Today we celebrate the 111th birthday of Miss Tallulah Bankhead. I am a gay man of a certain age, & in my tribe telling Tallulah stories & imitating the famed personality was de rigueur at brunches & parties. But, now days, who has heard of her?
Tallulah Bankhead lived a singular, spontaneously combustible life, brimming with panache. She loved men, women, liquor, & cocaine. She accessorized with cigarettes like an Alabama smokehouse.
There are so many anecdotes about her. Let’s start with this one: It was 1931 & Bankhead was traveling to Hollywood for the first time. Riding with her on the train were Joan Crawford & her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Tallulah Bankhead: "Joan, Dahling… you're divine. I've had an affair with your husband, & watch out, you'll be next."
Sadly her films are mostly uninteresting & do not showcase her considerable talents, except for Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Her performance in the film was fearless & memorable. Hitchcock knew how to use Bankhead’s considerable skills.
The larger-than-life Bankhead was perfect for the stage & the theatre is where she made her mark. She triumphed as the conniving Regina in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Sabina in The Skin Of Our Teeth, Amanda in her pal Noel Coward’s Private Lives & her friend Tennessee Williams’ Blanch in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Her molasses & whiskey voice, dry wit & impeccable timing were Bankhead’s calling card, where her personality came through on radio & TV, with ingenious flare for the wicked & outré. The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas paid her, what was then, a very generous $20,000 per week to perform her solo show which included monologues, songs & poem readings.
Bankhead was always very frank & forthcoming about taking lovers of both genders: “My father warned me about men & booze but he never said anything about women & cocaine.” She enjoyed assignations with Billie Holliday, Eva La Galliene, Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes de Acosta, Hattie McDaniel & Patsy Kelly. She never shied away from her attraction to men, but she was said to be a loyal lifelong friend to her women.
Bankhead lived a life of audacious adventure & sensual sprees, with a skewed sense of humor & a penchant for the outspoken & outrageous. She was generous; the dividing line between friendship & employee was nearly invisible. Bankhead loved to have young, handsome gay men act as her butler, mixing drinks & drawing her baths. She felt emotions with gravity & took disappointments in stride. She died too young, at the age of 62, in 1968, having had a raucous, ribald life, & she never wasted a moment of it.
Bankhead Quotes (& there are plenty of them, Dahling...):
"Here's a rule I recommend: Never practice 2 vices at once."
"I did what I could to inflate the rumor I was on my way to stardom. What I was on my way to really, by any mathematical standards known to man, was oblivion, by way of obscurity."
"I have 3 phobias which, could I mute them, would make my life as slick as a sonnet, but as dull as ditch water: I hate to go to bed, I hate to get up, & I hate to be alone."
"I read Shakespeare & the Bible, & I can shoot dice. That's what I call a liberal education."
"I'd rather be strongly wrong than weakly right."
"I'll come & make love to you at 5 o'clock. If I'm late, start without me."
"I'm as pure as the driven slush."
"I've been called many things, but never an intellectual."
"If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner."
"If you really want to help the American theater, don't be an actress, dahling. Be an audience."
"It's the good girls who keep diaries; the bad girls never have the time"
"Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it."
"They used to photograph Shirley Temple through gauze. They should photograph me through linoleum."