Authors: Lauren Bacall
For my children Stephen, Leslie, Sam and in memory of my mother
First and always, to my children, and then to my grandchildren — Bogarts and Robards — next and future generations with abiding love for all
ll I had known of
films was Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. (I was in love with him – alas, was never to meet him.) She was my fifteen-year-old idea of perfection – fine actress, dramatic bravery, doomed tragedy, sardonic wit – all an actress should be, and when I cut school I would sit all day in a movie house sobbing through
The Old Maid
, smoking in the balcony (I paid for a whole package, so I had to finish it). Forbidden at home, of course – getting sick on tobacco, and Sen-Sen to get the stench out of my mouth so as to go undetected by Mother and Uncle Charlie. One morning my uncle came in to kiss me goodbye before leaving for work and said, ‘Have you been smoking?’ Shaking, I replied, ‘Of course not.’ Whereupon he went into the next room to tell my mother he was certain I
smoking – whereupon they both faced me, trembling in my bed. ‘We know you have been, we can smell it on your breath.’ What had happened to Sen-Sen? – it had failed me for the first time. In a flood of tears I confessed – I had, but I would never do it again! ‘Please forgive me – I promise.’ Mother: ‘You’d better not, a girl your age – disgusting – what kind of a girl do you want to become – nice girls of fifteen don’t smoke!’ Oh God – would I survive this humiliation!
Tail between the legs for days afterward – Charlie and Mother sniffing daily, trying to detect the evil weed. My first confrontation with the Sam Spade syndrome. Wouldn’t I ever grow up – be on my own, free to do what I wished? Wouldn’t I ever live alone? The purity of Jewish upbringing – the restrictions that one carries through life being a ‘nice Jewish girl’ – what a burden. But if you were – and I was – you had it drummed into your head from childhood by your mother, grandmother, uncles, that nice Jewish girls didn’t smoke – weren’t fast – nice Jewish girls had character. ‘Don’t chase a boy, ever – if he wants to see you, he’ll call; if not, forget him.’ But what were you to do if your head was filled with dreams of beauty, glamour, romance, accomplishment, and if you were stuck with being tall, ungainly (I didn’t know I was ‘colt-like’ until a critic said I was), with big feet, flat
chested – too young to have finished high school at fifteen, too inexperienced, shy, frightened to know what to do with a boy when I did have a date? If my dream would only come true, then I would know how to behave, then things would fall into place – wouldn’t they?
I wouldn’t always be a wallflower. Already there was one boy who had a fantastic crush on me. I went out with him because there was no one else, and I tried to make him part of my romantic dream. He’d kiss me goodnight. He was sweet to me, he was boring, but he did call – I’d better be nice to him. It was soon Christmas, then New Year’s, and I didn’t want to be alone New Year’s Eve – not when my friends had dates – so I went to a party with him on New Year’s Eve – just sixteen, sweet sixteen – and we danced to ‘Deep Purple’ while I pretended he was Leslie Howard. Pretending started early. What a fantasy world – so much better than the real one. We sat on a sofa in the darkened room, he had his arm around me – he kissed me, I guess – all the kids were doing the same thing – ‘Happy New Year!’ Why wasn’t he Leslie Howard just for that moment I looked at him? It wasn’t good enough, I thought, to have someone crazy about you if you felt nothing. No – it would not do. I couldn’t stand him, couldn’t bear to let him touch me. I should have known right then that it would always be the same – I had to be madly in love or utterly revolted. No happy mediums for me! So I started that year – 1941 – deciding not to see him again. I always made out a list of New Year’s resolutions and that was one of them. I didn’t keep the others, but I did keep that one. No compromises in life for me – I wouldn’t settle – I’d rather not go out, just live with my dreams.
Each time I was in love – this was it. The hunger to belong. Imagination is the highest kite that can fly. When you have nothing but dreams, that’s all you think about, all that matters, all that takes you away from humdrummery – the fact that your mother was working too hard and didn’t have enough in her own life, that your grandmother, loving though she was, wanted you to get a decent job to help your mother, that you didn’t have enough money to do anything you wanted to do, even buy a lousy coat for $17.95. Dreams were better – that was where my hope lay – I’d hang on to them, never let go. They were my own.
It wasn’t that I was deprived – we just had to live on a strict budget. No, it was that everything I fantasized about had nothing to do with
everything I lived. Not a thing! Yet Mother gave me everything – everything she could – more. She was a decent, proud, honorable woman who despite her struggles never lost her sense of humor. She just wanted me to be perfect. She wanted me to have it all, but to know and to learn while the search was on; to realize that there were other things not to lose sight of. She wasn’t proud of having to count the pennies – not resentful – just very private about that and everything else to do with family. Some things are never told to anyone – one protects the family, all skeletons are left in the closet. She had the strongest family feeling of any of her brothers or sisters. She wanted everyone together. She felt that the family finally would never let each other down – outsiders might. She could accept the live-and-let-live theory from any and all but relations.
