Humphrey Bogart has been hailed as one of the finest American actors to ever grace the silver screen, but success didn’t come easily to the New York City native. He didn’t hit the big time until well into middle age, with three failed marriages and a personal life that was in tatters. Golden Age Hollywood was reluctant to make a leading man of the sailor with a scarred mouth.
Although many are familiar with his work, few know how Bogart rose up through the ranks to achieve stardom and what obstacles he faced. Join us as we take a look at the life of Humphrey Bogart, an icon of American cinema. Here’s looking at you, Kid.
He Was A Christmas Baby
Humphrey DeForest Bogart was the eldest child of Belmont DeForest Bogart and his wife, Maud Humphrey. The precise date of the actor’s birth would be questioned for years.
While Warner Bros listed his birthday as Christmas Day 1899, historian Clifford McCarty speculated that this was changed from January 23rd, 1900, “To foster the view that a man born on Christmas Day couldn’t really be as villainous as he appeared to be on screen.” His wife, Lauran Bacall, stated in her biography that Bogart celebrated his birthday on December 25, and the federal census records also confirm a Christmas 1899 birthday.
His Mother Was A Picture-Perfect Suffragette
Humphrey came from good stock. His father was a successful cardiopulmonary surgeon, but it’s his mother who he had to thank for his creative genes.
Maud Bogart was a commercial illustrator, having received art training in both New York and France. She went on to become the art director of the fashion magazine The Delineator, as well as a militant suffragette, supporting the movement for equal rights. At her peak, Maud brought home $50,000, over $30,000 more than her husband. The star later described both of his parents as unsentimental, but straightforward. “A kiss in our family was an event,” he said.
Prestigious Schooling, Sullen Student
Humphrey had the advantages that came with an Upper West Side childhood and well-to-do parents. He went to private school until fifth grade, moving on to attend the prestigious Trinity School in New York, before moving on to Phillips Academy, an elite boarding school.
While his parents hoped for their son to attend Yale, Humphrey wasn’t the least bit interested in academia. He was indifferent, moody, and was eventually expelled, supposedly for throwing either the headmaster or groundskeeper into a campus pond. Other sources state the expulsion was for raucous behavior, like smoking and drinking. With no clear future ahead, there was only one thing Humphrey could think of doing.
“Sexy French girls! Hot Damn!”
His parents didn’t know what to do with him, and with no career prospects, Bogart decided to head for the seas, enlisting in the United States Navy when he was 18. To him, it wasn’t war. It was a holiday camp that paid.
“At eighteen, the war was great stuff,” said Bogart. “Paris! Sexy French girls! Hot damn!” According to records, Humphrey made a much better seaman than a student and is described as a “model” sailor. Some believe that his trademark voice and scar were a product of his service, having been hit by shrapnel during a shelling. Others, including Bogart’s long-time friend Nathanial Benchley, maintain that he was injured when taking a prisoner to jail. Either way, it would shape his career.
From Model Sailor to Struggling Stage Star
When Bogart returned home from his duty, his father was sick and most of the family fortune was gone. He worked as a shipper and a bonds salesmen before landing a job at William A. Brady Sr.’s company, World Films.
Humphrey tried his hand at almost every aspect of filmmaking but found a talent for none. That was until he made his debut as a Japanese butler in the 1921 play, Drifting. Although he had been raised to think that acting was beneath his status, Bogart found that the late hours and attention suited him. “I was born to be indolent and this was the softest of rackets,” he later stated. Over the next few years, he would perform in several plays, where he would soon find his first real leading lady.
Short Marriage, Lasting Friendship
While playing double roles in Drifting at the Playhouse Theatre in 1922, Bogart happened to meet the young actress Helen Menken. Menken and Bogart soon struck up a relationship and made it official in May 1926, tying the knot at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City.
The marriage lasted less than two years, with Menken telling court officials that her husband valued his career more than her, and she felt neglected. Although the two parted ways, they remained friends for many years. Six months after the divorce was finalized, Bogart married Mary Phillips, an actress much better known than he was at the time. This marriage would last ten years, but would also fall victim to Bogart’s ambition.
From New York to Hollywood and Spencer Tracy
The stock market crash of 1929 meant that a lot of stage productions ground to a halt. Out of work actors were now beyond penniless and many camera-worthy faces headed to Hollywood to seek their fortune. Humphrey did just the same.
