In those grandiose Hollywood days, you didn't just give a dinner party. You produced it. It had to have a "motif," and the theme of this one at Arthur Freed's was "Russia, our wartime ally." As I entered the house, two huge Cossacks, complete with shiny boots and Russian blouses, greeted me. A yellow-braided, comrade maidservant in native dress took my coat. Although simple, peasant borscht and black bread would undoubtedly be served, it was clear to me at once that I was NOT the only one there who did make five grand or more a week. I could sense that Freed was hard put to find a way to introduce me around. The only credit of mine he knew was my direction of My Heart's in the Highlands. Vincente Minnelli had to tell him I had had an "artistic success" with it, about as dirty a jab as you can get on the gold coast. Or on Broadway, for that matter. As Freed maneuvered me gingerly toward Tallulah Bankhead, I could see his face screwing up in an apologetic smile.
"Tallulah, this is Bobby Lewis. You know he directed that Saroyan play." Miracle of miracles, she had actually seen it.
"Darling, you're a poet," she growled, grabbing my arm. With this she backed me out of the room onto the terrace and pinned me to the stone wall
So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet-season'd showers are to the ground,
she began in the well-known, husky voice and went on to the end of the sonnet without dropping a syllable. Though sufficiently convinced we were both poetic, I was also cold, and I started back into the warm room, hungrily eyeing the canapés, the drinks, and the famous personages who were going to spin me to the top of the Hollywood heap. Little did I know the power of poetry, or of Tallulah. Fully revved up now, she laid a second sonnet on me and then a third and a fourth. Standing in the chill night air, frozen with admiration at how many of the poems she knew, I was also panicked with the realization that Shakespeare had written over one-hundred and fifty of these little masterpieces. I screamed over her rendering of
O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold time's fickle glass
that, if I wasn't to die of pneumonia, I had better have a glass with some liquor in it, fast. This suggestion brought her magically back to a more prosaic state of mind, and I darted indoors.
It was well known that Tallulah was having a long ride on one of her famous "wagons," this one having to do with her abstinence from alcohol until her beloved England would have won the war. I was present, later, in her Pound Ridge house, during the time when Bankhead swore she would never take a drink again until Adlai Stevenson became president--a long drought that would have been unless you understand what she meant by "on the wagon." She meant you weren't to make her a drink; but that didn't stop her from taking a good gulp from yours, his, hers, anyone's. It was also apparently OK for her to imbibe some witch's brew concocted of Coca Cola and spirits of ammonia. For an additional high, she popped and sniffed some odd capsules that her sister Eugenia insisted were used to revive horses that slipped and fell on the winter ice. Tallulah always said of her sister, "She the witty one. I'm the pretty one." (One night, during this Adlai Stevenson no-drink-for-Tallulah period, our heroine was, as usual, loudly defending the Democratic party, to which her Speaker of the House father and Senator uncle belonged, against the staunch Republicanism of her friend, theatrical agent Edie van Cleve. At one point, to support the logic of her position, Tallulah delivered Edie a huge kick in the ass. Sister Eugenia, next to me on the couch, stopped the passing butler. "Sylvester," she said, "will you please find out what it is that Miss Bankhead isn't drinking and bring me one of those.")
Cut back, as we say in the movies, to the Arthur Freed party. As I reentered the living room where everyone was having cocktails, I was surprised to hear Tallulah, following behind me, call out, "I want to propose a toast, darlings." Although the war was not quite over, it was clear that Tallulah was ready to acknowledge victory for the Allies. Her drink was brought, and she raised her glass high. "To Franklin Delano Roosevelt, commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States of America!" With that, she downed the drink and--whoosh--dashed her glass into the fireplace. Now when I say glass, you understand I'm not talking about those inexpensive tumblers you get out when you're having a big party. I'm talking about a gold-rimmed number that Mrs. Freed had had engraved at Tiffany's. Both Freeds stared into the hearth at their shattered treasure. Moving away, thanking God that the toast was over, the Freeds were halted by the actress's next booming order: "I'll have another." This, too, was brought. "Winston Churchill, bulldog of the British Empire!" Gulp--and whoosh--down went the second glass into the fireplace. The Freeds looked at each other in horror, mentally counting up the Heads of State on our side. Tallulah went through them all, concluding with Chiang Kai-shek. She didn't even skip her hated Stalin. The ceremony seemingly over, everyone started a hasty retreat from the mound of broken glass in the fireplace. "I'll have another," commanded Tallulah. I racked my brains trying to figure which Allied Head of State she'd overlooked. "Field Marshal Montgomery!" she cried. An agonized groan emerged from Freed as everyone realized she was preparing to go through every five-star general, as well as those with only four, three, two, or one star--and most likely to continue onto and through the privates. Somewhat less patriotic than Tallulah, our host tiptoed gracelessly away, leading the rest of the guests to the various tables set up in the dining room.
