Lauren Bacall after the last ever haute couture show of French designer Yves Saint Laurent on January 22, 2002 in Paris. (JEAN-PIERRE MULLER/AFP/GettyImages)
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Fabulous, Formidable Lauren Bacall Dies at 89

The captivating queen of Old Hollywood was a Jewish girl from Brooklyn

Rachel Shukert
August 13, 2014
Lauren Bacall after the last ever haute couture show of French designer Yves Saint Laurent on January 22, 2002 in Paris. (JEAN-PIERRE MULLER/AFP/GettyImages)

Okay, when I wrote yesterday how I feel like all I ever write anymore is obituaries, I was kidding. Apparently, someone didn’t get the joke, because less than an hour after those very words were published, it was announced that the legendary actress Lauren Bacall passed away at the (blessedly) ripe old age of 89. I was devastated, naturally, and immediately called my friend Michael.

“Oh my God,” I shrieked, before he had even said as much as hello. “Do you remember that time we went to Joel Grey’s book party and Lauren Bacall was there and that publicist came up to us and was like, look, whatever you do, do not attempt to speak to, or touch, Miss Bacall.”

“Of course,” he said, “and I really hope you still have that picture on your phone that you took from all the way across the room.” He sighed sadly. “All the fabulous old ladies are gone now.”

Lauren Bacall was not always old, but from the moment she sauntered across the nation’s screen in To Have and Have Not, playing opposite Humphrey Bogart, her future husband and the man with whom she would be forever identified, she was fabulous. All of 19 years old and what my grandfather always called, “a mean 19,” she appeared to us fully formed, a gloriously youthful creature who was already entirely herself.

It was only later, through interviews and her excellent memoir By Myself, (which should really be a Tablet-designated essential work of Jewish literature, if it isn’t already) that her public was to learn how so much of her brassily confident persona was the result of fear: her husky voice the result of attempts to correct her nasal Brooklyn accent, her trademark look—chin tilted down, looking up sultrily through her eyelashes—was the result of a deep anxiety; of Bogie, her much older and more experienced co-star, of Howard Hawks, the notoriously anti-Semitic director who discovered her, putting two-and-two together and figuring out his favorite new leading lady was one of the Jews he was always railing about it.

And it worked. The nervous girl who was faking it until she made it blossomed into a great star, and finally, a formidable grande dame of New York society, ensconced on her throne at the Dakota, her dry wit and feline beauty still amazingly intact until the end. She was tough, she was exacting, she was tremendous. So what if you couldn’t touch her? After all, you don’t try to pet a lion.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.