Lauren Bacall died Tuesday at 89, the end of life as a prominent film star from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Onscreen, she was known for her husky voice and “The Look.” Offscreen, however, Bacall spent decades in political advocacy””and it all began with a congressional confrontation.
In October 1947, Bacall and her husband, Humphrey Bogart, touched down at National Airport in Washington to protest investigations of Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The “first grown-up exposure to a cause,” according to Bacall in her memoirs By Myself, would touch off a lifetime of political activism for the Democratic Party.
The duo””along with a bevy of other actors including Danny Kaye and John Garfield””were headed to Capitol Hill the next day to attend a HUAC hearing with testimonies from 10 film producers, directors, and screenwriters.
She was very serious about her participation in what she described as a “crusade.” Although Bogart felt strongly about HUAC’s investigation, too, it was Bacall’s passion that persuaded him to go with her to Washington. Bacall was exhilarated by standing up for what she believed in.
The actors put their careers on the line with the hope that they could turn around the negative press the committee’s investigation thrust upon Hollywood and make a stand against the panel’s tactics.
But their actions ultimately made little impact, even putting the group on the defensive.
The actors represented the newly formed Committee for the First Amendment””a “nonpolitical group” of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars “campaigning only for honesty, fairness, and the accepted rights of an American Citizen.”
The group wasn’t defending communism, said Bacall, it was about the HUAC’s methods.
HUAC was investigating private citizens for communist sympathies across the country, but Hollywood was under particularly intense scrutiny because of its liberal leanings and the fear that films could be used as communist propaganda.
Many in the film industry stayed mum on the issue to keep their names off the career-ending Hollywood Blacklist. “It suddenly became risky, even dangerous, to be a Democrat,” Bacall writes in her memoirs. “It was a disturbing and frightening period in Hollywood.”
During a national broadcast sponsored by the committee called “Hollywood Fights Back,” Bacall’s deep voice was unmistakable: “This is Lauren Bacall. Have you seen Crossfire yet? “¦ The American people have awarded it four stars. The Un-American Committee gave the man who made it a subpoena.”
But people were more interested in the stars autographs than in their political views. They did not get a meeting with President Truman or participate in the hearing. Instead, they listened intently from the sidelines of a House caucus room as the “Hollywood Ten” were grilled by lawmakers about their political allegiances.
The filmmakers under investigation refused to answer questions and denounced the HUAC’s investigations. Their defiance ended their careers in Hollywood and landed them in jail for contempt of Congress.
Even Bacall and the other stars weren’t untouchable. During a press conference after the hearing, the movie stars flown in from Hollywood were put on the defensive by reporters, dodging questions about the political sympathies of their colleagues under investigation, of which they knew nothing.
Communist accusations eventually compelled Bogart to recant his involvement in the Committee for the First Amendment, writing an editorial titled, “I’m No Communist.”
“We left Washington still caring much,” Bacall recalled in her memoirs. “but a bit with the wind taken out of our sails.”
But the experience the beginning of Bacall’s life as an outspoken liberal.
“When I left the House Office Building I couldn’t help but feel that every American who cares anything at all about preserving American ideals should witness part of this investigation,” Bacall wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Daily News. “It starts with [Hollywood], but I’m sorry to say I don’t think it will end with us.”