The Books: “By Myself” (Lauren Bacall)

My “entertainment biography” bookshelf is a goldmine. I dip into it all the time. For my film reviews, for my writings on specific actors or directors. It’s a true library, and I cherish it. Almost as much as I cherish my US Presidents/US history library.

By Myself, by Lauren Bacall

The first of her three autobiographies. She wrote every word. You can tell. You can hear her voice. This is my favorite of the three. Lauren Bacall grew up in a Jewish family in New York, with a powerful mother – lots of powerful women in the family – and very early on, it was discovered she had an aptitude for this acting thing. She was obsessed with movies, Bette Davis in particular (and there are VERY funny stories of her and a girlfriend cutting class to go sit in the balcony of a movie theatre to watch a Bette Davis movie, and they would sit up there and “cry and smoke”.) There is also a very funny story of how she basically stalked Bette Davis, and ended up alone with her in an elevator, quaking in her shoes. Now things happened quickly for “Betty” Bacall – after all, she made her debut (perhaps one of the most spectacular movie debuts of all time) at 19 in To Have and Have Not. There’s a sense of destiny about it. Bacall was studying dancing and acting, she was in class with Kirk Douglas – a young hottie – (I love, too, how boy-crazy Lauren was – and still is … she loves men … but it’s also amazing, when you see that performance in To Have and Have Not, and all its subtle sexy knowingness – to know that it was a virgin playing that role. An untouched teenager. What?? Howard Hawks really COACHED her … and so did Bogie … but lots of people are “coached” and the results come out stilted, they look coached. That role looks natural. She was an amazing study.) Bacall did some modeling, nothing big, mainly trying on clothes for people in private rooms in Loew’s and things like that – and somehow she came to the attention of the powerful and innovative Diana Vreeland. Vreeland put Bacall on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar:


Pretty striking, isn’t it? That cover was what caught the attention of Slim Hawks, gorgeous elegant wife of director Howard Hawks, out in Hollywood. Slim Hawks said, “You need to look at this girl.” She knew the “type” of girl Howard liked, and that sullen-eyed red-lipped girl was it. Look at that cover. If you know the style of the day, the magazine cover style, then it will be immediately apparent that the Bacall cover of Harper’s Bazaar was something different entirely. The photo was about HER and the flat look in her eyes – a look that predicts the “runway walk” expression of models today (but not at all models then). That photo is way ahead of its time. Models, then, were more often than not personality-less. Supermodel-mania was far in the future … but Vreeland took Bacall and brought out her personality … It wasn’t about showcasing the CLOTHES … it was about the face, and the look in Bacall’s eyes. Bacall never felt she was any good as a model, because she was too skinny. But Vreeland wasn’t interested (in that cover anyway) in having a bodacious girl in a push-up bra showing off the latest fashions. There stood teenager Betty Bacall, staring directly at you, shadowy figures behind the glass wall, serious, doing something else other than run-of-the-mill modeling. Without that Harper’s Bazaar cover, none of her career would have been possible. Howard Hawks took notice. He wanted to be a Svengali – he wanted to ‘create’ his type of woman (more on the “Howard Hawks woman” here) and he wanted to do so from scratch. If he could pluck someone from obscurity, and tell her how to dress, how to walk, how to react … he could then have the ideal woman for his very specific pictures about the male-female dynamic. Lauren Bacall was the one. Hawks contacted her, flew her out to Hollywood (she was, what, 17?? Never been away from home – it was a huge deal) – met with her, had her spend time with his wife Slim (because he basically wanted Bacall to BE his wife), and did some screen tests with her. Howard Hawks put Lauren Bacall under contract with him. He OWNED her. So no, she didn’t immediately go to work at the studios, playing small parts, or walk-ons, or bit roles – like every other starlet. Hawks held her back, until the time was right. He had her try on clothes, he had her work on her speech, he manipulated EVERYTHING about her. Bacall barely knew what hit her. Hawks was thinking, thinking, thinking … what male would be good to pair his new creation with? What actor would showcase her perfectly? He said to Bacall, “I am thinking of putting you in a movie with either Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart.” Bacall, ever the boy-crazy teenager, thought to herself feverishly, “Oh please let it be Cary Grant!!” We don’t always know what’s best for us.

