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My heart is as pure as the driven slush – Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Dahling

“Hello, Dahling . . . I’ll come and make love to you at five o’clock. If I’m late start without me.”
Her voice, her wit, and her face were captivating.

On why she called everyone dahling she stated that she was terrible with names and once introduced a friend of hers as Martini.  Her name was actually Olive.

Tallulah, with her signature “dah-ling”s and her notorious peccadilloes and her endlessly caricatured baritonal gurgle of a voice—a voice that was steeped as deep in sex as the human voice can go without drowning—would be easy to dismiss as a joke if she hadn’t also been a woman of outsize capacities. As it is, the story of her life reaches beyond gossip and approaches tragedy.
It was Tallulah’s real-life behaviour that really got people’s attention.

Tallulah’s scandalous career began at her seminary when, aged twelve, she fell in love with Sister Ignatius.  As she grew to adulthood she developed her romantic and sexual interests in a way which can really only be called trisexual: she would bed heterosexual men, preferably well hung, women and homosexual men, again preferably well-hung.  She stumbled across this life unprepared but took to it with enthusiasm and a breathtaking lack of concern for the proprieties.  She once said: ‘My father always warned me about men, but he never said anything about women!  And I don’t give a stuff what people say about me so long as they say something!’  She managed to keep them talking for the rest of her life, but her most admirable trick was always to pre-empt the insidious leakage of malicious gossip with reflexive innuendos so frank as to seem hardly believable.  Personal eccentricities, such as the refusal ever to wash her hair in anything other than Energine dry-cleaning fluid, probably helped to create the conditions in which she then felt able to defy more serious conventions in riskier ways.

Tallulah Bankhead was one of last century’s first show business personalities. Tragedy, in fact, struck at the beginning. Her twenty-one-year-old mother—“the most beautiful thing that ever lived”—died of complications following Tallulah’s birth, leaving her father, Will, so grief-stricken that he collapsed into a pattern of alcoholism, self-pity, and absence which lasted for years. The Bankheads of Alabama weren’t rich, but they were aristocracy—Will Bankhead’s father and brother were both United States senators—and the motherless Tallulah and her sister, Eugenia, were reared by their grandparents and aunts with strict guidelines (which they ignored) and a strong sense of privilege (which they indulged). Once Will pulled himself together, he went on to become a successful politician, ending as a much admired Speaker of the House under Roosevelt.

Around 1918, she moved into an apartment with actress Bijou Martin, whose wild parties introduced Bankhead to cocaine and marijuana. She did abstain from drinking, only because she had promised her father that she would stay away from alcohol. (Later she drank, to the detriment of her health.)

An interview that Bankhead gave to Motion Picture magazine in 1932 generated controversy. In the interview, Bankhead ranted wildly about the state of her life and her views on love, marriage, and children:

I’m serious about love. I’m damned serious about it now … I haven’t had an affair for six months. Six months! Too long … If there’s anything the matter with me now, it’s not Hollywood or Hollywood’s state of mind … The matter with me is, I WANT A MAN! … Six months is a long, long while. I WANT A MAN!

Time ran a story about it, and, back home, Bankhead’s father, and family were perturbed. Bankhead immediately telegraphed her father, vowing never to speak with a magazine reporter again. For these and other offhand remarks, Bankhead was cited in the Hays Committee’s “Doom Book,” a list of 150 actors and actresses considered “unsuitable for the public” which was presented to the studios. Bankhead was at the top of the list with the heading: “Verbal Moral Turpitude.” She publicly called Hays “a little prick.”

Following the release of the Kinsey reports, she was once quoted as stating, “I found no surprises in the Kinsey report. The good doctor’s clinical notes were old hat to me … I’ve had many momentary love affairs. A lot of these impromptu romances have been climaxed in a fashion not generally condoned. I go into them impulsively. I scorn any notion of their permanence. I forget the fever associated with them when a new interest presents itself.”

Rumours about Bankhead’s sex life have lingered for years, and she was linked romantically with many notable female personalities of the day, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Cornell, Eva Le Gallienne, Hope Williams (“who had a boy’s body”), Beatrice Lillie, and Alla Nazimova, as well as writer Mercedes de Acosta and singer Billie Holiday. Actress Patsy Kelly confirmed she had a sexual relationship with Bankhead when she worked for her as a personal assistant. John Gruen’s Menotti: A Biography notes an incident in which Jane Bowles chased Bankhead around Capricorn, Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber’s Mount Kisco estate, insisting that Bankhead needed to play the lesbian character Inès in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (which Paul Bowles had recently translated). Bankhead locked herself in the bathroom and kept insisting, “That lesbian! I wouldn’t know a thing about it.”

Bankhead never publicly described herself as being bisexual. She did, however, describe herself as “ambisextrous”

While appearing in West End, she worked her way through London high society and then moved on to Eton, where MI5 was called in to investigate reports that she had seduced half a dozen pupils. She once set fire to her own dog while drunk and her poison of choice was bourbon with a nasal chaser.
“Cocaine, habit-forming, dahling?” she famously said. “Of course not. I ought to know, I’ve been using it for years.”

1941. Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it – Tallulah Bankhead

The home office tried to throw the American movie actress Tallulah Bankhead out of Britain as a danger to public morality after MI5 called her “an extremely immoral woman” who had indulged in “indecent and unnatural practices” with Eton schoolboys, according to confidential files released by the public record office.

The five involved, one the son of a lord and another of a baronet, had to leave the public school, but the headmaster kept the scandal secret by refusing to cooperate with a special branch inquiry – thus thwarting official attempts to have the star thrown out.

She was the most popular West End actress of her time and a friend of Ivor Novello. Her husky “Hello Dahling” is now a theatrical cliche. Tallulah, or “TB” as she appears in a home office file, was alleged to have entertained the boys at the Cafe de Paris hotel in Bray on the Thames – said to be a hot rendezvous for the “smart and fast set.”

She was very promiscuous, a self-proclaimed bisexual, Long before there was Brittany Spears, long before Lindsey Lohan, Tallulah Bankhead was doing things in the ’30s and ’40s that most actresses wouldn’t dream of doing now.”

There were stories that she turned cartwheels in front of people without wearing the proper underclothes, she did a lot of things like that, and she smoked 100 cigarettes a day. She drank bourbon and gin like it was water.

Whispers of scandal percolated through the theatrical profession in the 1920s, but the authorities’ lurid suspicions remained secret until today. A confidential MI5 report to the home secretary in August 1928 states:

“The charge against Miss Tallulah Bankhead (an American aged 26) is quite simply

(a) that she is an extremely immoral woman and

(b) that in consequence of her association with some Eton boys last term, the latter have had to leave Eton.

“As regards (a) according to the informant, she is both a Lesbian and immoral with men. Informant believes she comes from a respectable American family, her father, a senator, having turned her out of the house when she was young owing to immoral proclivities.

“It is also said she ‘kept’ a Negress in America before she came to the country in 1925 and she ‘keeps’ a girl in London now. As regards her more natural proclivities, the informant tells me that she bestows her favours ‘generously’ without payment. The informant added that her ‘circle’ is a centre of vice patronised by at least one of the most prominent sodomites in London.”

The MI5 officer, identified only as FHM, said it was common knowledge at Eton that five or six boys had been convicted of “breaking bounds” for associating with Miss Bankhead. He said they included Lord Rosslyn’s grandson, the third son of Sir Matthew “Scatters” Wilson (whose two older boys had already been sent down), and a boy named Parsons.

“TB was seen at Eton frequently the last term. Apparently, another master said that one or both of Sir M Wilson’s older sons used to motor down with her to see the third son who has then smuggled away for the afternoon under a rug in the car. It is said this was the start of a TB Eton boys’ clique.”

William Bridgeman, first lord of the admiralty, made discreet inquiries, but the headmaster, Dr CA Alington, told him: “No information could be obtained at Eton, and no inquiry or action that the home office could make or take regarding TB could embarrass Eton.”

Special branch detectives spent two very pleasant Sundays visiting the Hotel de Paris to collect evidence. They found “well over 100 expensive motor cars” at Bray, hotel daily takings in excess of £4,000, and TB being a habitual visitor – but nothing to corroborate the alleged “indecent and unnatural offences”.

MI5 secured a private letter to Eton parents in which the head denied anybody was expelled but admitted two boys had been dismissed and three disciplined.

FHM, lacking the evidence to throw Miss Bankhead out of Britain, noted: “The headmaster is obviously not prepared to assist the home office – he wants to do everything possible to keep Eton out of the scandal.”

It’s the good girls who keep diaries; the bad girls never have the time – Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead was born in 1902, the daughter of a wealthy Alabama congressman. She was named after her grandmother, who was conceived at Tallulah Falls, Georgia. Her mother died of peritonitis three weeks after she was born.

William B. Bankhead was devastated by his wife’s death, which sent him into a bout of depression and alcoholism. Consequently, Tallulah and her sister Eugenia were mostly reared by their paternal grandmother, Tallulah James Brockman Bankhead, at the family estate called “Sunset” in Jasper, Alabama. As a child, Bankhead was described as “extremely homely” and overweight, while her sister was slim and prettier. As a result, she did everything in her efforts to gain attention and constantly sought her father’s approval. After watching a performance at a circus, she taught herself how to cartwheel, and frequently cartwheeled about the house, sang, and recited literature that she had memorised.

Another side of her dramatic temperament expressed itself in wild tantrums when she didn’t get her way. (“To deny me anything only inflames my desire.”) She would throw herself down, beat the floor, grow purple in the face, screaming bloody murder. Her sister would hide in the closet, but her commonsensical grandmother simply flung a bucket of water in her face.

Bankhead’s famously husky voice (which she described as “mezzo-basso”) was the result of chronic bronchitis due to childhood illness. She was described as a performer and an exhibitionist from the beginning, discovering an early age that theatrics gained her the attention she desired. Finding she had a gift for mimicry, she entertained her classmates by imitating the schoolteachers. Bankhead claimed that her “first performance” was witnessed by none other than the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Her Aunt Marie gave the famous brothers a party at her home near Montgomery, Alabama, in which the guests were asked to entertain. “I won the prize for the top performance, with an imitation of my kindergarten teacher”, Bankhead wrote. “The judges? Orville and Wilbur Wright.” Bankhead also found she had a prodigious memory for literature, memorising poems and plays and reciting them dramatically.

Tallulah and Eugenia’s grandmother and aunt were beginning to find the girls difficult to handle. Their father William, who was working from their Huntsville home as a lawyer, proposed enrolling the girls in a convent school (although he was a Methodist and her mother an Episcopalian). In 1912, both girls were enrolled in the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville, New York when Tallulah was 10. As William’s political career brought him to Washington, the girls were enrolled in a series of different schools, each one a step closer to Washington, DC. When Bankhead was 15, her aunt encouraged her to take more pride in her appearance, suggesting that she go on a diet to improve her confidence. Bankhead quickly matured into a southern belle. Her sister married at 16, but Tallulah sought a career in acting.

Overweight as a child, she suddenly emerged at 15 as a dazzling beauty. Tallulah had more on her mind than boys and her life was about to take a dramatic turn. An avid reader of fan magazines, she had submitted her photo to Picture Play, which was conducting a contest and awarding a trip to New York plus a part in a movie to twelve lucky individuals solely based on their photographs. Tallulah learned that she was one of the winners while browsing through the magazine at a local drug store.

The film magazine,  found her a part in a film. Astonishingly – given that she came from a respectable family – she was allowed to live alone at the Algonquin Hotel in New York.

While living at the Algonquin Hotel in its early palmy days, and there she encountered the great and the near-great of the theatrical profession, including John Barrymore, who, true to form, tried to seduce her in his dressing room. She had no schooling as an actress and she lacked discipline, but she had vivid charm and looks, and she was absolutely determined to prevail. “I was consumed by a fever to be famous, even infamous,” she wrote.