The meal that followed made Alice's mad tea party seem like a quiet dinner at Emily Post's. Finding herself alone, a condition she couldn't endure for ten seconds, Tallulah came loping into the dinner room and plopped down at the extra bridge table in the corner, to which I had been relegated. She wouldn't eat anything. Tallulah was religious about not mixing food and liquor, not even stooping to contaminate her drink with a bit of nourishing lemon peel. As a matter of sad fact, when she was rushed to the hospital for what turned out to be her final illness, I was told that she hadn't eaten any food for five days.
The Slavic dinner having begun with some very special caviar, the serfs arrived with the hot borscht and piroshki. As a blonde-plaited maid came over to our table with a couple of steaming plates of the soup, Tallulah, in a sudden rush of comradely affection, enveloped the poor girl in a Russian bear hug. Borscht and piroshki went flying over heads and into laps. At the other end of the room, where he had hoped he was safely settled, Mr. Freed, rising ever so slightly, stared at our battlefield with a kasha-under-the-nose expression but didn't dare approach the formidable enemy.
The second skirmish began with the arrival of the shashlik. These were held high on huge flaming swords by the cossack waiters. As Tallulah, smiling a maniacal challenge at the flames, rose and advanced, the terrified servants danced around the tables trying to avoid her. By now the more prudent guests were scurrying out of their seats and fleeing the inevitable scorched earth of the dining area back to the living room.
As soon as the retreat had been accomplished, Tallulah, flushed with victory, sailed in and took up her post at the fireplace, the scene of her earlier triumph. As she glowered contemptuously at the entire cowardly assemblage, Arthur Freed did what any normal host would do on finding he had a loaded tigress in his living room. He turned to Judy Garland and said, "Won't you sing something?" In a split second, Roger Edens, not head of the music department of the Freed unit for nothing, was banging out an introduction at the piano. Judy, terrified, hung onto the curve of the piano, glazed eyes down. Her famous tremolo rapidly growing to a wobble, she sang, "The last time I saw Paris, her heart was young and . . . " She never got to "gay" for, from the fireplace, looking under and up from her tremulous eyelashes, Tallulah, unwilling to relinquish her generalship for more than a couple of bars, slowly growled, in her lowest contrabass, "I--hate--young--people." Ominous silence followed. The only movement in the room was the smoke pouring from the patrician Bankhead nostrils. How would our brave host manage the perilous generation gap between the two stars? He did the only thing possible--unless you are crazy enough to suppose that with the help of fifteen or twenty of the Boldest male guests, plus cossacks, he could simply have tossed Tallulah out. Wearing the most pathetic, pleading expression since the little match girl, Freed gently placed a forefinger to his trembling lips, which he pursed silently, into a "shh" position. To this mildest of reprimands, Tallulah reacted as though a volley of cannon shot had been fired at her. She swooped down on Freed, grabbed that offender by his collar, and pulling his face ignominiously up against hers, barked, "How dare you shush me, you--you--songwriter!" A triumph of the art of acting made this noble profession sound as if it were the lowest perversion. Eyeballs rolling back, Judy, our shaking chanteuse, slowly started sinking to the rug. The lightning manner in which Vincente Minnelli gathered up the stricken singer and helped her to a couch made it clear he'd be, as indeed he was, the next man in Judy's life.
Now all hell broke loose. Some joined the resuscitation of Judy. Others expressed hushed disapproval of the hurricane called Tallulah. Still nobody dared come near her physically. Nobody, that is, except one white haired gentleman who approached her and said, quietly, "Miss Bankhead, I would like to hear the song."
"Who the hell are you?" was Tallulah's witty rejoinder.
"My name is Jerome Kern. I wrote it."