To Have and Have Not is based on an unsuccessful Hemingway novel – and one drunken afternoon in Florida, Hemingway had said to Hawks, “I bet you can’t make a movie from my worst novel!” Hawks, always a gambler, said, “You’re on.” Hawks engaged the services of William Faulker to do the screenplay (so that makes To Have and Have Not the only film where two Nobel Prize winners are listed as the authors) … To Have and Have Not was the result. Hawks switched up the original story, placed it in a different setting, punched up the romance … you know, basically took all the elements and made them “Hawks”-ian. And he cast Lauren Bacall as “Slim” (huh! Her name is Slim in the flim – imagine that!!) – the hustler stranded on the island, who ends up involved with Steve, played by Humphrey Bogart. “Slim” is a woman on her own, with a shady past, we aren’t clear why she is in that hotel – but we do know she can’t leave, because she has no money. So she strolls through the piano bar, chatting up men, and stealing their wallets. It would be difficult to overstate what a “good girl” Lauren Bacall was, in real life. I love that performance of hers – because it is so striking, so specific – and it is NOTHING like who she is in real life. It’s “acting”. Terrific performance.

Humphrey Bogart was married at the time, to a hellcat named Mayo Methot – and the relationship was volatile, with the two of them beating the crap out of each other (literally) on a nightly drunken basis. It was a notorious relationship, and she sounds truly unstable, probably as a result of alcoholism. It was his third marriage, so Bogart obviously did not have a good track record.

Lauren Bacall, obsessed as she was with pleasing Mr. Hawks, did not at first consider Bogart as anything other than a giant movie star – who was very kind to her on her first big picture. But soon … very soon … as the filming went on, other things began to creep into their relationship. Bogart was much older than she, she was basically untouched – maybe she had kissed Kirk Douglas as a kid, because they went to high school together and dated a bit … but the difference between Bogart and Bacall was enormous. That was probably part of the attraction for Bogart, trapped as he was in a marriage with a used-up bitter woman. Who was this fresh-faced skinny kid? This funny fabulous girl from New York? He was from New York, too. Who knows. Anyway. They began a romance, Bogart began divorce proceedings – and they were married soon after To Have and Have Not and the rest is history.

Bacall’s book details her life, through these ups and downs, with an emotional clarity and immediacy that I found compulsively readable. She can write. It’s not just a “tell all” … she doesn’t reveal too much, she keeps some things private – which I very much respect … and the snapshots she gives of all of these people I have heard so much about, Hawks, Slim Hawks, Bogart … make indelible impressions. The book was a smash success – it won a National Book Award in 1980. Bacall, with her reverence for writers, said that that award meant more to her than any of her acting accolades put together. Brava.

Here’s an excerpt. It involves the shooting To Have and Have Not.

EXCERPT FROM By Myself, by Lauren Bacall

One day a couple of weeks before the picture was to start, I was about to walk into Howard’s office when Humphrey Bogart came walking out. He said, “I just saw your test. We’ll have a lot of fun together.” Howard told me Bogart had truly liked the test and would be very helpful to me.

I kept Mother up to date on developments, sending lists of people to call with the news – Diana Vreeland, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Nicky de Gunzburg, Tim Brooke – with instructions to keep it to themselves. I couldn’t write to anyone – only Mother!

Call Fred Spooner – tell him I saved $48 this week and will try to do the same next week. Had to spend $20 on a new clutch for my car … Send me slacks … Send me this – that – everything … Sat opposite Bette Davis in the Greenroom the other day – she stared at me – maybe she thought I looked familiar – Ha! Ha! Went to dinner and to see Casablanca! – watching Bogie [whom I barely knew]. The picture isn’t scheduled to start until Tuesday now – but frankly I don’t think it’ll begin until a week from tomorrow [that would be the next Monday]. They have to change the locale from Cuba to Martinique. Political difficulties, because as it stands now, characters and story don’t reflect too well on Cuba. Have been working hard at the studio every day. I think I’m going to do my own singing! [I’d been having singing lessons every day.]

The picture didn’t begin until the following Tuesday. I had tested the wardrobe – hair – makeup. Sid Hickox had photographed them with Howard present, experimenting as he went, as Howard wanted me to look in the movie.

