Remembering Lauren Bacall: Ten Things She Taught Us

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Lauren Bacall, circa 1950
Lauren Bacall, circa 1950Courtesy of The Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive

To mark her tragic passing, we consider ten things that the legendary Lauren Bacall taught us

“To me, a legend is something that is not on the Earth, that is dead.” So said Lauren Bacall. However to her fans, to those who watched her grow from a Harper’s Bazaar cover girl in 1943, to an icon of 1940’s Hollywood glamour and a Broadway star, she was always a legend. An icon of film noir, she starred in movies including To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) alongside Humphrey Bogart, who would become her husband, the couple remaining together until his death in 1957. “My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure,” she once said. But, at the tragic news that she has passed away, aged 89, it is obvious that there is much more to Bacall’s obituary than Bogart. A smouldering, sensual beauty, she remained dignified, intelligent and outspoken throughout her career and beyond. She was a truly original character, one of the last greats of the Hollywood Golden Age. In celebration of her enduring vitality, elegance and wit, we consider ten life lessons that we can take from the legendary actress.

1. The Look
“I used to tremble from nerves so badly that the only way I could hold my head steady was to lower my chin practically to my chest and look up at Bogie.”
During the 1940s, Bacall developed The Look, a trademark move synonymous with her acting in which she would tilt her head and look doe-eyed up at her co-star.

2. Grow Old Gracefully
“I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that.”
When Bacall began her career, she looked so young that she was fondly referred to as Baby. As she grew older, she never lost her glamour or style, pairing pearl earrings and her signature coiffure with a face untouched by plastic surgery, engrained with a lifetime of experience.

3. Effortless Glamour
“Maybe it’s just a hold-over from my modelling days, when I had to dress to the nines whether I felt like it or not, but I just don't like to doll up for my own admiration.”
Bacall managed to exude chic elegance with laidback ease. She championed a demure, casual style which was unusual for the decade, including overalls, bandeau tops and loose knitwear. She has repeatedly inspired fashion houses, including John Galliano, who used her as a direct reference for his S/S10 Christian Dior show and transformed Karlie Kloss into a young Bacall for the campaign.

4. Be Positive
“You can’t always be a leading lady.”
Bacall was known to be tough and honest, but equally positive. She endured repeated hardship throughout her life: an abusive and neglectful father, the death of her husband and the subsequent cruelty of Frank Sinatra, who blew off their engagement after it was leaked to the press and went on to ignore her for twenty years. However she has always remained a pillar of strength, full of character and with her well-known raspy chuckle.

“Imagination is the highest kite one can fly” — Lauren Bacall

5. The Power of Red Lipstick
For Bacall’s debut Harper’s Bazaar cover (after she was discovered by Diana Vreeland aged 17), she was reinvented as a Red Cross nurse, with bright red lipstick to match. Her red pout would become her trademark, played off against her high cheekbones and green eyes.

6. The Rat Pack
“You look like a goddamn rat pack.”
Bacall can be credited for coining this collective phrase, which refers to Humphrey Bogart and the group of actors he cavorted with during the 1950s, which included Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin. Bacall was referred to as the Den Mother and after Bogart’s death would have brief affair with Sinatra. “He behaved like an absolute sh*t,” she would later comment.

7. Be Imaginative
“Imagination is the highest kite one can fly.”
Bacall’s imagination took her from The Bronx, New York City, where she was born, to the heady hights of stardom. It was also perhaps what allowed her to portray each of her characters with such sincerity, emotion and vigour, be it ruthless Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep (1946) or ageing broadway star Margo Channing in Applause (1970).

8. You don’t need a husband to be happy
“I figure if I have my health, can pay the rent and I have my friends, I call it ‘content’.”
Bacall lived primarily on her own after divorcing her second husband, Jason Robards Jr. in 1969. In an instragram tribute, Marlee Matlin recalls that when she told her good friend Bacall of her boyfriend troubles, she responded, “Men, f*ck ‘em! Give ‘em hell in heaven.”

9. Be Honest
“If there was one thing I had never been, it was mysterious, and if there was one thing I had never done, it was not talk.”
Bacall was famed for her raw honesty, a characteristic which drew director Howard Hawks to offer her the role as Marie “Slim” Browning in To Have and Have Not following her screen test. In both her autobiographies, By Myself (1978) and Now (1994), she speaks frankly and honestly about growing older and her former relationships.

10. Be Brave
Here is a test to find out whether your mission in life is complete. If you’re alive, it isn’t.”
When Bacall lost Bogart to cancer in 1957, it marked the end of a lengthy struggle and the beginning of an even longer one, as she worked to rebuild her life without the man who had been its predominant rock and indeed the love of her life since she was nineteen, when they met on the set of the aptly titled To Have and Have Not. Bogart kissed her and asked her to put her number on the back of a packet of matches. They embarked on an affair, until Bogart divorced his second wife, Mayo Methot in order to marry Bacall. In her book, By Myself (1978), she candidly recalls this period of mourning in a series of stories, poetry and photographs, including one poem which reads:

Dear Lord
I want to thank you, Lord, for being with me so far this day
I haven’t been impatient, lost my temper, been grumpy, judgmental or envious of anyone
But I will be getting out of bed in a minute, and I think I will really need your help then

Text by Mhairi Graham