Saturday, November 14, 2009


Tallulah Bankhead

I’m not sure what started it, but last week Houston Steve and I were conducting a brief review of the life and many (many many) loves of the late Tallulah Bankhead.

Tallulah Brockman Bankhead, those of of a Certain Age will remember, was an actress in Hollywood’s salad days. Not just an actress: she was a Bon Vivant of the first water, a party animal that could make Madonna blush even before she went all Kaballah on us.

She was from a politically connected Alabama family, her father having served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1936-40. [Democrat, of course. Back then, Republicans were thin on the ground down South.] Both her grandfather John H. Bankhead and her uncle John H. Bankhead II served as U.S. Senators; the Bankhead family apparently disliked the exercise of selecting new names for its scions.

[An aside: Senator John (the elder) was a leader in the national highway building movement well before the advent of the Interstate Highway System. The eponymous Bankhead Highway began in Washington, D.C., passing through Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before finally arriving in California. Here in Atlanta, a section of the Bankhead Highway was renamed the Donald L. Hollowell Parkway owing to the notoriety of the old name, a notoriety that arose from the high-crime neighborhoods through which the Bankhead route passed as it headed through the western side of the city.]

Tallulah was never considered - least of all by herself - a great beauty, but her sharp wit, smoldering looks, and husky voice gave her sex appeal that few others could match. Coupled with her astonishing sexual voracity (did someone say “coupled”?), these qualities made her downright legendary.

It takes a certain degree of unselfconsciousness - nay, downright chutzpah - to show up at a party completely nude... or to drop trou and take a whiz in the midst of a conversation with the First Lady... or to respond to Chico Marx’s elegant pick-up line (“You know, I really want to fuck you.”) with a quick “And so you shall, you old-fashioned boy.”

Other classic Tallulah quotes:

“If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”

“They used to photograph Shirley Temple through gauze. They should photograph me through linoleum.”

“I’m as pure as the driven slush.”

“I’d rather be strongly wrong than weakly right.”

“Cocaine isn’t habit forming. I should know - I’ve been using it for years.”

“I was raped in our driveway when I was eleven. You know darling, it was a terrible experience because we had all that gravel.”

“I’ve tried several varieties of sex. The conventional position makes me claustrophobic. And the others give me either stiff neck or lockjaw.”

(To a group of Salvation Army band members who were passing around a tambourine to collect money, and to whom she had just given the then-extravagant sum of $20) “There, dahlings, I know it’s been a rough winter for you Spanish dancers.”

(To a priest carrying a smoking censer) “Darling, I love your drag, but your purse is on fire!” [this one pointed out by the inestimable Velociman]

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

Next time you see Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, pay close attention to Cruella deVil, the film’s antagonist. The character’s outsize personality was modeled on that of Tallulah B herownself.

Ahhh, they don’t make ’em like Tallulah any more.

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