Lauren Bacall, Actress and Liberal Icon, 1924-2014

March on Washington: Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart lead a contingent of actors, writers and directors from Hollywood to a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947

Lauren Bacall, who died yesterday just a month shy of her 90th birthday, will rightly be remembered for her A-list acting career and her marriage to movie legend Humphrey Bogart. But Bacall also had a record as a stalwart liberal. As she put it, “I’m a total Democrat. I’m anti-Republican.”

“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.”
– Lauren Bacall

Her performance with Bogart in “To Have and Have Not” catapulted her to stardom overnight in 1944. A few months after the film came out, she made her political debut at an event for World War II service members in Washington, D.C., when she was boosted atop an upright piano and photographed lounging there as then-Vice Pres. Harry Truman played for the crowd.

After the war, Bacall, Bogart, director John Huston and others formed the Committee for the First Amendment in opposition to the Republican Party’s anti-communist witch hunts, which were championed by Hollywood figures like Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney and Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson. In 1947, Bacall and Bogart led a contingent of the organization’s members to Washington in protest of the right-wing pogrom and in support of Hollywood witnesses called by the committee who had refused to testify.

That was just the beginning of Lauren Bacall’s decades-long political activity and support for the Democratic Party. Michael Tomasky pays tribute to Bacall as “deeply liberal and deeply anti-communist” in a eulogy at the Daily Beast:

She was a great liberal. And Bogey, too, in fact. They were, in those days when things like this really mattered, deeply liberal and deeply anti-communist. Which was the right thing to be, after all, because communism is as illiberal as fascism. Bogart reportedly once said: “We’re about as in favor of communism as J. Edgar Hoover.”

This places them in space that is, to me, hallowed: alongside Arthur Schlesinger, whom I had the privilege to get to know a bit before he died; John Kenneth Galbraith, whom I never met but whose eminent sons and biographer (Richard Parker) I know; Reinhold Niebhur, to whom I claim no connection at all. These are heroes—to me, as they should be to any liberal. And Bacall was right there with them.

I know this history mostly because of my dear friend Russ Hemenway, another hero of mine, who knew “Betty” well and who even squired her around New York for a time. Russ, who died just last year, was—with Eleanor Roosevelt, among others—one of the founders of the “reform movement,” the tendency in the 1950s that challenged the dominance in Democratic politics of the old-line political machines that ran New York, Jersey City, and other municipalities. Russ told me, I remember, that he met Bacall during an Adlai Stevenson campaign. She was smart and sharp and knew the score. Bogey died in 1957, right after Stevenson’s second failure; Bacall soldiered on in politics, supporting Russ’s National Committee for an Effective Congress, which worked to elect progressives to Congress, and other organizations.

An important point: She wasn’t a “cause” person. Many Hollywood stars today care about the environment, or gay rights, or animal rights, or what have you. Bacall wasn’t a single cause person. She was a worldview person. That, I think, bespeaks a much deeper commitment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *