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The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscureby John Lloyd
from Chapter Four, Let’s Do It
Some people didn’t wait for Alfred Kinsey to come along to know they needn’t be ashamed of their sexual desires, among them the actress Tallulah Bankhead (1902–68) who bragged that she had over 500 lovers. When the Kinsey report was published, she’d seen it all before: “The good doctor’s clinical notes were old hat to me,” she remarked.
As a girl Tallulah was short and plump, weighing almost 140 pounds and just 5’2” tall, but by the age of fifteen she had shed enough puppy fat to win a beauty contest in her home town, Montgomery, Alabama. This decided her to head for New York and try her luck as an actress. She went on to appear in over fifty plays and eighteen films, with her final appearance as a character called the “Black Widow” in a 1967 episode of Batman.
Early on, she got a reputation for partying, and was a regular user of cocaine and marijuana. She was annoyed by what she saw as petit bourgeois fears about drug misuse, but chose humor to confront it: “Cocaine isn’t addictive,” she said, “I should know: I’ve been using it for years.” She was equally blasé about sex. She was once asked if it was true that she had been raped as a twelve-year-old on the drive of her father’s home. “Yes, it was awful, truly awful,” she said. “You see, we had so much gravel.” Her early career on Broadway was a series of false starts but in 1923 she came to London to appear in a play called The Dancers opposite the suave elder statesman of the West End stage, Gerald du Maurier. Her lustrous hair, husky voice and exuberant cartwheels turned her into an overnight star. The writer and actor Emlyn Williams wrote that her voice “was steeped as deep in sex as the human voice can go without drowning.” Her most devoted fans were her “Gallery Girls,” a group of Cockney teenagers who cheered, stamped their feet and threw flowers onto the stage whenever she said a line. The writer Arnold Bennett was dazzled:
Ordinary stars get “hands.” If Tallulah gets a “hand” it is not heard. What is heard is a terrific, wild, passionate, hysterical roar and shriek. Only the phrase of the Psalmist can describe it: “God is gone up with a shout.”
Winston Churchill was a regular at her shows and before long “to Tallulah” had become a verb. She told an American reporter: “Over here they like me ‘to Tallulah.’” You know – dance and sing and romp and fluff my hair and play reckless parts.” After a triumphant and extravagant eight years, she returned to the USA to be signed up by Paramount who planned to make her “the new Dietrich.” They didn’t: they made a string of turkeys. There was something about the nature of film that failed to capture what made her so sexy and delicious in the flesh. She continued to make the occasional movie but, through the 1930s and 1940s, her best work was on Broadway.
Tallulah was bisexual but liked to joke that she couldn’t be a lesbian because “they have no sense of humor,” and she once let slip that she could never have an orgasm with anyone she was in love with. The only man she truly loved was an English aristocrat called Napier Sturt Alington, known as “Naps,” who was also bisexual. He married someone else, became a fighter pilot and died in the Battle of Britain. Tallulah married only once, in 1937, to the bit-part actor John Emery. She told friends that she had chosen him because he was “hung like John Barrymore,” but later confided that “the weapon may be of admirable proportions but the shot is weak.” They never had children and were divorced after four years. When she was thirty, Tallulah had to have a hysterectomy brought on by a bad case of gonorrhea, an infection she blamed on going to bed with Gary Cooper. Leaving hospital in a very weakened condition, and having lost a lot of weight, she barked at her doctor, “Don’t for one minute think this has taught me a lesson!”
She was the mistress of the one-liner. When a former lover came up to her excitedly babbling that he hadn’t seen her for many years, she shot back: “I thought I told you to wait in the car.”
Arranging an assignation, she scribbled a note: “I’ll come and make love to you at five o’clock. If I’m late, start without me.” She talked non-stop: one of her friends followed her around for a day, timing her with a stopwatch, and estimated that she spoke 70,000 words – the length of a short novel. As the Hollywood publicist Howard Ditz wearily remarked, “A day away from Tallulah is like a month in the country.” Sometimes her mouth got her into serious trouble. Speaking to a fan magazine in 1932, Tallulah confessed that she hadn’t had an affair for six months, adding, “Six months is a long, long while, I WANT A MAN!” This drew a sharp reprimand from Will Hays, Hollywood’s censor and moral guardian, for allowing a star to indulge in “verbal moral turpitude.”
Tallulah took her clothes off in public so often that her friend Estelle Winwood asked, “Why do you do that, Tallulah? You have such pretty frocks.” She was notorious for not wearing underwear, and delighted in showing off the fact to as many people as possible. When the film crew complained of her regular exposures on the set of Lifeboat in 1944, Alfred Hitchcock’s laconic reply was: “I don’t know whether that’s a concern for wardrobe or hairdressing.”
Interviewing Tallulah was never easy. When Time magazine tried it in 1948, their reporters came away bemused. She had played the piano, performed some ballet, told jokes, done impersonations, made them lunch, plied them with mint juleps and talked without pause— accompanied by several dogs and her free-flying budgie, Gaylord, whom she had taught to drink champagne. (Luckily, by that time, she had got rid of her pet lion, Winston, and her chimp, King Kong.) As usual, her conversation was peppered with bon mots, which included, “I never think out anything, dahling; I do it instinctively or not at all. I do things I’d loathe in anybody else.” Trying to pinpoint her age, the reporters sought verification from her younger sister Eugenia who sighed:
“Every time Tallulah knocks a year off her age, I have to, too. I’m not sure how long I can keep it up.”
Success, as opposed to notoriety, returned to her life from two unexpected quarters. In 1950 she became the host of a weekly celebrity talk radio slot called “The Big Show.” It featured Tallulah reciting Dorothy Parker monologues, interviewing other stars and introducing comic turns by the likes of Jimmy Durante and Groucho Marx. Held together by her unpredictable charm, it became an instant hit. Then two years later her autobiography Tallulah went straight to the top of the best-seller lists. She had recorded most of it on a tape recorder and it reads like one long, frank, funny, opinionated Tallulah monologue. This welcome return to the limelight couldn’t mask her rapid descent into dependency on drink and sleeping pills. She recruited a bevy of young men as her assistants, calling them her “caddies.” Although they were usually gay, they often had to sleep in her bed because she was terrified of being alone. At night, one of her boys would tape her wrists together to stop her taking any more pills. Raddled, frequently irrational, her looks a grim parody of her former beauty, she still had her sense of humor. Not long before she died, a fan approached her and asked if she was Tallulah Bankhead. “Well, I’m what’s left of her, darling,” she replied.
Long after her death, declassified British government papers revealed that Miss Bankhead had been investigated by MI5 in the 1920s over allegations that she had corrupted the morals of pupils at Eton with indecent and unnatural acts. No conclusive proof was ever found.
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