She was not demonstrative, but I never doubted her love and her total dedication to me. We had happy times – my grandmother cooking, singing me German songs, reading constantly in French, German, Rumanian, Russian, and English. She and Mother spoke Rumanian or German when they didn’t want me to understand. Not too often, but family problems were to be kept from me. Nothing came easy – everything was worked for – but with it all there was laughter. Charlie and Mother led the field in that area. Charlie was rhyme-happy. At any important or semi-important occasion he would write a pertinent rhyme. Everyone in the family had humor. Everyone was educated, they all had professions: two lawyers, one executive secretary, one businessman, one housewife (self-employed). My father was Polish with I think some French. But what I learned, I learned from my mother’s side.
Mother left Rumania by ship – aged somewhere between one and two – with her mother, father, older sister, baby brother. Her father had been in the wheat business, had been wiped out, and had turned over whatever silver and jewelry there was left to a sister for money enough to transport his family to the promised land – the new young world, America. They arrived on Ellis Island and gave their name – Weinstein-Bacal (meaning wineglass in German and Russian). The man must have written down just the first half of the name – too many people from too many countries, too many foreign names – so it was Max and Sophie Weinstein, daughters Renee and Natalie, son Albert. Grandfather Max borrowed enough money from United Hebrew
Charities to go to a place in downtown New York, live in a ghastly apartment, set up a pushcart with all sorts of household goods for sale. ‘Never tell anyone about that, Betty.’ One family fact that Mother always hated – the pushcart. A whispered word. (I found it wonderful – dramatic.) Not like the wheat business. He wanted something better for his family – there were cousins who lived in a place called the Bronx that would be better. The family moved there, bought a candy store, found a small apartment. Grandpa Max did the best he could. Two more children – Charlie and Jack – were born in America. Grandma worked in the candy store, Renee, the eldest, helped after school; Natalie – my mother – was still too young. Grandpa had suffered with a goiter for years and was given much medication for it – heart-weakening medication. One afternoon he went to a movie, came home, lay down for a while, and died. He was fifty-five.
With the small insurance left by him, Grandma made improvements in the candy store and moved to a better apartment. Strong woman. All the children went to work at early ages, with Charlie and Jack going to night school at City College to get their law degrees. My mother worked as a secretary. She met my father, William Perske, who fell madly in love with her and showered her with attention. She was in her early twenties – nice girls were married by then, said Grandma. So, out of a combination of fear of not doing the right thing and fear of him, she consented. He was in medical supplies. After a while she became pregnant. As the nine months came to a close, Mother went to a movie one hot September evening, started to feel the anxious creature within her make her first moves to push her way out, left the movie house, and at about two o’clock in the morning at the Grand Concourse Sanitarium I was born.
From the start, Mother knew the marriage was a mistake – they didn’t get along, her heart never leapt with excitement at the thought, sight, or touch of him. In truth, she didn’t really like him, she was afraid of him, he was insanely jealous, so no more children – she’d do the best she could with what she had. She always did the best she could. She was determined that she would give her daughter all she had never had in the way of opportunity. Her brothers always backed her, helped her. She had strength of character. She would make it somehow – if only to make certain her daughter did. So she sacrificed her personal life. But I was not to be deprived. And I wasn’t.
Since she worked, she used to send me to a warm, jolly cousin of Renee’s husband Bill who had a home in Chichester, New York. There was a swimming hole – she had two daughters there my age – and it got me into the country air. One summer day when I was six years old my mother came to visit. I shall never forget her kneeling beside me with her arms around me, tears rolling down her face, as she told me that she had left my father. There would be a divorce – I would live with her, but of course I would see him regularly. The tears were for me – never for herself. It is one of the few clear pictures I have of my early childhood.
She never tried to turn me against my father. She was too busy going about the business of making a living, paying the rent, feeding and clothing me. But she never thought or behaved like a martyr – not her scene at all. She took me to visit my cousins in Brooklyn, my cousins in Connecticut. I spent a lot of time with Jack’s beautiful Russian wife, Vera, and their babies. The family must remain close, stay together. ‘Your family never lets you down – remember that. When all else is lost, you can always depend on the family.’
She lost track of my father – he stopped his Sunday visits when I was eight. Of course I loved him – I guess I loved him, I was a little girl. I looked forward to those visits. He was my father. He gave me a watch once – not a very good watch. I wore it for a while, then gave it to Mother for safekeeping. The next time I saw him, he asked me where the watch was. ‘I gave it to Mother to keep for me.’ ‘Get it,’ he said. I did – he took it – end of watch.