Today Lauren Bacall is well known as the sultry Hollywood starlet with the husky voice and piercing gaze. In New York City in the early 1940s, however, she was just Betty, another aspiring actress. She was earning a living as a part-time model when Nicolas de Gunzburg arranged for her to meet Diana Vreeland at Harper’s Bazaar — a moment Bacall describes as “the twist of fate that changed my life forever.”

A mere teenager, she was nothing if not intimidated. In her autobiography, she writes that the fashion editor “stood up, shook my hand, looked at my face — with her hand under my chin turned it to the right and to the left… I was scared to death… I hadn’t a clue what Mrs. Vreeland’s reaction to me had been.” At that time, the popular models were curvy and voluptuous; Bacall was skinny and flat-chested. In typical Vreeland fashion, she ignored the trends of the day, seeing in Bacall something that nobody else did — yet. Mrs. Vreeland began booking her for interior fashion stories, simple sittings at first, and then more glamorous location shoots, primarily photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe.

It wasn’t long before Mrs. Vreeland put her on the cover, altering not only the course of Bacall’s life and career, but impacting the history of American cinema. For the March 1943 cover of Harper’s, Bacall leans against the wall of the Red Cross office, lanky and insolent, staring directly at the camera. A bidding war of sorts followed publication of the iconic image, with Hollywood directors and studios clamoring to sign the young beauty. Ultimately it would be legendary director Howard Hawks who would win out. Like Mrs. Vreeland, he glimpsed in Bacall a certain modern attitude he had been searching for and immediately put her under contract. In 1944 she made her silver screen debut in To Have and Have Not, starring Humphrey Bogart, who would shortly thereafter become her husband. Bacall rose to the top of the Hollywood heap, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Photograph by: Louise Dahl-Wolfe, March 1943 


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