The Lauren Bacall obits I’ve seen take only a fleeting glance at her politics. She had the guts and stamina of a classic New York-born Jewish left-liberal. She was not only Bogie’s sultry siren in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, but a kickass fighter, the only child of a divorced, dirt-poor, single immigrant mother. During the 1950s blacklist purges, aimed more at Jews and liberals than at “reds,” when so many in Hollywood ran for cover, Betty Joan Perske Weinstein-Bacal pushed her new husband Humphrey Bogart into establishing the Committee for the First Amendment to damn the blacklist and protect its victims. CFA was a cross-section of the plucky, upstanding Hollywood left: Danny Kaye, John Huston, Bette Davis, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, etc.
Bacall, a mere ingénue just starting out, risked her virgin career to stick her neck out, as did Bogart who wanted to vote Republican until his new Jewish wife corralled him otherwise. Anyone who has seen Bacall in her non-sultry roles, as the rich, destructive lesbian in Young Man With A Horn or the disabled young dowager in Harper or the demanding psychiatrist in Shock Treatment can understand just how fiercely imperious Bacall could be on screen, and in real life, too, if my all-too-brief meeting with her is any evidence.
I was one of her husband Bogie’s agents during the worst of the Hollywood blacklist. The pressure on him and Bacall to recant and retreat was overwhelming, from the government, Warner Brothers studio, his agents and an atmosphere of compromise and informing. (“What’s the point. It’ll blow over.”) You never knew when your best friend might turn and rat on you. Or your union brother—Bogart and Bacall’s Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan was FBI informant “T-10.”
The just-married Bogart, tied hand and foot to a studio bossed by a fanatic blacklister Jack Warner (trying to live down his few “liberal” movies), wasn’t a youngster anymore. He was nearly 50 when he took his brave stand in Washington D.C. In the end, faced by waves of spy mania and a cowardly Truman White House bent on out-witch-hunting the hunters, most of the CFA members resigned. The Hollywood 10's off-putting harangues to HUAC gave the weaker spirits a perfect excuse.
But except for a single article in a national magazine denying he was a Communist (all the big stars like Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield had to write the same “I was a dupe” piece to get J. Edgar Hoover off their backs), Bogart never betrayed his blacklisted or “tainted” friends. In real life, aside from hard drinking, tough-guy Bogie was a rather gentle soul, so I suspect his New York Jewish liberal wife had a lot to do with his political backbone.
The Gestapo wasn’t putting a gun to our heads. (I’d been blacklisted by Columbia Pictures.) But Hollywood is such a small village that bad news travels fast, and it didn’t take more than a word here or there, an unsourced rumor, a hesitation to make the mandatory box-office-dud anti-communist film, before your phone stopped ringing. Many otherwise good people couldn’t stand the idea of being exiled from what they felt to be the only game in town, if not the universe. Not to work in Hollywood was to be condemned to a lonely lower circle of hell.
Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist then, but electrified gossip could kill you. The chief targets were communists (that is, you signed a petition years ago), interracial romances (Sammy Davis Jr. and Kim Novak, shock horror) and homosexuality. It’s no accident that the Rupurt Murdoch of his day, the spreader of career-killing gossip in the magazine Confidential, had been a pornographer and his chief editor a former reporter for the communist Daily Worker. What a crew!
All her life Lauren Bacall stayed a true-blue, New York, left-of-center, liberal Democrat lobbying for Adlai Stevenson and Bobby Kennedy. Or as she proudly boasted in a late interview, “I’m anti-Republican. A liberal. The L-word!”