In her desperation to be noticed, she experimented with alcohol and cocaine, but her main shock tactics involved sex. Apparently, her first affair was with the celebrated actress Eva Le Gallienne, three years her senior, but although she liked to boast about her irregular love life—“I’m a lesbian,” she announced to a stranger at a party. “What do you do?”—she also told a friend, “I could never become a lesbian because they have no sense of humour!” Perhaps she found later women friends like Billie Holiday funnier than Le Gallienne. On the whole, though, her taste was for men.

Tallulah was generally out of funds, scrounging meals and running up bills at the Algonquin, whose long-suffering owner, Frank Case, announced at one point, “I can either run this hotel or look after Tallulah Bankhead. I can’t do both.” Although she was slowly progressing from walk-ons and small parts to leads in undistinguished plays, after some five years in New York the big breakthrough hadn’t come, and she was frustrated, anxious, and broke. When the chance came to play opposite du Maurier in London, she leapt at what she saw as an opportunity to conquer the West End.

When she was 20, an astrologer had told her that her future lay in England – “Go if you have to swim” – so she crossed the Atlantic and presented herself to Gerald du Maurier, the leading actor-manager of the day. He cast her in The Dancers and she became the toast of London almost overnight. Theatre goers queued for 28 hours to see her, the Mountbattens begged to meet her, the Prince of Wales was infatuated with her, and Prince Nicholas of Romania supposedly wanted to marry her. But the only man she wanted to marry was Lord Alington, a bisexual masochist with a taste for opium, who never proposed. She was so popular in London that, during the General Strike, she simply flagged down cars in Piccadilly and told them: “I’m Tallulah Bankhead: will you take me to my rehearsal?”

Her life in London was hardly restricted to work. She was as famous for her shenanigans offstage as for her flamboyant performances. In her autobiography, she confides, “Have I darkly hinted that for eight years I cut a great swath in London? Well, I damned well did, and it was all a spur to my ego, electrifying! London beaux clamoured for my company.” Her highly publicised flings extended from the tennis champion Jean Borotra to Lord Birkenhead to a fraudulent Italian aristocrat whom she almost married. And, of course, Napier Alington was always on her mind and often in her bed.

In a foreign country and far away from the prying eyes of her family, Tallulah’s outrageous antics grew even wilder. She continued to visit Napier, even though their romantic relationship had waned. Napier introduced Tallulah to Olga Lynn, a former Opera singer and now voice coach, and Lynn offered Tallulah her home to live in for a while. Tallulah luxuriated in Lynn’s posh surroundings, complete with an army of servants. Lynn was a frequent entertainer and her home was always filled with famous personalities and dignitaries. Tallulah charmed them all.

Tallulah eventually bought her own house in the Mayfair section of London. Just like Lynn, Tallulah insisted on a menagerie of “servants”. In Tallulah’s house, however, they were less formal and were paid to be on hand to do any and everything for Tallulah, the most important requirement function being a companion and an ear to Tallulah’s mouth, which never stopped.

Tallulah also bought herself a Bentley, which she loved to drive. She wasn’t that good with directions, however, and constantly found herself lost in the London streets. She would telephone a taxi-cab and pay the driver to drive to her destination while she followed behind in her car. The press loved it.

Promiscuity came naturally to Tallulah and she went to bed with anyone who was interested. She professed to having a ravenous appetite for sex, but not for a particular type. “I’ve tried several varieties of sex. The conventional position makes me claustrophobic. And the others give me either stiff neck or lockjaw”, she said. Once, at a party, one of her friends brought along a young man who boldly told Tallulah that he wanted to make love to her that night. She didn’t bat an eye and said, “And so you shall, you wonderful old-fashioned boy.”

Tallulah herself was an “accessible” icon. She reveled in her fans’ idolatry and always acknowledged them, on-stage or off. She would blow them kisses from the stage and utter “thank you, dahlings”, which would result in even more cheering. After a performance, Tallulah would greet her fans, sign autographs, chat with them and inquire about their family and loved ones. Bankhead had made a name for herself on the London stage and was chosen one of the most remarkable women in England before going to Hollywood to start a film career.

