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Lauren Bacall Was a Liberal Idol in a Rabidly Anti-Communist Hollywood

Victor Drees/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the Lauren Bacall obits I’ve seen, there’s only fleeting glance at her politics. She had the guts and stamina of a classic New York-born Jewish left-liberal. So remember her not only as Humphrey Bogart's sultry siren in  To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, but also as a kickass fighter, the only child of a divorced, dirt-poor single immigrant mother. During Hollywood's 1950s blacklist purges, when studios denied work to alleged Communist sympathizers and so many in show business ran for cover, Betty Joan Perske Weinstein-Bacal (as Lauren was originally known), pushed her new husband, Bogart, into establishing the Committee for the First Amendment to denounce the blacklist and protect its victims (who were more Jews and liberals than “reds”).  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 young career to stick her neck out, as did Bogart, who wanted to vote Republican until Bacall persuaded 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.

I was one of her husband Bogie’s agents during the worst of the Hollywood blacklist. (In fact, I'd been blacklisted by Columbia Pictures myself.) The pressure on him and Bacall to recant and retreat was overwhelming—from the government, Warner Brothers studio, and his agents. Hollywood was overrun with conformists—“What’s the point. It’ll blow over," they would say—and informants. 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 young man any more—nearly 50—when he took his brave stand in Washington D.C. by leading a delegation of A-list stars to denounce the House Un-American Activities Committee.  His and Bacall's picture was all over the national press, which later was used in "evidence" against them. In the end, faced by waves of spy mania and a cowardly Truman White House bent on out-witchhunting the witchhunters, most of the CFA members resigned. The offputting harangues by the "unfriendly witnesses" of the so-called Hollywood Ten, Communist and ex-Communist screenwriters and directors subpoened by 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, the tough-guy Bogie was a rather gentle soul, and I suspect his wife had a lot to do with his political backbone.

The Gestapo wasn’t putting a gun to our heads. 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 tweet didn’t exist then, but electrified gossip could kill you. The chief targets were “reds” (that is, you signed a petition years ago), interracial romances (Sammy Davis Jr. and Kim Novak, shock horror) and gay men and women. It’s no accident that Robert Harrison, the Rupert 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!

For the whole of her life Lauren Bacall stayed a true-blue New York left-of-center liberal Democrat, lobbying later on for Adlai Stevenson and Bobby Kennedy. Or as she proudly boasted in a late interview, “I’m anti-Republican. A liberal. The L-word!”