Lauren Bacall: The death of the femme fatale

With the death of Lauren Bacall we have lost a woman who knew what she wanted, pursued it, and modeled for the rest of America how to do that at a time when women were more defined by who they married. She was a treasure.

Bacall in
Bacall in "The Big Sleep" | Photo by Laura Loveday via Flickr (

Bacall in “The Big Sleep” | Photo by Laura Loveday via Flickr (

There should be some way to put a moratorium on death. I guess that is, actually, what we find a lot of in religion, and why you and I are interested in religion–this idea that death does not get the final word. But that doesn’t necessarily make death less sad now, and after mourning the especially sad loss of Robin Williams, we hear that Lauren Bacall has died, too.

Can everyone just stop dying for a little while?

Bacall was 89 when she died of a stroke yesterday at home in New York City. She had been married twice, to two very famous men who act, neither of whom I am going to make much of here because the woman deserves at least one obituary that recognizes her on her own merits. (But did you know she was a first cousin of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres?) The first time I saw her onscreen was, I think, in The Big Sleep. (Not in theaters; I am not quite that old.) My dad is a huge fan of old films, and we watched those famous last lines – “What’s wrong with you?” Bogey asks her. “Nothing you can’t fix,” she replies – I fell in love with noir films and saw something of what I know now is called a “femme fatale.” Then, I just would have called her a badass chick. Take, for example, this scene from To Have and Have Not, in which she makes the whole room fall in love with her in the space of one song:

Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx to Jewish parents–her mother came to the US from Romania; her father was born in New Jersey to Polish parents. She famously graced the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in 1943, handpicked by Diana Vreeland and discovered by the wife of Howard Hawks, who would go on to direct Bacall in some of her best roles, including To Have and Have Not, her first film. 

One of my favorite stories involving Bacall took place many years after the filming of The African Queen, to which she had accompanied Humphrey B. Anjelica Huston, whose father, John, directed the film, recalls:

“I remember, towards the end of his life, we were all having dinner and Dad started to talk about The African Queen. He said, ‘Katie was the best female friend I’ve ever had in my life.’ And Lauren Bacall, this little voice at the end of table, piped up, ‘Well what about me, John?’ And he said, ‘Oh honey, you were married to Bogey.'”

It’s illustrative, really, of how much of her life was spent in the shadow of the man she had married. But even as we talk about Bacall as a femme fatale and as the wife of these famous men, we have to remember that she spent only twenty years of her almost ninety year-long life unmarried. She starred in scores of films, won accolades and awards, conquered her nervousness at being filmed by pressing her chin down and glancing up through her lashes to create “The Look.” She was a legend in her own right.

In her second memoir, Now, Bacall talked about how her Judaism could have presented an obstacle for her in Hollywood. She mentions how she got along with Howard Hawks’s wife despite their differences (Slim’s “pure Aryan heritage” and Bacall’s own “pure Jewish heritage”). About her friend Mildred, Bacall wrote that “The Jewish background is a strong bond. We both had it, though I was less religious than she.” Bacall also wrote about how her parents’ divorce affected her deeply, and that whatever religion she held onto had more to do with maintaing a semblance of stability and family structure than any sense of piety. 

With Bacall dies the great femme fatale; the woman whose sensibility was old-fashioned enough to appeal to anyone but through whom ran an undercurrent of power and electricity. She was beautiful and badass to the end.

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