Lauren Bacall, Political Activist: She Knew How to Whistle... and Speak Her Mind

The Committee for the First Amendment marching Washington in October 1947 - H 2014
AP Images

The Committee for the First Amendment marching Washington in October 1947 - H 2014

Lauren Bacall, one of the last links to Hollywood’s Golden Age, died August 12 at 89 in her Upper West Side apartment, 70 years after shooting to stardom in her first film, Howard HawksTo Have and Have Not, opposite her future husband Humphrey Bogart. Bacall is best remembered for that film (in which she famously provides instructions about how to whistle) and the three others she made with “Bogie”—The Big Sleep, Dark Passage and Key Largo—before his untimely death in 1957. But contemporaries also remember her political activism at a time before it was common for celebrities to involve themselves in such matters.

In 1945, Bacall was part of a famous political photo-op, sitting atop a piano and dangling her legs below as Vice President Harry Truman played a song for servicemen (she later said, “My press agent made me do it”); she and Bogie stumped for 1952 presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, with whom she became very close; and she vocally backed Eugene McCarthy for the White House in 1968 until Bobby Kennedy, whose U.S. Senate run she had championed in 1964, entered the race, at which point she got behind him. But, most famously, in 1947, as the “Red Scare” enveloped America, she and Bogie supported—and then withdrew their support from—the Committee for the First Amendment.

The CFA was a star-studded group of Hollywood liberals who opposed the tactics of J. Parnell Thomas' House Committee on Un-American Activities. HUAC had subpoenaed 43 Hollywood figures who were allegedly Communists to testify about their politics; 19 said they would not cooperate, and 11 of them were called before the committee, facing the possibility of jail time. (One, Bertolt Brecht, ultimately decided to testify and then leave the country, hence the term "the Hollywood 10.") On Oct. 26, 25 CFA members—the Bogarts the most famous—chartered a flight to Washington to sit in on the following day’s hearings, meet with members of Congress and present a petition defending their colleagues’ First Amendment rights. They stopped in major cities along the way to try to rally public support behind their colleagues, and massive crowds greeted them everywhere. “They wanted to see Bogart and Bacall,” says Marsha Hunt, 96, now the trip’s sole survivor.

In December, though, days after the Hollywood studios issued what has come to be known as the "Waldorf Statement," wherein they formally allied themselves with HUAC and against the Hollywood 10, the Bogarts held a press conference in which Bogart called the trip “ill advised, even foolish.” (Bacall concurred.) Then the March Photoplay featured an op-ed by Bogart entitled “I’m No Communist!” According to Hunt, “To hear that from them was really a shocker, and it killed the whole movement.” The Hollyowod 10 were sent to jail, and Hunt, like many others who fell under the veil of suspicion, was blacklisted.

What brought about the Bogarts' reversal? They apparently faced intense pressurefrom, among others, Jack Warner, to whose Warner Bros. they were under contract, and bankers who were to finance an independent production company Bogart was trying to get off the ground with Mark Hellinger and David O. Selznick. Regardless, 67 years later, Hunt still regards their “betrayal” as unforgivable. “We never heard any courageous voices again.” (That is, until Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas—the latter of whom had been brought to the attention of Hollywood by none other than his former acting school classmate Bacall—broke the blacklist in 1960.)

Bacall, in her 1978 autobiography By Myself and Then Some, questioned “whether the trip to Washington ultimately helped anyone,” and mourned that Hollywood is a community which “should be courageous but which is surprisingly timid and easily intimidated.”

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg