Tallulah Bankhead — A Lady for Legends (1932) 🇺🇸
In this amazingly colorful interview Tallulah Bankhead lives up to all that has been said of her and inspires new rumors as well.
"The first recollection I have of the urge to act," she flowed on as she resumed her place and mechanically reached for another cigarette, "was when I was at school. I went to a convent. In early spring the country stirred me profoundly. I remember the very day I stood alone in the garden, filled with this wonderful feeling. Oh, I don't know what it was!" A twist curved her lips. "Maybe it was only an awakening of sex in me and nothing else."
Tallulah with her odd eyes welling old knowledge, her ironical lips painted wickedly crimson, and her glittering, hard finger nails. A vastly different Tallulah must have stood in the convent garden. Yet that pagan name — Tallulah! No wonder the poor sisters felt uneasy about it. "My child," they often said to her in troubled tones, "you really should have a Christian name."
"Tallulah," she mused, with ancient mischief lurking, "is an Indian name meaning 'love maiden.' People always think of me as Tallulah. In England, in newspapers, in the street, in the theater, they spoke of me merely as Tallulah. Its pagan sound suits me."
The love maiden smiled, but one could not tell whether from amusement or irony, for Tallulah's smiles are not always sincere. "How can they be?" she inquired, in seeming frankness. "I know I have constantly to sell myself, even if I don't feel like it. Smirking and smiling, sparkling with humor — a gay girl, what? Oh, it's a strain, I tell you. In New York I gave so many interviews during lunch hour and kept my sales personality so well to the fore, that I almost got indigestion. Then I had to see reporters between meals."
One can imagine Tallulah seeing reporters at some time.
"Why, I gave no interviews for the last four years I was in London," she confessed indifferently. "Over here it is necessary. I've got to win a new public, a new following. I want to be known and liked." As I attempted to mention before, Tallulah is really not a laughing lady, yet she possesses a peculiar magnetic power — and how! "Don't keep smiling all the time," she told young girls in London. "You'll get wrinkles in your face before you're thirty."
Young men got to like Tallulah's unsmiling countenance. They even got to finding fault with their own girls about grinning too much. "You'll be all wrinkled in your face," they warned, parroting Tallulah. Therefore, Tallulah's sphinx-like face became the rage of London flappers and London matrons.
This occurred, of course, after Tallulah had had a brief career on Broadway, some ten years ago. Then, as now, legends whirled around her. Maybe she really inspired them, maybe not. But during that period she found the New York stage a fallow hunting ground for her talent. On the strength of advice, she sought foreign fields.
Knowing earth's strong force within her, since her springtime initiation in the convent garden, Tallulah is a disciple of astrology. Loving material life so much, the stars are of vital importance to her. That's why she went to that arch-astrologer, Evangeline Adams.
"Go to London, my child," urged Evangeline, "even if you have to swim."
Tallulah didn't swim the ocean, but sailed in style. To return, eight years later, in even greater style — flags flying, cymbals crashing, and a contract with Paramount. And that's how, one fine afternoon, with the planets in their proper places, I chanced to await audience with her.
As polite a butler as ever you saw admitted me. A dark head appeared from above. Was it I? Yes, it was. Is he to come up? Wait a moment. While waiting for royal consent to ascend the white stairs to the upper drawing-room, I thought rapidly on some of the less hectic legends of Tallulah's London sojourn.
Of the entrance of a certain young woman into a fashionable restaurant, who walked straight up to Tallulah and soundly slapped the face of the pet of London. Calmly Tallulah arose and left without a word. The slapper was the embarrassed one.
And what of that strange bequest a very young nobleman made her in his will? He left Tallulah his six automobiles. One imagined her driving out in the first, the other five following. What had she done with them?
Again, Tallulah, skirts drawn up above knees, making the kick-off for the biggest football match of the season.
Tallulah placing a bet at Ascot. Yachting at Cowes. A lively patron at Ma Merrick's Kit Kat Club in the small hours of the morning. Purple rumors about Tallulah in Paris, Berlin, Rome.
By now the dark head appeared again and turned out to be Edie. I was to go up. As soon as I reached the top of the stairs a door was hastily closed. Nothing more mysterious ever than a silently closing door! Along a landing, flanked with windows, to the drawing-room. And there sprang forth Tallulah. Persephone returning from the underworld, with the stain of the blood-red pomegranate still on her lips, a lady for legends indeed!
What is Tallulah's popularity with American fans and writers? It is something of a phenomenon, for none of her three pictures has been praiseworthy, as she herself admits. Critics may find fault with her lack of dramatic power, but Tallulah is certainly a personality to be reckoned with.