Walter Brennan had been cast in a large part, Marcel Dalio, Walter Surovy (Rise Stevens’ husband), Sheldon Leonard, Dan Seymour – of course Hoagy. I went into the set the first day of shooting to see Howard and Bogart – I would not be working until the second day. Bogart’s wife, Mayo Methot, was there – he introduced us. I talked to Howard, watched for a while, and went home to prepare me for my own first day.

It came and I was ready for a straitjacket. Howard had planned to do a single scene that day – my first in the picture. I walked to the door of Bogart’s room, said, “Anybody got a match?”, leaned against the door, and Bogart threw me a small box of matches. I lit my cigarette, looking at him, said, “Thanks,” threw the matches back to him, and left. Well – we rehearsed it. My hand was shaking – my head was shaking – the cigarette was shaking. I was mortified. The harder I tried to stop, the more I shook. What must Howard be thinking? What must Bogart be thinking? What must the crew be thinking? Oh, God, make it stop! I was in such pain.

Bogart tried to joke me out of it – he was quite aware that I was a new young thing who knew from nothing and was scared to death. Finally Howard thought we could try a take. Silence on the set. The bell rang. “Quiet – we’re rolling,” said the sound man. “Action,” said Howard. This was for posterity, I thought – for real theatres, for real people to see. I came around the corner, said my first line, and Howard said, “Cut.” He had broken the scene up – the first shot ended after the first line. The second set-up was the rest of it – then he’d move in for close-ups. By the end of the third or fourth take, 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. It worked, and turned out to be the beginning of “The Look”.

I found out very quickly that day what a terrific man Bogart was. He did everything possible to put me at ease. He was on my side. I felt safe – I still shook, but I shook less. He was not even remotely a flirt. I was, but I didn’t flirt with him. There was much kidding around – our senses of humor went well together. Bogie’s idea, of course, was that to make me laugh would relax me. He was right to a point, but nothing on earth would have relaxed me completely!

The crew were wonderful – fun and easy. It was a very happy atmosphere. I would often go to lunch with HOward. One day he told me he was very happy with the way I was working, but that I must remain somewhat aloof from the crew. Barbara Stanwyck, whom he thought very highly of – he’d made Ball of Fire with her, a terrific movie – was always fooling around with the crew, and he thought it a bad idea. “They don’t like you any better for it. When you finish a scene, go back to your dressing room. Don’t hang around the set – don’t give it all away – save it for the scenes.” He wanted me in a cocoon, only to emerge for work. Bogart could fool around to his heart’s content – he was a star and a man – “though you notice he doesn’t do too much of it.”

One day at lunch when Howard was mesmerizing me with himself and his plans for me, he said, “Do you notice how noisy it is in here suddenly? That’s because Leo Forbstein just walked in – Jews always make more noise.” I felt that I was turning white, but I said nothing. I was afraid to – a side of myself I have never liked or been proud of – a side that was always there. Howard didn’t dwell on it ever, but clearly he had very definite ideas about Jews – none too favorable, though he did business with them. They paid him – they were good for that. I would have to tell him about myself eventually or he’d find out through someone else. When the time came, what would happen would happen, but I had no intention of pushing it.

Howard started to line up special interviews for me. Nothing big would be released until just before the picture, and everything would be chosen with the greatest care. Life, Look, Kyle Crichton for Collier’s, Pic, Saturday Evening Post. Only very special fan magazines. Newspapers. I probably had more concentrated coverage than any beginning young actress had ever had – due to Hawks, not me.

Hoagy Carmichael had written a song called “Baltimore Oriole”. Howard was going to use it as my theme music in the movie – every time I appeared on screen there were to be strains of that song. He thought it would be marvelous if I could be always identified with it – appear on Bing Crosby’s or Bob Hope’s radio show, have the melody played, have me sing it, finally have me known as the “Baltimore Oriole”. What a fantastic fantasy life Howard must have had! His was a glamorous, mysterious, tantalizing vision – but it wasn’t me.

On days I didn’t have lunch with Howard, I would eat with another actor or the publicity man or have a sandwich in my room or in the music department during a voice lesson. I could not sit at a table alone. Bogie used to lunch at the Lakeside Golf Club, which was directly across the road from the studio.

One afternoon I walked into Howard’s bungalow, and found a small, gray-haired, mustached, and attractive man stretched out on the couch with a book in his hand and a pipe in his mouth. That man was William Faulkner. He was contributing to the screenplay. Howard loved Faulkner – they had known each other a long time, had hunted together. Faulkner never had much money and Howard would always hire him for a movie when he could. He seldom came to the set – he was very shy – he liked it better in Howard’s office.

