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Brilliance and bathos

9 April 2005

12:00 AM

9 April 2005

12:00 AM

Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady Joel Lobenthal

Aurum, pp.577, 20

That most astute of reviewers, Lynn Barber, recently wrote of this curiously bloodless biography that the subject is a minor star, now only remembered for one film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. While this may be true, I imagine none but a dedicated cineaste can now name a film of Gloria Swanson’s apart from Sunset Boulevard, or any of Norma Shearer’s, both huge stars and Tallulah Bankhead’s Hollywood contemporaries. In fact Tallulah made nearly 60 appearances in films and theatre, some of them laughable, some memorable, all of them idiosyncratic because of her unique style. She was also one of the most famous figures of the 20th century.

Hemingway once said about Marlene Dietrich, Bankhead’s sometime ‘rival’ and great friend (when both were doing cabaret in Las Vegas, they would drink together while discussing the respective merits of homo- and heterosexuality), that if ‘she had only her voice, she could break your heart’. Tallulah Bankhead’s voice could be said to have broken her own heart. The Southern drawl that had so beguiled 1920s Mayfair Johnnies — and quite a few Mayfair ladies — very soon, via regular shots and snorts, deepened, and, morphing from madcap into the madly camp, she became forever after saddled with the fog-horn and fag-hijacked ‘Daaaa ling’.

While the copious coke and champagne may have contributed to her strangely blank regard — the ‘dead eyes’ remarked upon by the director George Cukor made her passport to Paramount somewhat arbitrary — she nevertheless became a stellar figure on the Broadway stage, though she grew to dread playing to theatres crammed with queens screaming with delight at every line she uttered, however serious the work, however renowned the author, many of whom wrote specifically with her in mind. As the playwright Martin Sherman says, ‘Bankhead is lurking somewhere in every Tennessee Williams play.’


Tallulah was a paradox, the good-time-girl who never really had a good time, the life and soul, and often the death, of a party, a wisecracking spectre at the feast. She was too sharp, too right-wing, too overtly sexual, too self-indulgent, too knowing, too shocking — and she really was shocking — to be happy in her own skin. But under that ‘rough magnetism’ lay a lonely streak that clamoured for reassurance and comfort, and from my own experience a wildly generous nature and loving heart.

I met her when I was … well, I won’t go into details, but there were laws against it, even then. The summer weekend at Windows, her rambling, white-brick house in upstate New York, was spent round her pool drinking mint juleps in icy silver beakers, with her girlfriend, the admired actress Estelle Winwood, the just ex-Mr Joan Crawford, Franchot Tone, and Gladys Cooper’s daughter Sally. Treating me immediately as an intimate and contemporary, Tallulah did not clear the air of her astonishingly blue language — ‘of course Johnny Ray’s queer, darling. He sucked my cock two night’s ago’, or ‘my sister Eugenia isn’t a Lesbian. She just does it for the money.’ As I was leaving, she took an original Walt Disney of the wicked stepmother in Snow White — an image based on Tallulah — added ‘for Nicky with love’, and her name, to Disney’s signature. ‘Please have it,’ she said, ‘it will be very valuable one day.’ It is, to the tune now of about two million dollars. I lost it.

A year or so after, she was appearing in cabaret here at the Café de Paris. I called her, naively suggesting she come down to Eton for the 4 June. ‘Better not try that one again, darling,’ she replied, reminding me that 30 years before she had caused a major scandal at the school by supposedly seducing and drugging several of the more sexually straight sixth-formers. Knowing her, I’d guess it was rather her outrageous wit and then-rare American modernity that turned those Pop stars on. A decade later, as she sat in the huge drawing-room of her 57th Street apartment, presided over by the great Augustus John portrait of her in her London heyday, by now drinking bourbon straight from the bottle, the wit was more mordantly wistful, but her flamboyant persona, if no longer exactly modern, was certainly not dated. Her career, teetering at best on the tightrope of brilliance or bathos, was now haphazard; she lasted a mere four performances, one of which I saw, in Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Increasingly, when with Tallulah one wondered if the show would or could go on.

Of course, it couldn’t. Tallulah died at 66, raddled, ill, alternating between laughter and tears. The last photograph in Joel Loben- thal’s book, of a still-glamorous Tallulah drinking out of a shoe, is unbearably poig- nant. Somehow one knows it’s her own.


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