The lie goes that Humphrey Bogart’s last words were, “I should never have switched from scotch to martinis”. As much as noir fans might wish it were so, the truth is far less glib and, in fact, a perfectly weighted blend of prose and poetry. Suffering from advanced oesophageal cancer in 1957, Bogart’s final utterance was addressed to his wife, Lauren Bacall: “See you, kid. Hurry back.”
The reality was more mundane than its subsequent mythology — she was dashing away from the hospital to pick up their children — but, having acquired the patina of legend, it might as well have come from the rye-soaked pen of Hammett or Chandler.
Every detail of Bogart and Bacall’s relationship appeared leeched from one of the Hollywood films in which they starred, often together. They seemed powerless to put the brakes on their entwined destinies when they met on the set of To Have And Have Not in 1943. She was a 19-year-old Jewish girl who had just changed her name from Betty Perske, and still lived at home. He was 44, married to the actress Mayo Methot, and struggling his way through a relationship so volatile that they became known as the ‘Battling Bogarts’. (They even had a carpenter permanently on call to repair the damage they caused to their home during frequent drunken stoushes; she once stabbed him with a kitchen knife, and on another occasion she pulled a pistol on him during a dinner party.)
"The lines between fiction and the real world blurred even further when they retained their character names as terms of affection long after shooting had wrapped. She called him Steve; he called her Slim."
To put Bogart and Bacall’s age difference into contemporary terms, picture Ben Affleck hooking up with Lorde. Even in an era in which wily older males bedding supplicant younger starlets was as much a Hollywood cliché as some corn-fed kid from Oregon being killed storming a beach in Normandy, the Bogart-Bacall affair scandalised Tinseltown.
Better still, every moment of the burgeoning chemistry had been captured on film. At the beginning of To Have And Have Not, and in a voice huskier than the Iditarod, Bacall reaches for a cigarette and asks, “Anybody got a match?” Bogart obliges, seemingly aware of every incendiary connotation of the word. The film was turgid with barely concealed innuendo, the couple’s chemistry palpable. Its apotheosis came with six perfectly delivered lines from Bacall that may well have been a précis of the years to come: “You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow.” The lines between fiction and the real world blurred even further when they retained their character names as terms of affection long after shooting had wrapped. She called him Steve; he called her Slim.
A year before, Bogart had cemented his place in the celluloid firmament as Rick Blaine in Casablanca. His hard-drinking, smoothly cynical, immaculately tailored on-screen persona became indistinguishable from his public perception. He may as well have spat bullets and pissed bourbon. But the teenage Bacall saw something different. Although she bristled when his shadow fell across interviews decades later — Bacall famously told Michael Parkinson that “being a widow is not a profession” when he dared to bring up her late husband — she described their initial coupling as “the headiest romance imaginable”.