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Humphrey Bogart: An American legend

By Sigurd Neubauer


He came from America’s semi-aristocracy but has since his ascent to the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom been portrayed as the toughest of the tough. On screen, Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) is not only the alfa-male – who courts and ultimately wins over the beautiful woman – but he has also come to represent the Great American of the twentieth century. 

Bogart’s story is one of trials and tribulations – including the battle against alcoholism and three failed marriages – before becoming the lionized American who we recognize from Casablanca (1942), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Big Sleep (1946), The African Queen (1951), and of course, Sabrina (1954), which is an American Cinderella story.

His road to success was nothing but straight forward. Bogart’s marriage to Lauren Bacall (1924-2014) – his fourth and final – stands out for its intimacy as they became one of the most glamorous couples of the 1950s. We shall discuss the Bogart-Bacall marriage in the second part of our three-part series. 

65 years after his death, many of Bogart’s films remain classics. While Bogart has mostly disappeared from contemporary American culture, he does continue to enjoy some sort of niche following, explains William J. Mann, the author of a newly released biography on Bogart and Bacall. 

Mann, a New York Times best-selling author, has carved out an expertise as one of America’s preeminent experts on Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age,’ which ranges loosely from 1927–1969. He’s the author of The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando (2019); How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood(2010); Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn (2007); Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood (2015); and Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand (2013), among others.

In a wide-ranging interview with Mann, we discuss Bogart the legend versus the man. Mann’s biography, Bogie & Bacall: The Surprising True Story of Hollywood’s Greatest Love Affair (2023), we should point out, is not only a must-read for those interested in learning more about the Great American – and his dazzling love story – but it is equally delightfully written. Mann, who is a clear master of his craft, has just been awarded another book contract but he’s not quite ready to divulge what it will be about. 

Bogart starring as Charlie Alnutt in The African Queen, for which he won an Oscar. Photo credit: Margaret Herrik Library

With The African Queen, Bogart was able to beat back questions about his patriotism. He was a Liberal Democrat in Hollywood during the 'Red Scare' of the 1940s and 1950s

Bogart: the man versus the legend 

“Bogart is now considered by historians and critics as the greatest actor of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He has a widely recognizable and familiar personality and persona,” who can be, the author points out, “the tough guy, the cynic and even evil.” Underneath all of that, Bogart has a heart and humanity — and values, Mann explains.  In the 1940s and 1950s, Bogart created this image – which made him famous – who in turn came to represent a certain version of American masculinity. “He was tough, yet sensitive in his own way but doesn’t want to admit it. He was also street smart.”

He even made himself into a self-made man. “What’s interesting is not who he was at the beginning of his career, but rather that he became the epitome of an American man.” Mann is referring to Bogart’s upbringing as the quintessential WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) from New York City’s Manhattan borough whose father was a physician and mother was a well-known artist. In his book, the author details nonetheless the dysfunctional family dynamics in which Bogart grew up in – where his father was weak and mother all too domineering – before the family eventually disintegrated, and lost all its wealth. Bogart admired his father, but remained estranged from his mother throughout his life, Mann writes.

“When Bogart started his career, he was playing playboys and lovers; he was even compared to Rudolph Valentino (1895 –1926),” who was considered to be a sex-symbol during the roaring 1920s. “It is therefore interesting that from this kind of a persona, Bogart became the standard bearer of a certain type of American masculinity.”

Prior to finding success in acting, Bogart had failed to keep a job. He had even been expelled from a prestigious boarding school, Philips Academy; the Bogart myth omits his early failures, Mann writes. The author excels in his ability to portray Bogart as a historical figure while at the same time describing how many of the Bogart myths originated and how they were propagated by the Hollywood studios.

Bacall was sometimes jealous of Bogart's attention to his boat, Santana, where he was more at home than anywhere else: Mann. Photo credit: Author's collection

Competition with wives  

But Mann’s telling of the early Bogart is also of a man who was struggling to find his footing. His first three wives – Merry Philips (1901-1975), Helen Menken (1901-1966) and Mayo Methot (1904-1951) – also became rivals of sorts as each of them wanted to pursue their respective acting careers as opposed to settling down and supporting Bogart’s.