The young actor landed on his feet when Fox Film signed him for $750 a week. It was there that he met Spencer Tracy, another serious actor. Humphrey was enamored with him, inspired by his approach to acting. The two soon became fast friends, with Tracy coining the nickname “Bogie.” They would star together in one of the first movies to feature sound, Up the River. While the money was pleasing, Bogart was far from satisfied.
The Petrified Forest
After work dried up in Hollywood, Bogart, now in his mid-thirties, landed a role as escaped murder Duke Mantee in Robert E. Sherwood’s play, The Petrified Forest. The play was a hit, completing 197 performances in New York in 1935.
Bogart’s performance marked his leap from the “smoothies” he used to play to serious, gritty parts. Critics praised his performance, as did his co-star Leslie Howard. When Warner Bros bought the screen rights, Howard was cast and insisted that Humphrey star with him. Warner Bros had other plans and tried to cast Edward G. Robinson, but when Howard said “No Bogart, no deal,” they relented. The movie was a box office smash and made Humphrey Bogart a household name.
A Favor Remembered
Bogart knew that he owed his career to Leslie Howard. If Leslie hadn’t have insisted on him being cast alongside him in The Petrified Forest, then it’s unlikely that he would’ve had the chance of another big break.
In 1942 Howard was traveling from Portugal to Bristol, UK, when the aircraft he was in was shot down by the Germans. He was one among 17 fatalities. Some speculate that the Germans believed Prime Minister Winston Churchill was on the flight and that’s why they targeted it. In fact, Churchill traveled along a similar route the following day. Bogart paid homage to his friend by naming his only daughter Leslie Howard Bogart in 1952.
B Movies And Warner Bros Woes
Although The Petrified Forest had catapulted Bogart from obscurity, he still struggled. Now tied into a contract with Warner that paid $550 per week, he was typecast as a gangster in a slew of B movie dramas.
This was during a time when studios held all the cards, and actors were told what parts they had. If they refused, they could be suspended without pay. Bogart was grateful for his success but didn’t like his new-found role of the gangster. “Nobody likes me on sight,” he once said. “I suppose that’s why I’m cast as the heavy.” Between 1936 and 1940 he was kept on a tight schedule, churning out a movie every two months.
Madness In His Methot
While Bogart was making movies, it wasn’t as he had imagined it. With no freedom, poor pay, and at loggerheads with studio chief Jack Warner, he was drinking more than ever. He wanted his wife Mary to join him in Hollywood, but she refused, still performing in hit plays in NYC. The pair divorced in 1937, and Bogart married for the third time in 1938.
Mayo Methot was a friendly woman when sober, but a notorious drunk. She was paranoid, and as the pair continued to argue her drinking got worse and her behavior more erratic. Methot stabbed Bogart with a knife, set their house on fire and even slashed her wrists on multiple occasions. He was no angel either, often goading her. Julius Epstein described their marriage as “the sequel to the Civil War.”
Here’s Looking At You, Kid
The 1940s marked a great change for Bogart. In 1941 he starred in High Sierra, a movie written by his friend John Huston. Although he still played a gangster, the character had more substance and it paved the way for Bogart to be considered a serious star.
In 1942, he landed his first romantic lead role in the classic movie Casablanca, alongside Ingrid Bergman. One of the most famous lines in the movie, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” wasn’t scripted. Bogart improvised it. The simple line became one a pop-culture staple and was ranked the fifth best line in American cinema by the American Film Institute.
Methot’s Nightmare, Lauren Bacall
Over the course of their tumultuous marriage, Mayo Methot had always worried about her husband’s fidelity. It seemed impossible to her that a man in his position wouldn’t take advantage of the plethora of beautiful women around him. Her insecurity was at first unfounded. Then Humphrey met 19-year-old Lauren Bacall.
Bacall was blonde, tall, striking, and the two had instant chemistry. Despite the 25-year age gap, Bogart couldn’t resist her cheekbones and green eyes, while Bacall was infatuated with the handsome older actor. Still new to the industry, Bacall gratefully took the help offered to her by Bogart, who nicknamed her “Baby.” They began a discreet affair, sending each other love letters. The romance almost cost Lauren her career.
All’s Fair in Love and Movies
Not everyone approved of the affair. Director Howard Hawks was very protective of Lauren. He considered her his project, a young actress that he would guide through Hollywood. Of course, he was hopelessly in love with her too.
He told Bacall that she meant nothing to Bogart, even threatening to send her to Monogram, the worst studio in Hollywood, if she didn’t end the affair. Lauren was devastated and Humphrey was enraged. Jack Warner eventually stepped in to settle the dispute, but Hawks would remain bitter about it. He would later say, “Bogie fell in love with the character she played, so she had to keep playing it the rest of her life.” Everything was against the couple, but they couldn’t let each other go. The studio saw an opportunity.
