Lauren Bacall, a leading lady of Hollywood’s golden age died on August 12 at 89 in her home in New York. Although she lived in a decidedly gentile atmosphere she never forgot where she came from.
Actually she came from the Bronx, where she was born Betty Joan Perske on September 16, 1924. Her mother was Natalie Weinstein-Bacal, a Romanian Jewish immigrant; her father was William Perske, born in New Jersey to Polish Jewish parents. Betty is a first cousin of Shimon Peres (nee Szymon Perski)./p>
Film director Howard Hawks discovered the sultry blond siren as a 17-year-old cover girl on Harper’s Bazaar in 1943. He brought her to Hollywood and changed her name to Lauren. In the following year she made her screen debut in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not, opposite Humphrey Bogart. She was hot. They named her The Look, for her tendency to pose seductively — chin down and eyes up.
Bacall could seduce with just a look, and that’s just what happened — the two stars sizzled on and off screen and married in 1945. She called him Bogie; he called her Baby. They were paired in four films and had two children, son Stephen Humphrey Bogart and daughter Leslie Howard Bogart.
Bogart, an Episcopalian, had the children christened in his church. He wanted to spare them the indignity of growing up in a world not particularly friendly to Jews. Their mother told a reporter in 1994 that Hawks used to make anti-Semitic remarks “and I didn’t know what to do. I was so young and scared and I guess I didn’t have enough character.”
As she matured, she became her own person. She was independent, determined to make a success of her life and proud of her heritage. In an appearance on the Phil Donohue television talk show in 1980, she was asked her religious preference. “I have lots of faith and conviction,” she answered. “I’m Jewish … I don’t practice the religion … I believe in it, though. I mean I believe in Israel … Now, at last, I’m very glad that I’m Jewish. I wasn’t always, but I am now.”
The 12-year mixed marriage with Bogie came to an anguished end in 1957 when he succumbed to throat cancer. She was devastated, but not for long. Along came Frank Sinatra, captivated by Lauren’s husky voice and sensual looks. But Ol’ Blue Eyes broke off their brief engagement in a huff when the press got wind of it. Lauren fled into the arms of Jason Robards, Jr. in 1961, gave birth to a son, actor Sam Robards, and divorced in 1969 after eight years of marriage.
Bacall concludes her 2006 memoir, By Myself and Then Some, with these heart-felt words: “Going back through my life until now, the Jewish family feeling stands strong and proud, and at last I can say I am glad I sprang from that. I would not trade those roots – that identity.”
Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades and has been writing a column for The New York Jewish Week for 35 years; he's been a writer-photographer at 15MinutesMagazine.com for 16 years. He is the author of “Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame,” interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.