The virago dissolved at once. Tears streaming down her face, Tallulah flung her limp body on poor Mr. Kern. "I know every song you ever wrote," she sobbed and promptly began with "Who--o--o stole my heart away, Who--o--o. . . " Without missing a note, and just as she had done with me earlier in the evening, she backed Kern out of the room, this time down the hall and into a study, closing the door behind them. Seizing on this lull in the battle, the guests all flew out of the house in a magical Disney-like exit. As I passed the room where Bankhead was treating Kern to what was surely going to be an all-night, captive musical feast, I could hear the basso profundo version of "Why do I love you?" just getting under way.
My first glamorous night out in Hollywood was over. A week later, Armistice Day, on a Manhattan street, Jerome Kern collapsed and, soon after, died.
(A complete excerpt of "Hollywood 1942-1946" from
Slings and Arrows, Theater in My Life, the memoirs of Robert Lewis.)
A brilliant comedienne and dramatic actress, whose seductive beauty and natural talent galvanized a war weary and jaded audience, Tallulah Bankhead in her heyday was described as "a blonde stick of dynamite, with the mind of a racing car engine!," "a lazy Catherine wheel!," "the only volcano dressed by Mainbocher!" and earned the respect and admiration (or contempt) of her critics with her unbridled candor and capricious antics.
"Tarnished Lady" and "My Sin" represent George Cukor's directorial debut and, the latter, George Abbott's first attempt at directing a "talkie" (or SQUAWKIE!). And, therefore, technical issues, as well as a lack of focus on the part of the studio on how to best feature Ms. Bankhead's talents, falling back on formulaic scripts that even then seemed cliché and passé, may account for the poor reception of these two films. Even so, Tallulah shone on screen (according to the reviews and in the public's mind). And, by the time "The Cheat" was unveiled, she downright sparkled in an otherwise lackluster plot setting.
Among Ms. Bankhead's early films (pre-1932), "Faithless" stands alone as the most engaging to a modern audience; depression-era moviegoers did not (regretably) appreciate the film simply because it was too close to their own experience, the daily struggle to survive the financial hardships produced by the Stock Market crash. Her contemporaries would have much preferred to see a musical comedy or fantasy, rather than a semi-tragic storyline with an ambiguous ending.
By the time she made "Faithless," Tallulah obviously felt comfortable in front of the cameras; but,
her off-camera antics got Tallulah black-listed in Hollywood. I suspect that the turgid and silly scripts of "Thunder Below"
and "Devil & the Deep" were meant to be her swan-song to the movie industry. [A cameo appearance in a B movie entitled "Make Me A Star" fulfilled her contract with Paramount Pictures.]
It's a pity that a long hiatus from cinema work followed; the studio chiefs' short-sightedness (along with L. B. Mayer's spitefulness) insured that Bette Davis got to immortalize on film the better roles that Tallulah successfully initiated on stage.
“AMERICA A TOAST”- written at the onset of WWII by Marguerite Schaefer and Frederick Coles. Red, white and blue cover art by C. D. Batchelor (American editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News; first cartoonist to receive a Pulitzer Prize.) Signed by Batchelor, “For Tallulah Bankhead. With the great admiration of this cartoonist. C. D. Batchelor.” The sheet music measures about 9 x 12 inches and the inscription is about 3 x 5" at the lower right. A patriotic rendering showing hands offering toasts with champagne glasses and assorted weaponry to a Liberty Female figure in blue silhouette. Published in 1940. [Note -Batchelor's signature and inscription is in black ink and his name is signed directly above his signature in the art print. I do not know if this item was ever in the possession of Bankhead.]
A selection of anecdotes ...
One Sunday night, doing her stint as Mistress of Ceremonies on The Big Show, Tallulah Bankhead was asked about Bette Davis's obvious impersonation of her in the movie All About Eve.
"Bette and I are very good friends," Tallulah remarked sweetly. "There's nothing I wouldn't say to her face - both of them." -Newsweek
To a party given at the Algonquin one night by Dorothy Parker came Tallulah Bankhead, who had just made her first Broadway success. In the course of the evening Tallulah became so uproariously lighthearted that a committee of four gentlemen was appointed by the hostess to escort her away from there. As the clamor of their departure faded down the hall, Mrs. Parker peered out between the portiers of an adjoining room and inquired: "Has Whistler's Mother left yet?"
