Bi 40s screen queens – Part 1: Tallulah Bankhead ("I'm ambisextrous, dahling!")

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Tallulah in 1941

“I’ll come and make love to you at five o’clock. If I’m late start without me.”

Tallulah Bankhead’s sultry, androgynous voice and catchphrase “Hello, dahling” were a mainstay of 1950s radio programme The Big Show. She is legendary in gay mythology for her larger-than-life diva attitude, her decadent lifestyle, and multitudinous affairs. An extravagant woman, who called everyone “darling” because she couldn’t remember names, she was glamorous, unpredictable, and highly sexed. She was bisexual but never used that word, instead defining herself as “ambisextrous”.

Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born on January 31st , 1902 in Huntsville, Alabama, the daughter of a distinguished Democratic politician father. A wild child even then, he sent her to Catholic convent schools in an effort to tame her and keep her out of trouble. His hopes went unrealised.

“My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.”

At 15 Tallulah started treading the boards with local theatre troupes, finding an outlet for her energy. With her self-esteem bolstered after winning a beauty contest, she moved to New York City with an eye to Broadway. She made her debut at 18 and partied hard about town, her first taste of cocaine and marijuana sealed a lifelong love of the white stuff. She orbited around the edges of the Algonquin Round Table, a society of New York’s finest writers, critics, actors, and wits who gathered to play with words, wisecrack, and generally lark about. She had moderate success as an actress but not enough for her liking and upped sticks to London in 1923.

The capital of our fair country welcomed her and she made the West End a home from home, starring in 12 plays in eight years. Her status, and indeed her fame, as an actress was assured with her turn in Pulitzer prize winning play They Knew What They Wanted. Her liveliness, humour, and infectious personality was the talk of the town and she earned a reputation for turning even the most mediocre mess into something masterful.

Returning to the US in 1931 Hollywood success continued to elude Tallulah. Life did not. She became infamous among celebrities for hosting parties with “no boundaries” that could last for days. (Her famous quote “I’m as pure as the driven slush” is more than apt.) She was flamboyant and promiscuous and, although not openly bisexual in the early years of her career, she often alluded to her flings with females. She had a long-term relationship with Patsy Kelly, a comedienne who was also one of the only open lesbian actresses of the time, while Kelly worked as her personal assistant. Tallulah was part of Alla Nazimova’s “sewing circle”, a code used to describe the underground and closeted lesbian and bisexual crowd of actresses during Hollywood’s golden age. She adored Greta Garbo, pursuing her relentlessly and eventually getting her, as well as having affairs with Marlene Dietrich, Hattie McDaniel, Alla Nazimova herself, Eva Le Gallienne, writer Mercedes de Acosta, and singer Billie Holiday, with whom she had a longer-term “arrangement”. She was once quoted as saying:

“I’ve had many momentary love affairs. A lot of these impromptu romances have been climaxed in a fashion not generally condoned. I go into them impulsively. I scorn any notion of their permanence. I forget the fever associated with them when a new interest presents itself.”

Publicly, Tallulah remained heterosexual and enjoyed liaisons with many men. In an interview with Motion Picture magazine in 1932 she caused quite a stir with her wild rant about the state of her love life.

“I’m serious about love. I’m damned serious about it now … I haven’t had an affair for six months. Six months! Too long … If there’s anything the matter with me now, it’s not Hollywood or Hollywood’s state of mind … The matter with me is, I WANT A MAN! … Six months is a long, long while. I WANT A MAN!”

Her promiscuity led to venereal disease, an extreme case of it, that meant she had to have a hysterectomy in 1933. She nearly died during the five-hour operation and weighed just 70 pounds (32kg) when she left hospital. Her stoic good humour stayed with her, telling doctors “Don’t think this has taught me a lesson!”. It didn’t. She married actor John Emery on August 31st 1937. The marriage lasted less than four years and she was soon back to her old ways.

Tallulah was notorious for preferring to be unencumbered by underwear, often doing cartwheels while commando at society gatherings or even turning up fully nude, shocking the more staid members of the elite. She made it a habit to strip during chats, never wore bathing suits, and rather enjoyed the exhibitionism and the consternation that it caused. One friend once remarked “Tallulah dear, why are you always taking your clothes off? You have such lovely frocks.”

During filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) – incidentally her biggest hit – crew members complained about her flashing them while climbing the ladder into the lifeboat. Hitchcock, on hearing their objections, reportedly quipped “I don’t know if it’s a matter for wardrobe or hairdressing.”

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“Publicly, Tallulah remained heterosexual and enjoyed liaisons with many men”

Marlon Brando, who co-starred with Tallulah in the 1940s play The Eagle Has Two Heads, described her as a “personality actor”, someone who gets by on their charm and charisma rather than developed skills. But it was these aspects of her personality that saw her win awards. The New York Drama Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Circle both bestowed her with their top prize for actresses. Brando believed that she could have been an even greater actress and a major movie star had it not been for her addiction to booze and bonking. Film director Irving Rapper said her screen test for The Glass Menagerie was “the greatest performance” he had ever seen in his life. But Tallulah’s alcoholism meant the role went to Gertrude Lawrence (whose acting was panned by critics). However, Tallulah was a valuable cast member to theatre productions. Her name was billed first in any production in which she appeared and she commanded 10% of the gross. She remained a party favourite for her outlandish stunts.

By 1950 Tallulah had turned to radio, becoming Mistress of Ceremonies for NBC’s The Big Show, a 90-minute variety programme. She was smoking 150 a day, her voice sexy, gravelly, and deep; (when asked by gossip columnist Earl Wilson if she had ever been mistaken for a man on the telephone, she replied “No, have you?”) her hard-drinking, diminishing sexual appeal, and advancing age made her the object of the show’s humour. The show was a critical and commercial success and became a Sunday evening ritual in millions of homes for the next three years. Listen here to see why.

Tallulah had become something of a parody of herself thanks to The Big Show, but she profited from this new persona. Her eponymous autobiography, released in 1952, was a best-seller, she made money from lectures and personal appearances, and played Las Vegas for $20,000. She continued to perform on Broadway through the ’50s and ’60s, receiving a Tony Award nomination in 1961 for Midgie Purvis, but by then her career was slowing down. A few more films and TV shows (her final on-screen role was the Black Widow on Batman) came her way but her hard living had got the better of her. A lifelong insomniac, she blamed herself for her mother’s death from complications in childbirth, her chain smoking, drug use, and alcohol dependency On December 12th, 1968, Tallulah died in Manhattan at the age of 66 due to pneumonia, complicated by emphysema, malnutrition, and possibly a strain of Hong Kong flu that was around at the time. A comic to the end, her last coherent words were “Codeine….bourbon.”

“The only thing I regret about my past is the length of it. If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.” Tallulah Bankhead, 1902 – 1968

 

 

 

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kate

A Jill of all trades, mistress of none, Kate has tried everything: prison psychology, volunteering with homeless people, teaching English abroad, and editing a magazine in China (thankfully not in Chinese!). A born procrastinator, she's been working on her autobiographical sex book for the past four years and has got nowhere. She's hoping to find some motivation on the open road - a born traveller she's hoping to leave for America very soon. Happiest performing her comedy poems at spoken word nights and getting inordinate amounts of attention, Kate is a whirlwind of a woman.

One Response to Bi 40s screen queens – Part 1: Tallulah Bankhead ("I'm ambisextrous, dahling!")

  • janis hetherington says:

    Brilliant..many more please. By the way Gertie Lawrence ( Noel Coward’s favourite leading ladye) was involved with Daphne Du Maurier and in this country gay ladyes were called Venetians!! luved it..

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