The One That Stuck
Shortly after wrapping To Have And Have Not, the studio capitalized on the chemistry between Bacall and Bogart and billed them together for The Big Sleep. Filming was intense and the script was filled with sexual innuendo – by now the affair was tabloid fodder and Jack Warner wanted to milk it for all it was worth.
Bogart was in love with Bacall but torn between staying loyal to Methot. He had reservations about the age difference between them and was concerned that Lauren would leave him if he married her. “I’m afraid that you’ll become impatient and that I’ll lose you,” he wrote in a love letter to Bacall. “But even if that happened, I wouldn’t stop loving you.” In February 1945 he finally filed for divorce, and in May he married Bacall. “No one has ever written a romance better than we lived,” Bacall wrote in her memoir. Little did the pair know how short their time together would be.
The Demon Drink
Bogie had always liked to drink. In his younger days, he preferred scotch but later switched to a martini. Many of his best friends, including Spencer Tracy, became his close confidants through late-night drinking sessions. Someone once said, “Bogart’s a helluva nice guy until around 11.30pm. Then he thinks he’s Bogart.”
His behavior, much like his ex-wife Methot’s, could become aggressive and abusive, and it began to affect his work. He once showed up in his pajamas and refused to work, instead riding a bicycle around the Warner Bros lot. During the filming of Sahara, he supposedly refused to leave his dressing room until he was given a thermos of martini. When asked if he had ever been on the wagon, Bogart replied, “Just once. It was the most miserable afternoon of my life.”
Bogart the Family Man
Although Bogart was 48 years old by the time Bacall became pregnant at 25, he didn’t feel ready to be a father. The couple had been trying for children for three years, so when they finally conceived Humphrey was shocked. Bacall would later say that the day she told her husband she was pregnant was plagued by one of the worst shouting matches they had ever had.
In a letter he wrote to her the following day, he explained he was terrified of being an awful father. Their son, Steve, was born in 1949. They named him after Bogart’s character in To Have And Have Not, the movie that brought them together. The actor wasn’t exactly a natural father, but according to Steve, he tried. “Once I got to a point where I could talk and walk, he was becoming a family man. He didn’t want his children to take anything away from his relationship with his wife. He liked being married.”
Santana Productions and Freedom From Warner
By the late 40s, Bogart was one of the biggest names in Hollywood. He now had a contract that gave him rights to refuse a script, albeit in a limited capacity. The success of Casablanca a few years prior had opened doors hitherto closed to him and he was subsequently offered a more diverse selection of roles.
In 1948, he went out on a limb and opened up his own production company Santana Productions, named after his yacht. Jack Warner was furious and worried that other big names would follow suit, diminishing power from his studio. Bogart did his last film for Warner in 1951. The early 50s saw him make a number of films through his own company, although most were flops. He sold his share in Santana to Columbia Pictures for $1 million in 1955.
The Rat Pack
Few people realize that it was Lauren Bacall who coined the term “Rat Pack.” In the spring of 1955, her husband, by now showing the effects of years of alcohol abuse and smoking, was shooting the breeze with Frank Sinatra following a party in Las Vegas. Looking at the wreckage, she declared, “You look like a goddamn rat pack.” It stuck.
Bogart and Sinatra were firm friends, and it’s rumored that Lauren and Frank had a discreet affair. Bogart had his own mistress, having resumed a romance with his long-standing hairdresser. However, the couple remained happy and together, raising their two children. Bogart had great plans for new films, but his health was rapidly deteriorating. After persistent nagging from Bacall, he finally went to the doctor.
Tests discovered that Bogart had cancer and required immediate surgery to remove a large part of his esophagus. His doctors were initially hopeful, telling the star that he would have to take time off to recuperate. Unfortunately, it soon became evident that Humphrey was not getting better.
Friends and family visited him over the course of the next year and left shocked at the frail man they saw. Years of abusing his body had caught up with him, and he died in January 1957, aged 57. He left behind his two young children and a devastated Bacall. In an interview, close friend Katherine Hepburn recalled visiting Bogart with her partner, Spencer Tracy the day before he died. “Spence patted him on the shoulder and said, ‘Goodnight, Bogie.’ Bogie turned his eyes to Spence very quietly and with a sweet smile covered Spence’s hand with his own and said, ‘Goodbye, Spence.’”