Every inch of wall space and flat surface in Lauren Bacall’s apartment at New York City’s famed Dakota was covered with art, photographs, knickknacks and mementos of her remarkable life. “When I was younger, I thought, ‘If I could just have this, buy that!’ Then I could, and I went crazy and bought 90 of everything,” she said in 1971. “[But] I worked my tail off for every cent.”
Even the things that came easy to Lauren extracted a heavy price. Her first film role, in 1944’s To Have and Have Not, made her an overnight star at age 19 and ignited her relationship with her first husband, costar Humphrey Bogart. Although marriage and motherhood stalled her career, “I was happy being his wife. I loved it,” she said in 2011. “Because I really loved him.” Sadly, Bogie’s death 13 years later left Lauren a widow with two small children at age 32.
Over the decades that followed, Lauren, a lifelong New Yorker who was born Betty Joan Perske, struggled to live a full, honest life while shouldering the weight of her immense legend. “She didn’t have the movie star disease,” Sally Quinn, author and contributor to The Washington Post, exclusively tells Closer, explaining that the actress never put on airs. She asked Quinn, and all of her closest friends, to call her Betty. “She didn’t have to be catered to,” Quinn says. “She was one of the gang and had a very good sense of humor.”
That didn’t mean that there was anything ordinary about Lauren. She mixed easily with other celebrities, including Anjelica Huston and Barbra Streisand, who hired Lauren to play her mother in 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, earning Lauren her sole Oscar nomination. The star was also pals with Ted Kennedy, whose signed lithograph of a daffodil painting he made for his wife, Victoria, hung on Lauren’s wall.
“Betty had incredible charisma,” recalls Quinn, who first met the actress decades ago in New York’s Hamptons. “Of course, she had that deep, husky voice, which was compelling. She was just really sexy and knew how to flirt. She was funny, smart, teasable and fun.”
Over the years, the friends shared many laughs — like the time Lauren touched the wrong wall monitor and accidentally summoned the fire department to Quinn’s home, where Lauren was getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party. “The firemen all rushed up to the third floor to Betty’s room, and she was standing there in her panties and bra!” Quinn recalls. “The firemen were all thrilled, and she thought it was hilarious!”
A running joke was Lauren’s crush on Quinn’s husband, the late journalist Ben Bradlee. At his annual birthday party, Lauren would offer up a ribald toast. “She’d lift her glass, and she’d say, ‘From my eyes to your eyes, from my lips to your lips. If I’m asleep, wake me. If I don’t want to — make me!’” says Quinn. “Everybody would hoot and Ben would look embarrassed, shy and thrilled.”
After the death of Bogie from esophageal cancer in 1957, Lauren never found a greater love. Her engagement to Frank Sinatra ended over a misunderstanding, and her second marriage, to actor Jason Robards, the father of her youngest son, actor Sam Robards, lasted only eight years. “She didn’t have great luck with men,” admits Quinn. “I think a lot of that is that she was just a really strong woman, really famous, an icon. I think a lot of men were intimidated by her.”
But the actress knew she couldn’t feed her family just by being a legend. Lauren didn’t come from a wealthy background — she was raised by a single, immigrant mother — and needed to work. “She was always working or looking to work no matter how old she was,” recalls Quinn. Over her long career, Lauren appeared in nearly 50 films, did Broadway, TV guest appearances and commercial voiceovers. “She wasn’t too proud to take a movie that she wasn’t the big star in,” says Quinn. “She had to support herself.”
Lauren raised her children, Stephen Bogart, 73, daughter Leslie Bogart, 70, and Sam, 60, largely alone. “She was a really devoted mother and did everything she could to help them,” says Quinn.
Adam Green, a journalist and family friend, witnessed her hardships. “Like a lot of single moms, she struggled to have a career and be there for her [children],” Green exclusively tells Closer. “She was tough and could be unbelievably rude to people, but it all came from a place of insecurity and vulnerability. There was this feeling that she had to take care of herself and her family.”
Lauren also worried about how fame burdened her family. “Steve, who was the first child, has been trying to find an identity for himself besides being Humphrey Bogart’s son. It’s a terrible thing to have to rise above that,” Lauren said. Daughter Leslie, meanwhile, shielded herself by working as an emergency room nurse and staying out of the spotlight. Only son Sam chose to follow in his parents’ footsteps as an actor. “Her relationship with Sam had all the complications that a mother and son relationship can have, but they clearly loved each other,” Green says. “In her last years, Sam was really good to her and was there all the time.”
Lauren, who passed away in 2014, tried to teach what she’d learned to her six grandchildren, whom she adored. “She wanted the best, and if you weren’t doing the best, she let you know about it,” says grandson Jamie Bogart. “She was a good grandma. She was lucky to have a pretty unique life.” Lauren agreed. “What matters is to live your life,” she said. “To press on and to live your life.”
— Reporting by Fortune Benatar
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