In 1931, after eight happy years in London, she signed a film contract and moved to Hollywood. It was an unfortunate decision. She didn’t really suit the movies, partly because she was given roles that called for “sustained moping” (there were hopes of making her a second Garbo), whereas actually, her forte was a comedy. Also, as the director, George Cukor astutely noted: “Her eyes were not eyes for movies. They looked somehow hooded and dead.”

Socially, too, she was a misfit – in some ways too grand for Hollywood (she never let people forget she was a Southern aristocrat), but also too shocking. One of Tallulah’s most notorious events was an interview that she gave to Motion Picture magazine in 1932. She was obviously letting off steam from her frustrated attempt at a movie career and she ranted wildly about the state of her life and her views on love, marriage and children. The part that got the studio heads standing on their heads was this quote:

“I’m serious about love. I’m damned serious about it now…I haven’t had an affair for six months. Six months! Too long…If there’s anything the matter with me now, it’s not Hollywood or Hollywood’s state of mind…the matter with me is, I WANT A MAN!… six months is a long, long while. I WANT A MAN!”

Hollywood was becoming increasingly conservative partly as a result from past scandals with their stars and because Will Hays had formed the infamous Production Code. The Code dictated not only what the studios could show in their films, but how their actors must conduct themselves off the screen. As predicted, the interview created quite a commotion. Will Hays was furious, Time magazine ran a story about it, and, back home, Tallulah’s father and family were fit to be tied. Tallulah immediately telegrammed her father vowing to never speak with a magazine reporter again.

Tallulah was well known on the social scene in New York where she was always the life of the party with her chain smoking, excessive drinking of her beloved Kentucky Bourbon and by often taking her clothes off and sitting around in the nude.  She returned to Hollywood in 1943 where she landed a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Lifeboat” 1944.

Returning to Broadway, her starring role in “The Little Foxes” won her the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and she won a second award for “The Skin of Our Teeth.”

Promotional poster for Faithless

She fled to New York as soon as her two-year Hollywood contract ended, and spent the rest of her life as a stage actress. By all accounts, she was great in The Little Foxes, but most of her performances received mixed reviews, getting progressively worse as age and drunkenness took their toll.

Many critics,  believed that she could have been a great actress, but she preferred playing to the gallery and hamming. It didn’t help that she had a constant claque of noisy gay supporters, who cheered whenever she appeared onstage and often laughed in inappropriate places.

She was wildly promiscuous, with both men and women – she once tried to list all her lovers and got to 185 before the doorbell rang. She had at least four abortions in her twenties, but in 1933 she was rushed to hospital with violent abdominal pains and was so critically ill that one newspaper published her obituary.

Tallulah had entered the hospital for what was announced as an “abdominal tumor” but was actually a case of gonorrhea—contracted, she was to say, from George Raft—so violent it brought her close to death. It led to a five-hour radical hysterectomy, and by the time she left the hospital she was down to seventy pounds. Undaunted, she announced to her doctor, “Don’t think this has taught me a lesson!” The hysterectomy left her not only psychologically shaky but erotically diminished—again and again, she testified to her lack of physical pleasure, telling Tennessee Williams’s friend Sandy Campbell, for instance, that she couldn’t reach an orgasm with any man she was in love with.

She threw herself into affairs with the artist Rex Whistler, the playwright Clifford Odets and the actor Burgess Meredith. But she later told a friend that she didn’t feel anything during sex, and this is borne out by a comment in Odets’s diary that: “She suffers from an awful and big sense of ‘insufficiency’. She feels all people are aware of that lack and she compensates for it by giving you her sex instruments for your use and possible pleasure. That is her way of binding you to her.”

Bankhead made many guest appearances on radio, on the Fred Allen Show, Duffy’s Tavern, and as the MC of NBC’s Radio’s The Big Show, a ninety-minute parade of stars with the likes of Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Judy Holiday, Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman, and Clifton Webb. She loved jazz music and was the first white woman to appear on the cover of “Ebony” magazine. She reportedly had a long-term relationship with Billie Holiday and also was close to Hattie McDaniels.

She had a lifelong habit of exhibitionism. As a young woman, she was always turning cartwheels to reveal that she wore no knickers; later, she simply took her clothes off at parties.

