Famous Londoners: Tallulah Bankhead
Alex Mustapha explores the life of silver screen star Tallulah Bankhead during her stay in London in the mid to late Twenties.
For her spectacular offstage antics alone, Tallulah Bankhead happens to be my most revered of golden-era starlets. She is the archetypal Thirties actress, representing an era when the seeds of legends were sewn through unimaginable decadence, tragedy, and excess away from the spotlight.
Being a London-born vintage geek, I have been typically fascinated by the period the actress spent in our capital. This was 1923 to 1931, apparently decided upon the vision of a clairvoyant. It was in London, in those eight years, that Miss Bankhead became an overnight success and made a name for herself as a stage actress before returning to America to star in movies – many of which bombed, due, in part, to the breaking up of a winning formula: the heady concoction of the wild daughter of an Alabama congressman against the backdrop of our capital in the Twenties, with a young social set ready to roar. It was a match made in hedonist heaven.
If you are not familiar with the life and times of Tallulah Bankhead, you will not regret acquainting yourself with her story immediately – there is simply no other female starlet quite like this woman as far as crazy is concerned. Combine the wit of Dorothy Parker with the sexual allure of a young Joan Crawford, illuminated by the histrionic antics of a spoiled Southern brat – and you have a vague idea.
A leading role in The Dancers, a play by Gerald du Maurier at Leicester Square’s infamous Wyndham’s Theatre was the engagement that started it all. The energy she brought to the show appears to have carried a charge of unfamiliar spectacle to London audiences: “Indeed [they] were riveted by her apparent and very un-British lack of inhibition. ” Every night when, on-cue, she had to cry on stage, she was said to have flooded the whole theatre”, according to biography Tallulah!: The life and times of a leading lady. All reports indicate that she kept the reserved British audience on tenterhooks, with one Mrs. Patrick Campbell musing that “Watching Tallulah Bankhead on the stage is like watching somebody skate over very thin ice – and the English want to be there when she falls through.”
Perhaps it was the naughtiness in her decidedly sexual and uniquely recognizable Southern drawl that helped whip up audiences into a frenzy; but whatever it was, she sure as hell worked up a cult following on the West-End stage. A collective of female fans, dubbed the “Gallery Girls” emerged – young women often trying to escape from mundane or working-class life, flocked to her every performance and wanted to emulate the larger-than-life star known for referring to everyone as “dahhling” (a situation reminiscent of the titular character in All About Eve, obsessing over the theatrical charms and hanging on the every word of fictional Margo Channing). It’s a phenomenon one can certainly daydream about in a place such as Wyndham’s. Not too dissimilar in many ways to its original 1899 design, Wyndham’s is one of those great, timeless London places to catch a vintage-inspired night out in the capital (Driving Miss Daisy and The Rat Pack Live From Las Vegas are showing now).
Tallulah inhabited a flat in Mayfair’s Farm Street for much of her stay where infamous parties were held, of which the uninhibited hostess was always the life and soul of (- she who was famous for knickerless cartwheels and naked entrances must’ve went down a storm with the conservative set…).
And then there was the Savoy… If you have ever been to the American Bar (pictured) in the Savoy Hotel it becomes quite easy to imagine what flavor America was bringing to London in the Twenties. Miss Bankhead frequented lunch there with the famous theatre types, aristocrats and wits of the era that inextricably link the two – prim and proper London elites, and American Hollywood glamour, the latter leaving a remarkable impression on London’s attitudes – what they drank, what they wore, what hotspots they frequented – as the capital took style cues from the exotic transatlantic stars most cherished by the Brits.
For a hotel that boasts ‘personality suites’ in homage to several Hollywood stars that made the Savoy their London homes, the glamour factor certainly delivers. Suites that pay homage to “The wit of Frank Sinatra, or “The beauty of Marlene Dietrich”, are juxtaposed with those dedicated to homegrown stars such as Katherine Hepburn and Charlie Chaplain. Built originally in 1889 and the first British hotel in the “American style”, a martini at the American Bar is a great, glamorous, vintage-inspired escape from the hustle and bustle of the streets below. Actually, it would be pretty hard to imagine how the hedonism of Twenties London would have even taken of, if not for Americans, and outspoken Tallulah pretty much epitomizes this. But alas, once she had made her mark, it was time to leave. In her own words:
“Have I darkly hinted that for eight years I cut a great swath in London? Well I damned well did, and it was all a spur to my ego, electrifying! London beux clamored for my company. To be seen with me in the supper clubs, in the after-hour hideaways, the Paris boites on delirious weekends, confirmed their midnight note. I created quite a stir wherever I went. I rejoiced in this harum-scarum attention to the hilt, perhaps a little beyond the hilt. I had ecstatic flings with many of these braves, but I was incapable of sustained ardors. Sufficient into the day was the night thereof, if I may corrupt an old adage.”
It was this very reason, that Tallulah and London were such a complimentary but toxic mix, that the rumormongers assumed that the actresses’ departure must have been the result of a forcible expulsion at the hands of the powers that be. “When I left England in 1931,” the actress reminisced in her 1952 autobiography, “someone loosed the canard that I had been deported […] I had been exiled, said my traducers, for adult delinquency, for practicing Voodoo without a license, because my arrears in income tax outraged the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Utter poppycock!”
No stranger to controversy or real, legal trouble, rumors had circulated for years concerning her sexuality; an incident concerning the so-called ‘corruption’ of two Etonion pupils abounded long after her death and was even investigated by MI6. Always living in extremes, she appears to have been someone who was either loved dearly or the subject of bitter scorn for her fondness of free speech. Not that it did her any considerable harm, in fact rather the opposite. Ever the self-publicist, she declared “Like an addlepate I rejoiced in these rumours. They inflated my reputation as a femme fatale.”
When Tallulah finally packed up her bags to return home in 1931, it would seem a lot of the bewitching stage-presence that had captivated audiences was lost, with Tallulah only being credited with a handful of successes in American film, such as Hitchcock’s Lifeboat of 1944. While us admirers typically witter on about the actress’s notorious charm, uniqueness and exhibitionism – and anecdotes shocking even by today’s standards, I am fascinated by the legend of Tallulah because above all she was a popular London anglophile that imported a sense of fun and marvel.