Her greatest attraction is her desire of living. Lebenslust governs her. Acting and living are things she not only knows but worships as a religion. It was evidently lebenslust which surged through her on that bygone spring day, urging her to act, live, and perhaps love.
"Love?" Tallulah echoed, or scoffed, with that hollow laugh which accompanies much of her discourse. "I am always in love. But what is love? Getting what you desire, I suppose."
She was a tremendous success in London in The Green Hat. Michael Arlen might have conceived his naughty Iris from Tallulah's philosophy. "J'ai des envies," was one of Iris's cries about life. Tallulah is always swayed by desire. And if she sees in them the meaning of love, who shall gainsay the daughter of Mother Earth?
"I get most of my desires," Tallulah said, satiety seeming to creep over her boy, "sometimes when I don't want them. Something like that happened only the other day," she added, with a weary smile, but refused to say what it had been.
Strangers may consider her insincere, for her mercurial mind causes her to jump from one idea to another. Each new desire forces the last out of her head. She reaches the end of a thing before she even starts it.
Tallulah enjoyed Paris. Also Berlin. Rome was brilliant, but Venice turned out a sad disappointment. "In the first place," Tallulah rattled on, "I was unwell when I arrived there. Second, the smells were so bad it was like eating one's meals in a lavatory."
She is inclined to regard Tallulah with great affection. Like Pola, she contemplates her professional self as a different entity.
"You really must meet me!" she'll say over the phone, in ecstatic, throbbing tones. "You'll rave over me! Everybody is crazy about me! I'm perfectly divine!"
It sounds overwrought and incredible, but you believe it yourself when you've met her. She has the diplomatic knack of making you believe that you are the first real confidant in her life — that she can say things to you that she could say to no one else. She talks rapidly of many things. If you can get a word in edgeways, or question her about those wild legends, you are lucky.
"A writer said to me in London, 'Garbo could not help but be adored — she appeals to the highest and the lowest.' That's a most divine thing to have had said of you. If you can spread your appeal over so vast a range you have reached the top. That ought to bring satisfaction to any artist."
But Garbo is unhappy, I told her.
Thus happy moments sprang into the talk.
"What should have been my happiest moment was the most frightening," Tallulah recalled, with a tinge of sincerity. "You know how a European audience will hiss and boo a play and a player they don't like. After the final curtain fell on my first London appearance, I heard what sounded like all the catcalls in the world. Even when others told me the shouting was just the reverse, I felt no better, for I had been scared to death! I acknowledged their appreciation with knees trembling, tears streaming down my cheeks.
"Say what you like," Tallulah challenged, her gaze wavering between me and the lighting of a fresh cigarette, "it is not the people in the boxes and stalls that make an actress, but the masses in the gallery. Whenever I felt that inner response from the people near the ceiling I knew I and my play were a success."
Tallulah does not like drinking in the daytime, nor large parties, she said.
"Champagne in the evening is all right," she asserted, "and two or three friends are enough. A room full of people is enervating," she added, pronouncing the last word as it should be pronounced, with the accent on the second syllable. All the same, a party was on tap that very night. She had to rush to the hairdresser's for a shampoo and to have her ash-blond tresses bien coiffes for the occasion. We said good-by three times before relinquishing each other's company.
"Don't forget to see my portrait by Augustus Johns as you go out," Tallulah called over the balustrade.
The silently smiling and indispensable Edie had by now shown me downstairs. I gazed at the portrait hanging in the lower drawing-room.
If you like Johns's attenuated, angular lines, it's all right with me. At least give him credit for depicting the dominating trait, rather than the material likeness, of his subjects. He portrays Tallulah the divine, dressed in a loose pink gown, sitting rather meditatively in a chair, gazing downward in silent wonder, as if she saw all the mystery of the universe springing from the earth — just as she might have done when she stood transfixed on that spring day in the convent garden.
In the hall hung another Augustus Johns portrait of a young man. Was he, I wondered, the defunct noble who bequeathed his six cars to Tallulah? I cared little, for the vital thrill of the afternoon was over.
You are right, Tallulah darling. People rave over you. Every one is crazy about you. In short, you really are divine! A lady for legends indeed!
"You really must meet me! You'll rave over me! I'm perfectly divine!" says Tallulah hoarsely over the phone, and when you do meet her you agree that there's no one like her.
Photo by: Eugene Robert Richee (1896–1972)
Caught off guard by the camera, Miss Bankhead isn't exotic or strange at all.
Photo by: Eugene Robert Richee (1896–1972)
Photo by: Otto Dyar (1892–1988)
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Collection: Picture Play Magazine, May 1932