Another aspect of her pathology was her unrestrained exhibitionism. She was famous for throwing off her clothes at parties, for leaving her bathroom door open, for working without panties on. When she was performing in Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” so many people in the audience complained that Actors’ Equity had to order her to wear underpants onstage. When she was making “Lifeboat,” Alfred Hitchcock, fielded complaints “with his much-quoted deliberation about whether the matter needed to be referred to the makeup or the hairdressing department.”

The comic actress Beatrice Lillie complained: “I can’t stand it when she lifts up her dress.”  Hitchcock, faced with similar complaints on the set of Lifeboat, said that he was never sure whether to refer the matter to the hairdressing or costume department.

In addition to her wild personality and her indulgences, Tallulah was a member of the Algonquin Roundtable and known for her wit. One witticism was, “Only good girls keep diaries. Bad girls don’t have the time.” She also said, “I’m the foe of moderation, the champion of excess. If I may lift a line from a die-hard whose identity is lost in the shuffle, ‘I’d rather be strongly wrong than weakly right’.” (Or as William Blake said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”)

In 1948, Bankhead and other cast members were accused of using marijuana during the New York City production of Noel Coward’s play “Private Lives.” She contacted the FBI and requested an FBIHQ tour for John Emory, her husband, and Director Robert Sinclair. She also corresponded with Director Hoover.

Tallulah was once again in a legal predicament in late 1951 when it was discovered that her personal secretary, Evyleen Cronin, was stealing money from her. Cronin took care of Tallulah’s bills and household expenses and in the process, she inflated the amounts of the checks and kept the extra cash for herself. It was estimated that she had stolen at least $10,000 from Tallulah since she first started working for her in 1949. Tallulah fired Cronin in April of 1950 but did not intend to press charges. However, when columnist Walter Winchell publicly congratulated Tallulah for being a “good sport” about the incident, District Attorney Frank Hogan contacted Tallulah’s lawyers insisting that she must press charges or compound the crime.

The dreaded trial began on Dec. 11, 1951 and Tallulah was greatly humiliated by it. “Thank God my blessed daddy is not alive to see this!”, she said. Cronin’s lawyers alleged that Cronin’s job included “paying for marijuana, cigarettes, cocaine, booze and sex.” Cronin also testified that Tallulah taught her to roll marijuana cigarettes and would beat her if she ever asked for money. Tallulah seethed in her seat and couldn’t keep quiet. Her huffs and guffaws finally persuaded the judge to exclude her from any proceedings except for her own testimony. Many of Cronin’s statements were proven false and she was found guilty of stealing from her employer. She was given a suspended sentence due to her age (59) and a strong plea of clemency from Tallulah.

Tallulah hated public incidents like the Cronin trial and did not like persecuting anyone, even if that person had done her wrong. This may have conflicted with Tallulah’s public image as a ballsy, outspoken dame, but, in truth, she had a soft heart. Since the mid-1940s, Tallulah had adopted foster children from abroad. She regularly corresponded with them and sent them money as well as generous gifts. She wrote about one of her foster children, Barbara Nicoli, in an article for Cosmopolitan magazine.

There were also accusations that Tallulah kept company with certain well-known lesbians around the social scene which were no surprise to her inner circles but quite a revelation during the trial and to Tallulah’s adoring public.

Cronin had testified that Bankhead taught her to roll marijuana cigarettes. Because of this, Bankhead may have been the inspiration for the Alexandra de Lago character in Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth (1962),” whose young male companion (played by Paul Newman) tries to blackmail her over her use of hashish. She is also said to be the inspiration for Cruella de Vil in Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmations. In a reversal, she was the real-life inspiration for Bette Davis’s role in “All About Eve,” and Davis may have been a model for the young interloper (the two despised each other).

Welsh artist Augustus John with Bankhead and her portrait (1929). Tallulah had certainly made her mark on the London stage by the end of the decade. In a magazine poll, she was chosen as one of the most remarkable women in England, right up there with Lady Astor and the Queen. In 1929, her portrait was painted by the famed Augustus John and it was acclaimed as one of his best works.