It was Tallulah who topped the line - one of the few of Mrs. Parker's ever to be improved upon. Next day, at lunch, she took a pocket mirror out of her bag and gazed ruefully at herself. "Oh, my," she mourned, "the less I behave like Whistler's Mother the night before, the more I look like her the morning after." -Margaret Case Harriman, The Vicious Circle (Rinehart)
At a dinner Tallulah was being bored by an elderly scientist who expounded on the subject of ants. "They are wonderful little creatures," he declared. "They have their own police force and their own army -"
In her usual dry tone, Tallulah interrupted, "No navy, I suppose?"
-Irving Hoffman, King Features
Always unpredictable, Tallulah has been known to introduce devastating ad libs into plays in which she was starring. One Christmas week she was playing Private Lives in Birmingham, Alabama, practically her home town. In the midst of the amorous second act, while she and Donald Cook were lounging on a couch, she suddenly exclaimed, "Get away from me, you Damyankee!" and reaching into her bosom she hauled out a tiny Confederate flag -which she proceeded to wave enthusiastically.
The audience shook the theater to its foundations.
- Ernie Schier in Washington Times Herald
Ted Husing ran into Tallulah and said "Hello," but she didn't respond. When Husing asked the reason for her aloofness, she explained: "Well, you cut me."
"But," Ted protested, "I said hello."
"I," returned the effusive Tallulah, "consider that a cut."-Leonard Lyons
Even in the early days of her triumphant career in London, the town seethed with talk of the sensational Bankhead antics -including her unique transportation system. She owned a handsome green Bentley car, but she also employed a taxi and driver. Because her sense of direction was poor, whenever she set out anywhere the cab and driver blazed the way. She, and the Bentley, followed.- Maurice Zolotow in The Saturday Evening Post>
At the pre-Broadway opening of Clifford Odet's Clash by Night in Baltimore, Tallulah discovered that the electric sign over the marquee read: BILLY ROSE present TALLULAH BANKHEAD. The misspelling of the word "presents" did not annoy the star as much as the top billing given the producer. She notified the management that the sign had to be corrected since her contract provided top billing.
When her message was ignored, Miss Bankhead sent a final note: "Either that sign comes down or else it will have to read: BILLY ROSE present TALLULAH BANKHEAD absent." -Leonard Lyons in This Week Magazine
During a rehearsal for The Big Show the directors were having stop-watch trouble -the program was running too long. Tallulah, true to the flamboyant tradition of the temperamental prima donna, exploded each time her lines were trimmed. Groucho Marx watched all this from the side lines; at last, in the calm which followed one of Tallu's outbursts, he was heard to observe:
"Quite a production, eh-this Timing of the Shrew?"Frank Farrell in New York World-Telegram and The Sun
Once a friend of Miss Bankhead's was asked by a magazine interviewer, "Tell me, off the record, did you ever have an affair with Tallulah?"
"Well," replied the friend, "she'll consider me a cad for saying so -but I didn't."-Irving Hoffman in The Hollywood Reporter
Tallulah was crowding 17 when she arrived from Alabama, stage-struck and sultry-voiced. Her father, was not wild about the idea of Tallulah's going on the stage. However, he agreed to finance a limited excursion to New York and Tallu arrived at the Hotel Algonquin chaperoned by her Aunt Louise. After a month or two Aunt Louise was called home. She left reluctantly, first saying to Frank Case, owner of the Algonquin, "You will keep an eye on our little girl?"
It was not until several months later that he was heard to murmur: "Either I keep an eye on Tallulah Bankhead or I run this hotel. No man does both." -Margaret Case Harriman, The Vicious Circle (Rinehart)
The permanent home that Tallulah longed for was never to be. Again and again her attempt to contrive a cozy hearthside for herself and friends, lovers and colleagues would be frustrated by the overambitious scale on which she attempted to realize it and by her inveterate lack of discipline. The closest she came to creating a Sunset (the name of her family estate in Jasper, AL) of her own was when she bought a country place in Bedford Village, about an hour and a half's drive north of New York City. The property consisted of seventeen acres of rolling meadows and woods and a white-painted brick house with an exceptionally large number of windows, prompting Tallulah to name it, with uncharacteristic matter-of-factness, Windows. She planted hundreds of daffodils and other flowers, put in a swimming pool that cost more than Windows itself and filled every nook and cranny of the house with guests and pets (including a lion cub that she named after her friend Winston Churchill and that, once it grew old enough to start gnawing away on her guests' ankles, she handed over to the Bronx Zoo).
Tallulah was happy at Windows, but she possessed only a rudimentary knowledge of how to keep house, and the management of a continuous flow of guests required servants, who also flowed. The state of turmoil that Tallulah reveled in caused ill-trained servants to emerge from the kitchen and sit at the table with guests, matching them drink for drink.
