August 20, 2014

Women of Doubt: Lauren Bacall was a Jewish agnostic in the days when "nonbeliever" and "Communist" were one and the same

Last week, we lost two film greats. First, the news hit that Robin Williams had taken his own life, and then Lauren Bacall was reported to have died of a stroke.

There have been many biographies of Bacall over the past week, but I am truly struck by the number that leave out the evidence that she was, in fact, an agnostic.

So this week's Woman of Doubt is Lauren Bacall--the woman that stood in the face of Mccarthyism and never bowed down.

Who was Lauren Bacall?

Bacall was a model turned actress during the Golden Age of Hollywood.1

Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske on September 26, 1924, the only child of Natalie and William Perske, both Jewish. Her mother was a Romanian immigrant and her father was the son of Polish immigrants. Lauren was born in The Bronx, New York.1

Bacall's parents divorced when she was five. She did not see her father and developed a close bond with her mother, whose name she eventually took. When she moved to California, her mother came with her.1

Wealthy uncles paid for Bacall's education at the Highland Manor Boarding School for Girls, in Tarrytown, and Julia Richman High School, in Manhattan.1 Lauren originally wanted to be a dancer, but eventually changed her mind and fell in love with acting.2

Bacall's career began as a teenage fashion model. She made her acting debut in Johnny 2 X 4 on Broadway in 1942.1

Before her acting career took off, she lost her job as a showroom model and had to quit acting school because she could no longer afford to attend. She began working as a Broadway theater usher, leading to her being voted prettiest usher of the 1942 season by George Jean Nathan in "Esquire".2

However, Bacall's modeling career proved to be her stroke of luck, as she broke through in 1943. IMDB explains:
Once out of school, Lauren entered modeling and, because of her beauty, appeared on the cover of Harper's Bazaar, one of the most popular magazines in the US. The wife of famed director Howard Hawks spotted the picture in the publication and arranged with her husband to have Lauren take a screen test. As a result, which was entirely positive, she was given the part of Marie Browning in To Have and Have Not (1944), a thriller opposite the great Humphrey Bogart, when she was just 19 years old."2
After the screen test, Bacall was signed to a seven year contract, making $100 a week.1

It was during the filming of To Have and Have Not that Bacall and Bogart began the relationship that would eventually lead to their marriage.

Her career was strong though the late 40s and into the 50s, but more sporadic afterwards. She was quoted as saying that she had put her marriages before her career, something she did not regret, but that she acknowledged determined the course of those decades.2

Because she had a habit of not accepting roles that she did not personally find interesting, she came to be known as difficult. 1

She staunchly opposed Mccarthyism. During this time period, nonbelief was considered a hallmark of Communism, and so nonbelievers were deeply mistrusted. Still, Bacall came out as an agnostic in a memoir:
Almost no one spoke out about a lack of a belief in God, or liberalism in quite the way Bacall did in an age where free thinking was not widely accepted. She openly admitted that she stopped believing in God at age 8, however, in a memoir she penned, she stated that while she did not consider herself a complete atheist, she did not believe she would ever see her late husband, Humphrey Bogart, again. This seemed to indicate that she did not believe in an afterlife or “heaven” as did nearly all of her contemporaries.
A quote attributed to Bacall reads “I gave up a belief in God, and nothing I have seen in the last thirty-seven years has changed my mind on that point.” Being an agnostic verging on atheist in the 1940s could not have been easy for Lauren Bacall.3
Bacall was a true liberal. Dave Schwartz says in a tribute to her:
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were also dedicated liberal Democrats, and spoke about it openly. In 1995, she told Larry King she was an “Anti-Republican…A liberal. The L-word…being a liberal is the best thing on earth you can be. You are welcoming to everyone when you’re a liberal. You do not have a small mind.”
Bacall died on August 12, 2014, at age 89, of an apparent stroke.

What did Lauren Bacall have to say?

You can see more of Bacall's amazing quotes here. In the meantime, here's two of my favorites.

I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that.

When a woman reaches twenty-six in America, she's on the slide. It's downhill all the way from then on. It doesn't give you a tremendous feeling of confidence and well-being.

What was Lauren Bacall's influence?

Bacall was a noted liberal and agnostic. Schwartz explains:
Lauren Bacall was proud to be a liberal agnostic and unafraid to speak up about her belief system unapologetically.3
Bacall also blazed trails into Hollywood for women:
Bacall was also bold in taking on strong female roles in her films, making her a heroine to many feminists. While she was not considered to be extremely politically active in the women’s movement or otherwise, she blazed new trails for women in film with her strong characters and her blunt way of speaking.3
In short, I wholeheartedly agree with this summary:
Bacall was very much ahead of her time and her death is a loss to the film industry and the world.3


Lauren Bacall was a strong woman, a liberal, and an agnostic, at a time when none of those labels were particularly attractive. She also bore the burden of being Jewish in a world that was--surprisingly, considering the Holocaust had only just occurred--anti-Semitic.

She stood unafraid to speak her mind, staring down the barrel of the height of the Red Scare.

All in all, a true testament to the strength of character that comes from knowing yourself.

I hope her passing into nonexistence was truly quick and painless, and that she knew peace.


1 "Lauren Bacall". Wikipedia. <> August 20, 2014.

2 "Lauren Bacall: Mini-Biography". Internet Movie Database.  <>   August 20, 2014.

3 "Lauren Bacall was agnostic ahead of her time". <>  August 20, 2014.

4 "Lauren Bacall Quotes". Brainy Quotes. <>  August 20, 2014.

You can also view her entire filmography here.

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