The love story of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall has gone down as one of the most improbable in Hollywood lore. In 1942, when the film Casablanca hit theaters, a 17-year-old model and her friend went to see it. Her friend thought that the guy playing the lead, Rick, was sexy, while the model thought her friend was crazy. The model was Betty Joan Perske, a Bronx-born beauty who would become famous as the actress Lauren Bacall.
Two years later, Lauren Bacall’s modeling career was in high gear and she appeared on the cover of Esquire. The wife of director Howard Hawks, who was planning to film an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, spotted her and suggested she’d be great in the movie. Hawks gave a screen test to Bacall and cast her in his new movie.
Bacall was surprised when she heard that she was going to star in a film with that same un-sexy man she had seen at the cinema with her friend. Meanwhile, Bogart was unhappily married to his third wife, the actress Mayo Methot. Constant paranoid arguments fueled by heavy drinking destroyed their marriage, with the press labeling the couple “the Battling Bogarts.” When Bogart met Bacall on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944, she was only 19 years old and he was 25 years her senior.
Nevertheless, neither the huge age difference nor his marital status discouraged a chemistry from springing up between them. Despite her nervousness, Bacall gave an incinerating performance, made famous by the sexiness of her character and the famous line she delivers to Bogart: “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.”
Bogart was instantly dazzled by the sultry Bacall and couldn’t hold back his feelings for too long. Although she wasn’t very interested in him at first and only saw him as a “nice, friendly man,” her opinion changed one day when he kissed her on the set and openly expressed his feelings. He invited her to dinner, and she wrote her phone number on a matchbox, which he kept as a memento.
They became so infatuated with each other that they would often sneak off the set just to hold hands or kiss in a car. In 1945, after his divorce, the couple married in a small ceremony in Ohio despite many people trying to talk Bacall out of it. Bacall’s mother was strongly against her daughter being married to “an elderly alcoholic,” while Hawks energetically warned her about Bogart’s womanizing, promising her she would end up abandoned pretty soon. Nobody believed in the strength of theirs.
Much later, Bacall said, “Just looking at him could make me tremble. When he took my hand in his, the feeling caught me in the pit of my stomach — his hand was warm, protecting, and full of love. When he saw me at the beginning of the day and when he called me on the telephone, his first words were always, ‘Hello, Baby.’ ” She added that “I was a complete virgin when I met him. He was my mentor, my teacher and the love of my life. I remember every word he ever said to me.”
Bogart shared the intensity of her feelings, expressing them in one of his many love letters: “I never believed that I could love anyone again…you are my last love and all the rest of my life I shall love you and watch you and be ready to help you.” He told friends that this was the only marriage that brought him happiness.
They kept their onscreen chemistry smoldering in four additional films. In 1946 they featured together in The Big Sleep and Two Guys from Milwaukee, followed by Dark Passage in 1947 and Key Largo in 1948.
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The couple had two children. Their enduring romance lasted for 12 years until Bogart’s death in 1957, caused by cancer. Despite the inevitable problems in the marriage, they never ceased to care deeply about each other. Bacall, who died in 2014, kept and cherished the memory of her first husband. She said “No one has ever written a romance better than we lived it.”