Tallulah Bankhead: Gay, Drunk and Liberated in an Era of Excess Art

Tallulah Bankhead was an actress, lesbian, proto-feminist, wit, raconteur, and one of the flapper era’s most dangerous women. Excerpt from Judith Mackrell's The Flappers.

When actress Tallulah Bankhead first arrived at the Algonquin Hotel she’d noted the tough, abrasive style of New York conversation. She herself had been raised never to cuss or talk dirty: yet these glamorous writers and actors made a point of using obscenities and working men’s slang to give an edge to their jokes and observations. Later she observed that one of the most skilled in this idiom was the journalist Dorothy Parker. Her sly, skewering banter and provocative cynicism were her defense in a male-dominated profession and also her selling point. What Parker said at lunch at the Round Table was usually being repeated at New York parties by the evening.

Tallulah wasn’t as clever as Parker, but she noted the publicity generated by the writer’s repartee. Half consciously, half intuitively she began to step up her own natural exhibitionism, adding material from her stage roles to build a repertory of outrageous stunts and jokes. She could, she discovered, create a gratifying stir by launching into a string of cartwheels down a sidewalk or in the middle of a crowded room, displaying a flash of silk camiknicker, or occasionally her naked bottom. The spinning craziness felt euphoric – the frisson of being a child in a grownup place – but more importantly it made people notice and remember her. She even developed her own signature wisecracks.

Her affair with actress Eva Le Gallienne had attracted mildly scandalous comment, with the magazine Broadway Brevities alluding to Tallulah’s ‘close friendships’ with several women. It was now that Tallulah began introducing herself at parties with the line, ‘I’m a lesbian. What do you do?’ It was possibly a genuine mistake that inspired another of her trademark quips. She’d been taken to a performance of Maeterlinck’s “The Burgomaster of Stilemonde” by Alexander Woollcott, theatre critic of the New York Times. When asked for her opinion, fearful that she hadn’t fully understood the play, Tallulah replied, ‘There is less in this than meets the eye.’ Almost certainly she had meant to say, ‘There is more to this,’ but Woollcott had pounced on the line and quoted it, with relish, in his column.

As a result, Tallulah found herself hailed as one of the wits of Manhattan, and she worked hard to make sure the reputation stuck. In private, she could still be assailed by childish terrors and weep in her dressing room from stage fright, but in public she could launch herself into a room with a stream of slick, rude and seemingly spontaneous one-liners: ‘I’m as pure as the driven slush,’ she would remark, tossing back her hair whilst taking a calculated drag on her cigarette. ‘I don’t give a fuck what people say about me so long as they say something.’

In the summer of 1921 Tallulah had moved into a shared apartment with a new friend, Beth Martin. Among Beth’s extensive New York circle was a group of sophisticated, cultured Englishmen, whom she invited to the flat for an impromptu party one night. One of them, Napier George Henry Alington, arrived in his pajamas, with an overcoat bundled over the top and a bottle of bootleg gin in his pocket.

Tallulah couldn’t help but be impressed that Naps was an actual aristocrat – the 3rd Baron Alington, whose family owned large tracts of England. He was more finely bred than any American she had met, with his bone-china accent, willowy height and languid wit. And while his appearance wasn’t conventionally handsome – the dark smudges under his eyes and the pallor of his skin both symptomatic of his tubercular condition – there was a sense of exquisite contradiction about him that she found hypnotic.

Refined and witty as Naps appeared, he could also be as coarse as a navvy, with thick, sensuous lips that signaled his much vaunted sexual appetite. His tastes ran to men and women equally, and during the short time he’d been in New York (ostensibly to study the American banking system) he’d acquired a scandalous reputation: turning up at the opera with two drunken soldiers in tow, and seducing a footman at the home of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt where he was staying. At their first meeting Tallulah resisted his efforts to seduce her, but within a short while she had not only yielded to him, but had fully deluded herself that the careless offer he made to marry her one day was a genuine promise for their future.

