My Mom and Lauren Bacall—by Peter Eisenstadt

My Mom and Lauren Bacall
Peter Eisenstadt

My mom loved Lauren Bacall. Perhaps that is not the right word. My mom was Lauren Bacall. You have to understand that my late mother, Betty Eisenstadt (nee Cooperstein) was not the sort of woman who spent her time pouring over movie magazines or gazing at Hollywood stars. She was a serious young woman. But the similarities were too strong and striking to be ignored.

They were both Bettys. Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske. (My mom was actually born Bessie Cooperstein, but when she was a teenager her sisters told her that Bessie was a name for a cow, not a young woman, and she became Betty.) They were about the same age—Bacall was two years older than my mom. They both were native New Yorkers who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, or really, in Yorkville, when it still was one of the largest German communities in the city. (My mom remembered her and her girlfriends trying to disturb assemblies of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund by throwing paper bags of horse manure into meetings.) They both attended the same high school, Julia Richman, a “commercial school” that tracked many bright young women, like my mom and Lauren Bacall, away from a college prep, academic track. And perhaps most important, they both were Jews, daughters of immigrants, members of the first large cohort of Eastern European Jews born in the United States.

Lauren Bacall had a somewhat unusual career. Despite seventy years in the biz, and a glittering resume of accomplishment, she is destined to be best-remembered for her first films, the one’s with her future husband, Humphrey Bogart, especially the wartime drama “To Have and Have Not” (1944) and the detective thriller, “ The Big Sleep” (1946.) She was a unique presence; a low-voice contralto among sopranos invariably described as “sultry,” confident, insolent, mysterious, a sex symbol with a touch of androgyny, perhaps in that way like older stars such as Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, but unmistakably American.

And in many ways, also unmistakably Jewish. They were a part of a Jewish generation, my mom and Lauren Bacall, that embraced their Americanness with great fervor. Unlike their parents, Yiddish speakers with accents, never completely at home in America, they knew they were only American, and knew how lucky they were that their parents had made the long and difficult voyage across the ocean to their American haven. They spoke Yiddish to their parents, but did not transmit the language to their children. They loved and respected their Jewish heritage, but they were not religious; loving Israel but for the most part, not active Zionists. They were concerned about Antisemitism, particularly in Europe, but it was not much of a problem in their daily lives.

If there is an adjective to describe them, it is that they were “modern,” at a time when the modern meant a particularly way of living and being; rejecting the past in favor of a better future; modern in their dress (they were always stylish), their furniture, their art, their literature, and their politics, comfortably left of center. (Bacall was an outspoken left-liberal; my mom, an active Communist.) They were independent women, who had careers, though often in feminized professions, and worked as secretaries, teachers, and nurses. They were feminists, though they took their husband’s name when they married, and usually dropped out of the work force when they had children. (As did my mom, though she eventually returned to college, got two degrees, and spent a quarter of a century as a high school teacher.) Betty Friedan (another Betty) another member of this generation of New York Jewish women, wrote about its contradictions in The Feminist Mystique (1963), and the world in which my mom and Lauren Bacall came to maturity has now completely vanished.

But it lingers in our memories; mine of my mom, and ours of Lauren Bacall, a modern Jewish American woman, breaking stereotypes with every step and breathy flutter, teaching Humphrey Bogart how to whistle.