You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” When a willowy young actress named Lauren Bacall uttered those seductive words to the grizzled Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’s 1944 film To Have and Have Not, she foreshadowed a passion that would go far beyond the silver screen. “Everyone could see their love right there on celluloid,” says their son Steve Bogart, 47. “He was the great love of her life, and she his.”
In 1943, the year that she was signed by Warner Bros., Bacall, whose career had been launched by a cover of Harper’s Bazaar, was a 19-year-old model with a patrician grace but no acting experience. Bogie, 44 and a major star in the Warner stable, was in a deteriorating marriage (his third) to Mayo Methot, an actress who was battling both the bottle and—as gossip column accounts of their brawls suggested—Bogie. When Hawks told Betty, as Bacall was known, that he’d like to cast her opposite either Bogie or Cary Grant, she remembered thinking, “Cary Grant—terrific! Humphrey Bogart—yuck.”
At their first meeting, at the Warner Bros, studio, she found Bogart “slighter than I imagined—5’10½”—wearing his costume of no-shape trousers, cotton shirt and scarf around neck. Nothing of import was said, but he seemed a friendly man.” Some weeks later, after auditioning for To Have and Have Not, she again bumped into Bogie. “I just saw your test,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of fun together.” The fun didn’t start at once. Though her character in the film was sophisticated, in real life Bacall was sexually inexperienced and so nervous on the set that she physically shook. During her first scene, “I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up at Bogart,” she wrote in her 1978 autobiography, Lauren Bacall: By Myself. “It worked.” In fact, “the Look” would be known as Bacall’s trademark.
As filming progressed, Bacall warmed to her costar and he to her. “I don’t know how it happened. It was almost imperceptible,” she wrote. Three weeks into the movie, she was sitting at her dressing table, combing her hair, when Bogie came in to say goodnight. “He was standing behind me—we were joking as usual—when suddenly he leaned over, put his hand under my chin and kissed me.” She gave him her phone number on the back of a matchbook.
For the next year, the two held clandestine trysts wherever they could—always careful not to further enrage Methot, whom Bogie was in the process of divorcing. When they would see each other or talk on the phone, “his first words were always, ‘Hello, Baby,’ ” she wrote. “My heart would literally pound.” He was, she thought, “a gentle man—diametrically opposed to most of the parts he played.”
Bogie was tortured by their secrecy. “I wish with all my heart that things were different,” he wrote to her. “When I walked away from you that last time and saw you standing there so darling, I did die a little in my heart.” On May 21, 1945, shortly after his divorce came through, he and Bacall were married on a friend’s farm in Ohio.
Three years later, their son Stephen (named after Bogie’s character in To Have and Have Not) was born, and in 1952 they had a daughter, Leslie. Of the years that followed, Bacall would write, “Whenever I think of the word ‘happy’ now, I think of then.” They made three more movies together, and in their Holmby Hills house in Los Angeles, she cooked, gardened and entertained the couple’s high-profile Hollywood friends. Bogie loved it. “She’s my wife, so she stays home and takes care of me,” he boasted. “Maybe that’s the way you tell the ladies from the broads in this town.”
But Bacall’s real chance to prove what she was made of came in the terrible months after the winter of 1956, when Bogie was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. A tender Bacall nursed him throughout the illness, and on Jan. 14, 1957, he died. Afterward, the devastation that the 33-year-old Bacall suffered was nearly indescribable. She tried an affair with Frank Sinatra and a rocky, 12-year marriage to Jason Robards, but ultimately it was her children (including son Sam Robards) and career that restored her. In the end, Bacall would be forever associated with her first husband. Indeed, their image as ideal lovers was so strong that in 1981 they provided the hook for a popular song, “Key Largo”: “We had it all, just like Bogie and Bacall…”