She was working hard that autumn, playing the lead in Everyday, another play that Rachel Crothers had written especially for her. Whenever she was free, however, Tallulah dedicated herself to her new lover. They careened around the high spots of New York, dancing at Reisenweber’s Cafe and brunching at the Brevoort Hotel on lower 5th Avenue. In bed, Talullah found Naps an alarming, exciting advance on her sexual education. Later she would boast crudely that he was ‘big where it mattered’, but there was also a streak of cruelty in his lovemaking.

In contrast to gentle Eva, Naps liked to draw a little blood in bed, to bruise and be bruised in return. In the face of that cruelty, so unpredictably mixed with tenderness

and courtesy, Tallulah was helpless. Naps kept her in such a state of keyed-up uncertainty that she was never sure which version of him she would see. The man who seemed to know her every weakness and could needle her maliciously for an entire evening, or the man who would gallantly bring her presents and whisk her off dancing. Often she didn’t know if she would see Naps at all, as he was capable of disappearing from her life for days at a time without a word of explanation.

This was a pattern familiar from Tallulah’s childhood, when she had craved her father’s attention but so often found him absent. Tallulah made herself laugh at Naps’s unreliability; she busied herself with work and schooled herself to live from one moment to the next. But she had no way of defending herself when he abruptly announced his intention to return to England, offering no suggestion of when or how they might ever meet again.

All at once the fun was draining out of Tallulah’s life. Audiences for Everyday were dwindling, despite her excellent reviews, and the play, was about to be shut down. It was at around this time that her grandmother died, and as Tallulah mooned around New York, grieving for her grandmother and missing Naps, she was more than ready to jump at an offer that promised her a completely fresh start.

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That autumn she had been introduced to the British producer and impresario Charles Cochran. He was in New York to scout for talent and Tallulah had impressed him as exactly the kind of bright, modern star that would appeal to English audiences. He didn’t have a vehicle for her immediately, but in December he wired Tallulah about a play that was opening in London early the following year. It was written by the actor Gerald du Maurier, in collaboration with Diana Manners’s friend Viola Tree, and its lead character was a lively North American dancer, for whom Cochran considered she would be ideal.

No actual promises were made, but Tallulah was determined she must go. Du Maurier was one of the great names of British theatre, she regarded ‘a summons’ from him to be a ‘bugle call from Olympus.’ Even though a succession of urgently corrective telegrams came from Cochran, indicating that the part might no longer be available, and that she should wait in New York, Tallulah refused to pay them any regard. Recently she had been with some friends to a fashionable astrologer, Evangeline Adams, and had been told that in order to achieve fame and fortune she would have to cross the ocean. It was a standard fortune-teller’s line, but Tallulah regarded it as a prophecy. Whatever Cochran was advising, she was willing to believe that fate was directing her to London.

She was encouraged in her belief by Estelle Winwood, the British actress and Bankhead confidante, who was not only looking forward to a reprieve from Tallulah’s chaotic life, but was genuinely convinced that the move would be good for her. Tallulah had made a decent career for herself in New York, but she hadn’t yet broken through to stardom. In London she would be a novelty, and even if du Maurier’s play was no longer an option, Cochran would surely find her something else. The only drawback to the plan was money. Tallulah had saved nothing, and Will could offer her little, given the expensive divorce Eugenia was trying to obtain from Morton Hoyt. Putting on her best dress and her most persuasive manner, Tallulah spent an evening with an old political friend of her grandfather’s, General T. Coleman de Pont, and somehow managed to persuade him to part with the price of a crossing as a tribute to John Bankhead’s faith in her.

On the evening of January 6, 1923, Tallulah boarded the SS Majestic. Standing on the pier was a crowd of tearful fans, dressed in their best flapper frocks. Her own friends were fewer in number, but Estelle was there, and typically it was she who noticed that Tallulah had no warm coat for London, slipping her own mink over her shoulders as a parting gift. Tallulah was not yet twenty-one and had never left America before; the following day, the New York Herald would report that ‘her plans concerning just what she will do in London are rather indefinite’ and Will would write stoically to his sister Marie, ‘If her expectations do not materialize, she will at least have had the sight of England.’

As for Tallulah, beneath her bravado she was utterly terrified. ‘I thought I was going to Mars,’ she later claimed. ‘I was scared to death.’

Excerpted from Flappers: Six Women of A Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell, published in January 2014 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Judith Mackrell. All rights reserved.