 12, 2014, shortly before her 90th birthday, she died from a stroke.
Dr. Lisa Grajewski is a psychologist working toward licensure. She is a therapist with Jewish Federation Family Services and is a psychological assistant for a private practice in Tustin. Dr. Grajewski has been writing for JLife Magazine since 2004.