Bogart’s competition with his wives was driven by how he had experienced his parents’ marriage, which he did not want to emulate. Bogart wanted a wife who would stay home and put his career first. If she would have a career – like his first wife Mary Philips – it would be in conjunction with his. They were married from 1928-1937. Bogart was married to Menken from 1926-1927, and to Methot from 1938-1945. “These dynamics change, of course, once Bogart meets Bacall, but in the beginning this was very much his outlook,” Mann explains. Bogart and Becall were married from 1945 until his death in 1957.

Bogart’s rivalry with his first three wives can be traced to his childhood. “Bogart grew up with a sense of doubt centering on never measuring up as his parents had denied him all affection, which at the time was synonymous with WASP culture where children were not to be coddled as the belief was that it would make them soft,” Mann adds.

Because he never lived up to his parents’ expectations, “Bogart felt throughout his life that he wasn’t that good and that he was even a ‘fraud,’” the author reveals, then quips: “He believed that he would have a little success here and there, but that it would eventually all fall apart.”

These dynamics were channeled through rage and heavy drinking as he was always teetering on self-destruction. In his book, Mann details how Bogart’s father (Belmont DeForest Bogart) became a morphine addict, which in turn forced his wife (Maud Humphrey) to become the de-facto breadwinner. Bogart blamed his mother for his father’s failures – as opposed to recognizing his father’s weaknesses – which forced her to step up, Mann says. “Bogart grew up having happy memories from spending time with his father boating on Canandaigua Lake in upstate New York but had no good memories of his mother.” During Maud’s later years, she moved to Los Angeles where Bogart cared for her but even so they never became close, Mann writes. 

From Mann’s book, it is clear that he’s developed a lot of sympathy for Bogart. “Yes, I have a lot of sympathy for him from what he was going through especially for his feeling that he was never measuring up. That’s a very universal feeling,” the author says. What this means for Bogart, he points out, was that the actor was always looking for ways to succeed and to find ways to make his parents proud of him. 

But, Mann admits, he also does have sympathy for the Bogart wives and especially facing a man “who essentially tells them that their careers do not matter such as mine.” His first three wives all had to deal with it, but each one dealt with it differently, he writes.

Starring as Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle in High Sierra, which helped catapult Bogart to stardom. Photo credit: Margaret Herrik Library

Up until he played in the theater version of The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart had mostly performed playboy sort of roles where he would go up on stage and say, “tennis anyone,” Mann explains while pointing out that Bogart was at the time in his late 30s. “He was losing his hair; smoked and drank too much and lost in the process his ‘juvenile looks.’” With this, Mann posits rhetorically, what was he going to play, the pauses and says: “Bogart was going to go into character plays but got lucky when he was going to play Duke Mantee – who is a notorious gangster fleeing a massive police pursuit – as he was able to bring into it all of the anger, paranoia and resentment to that part.” 

The film is the adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s (1896-1955) play, The Petrified Forest, “where a drifter, a waitress and a notorious gangster cross path in the Petrified Forest region of Arizona. Alan (Leslie Howard), a destitute writer, goes into the diner where Gabrielle (Bette Davis) works. Gabrielle dreams of studying art, and she and Alan connect as they talk about Europe and she tells him her ambitions. But gangster Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) shows up and takes the customers hostage,” according to Rotten Tomatoes.

What Bogart was able to do in the film, Mann explains, was “he took a character who was the embodiment of evil and provided a flicker of humanity to him. Bogart sees something in the Leslie Howard character, something of what life might have been for him in another way. It is very subtle, but it is there,” Mann insists.  “This role made Bogart into a consummate actor he was,” the author adds.

The film celebrates America’s diversity: Mann

Political awakening 

His political awakening came when Bogart starred as Frank Taylor in The Black Legion (1937), a film that captured racist activity in America during the 1930s while the labor movement was growing stronger. “Even though Bogart came from a wealthy background, he was sympathetic to the underdogs as he had never felt accepted by the people of his own class and thus sympathized with those struggling.”

