The first time I saw her, I watched her walk across the small screen with something akin to jealousy. I was a lumpy and rather frumpy teenager smack dab in the middle of that awkward stage where my body seemed to be growing disproportionally out rather than up. Lauren Bacall slinked around the Manhattan apartment with legs that went up to her slim shoulders. Her hair was a sleek, sophisticated wave and her voice, when she spoke, had a husky, hard edge as if she’d seen it all and wasn’t impressed. She was smart, witty, and very cool.
Her two co-stars in How to Marry a Millionaire were Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable who oozed sex appeal and All American girl next door respectively. I loved the way they played off each other in their characters’ quest for love.
My mother told me Lauren had married Humphrey Bogart in a love match for the ages, but that he’d died leaving her a widow with two children. I couldn’t get my mind wrapped around the image of this cool, classic beauty with a man who looked as if he could hold his own in a bar room brawl. They were a May-Decemeber relationship, her youthful beauty a foil for his aged and hardened maturity. By the time I saw How to Marry A Millionaire when I was twelve, the story was decades old. She’d already remarried, divorced, and was living her life as an aging icon of the glamorous golden age of cinema.
When she died in mid-August, I was an adult with two children who had only recently been introduced to her special brand of magic as they watched the antics of the threee actresses in How to Marry a Millionaire. To be honest, I’d popped the DVD into the player in an attempt to introduce them to the blonde force that is Marilyn, but from the moment Lauren sat at that table writing her check, they were hooked. Most of the jokes went over their heads, but the story, the physical comedy, made them laugh. As the days passed after she died, I thought about her children, her life. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the black-and-white version of our favourite film stars of yesteryear were also flesh and blood. As a single mother like her, I couldn’t help but compare our lives and wonder how difficult it must have been – even with all her resources – to continue as a single parent after watching her beloved spouse die of cancer.
I’d read about her romance with Frank Sinatra, her humiliation after it fell apart, her second marriage Jason Robards and her heartbreak when it ended in divorce. Though her life was as different from mine as it is possible to be, she was still a woman, a single mum who raised three children on her own and in spite of the heartache in her life continued working in the career she loved.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that legends are human, that the dry humour of a screen goddess could mask the struggle and pain she must have been feeling at various points in her life. I gravitate towards strong women, using their example and words to inspire me to continue living my life with strength and optimism. Lauren Bacall was one of those women.