Howard had a brilliantly creative work method. Each morning when we got to the set, he, Bogie, and I and whoever else might be in the scene, and the script girl woudl sit in a circle in canvas chairs with our names on them and read the scene. Almost unfailingly Howard would bring in additional dialogue for the scenes of sex and innuendo between Bogie and me. After we’d gone over the words several times and changed whatever Bogie or Howard thought should be changed, Howard would ask an electrician for a work light – one light on the set – and we’d go through the scene on the set to see how it felt. Howard said, “Move around – see where it feels most comfortable.” Only after all that had been worked out did he call Sid Hickox and talk about camera set-ups. It is the perfect way for movie actors to work, but of course it takes time.

After about two weeks of shooting I wrote to my mother – she’d read one or two things in newspapers about my not having the first lead opposite Bogart –

Please, darling, don’t worry about what is written in the newspapers concerning first and second leads. You make me so goddamn mad – what the hell difference does it make? As long as when the public sees the picture they know that I’m the one who is playing opposite Bogart. Everything is working out beautifully for me. Howard told Charlie the rushes were sensational. He’s really very thrilled with them. I’m still not used to my face, however. Bogie has been a dream man. We have the most wonderful times together. I’m insane about him. We kid around – he’s always gagging – trying to break me up and is very, very fond of me. So if I were you, I’d thank my lucky stars, as I am doing and not worry about those unimportant things. The only thing that’s important is that I am good in the picture and the public likes me.

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10 Responses to The Books: “By Myself” (Lauren Bacall)

  1. The Books: “By Myself” (Lauren Bacall)

    Farewell, fiction bookshelves! Actually, there are already many fiction books I have bought since I started the excerpts that I didn’t include because I hadn’t read them yet (but now I have) … so the book excerpt thing I do…

  2. Nicola says:

    I have By Myself…and then Some and I LOVE LOVE LOVE it. It’s just one of my favourite reads from any genre. I love the way she writes because you can hear her speaking. It’s such a fantastic book.

  3. george says:


    Would Betty Joan Perske have made it as big as Lauren Bacall? – I wonder. The IMDB mini bio makes no mention of the name change, does Ms. Bacall make mention of it in her book?

    Can’t get enough on Bacall especially the “To Have And Have Not” connection. What a story! As to Bogart, first, the iconic “Casablanca” comes along and defies low expectations. Two years later, everything falls just so and “To Have And Have Not” results – again defying expectations. Ingrid Bergman followed by Lauren Bacall (and the beautiful Dolores Moran). Continuing at two year intervals, “The Big Sleep” and “Key Largo” – talk about lucky charms, Bogie must have cornered the market, the #!*%#!*!!!.
    And Bacall, whatever IT is, she’s got IT.

  4. red says:

    I know she does cover the name-change … I’m not sure how they came up with that particular name – but I do know that “Bacal” was the original and they added another “l”.

    Dolores Moran is totally yummy. I think Big Sleep is the better movie – I just cannot get enough of that picture!!

    But I love To Have and Have Not too.

  5. I was in my mid- to late-20’s in the late 1970’s when my mother gave me this book to read. Bacall was my mother’s generation. She most wanted me to read the chapters in which Bogey was dying, Bacall’s feelings and behaviour at that time.

    My young husband was dying of cancer – she gave me the book so I would have some idea of what experiencing the death of a loved one was like, as I had never been through something like that up til then.

    I have always remembered that book! Thanks for a trip down Memory Lane.

    ~Mad(elyn) in Alabama

  6. deirdre says:

    I’m netflixing the movie right now, and getting the book from the library this afternoon.

    You are a terrific writer and I always love coming to this blog.

  7. red says:

    Deirdre – Oh my gosh, I am so excited when I hear someone HASN’T seen this movie, and are about to encounter it. You are in for such a treat!!

  8. Cara Ellison says:

    I too love this one. She’s tops, she truly is.

  9. The Books: “By Myself and Then Some” (Lauren Bacall)

    Next book on my “entertainment biography” shelf: By Myself and Then Some, by Lauren Bacall This is an expanded and updated version of Lauren Bacall’s first autobiography By Myself (excerpt here). We’ve got more photos (some really great ones), more…

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