A little before the 1960s became the Sixties, the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., began devoting several weeks each year to Bogart films. Soon Casablanca was more ritual than movie, with devout crowds chanting their favorite lines. Homages and trench-coated imitations began showing up in movies, in books, and on the street. The Bogart cult was born, and the actor’s popularity soared to heights even loftier than at the peak of his career. By 1993, his mythic stature prompted one magazine (this one, as a matter of fact) to proclaim him ”the greatest movie legend of all time.” Bogart — who eschewed pretension and liked plain living and speech, caustic humor, boats, chess, ham and eggs, and other simple pleasures, including the ones that killed him at 57 (heavy smoking and hard drinking) — had turned into an exalted symbol.
So it’s not surprising to find two new biographies arriving neck and neck. For BOGART (Morrow, $27.50), the late A.M. Sperber had conducted nearly 200 interviews and accumulated an alpine pile of material; after her death, the project was completed by Eric Lax (Woody Allen: A Biography). The finished product is rich in detail, nuts and bolts, anecdotes, and quotes; it gives the fullest picture yet of Bogart’s life and career, although it’s a picture without much perspective. But the doggedly straight chronological narrative suffers from a lack of consolidation and summing up. Jeffrey Meyers’ BOGART: A LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD (Houghton Mifflin, $30) is a less inclusive but more incisive book. There are revelations about adulterous wrinkles in his generally happy fourth marriage to Lauren Bacall — an affair with a makeup artist for him and an affair with Frank Sinatra for her. But Meyers doesn’t spend too much time dishing dirt. One of his many literary biographies was about Ernest Hemingway, and he begins this book with a prologue lining up Hemingway and Bogart as spiritual doubles (born the same year, upper-middle-class upbringings, self-destructive fathers, overbearing mothers, four wives apiece, drinking, liberal politics, etc.). Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not became one of Bogart’s best films, and his stories inspired the hard-boiled detective heroes of Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), each of whom provided Bogart with roles that helped define his on-screen persona.
”Bogart embodied Hemingway’s hardened hero, torn between ironic fatalism and despairing courage,” Meyers concludes. But it took time — two thirds of a life — for Bogie to emerge from Humphrey DeForest Bogart, scion of Dutch colonial ancestors and eminent (but secretly morphine-addicted) parents. Gentility was hard to elude; on Broadway he was typecast in light comic roles best summed up by a line he probably never actually uttered on stage — ”Tennis, anyone?” Even after his role as a gangster in The Petrified Forest (1936) made him a Hollywood player, Bogart still had to endure years of B crime movies before director John Huston saw that the tough-talking bad guy would make a tough-talking good guy.
Like all legends, Bogart’s can block our view of the actor and the man. It’s easy to forget that the man who was gentlemanly when sober could be both belligerent and a fight-dodging coward when drunk. But what comes through in these accounts is a generosity and simplicity of character. Writes Meyers, ”He survived twenty-five years in Hollywood without a drug problem, a nervous breakdown, or a psychiatrist.” Born on Christmas Day in 1899, Bogart considered himself a ”nineteenth-century man,” and this suggestion of anachronism may help explain his endurance. Bogart: B+ Bogart: A Life in Hollywood: A