As she passed the age of fifty, Tallulah’s demons grew stronger. Around this time, Bankhead began to attract a passionate and highly loyal following of gay men, some of whom she employed as help when her lifestyle began to take a toll on her, affectionately calling them her “caddies”. Though she had long struggled with addiction, her condition now worsened.

She had always been a heavy drinker; now she was consuming a quart of bourbon a day, together with a dangerous mixture of Tuinal, Benzedrine, Dexedrine, Dexamyl, and morphine. She had always been insomniac; now she was frantic for sleep—as far back as 1948 she had been observed knocking back five Seconals and a brandy chaser after a night of drinking. She couldn’t bear to be alone: friends, colleagues, servants, and the young men she attached to her the “caddies” would be wheedled or ordered to sit on her bed (or lie in her bed) all night while she struggled for sleep.

She couldn’t stop talking—someone followed her around one day and claimed that she had racked up seventy thousand words, the length of a novel. (No wonder the songwriter Howard Dietz commented, “A day away from Tallulah is like a month in the country.”) Lobenthal writes of “bills for rolls and rolls of three-inch adhesive tape” observed in her hotel suite. It turned out that her maid was taping her wrists together at night to keep her from taking more pills during her intervals of wakefulness. One night, a colleague saw her in a hotel hallway, “a wild woman, like a caged chimp.” Lobenthal continues, “Straggle-haired, barely wrapped in a thin robe, she flailed at the walls, sputtering ‘Where am I?’ “ There were serious accidents and psychotic episodes; she was violent under sedation.

Orson Welles called her “the most sensational case of the ageing process being unkind. I’ll never forget how awful she looked at the end and how beautiful she looked at the beginning.” At least her sense of humour didn’t desert her: when people on the street asked, “Aren’t you Tallulah Bankhead?,” she’d answer, “I’m what’s left of her, darling.”

Inevitably, her speech became slurred, her timing poor, and her last Broadway appearance, as Flora Goforth in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, closed after just five performances. The director, Tony Richardson, described her in his memoirs as “the most unpleasant person I’ve ever worked with – or let’s blame it on her senility and decay”.

Tallulah had now reached a point in her career where she was becoming a caricature of herself. Her fans expected outrageous behaviour from her and she seldom displeased them. She had successfully performed in every entertainment medium and had achieved memorable performances in each. She now had the money and fame that she so wanted in her early life, but the years of heavy smoking and drinking had taken a toll on her body. Furthermore, stories of her volatile behaviour and work ethics were rapidly reducing job offers.

Though Bankhead’s career slowed in the mid-1950s, she never faded from the public eye. Her highly public and often scandalous personal life began to undermine her reputation as a terrific actress, leading to criticism she had become a caricature of herself. Although a heavy smoker, heavy drinker, and consumer of sleeping pills, Bankhead continued to perform in the 1950s and 1960s on Broadway, radio, television, and in the occasional film.

During the long intervals between her professional duties, Tallulah became a homebody. She remained a night owl and didn’t arise until 4 pm. She would then settle down to watch her favourite soap operas, which she had been addicted to since they first appeared on the tv horizon. During this time, Tallulah refused all visitors and telephone calls. Anyone who dared visit her while she was watching a soap opera would be instructed to sit in silence until her shows ended.

She ate very little, but consumed gin and bourbon constantly and was never without a cigarette. During the evening hours, Tallulah would receive guests and would expect them to stay until it was time for her to go to bed early the next morning. Usually, the evenings with guests were spent playing bridge. Tallulah adored bridge and played the game seriously. Whether or not one could play bridge was always a question she would ask a job applicant. If you couldn’t play, chances were good that you would not be hired as her cook, chauffeur, housekeeper, bookkeeper or whatever.

After complaining of having difficulty breathing, Tallulah learned from her doctors that she had emphysema. She tried unsuccessfully to quit smoking and continued to look for her next big hit, hoping for a great comeback.

In her later years, Bankhead had serious accidents and several psychotic episodes from sleep deprivation and hypnotic drug abuse. Though she always hated being alone, her struggle with loneliness began to lapse into a depression.

