Most famous stage actors tactfully fade away. Who today is interested in Katharine Cornell, that First Lady of the American Theater? Or that other First Lady, Helen Hayes? Or that First among Firsts, Ethel Barrymore? (Well, yes, she was the great-aunt of Drew.) Of the theatrical greats of their day, only Tallulah Bankhead, who died in 1968, has not gone gentle into oblivion. Since her death, there have been seven biographies, the latest, Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady, by Joel Lobenthal, published only recently. And her own book, Tallulah , the number-five nonfiction bestseller of 1952 (number one was the Revised Standard Version of the Bible; Whittaker Chambers’s Witness was number nine), is recently back in print.
Not many people remember Tallulah’s stage performances, and not many more see her few movies, yet here she is again, hectoring, demanding attention, catastrophically self-destructive; a star more than an actress, a personality more than a star, a celebrity before the phenomenon of celebrity had been identified. How appropriate that her final public appearance was on The Tonight Show (where she chatted with Paul McCartney and John Lennon). And what a complicated professional trajectory that suggests, given that her first real success—in London in 1923, forty years before the Beatles—was opposite Sir Gerald du Maurier, then the British theater’s leading matinee idol. (“Daddy,” his daughter Daphne exclaimed, the first time she encountered Tallulah, “that’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my life.”)
Tallulah, with her signature “dah-ling”s and her notorious peccadilloes and her endlessly caricaturized baritonal gurgle of a voice—a voice that the actor-writer Emlyn Williams said 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 messy life reaches beyond gossip and approaches tragedy.
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. Tallulah, in turn, was a lifelong passionate Democrat, and took credit—some of it deserved—for helping elect both Truman and Kennedy.
Politics was not the only passion that Tallulah inherited from her father—as a very young man, he had gone to Boston to try his luck as an actor. (He was hauled back home by a no-nonsense letter from his mother.) Even as a little girl, Tallulah was crazy to perform, and frequently when Will, somewhat the worse for drink, drifted home with his pals, he would lift her up onto the dining-room table and have her entertain the boys with risqué songs. She reveled in it. A plump child with startlingly gold hair, Tallulah was an exhibitionist from the beginning.
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, scream bloody murder. Her sister would hide in the closet, but her commonsensical grandmother would simply fling a bucket of water in her face.
There were attempts at conventional education for the Bankhead girls. Eugenia, however, eloped in her debutante year with a boy she had met that day. As for Tallulah, at fifteen she convinced her family that she was born to be an actress, and her senatorial grandfather staked her to an assault on Broadway. Chaperoned by her Aunt Louise, she found herself living at the Algonquin Hotel in its early palmy days, and there she encountered the greats 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 humor!” Perhaps she found later women friends like Billie Holiday funnier than Le Gallienne. On the whole, though, her taste was for men, and early on she met the man she undoubtedly cared for longest and most deeply, “Naps” Alington—Napier George Henry Sturt Alington, the third Alington baron—who was, in the words of Lee Israel, her most perceptive biographer, “a soft-spoken, blond tubercular—well cultivated, bisexual, with sensuous, meaty lips, a distant, antic charm, a history of mysterious disappearances, and a streak of cruelty.”
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 leaped at what she saw as an opportunity to conquer the West End. (Hadn’t a fashionable astrologer told her that her future lay across the Atlantic? “Go if you have to swim.”) The play was called The Dancers, and she was Maxine, a Canadian saloon dancer who eventually marries Tony the bartender, who turns out to be the Earl of Chively. With her glorious hair, her unique voice and accent, her unrestrained dancing and cartwheeling (during her English career, she cartwheeled whenever the script allowed, and sometimes when it didn’t), she did indeed conquer the West End.
Throughout the ten-month run of The Dancers, a group of rabid young women gathered nightly up in the gallery to express their love for their heroine by screaming, stomping, throwing flowers. Within three years, she had attracted the most loyal and vociferous following in London. Observing this phenomenon, Arnold Bennett noted, “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.’” She informed a reporter from New York, “Over here they like me to ‘Tallulah.’ You know—dance and sing and romp and fluff my hair and play reckless parts.” She had become a verb!
During her London years, Tallulah appeared in sixteen plays, ranging from outright junk (Conchita, The Creaking Chair, Mud and Treacle) to the Pulitzer Prize–winning They Knew What They Wanted. She missed playing Sadie Thompson in Somerset Maugham’s Rain when Maugham nixed her at the last minute, making her so despondent that she thought she’d give suicide a try, and, according to Lobenthal, “swallowed twenty aspirins, scribbled a suicide note—‘It ain’t goin’ to rain no moh’—and lay down on her intended bier.” The next morning, feeling fine, she was wakened by a phone call begging her to step into a leading role in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels.
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 clamored for my company.” Her highly publicized 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.
But as the decade drew to a close she decided that it was time to go home: She was approaching thirty, Naps was marrying the daughter of an earl, and she was out of money, since she always spent everything she earned, and then some. And suddenly the way was open to her, via an extraordinary offer from Paramount, beginning at $5,000 a week. This was the moment when, with the recent coming of sound, Hollywood was signing up every attractive stage star it could find, and the exotic Tallulah, with her husky seductive voice, could well prove to be the next Garbo, the next Dietrich. “Hollywood for me I’m afraid,” she wrote to her father and, in January 1931, embarked for New York.