“My name is Tallulah
I live till I die”
– Bugsy Malone, 1976
Tallulah, Jodie Foster’s character in Bugsy Malone, exudes charm. She oozes cool and class. “Listen honey, if I didn’t look this good you wouldn’t give me the time of day”, she quips to her boss Fat Sam. She likes her drinks dry and her “men at [her] feet.”
But all this is equally true of another Tallulah, a real-life Tallulah; a Tallulah that also lived till she died, had fire in her stomach and men at her feet, all ready to roll over and purr at drop of a hat:
Ms. Tallulah Bankhead.
Tallulah had it all: style, charisma, devastating wit, outrageous personality. She was perhaps the living definition of bon vivant. “My father warned me about men and alcohol,” she once said. “But he never said a thing about women and cocaine.” She spoke in a deep, husky Southern voice forged by chronic bronchitis as a child and decades of smoke and drink. She dressed in the finest fur coats and held cigarette holders like Holly Golightly. She was immensely talented. She was an icon. She became one of the century’s great Leading Ladies. And one of its greatest personalities.
Bankhead had a rich flamboyance; a larger-than-life persona – a passion. Everyone wanted to be around her. Everyone wanted to be her. As a result, she heard a lot of names and saw a lot of faces. But, as she often confessed, she was terrible with names. So, to get around this, she called everyone by the same name. If you were to meet her, she would always greet you in her low, mellifluous Southern tone and say “Dah-ling!”
Tallulah was born in Huntsville, Alabama in 1902. Her family was a very political one – Southern Democrat, very conservative. She was the niece of a U.S. Senator and the grand-daughter of one too. Her father would later become Speaker for the U.S. House of Representatives during the late 1930s.
However, Tallulah was as a natural rebel. She broke from family tradition in support of liberal causes that flew in the face of her family’s conservative ideology. And she didn’t pursue a career in politics either. Instead of choosing to act in government, she chose to act on stage.
Tallulah was one of the most celebrated actresses of her time. In 1926 she garnered great acclaim for her performance in Sidney Howard’s play “They Knew What They Wanted”, for which Howard won a Pulitzer. In 1931, she got herself a contract with Paramount Pictures. From then on, she became a star.
Tallulah was famous for her liberated sex life. And for her frank discussion of it in interviews. She had sex with almost every man in Hollywood – and every woman too. She once, fabulously, described herself as “ambisextrous”. She slept with some of the biggest female stars of the era, including (reportedly) Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Billie Holiday – talk about Easy Living.
In 1932 she starred in a film called “Devil and the Deep”. It co-starred Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Charles Laughton. But Tallulah got top billing. When asked why she took the part, she replied “Dah-ling, the main reason I accepted was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper.”
Perhaps Tallulah’s best known film roll was in Alfred Hitchcock’s war-time picture “Lifeboat”. She plays a cynical journalist stuck in a lifeboat with some civilians in the North Atlantic. Their passenger vessel sank during a German naval attack. They haul one more survivor on-board. But it’s a German soldier. They must decide what to do with him.
The shooting of “Lifeboat” was pretty rough. The entire movie takes place on a boat so many of the actors got seasick. As a token of appreciation for Tallulah’s stoicism, Hitchcock got her a present – a dog. Except Hitch had already taken the liberty of naming it.
“What’s its name, dah-ling?” asked Tallulah.
“Hitchcock”, Hitch replied.
Tallulah received tremendous commercial and critical success for her performance in “Lifeboat”. She was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle award for her work. A chuffed Tallulah accepted the award with glee. “Dah-lings,” she said holding the trophy, “I was wonderful.”
Tallulah was the definitive libertine. She lived life to the full and embraced her brash, even scandalous, image. “I’m as pure as the driven slush,” she once famously remarked. She was also an honorary member of the Algonquin Round Table in Manhattan during the ‘20s – a place where the cleverest, wittiest people in New York gathered to engage in witticisms, wisecracks and wordplay. Among its members were the great Dorothy Parker (another woman of vast talent and acerbic wit), Harold Ross (the founder and editor of The New Yorker magazine), Noël Coward and Harpo Marx.
The boisterous lifestyle of Tallulah’s, however, inevitably came at a cost. She struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction. But, as with everything in life, she treated it with a wry sense of humour: “Cocaine habit-forming? Of course not. I ought to know. I’ve been using it for years.”
In the early ‘50s, Tallulah became a radio star. She was the host of the NBC radio programme “The Big Show”. The show was scripted but often allowed for ad-lib. This meant giving Tallulah a chance to exercise her trademark wit. In one episode the journalist and gossip columnist Earl Wilson asked Tallulah “Are you ever mistaken for a man on the telephone.”
“No, dah-ling” she said. “Are you?”
Tallulah Bankhead was one of a kind. She was a star of both stage and screen across both sides of the Atlantic. She was a woman capable of incredible generosity towards those in need; a woman who left indelible impressions on those that met her; a woman who could hold her own next to Dorothy Parker and the Marx Brothers; a woman who treated life as an unbroken boulevard of green lights – consequently always living in the fast lane.
Yes, Tallulah had it all. She could do it all. And she did it in style.
But how? How did she do it?
The American comedian and actor Milton Berle once asked that same question. Their conversation went like this:
“Tallulah, you’re in television, you’ve written a book… How do you do it?”