For years, she had said that she wanted to die. Once, playing the Truth Game with Tennessee Williams, she confessed, “I’m fifty-four, and I wish always, always, for death. I’ve always wanted death. Nothing else do I want more.” It was a dozen years later, in 1968, that she finally got her way, quickly succumbing to double pneumonia.

In 1956, Bankhead appeared as Blanche DuBois (a character inspired by her) in a revival of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1956). Williams had wanted Bankhead for the original production, but she turned it down. Tennessee Williams himself (they were close friends) called her Blanche “the worst I have seen”, accusing her of ruining the role to appease her fans who wanted camp. She agreed with this verdict, and made an effort to conquer the audience which her own legend had drawn about her, giving a performance two weeks later of which he remarked: “I’m not ashamed to say that I shed tears almost all the way through and that when the play was finished I rushed up to her and fell to my knees at her feet. The human drama, the play of a woman’s great valour and an artist’s truth, her own, far superseded, and even eclipsed, to my eye, the performance of my own play.
The director remarked that her performance exceeded Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh’s in the role. However, the initial reviews had decided the production’s fate, and the producer pulled the plug after 15 performances.

She spent the summer of 1968 with her sister at Eugenia’s home in Rock Hall, Maryland. Eugenia was still healthy, but Tallulah was frail and weighed less than 100 pounds. Over the years, the two sisters had not gotten along that well, and Eugenia still irritated Tallulah most of the time. Tallulah stayed in a tiny cottage on Eugenia’s property and resumed her daily habits, watching soap operas in the afternoon and playing bridge at night. Tallulah confessed to Eugenia that she didn’t care about anything anymore and prayed every night that she wouldn’t wake up in the morning.

Tallulah returned to her New York apartment and, in December, she contracted the Asian flu. She didn’t respond to antibiotics and was placed in the hospital. After developing pneumonia and falling into a coma, she was placed in intensive care where she died on December 12, 1968. Her last discernible words were “codeine, bourbon”.

Tallulah was buried in St. Paul’s Churchyard in Rock Hall, Maryland in a simple casket lined in her favorite color, baby boy blue.

Personal Quotes:

Anyone who’s ever tossed off the quote “I’m as pure as the driven slush” can thank Bankhead for the turn of phrase. And that’s just one of many…

“If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”

“ It’s the good girls who keep diaries; the bad girls never have the time.”

“ Nobody can be exactly like me. Sometimes even I have trouble doing it.”

Upon seeing an old lover for the first time in years she said: “I thought I told you to wait in the car”.

She once quipped “It’s the good girls who keep diaries, the bad girls don’t have the time”

“My father warned me about men and booze but her never said a thing about women and cocaine”  She also said “Cocaine isn’t habit-forming, I’ve been using it for years. and that she had a suitcase of cocaine handy since the age of 16.

She once said “Don’t think I don’t know who’s spreading all this gossip about me! After all the nice things I’ve said about that hag Bette Davis and when I get ahold of her I’m going to rip out every hair in her moustache”

“The only thing I regret about my past is the length of it. If I had to do it all over again I would do everything the same only sooner”

Here’s a rule I recommend: Never practice two vices at once…

Tallulah Bankhead – Wikipedia

Biography – Tallulah Bankhead – A Passionate Life

‘I’m a lesbian. What do you do?’ – Telegraph

DAH-LING – The New Yorker

Tallulah Bankhead – Actress, Theater Actress, Film Actor/Film Actress …

MI5 spied on Tallulah’s romp with Eton boys | UK news | The Guardian

The Times (13/Dec/1968) – Obituary: Miss Tallulah Bankhead – The …

Extravagant Crowd | Tallulah Bankhead – Yale University

Tallulah Bankhead – Hollywood Star Walk – Los Angeles Times

Broadway’s ‘Looped’ Is Latest Look at Tallulah Bankhead – NYTimes …

Tallulah, The Original Hollywood Bad Girl – CBS News

Tallulah Bankhead: Pure as the Driven Slush | Legacy.com

VIP Tallulah Bankhead

Alabama Department of Archives and History, Tallulah Bankhead …

My Love Of Old Hollywood: Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968)

Gregory Woods: Tallulah Bankhead


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