A Canadian artist, Charles Redfern, who made several agreeable watercolors of Windows, happened to be present when Tallulah was interviewing a prospective butler. In a thank-you note to Tallulah, Redfern set down his recollection of Tallulah's response to a question about the hours that the butler might expect to be on duty. Tallulah: "Well, darling, I live a very quiet life in the country and I can't say it's any different from any other place, except, of course, that people do come and go and never get up early so that part of the day, darling, isn't difficult. What are you drinking, bourbon? Dinner is different, naturally, so do sit down --unless, of course the Giants [a baseball team] are playing and no one can move if there's a game on. But it never lasts forever and we're never more than six for dinner because you see my table is oval and won't sit anymore unless, of course, we have a buffet which is generally on Sunday and then any number of people can eat which, of course, they never do if it's hot because the pool is cooler you know darling, and if supper is cold it doesn't matter anyway and I have a bird that says who are you? and laughs just like me and Gaylord the parakeet who drinks champagne don't you darling and I like a hot bath in the morning around three in the afternoon, and breakfast on a tray; does your wife know how to make vichyssoise?"
from "Tallulah Bankhead: The Celebrated Actress in New York State," by Brendan Gil, an article in Architectural Digest, April, 1998, pg. 320.
My enthusiasm for Ms. Bankhead regretfully comes posthumously; I'm too young to have seen her live on stage. I did catch Helen Gallagher as Tallulah, in two productions of a musical tribute on Broadway; and, by chance, Will Stutts' truly extraordinary impersonation, a tour de force from beginning to end that should have been brought to Broadway, on a trip to Atlantic City [Mr. Stutts just happens to also be Tallulah's second cousin, as well as Executive/Artistic Director of South Jersey Regional Theatre]. Ms. Tovah Feldshuh's animated and excellent production (in Flushing Meadow Park, NY) and the late Frank Donnelly's well-written but shabbily acted melodrama (in Washington, D.C.) followed. I must congratulate Nan Schmid on a MOST entertaining evening spent at the theatre! She and the rest of the cast were brilliant!! The transitions between biographical scenes in Ms. B's life were accomplished in the most professional yet charming manner. I can not rave enough about you all! I just wish that this ensemble piece entitled "Dahling!" (written and produced and staring Miss Nan Schmid) would be captured on video or film for future reference. In anticipation of Ms. Kathleen Turner's bringing her delightful interpretation to Broadway (I happened to catch the opening of the tour at The Colonial Theatre in Boston), I decided to avail myself of whatever interest this would spark in the present generation of theater-going folk.
It is apparent to me that Bankhead has not been given her proper due as a very capable actress who conquered several media, including theater, film, radio and tv, forging what became a household name and persona that represented the epitome of glamour (even to those in Hollywood, who themselves were in the process of inventing what we now define as Classic Star Quality). [NOTE: This is also the title of a delicious short story by Noel Coward whose heroine could NOT have been anyone else but Tallulah.]
I want to see her lifework depicted on the BIOGRAPHY series; I've written to them several times, to no avail. A&E refuses to feature her life story on their program. I suspect that echoes of Bankhead's private life, her irrepressible, unpredictable and shocking behaviour in a somewhat prudish era, may still affect those in a position to decide on such things as tv-programming schedules. But, I won't allow these so-called purveyors of public morality to dare judge what they can never appreciate, namely, that life is for the truly living and that anyone who creates anything but "Windows" around themselves has closed themselves into a box.
VIEW THE NEW St JOHN's Bible,
a rare jewel of Christian faith
A Window Into TALLULAH BANKHEAD,
Thoughts of Home: Tallulah’s House, By Brook Ashley
Nickolas Muray's Portraits of Tallulah (The Eastman House Collection)
Carl Van Vechtens' Portraits of Tallulah (The Library of Congress)
Wyndham-Campbell Collection (Hargrett Library, UGA)
Visit Tallulah's Gal Pal, Ms. Dorothy Parker
JACKIE CURTIS, Superstar in a Housedress
Robert Temple, "Tallulah, the Lonely"
ELIZABETH's Tallulah Page
Tribute to Meridith Willson
Goatboy & Music Machines
Visit Ms. MAE WEST
Miss PEGGY LEE
A JAZZ AGE CLUB