The premise of the film centers on Taylor believing that he “is about to be made foreman of the factory he works in. When the job goes to a Polish-born worker instead, Frank is enraged and decides to join a local organization that persecutes immigrants. Known as the Black Legion, the clandestine hate group uses scare tactics to help Frank get his promotion. However, his involvement with the Legion has dire effects on his marriage and jeopardizes the life of his best friend, Ed (Dick Foran),” according to Rotten Tomatoes

Until this moment, “Bogart wasn’t a very political person. But it was during this time that first began to make donations to labor causes and unions. The Black Legion is a condemnation of ‘the other,’” Mann says. The film is a celebration of America’s diversity, he adds.

At the time, there were two camps within Hollywood. One of them was the America Firsters, who would later oppose the country’s entry into World War II, and then there were those on the left. “Bogart’s friends tended to be on the left, including John Huston (1906-1987), but he also had Republican and conservative friends,” the author explains.

Jack Warner (1892 –1978), the founder of the Warner Brothers studio, who was also a staunch Republican, had also been fearful of the rise of Nazi-Germany. Warner, along with other studio bosses, faced a dilemma between making political films – which the studios tried to avoid – but they also saw what was happening in Europe. “For some of the movie executives, they sensed an obligation towards informing the public about what was happening, at least once in a while. It took a lot of courage on Warner’s part to green light a film like The Black Legion as there were many people who were offended and outraged by it.” 

Bogart and Becall, along with colleagues, traveled to Washington at the height of the second 'Red Scare.' Photo credit: Author's collection
In 1947, Bogart and Bacall took a courageous, if professionally risky, trip to Washington, D.C. leading a group of fellow actors, writers, and directors in opposition to the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee: Mann 

William J. Mann

Mann’s passion for classical Hollywood started when he was a child.  “I couldn’t get enough of the classics,” the author recalls, adding that he would stay up late to watch movies. “I remember watching Test Pilot (1938) starring Clark Gable (1901-1960), Myrna Loy (1905 –1993), and Spencer Tracy (1900-1967),and loving it. The next morning, I even spoke to my father about it; he had watched it as a child.” 

The author was drawn to the early films as it quickly became a passion of his. During his college years at Central Connecticut State University, where he studied history, he became interested in the history of Hollywood as he sought to better understand who had made the films that he loved; and under what conditions did they come about. For his Master’s at Wesleyan University, Mann studied film and history. 

Following his studies, Mann began writing about Hollywood for Architectural Digest. But it was Mann’s book on Hepburn (1929-1993), which led to his professional breakthrough as it gained significant traction. “Since then, film history has become my niche. I didn’t go out searching for it,” he explains but relishes in the fact that he gets to write about something that he loves and is passionate about. “I am very fortunate,” he says. 

Mann is a celebrated scholar specializing in Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age.’ Photo credit: T. D. Huber

The Bogart family

The Bogart family, which is comprised of his two children with Bacall – Stephen Humphrey Bogart and Leslie Howard Bogart – both declined to be interviewed for the book although they were supportive of the project. “They have talked about their parents their entire lives and felt that they didn’t have anything to add, which I respect,” Mann reveals. The author also points out that Stephen H. Bogart wrote a biography of his parents; Bogart: In search of my father (1995).

Responding to what sets Mann’s biography apart from that written by Bogart the son, the author explains that Bogart’s book is more about a personal memoir whereas his takes a historical perspective on the Hollywood power couple. “My focus is on what made them starts; and what kept them together; including how their work has held up; and the social and political aspects of their lives.” Mann also wanted to understand the legend, Bogart that is, and the truth behind it. The author has done an excellent job in dissecting fact from fiction.

Bogie & Bacall: The Surprising True Story of Hollywood’s Greatest Love Affair (HarperCollins, 2023. It has 656 pages)

Overnight stardom and a legend is born: Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not. Photo credit: Author's collection
While the Bogart family provided Mann with additional photos and encouraged him with his book project, they declined to be interviewed for it
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