During her London years, Tallulah appeared in sixteen plays, ranging from outright junk (“Conchita,” “The Creaking Chair,” “Mud and Treacle”) to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “They Knew What They Wanted.” She missed playing Sadie Thompson in Somerset Maugham’s “Rain” when Maugham nixed her at the last minute, making her so despondent that she thought she’d give suicide a try, and, according to Lobenthal, “swallowed twenty aspirins, scribbled a suicide note—‘It ain’t goin’ to rain no moh’—and lay down on her intended bier.” The next morning, feeling fine, she was wakened by a phone call begging her to step into a leading role in Noël Coward’s “Fallen Angels.”
A CREATURE OF THE STAGE
Her life in London was hardly restricted to work. She was as famous for her shenanigans offstage as for her flamboyant performances. In her autobiography, she confides, “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 beaux clamored for my company.” Her highly publicized flings extended from the tennis champion Jean Borotra to Lord Birkenhead to a fraudulent Italian aristocrat whom she almost married. And, of course, Napier Alington was always on her mind and often in her bed.
But as the decade drew to a close she decided that it was time to go home: she was approaching thirty, Naps was marrying the daughter of an earl, and she was out of money, since she always spent everything she earned, and then some. And suddenly the way was open to her, via an extraordinary offer from Paramount, beginning at five thousand dollars a week. This was the moment when, with the recent coming of sound, Hollywood was signing up every attractive stage star it could find, and the exotic Tallulah, with her husky seductive voice, could well prove to be the next Garbo, the next Dietrich. “Hollywood for me I’m afraid,” she wrote to her father and, in January, 1931, embarked for New York.
In a year and a half, Bankhead made six feature films (and a lot of money), but none of them really worked. It didn’t matter whether she was leaping off a balcony rather than go back to her blind husband, escaping from a submarine that her crazed husband had sabotaged, or going on the streets to procure money for the medicine needed by her desperately ill husband—reviewers said either that she was wasted on such clichéd vehicles or that she didn’t live up to the better of them. The bottom line is that audiences just didn’t take to her. George Cukor, who directed her once, concluded that she wasn’t naturally photogenic: “On the screen she had beautiful bones, but her eyes were not eyes for movies. They looked somehow hooded and dead.” The reality was that she was first and always a creature of the stage, all about projecting her larger-than-life personality at an audience, never about allowing a camera to explore her face and reveal her feelings. The movies caged and suppressed her. (They did the same thing to another stage phenomenon, Ethel Merman.) Bette Davis, who clearly had benefitted from studying her speech patterns and vocal mannerisms, burned up the screen; Tallulah doused it.
She did, however, have fun in Hollywood, what with her Rolls, her suntan, and her non-stop parties. Joan Crawford reminisced, “We all adored her. We were fascinated by her, but we were scared to death of her, too. . . . She had such authority, as if she ruled the earth, as if she was the first woman on the moon.” There were the usual sexual escapades, including an encounter with Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller in the Garden of Allah pool, about which she reported that she had been “a very satisfied Jane.” Yet the biggest scandal she created was a remark she tossed off in an interview: “I haven’t had an affaire for six months. Six months! Too long. . . . i want a man.” This was not the kind of publicity the studios—or the Hays office—could condone, and it helped send her back to Broadway (with her earnings of two hundred thousand dollars).
For half a dozen years, she failed at everything she tried on the stage, most spectacularly in 1937, when she had the calamitous misjudgment to take on “Antony and Cleopatra”: she had no classical technique, and she refused to be coached. The text was butchered, too—in the climactic scene, for instance, the deaths of Cleopatra’s handmaidens were eliminated (“Because, of course, darling, we only want one death in that scene!”). One critic wrote that she was “more a serpent of the Swanee than of the Nile”; another famously quipped, “Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra—and sank.”
Also trapped in this disaster was a second-rank actor named John Emery, whom Tallulah had picked up on the summer circuit and, rather casually, married. Emery was good-looking, capable, and amiable. Best of all, he bore a marked resemblance to John Barrymore, and not only in profile: years earlier, when Barrymore revealed himself to her in his dressing room, Tallulah had sworn to herself (and anyone within earshot) never to sleep with any man who wasn’t “hung like Barrymore,” and went on to claim that she had stuck to her word. (Since she also claimed five hundred or more conquests, perhaps she wasn’t always so picky.) One of Tallulah’s party tricks was to escort guests to the master bedroom, fling back the covers from the bed in which Emery was sleeping, and crow, “Did you ever see a prick as big as that before?” So size mattered, but eventually, in his case, not enough. Soon she was telling people, “Well, darling, the weapon may be of admirable proportions, but the shot is indescribably weak.” Within a few years, the marriage, such as it was, was over.
During the thirties, Tallulah had entered the hospital for what was announced as an “abdominal tumor” but was actually a case of gonorrhea—contracted, she was to say, from George Raft—so violent it brought her close to death. It led to a five-hour radical hysterectomy, and by the time she left the hospital she was down to seventy pounds. Undaunted, she announced to her doctor, “Don’t think this has taught me a lesson!” The hysterectomy left her not only psychologically shaky but erotically diminished—again and again, she testified to her lack of physical pleasure, telling Tennessee Williams’s friend Sandy Campbell, for instance, that she couldn’t reach an orgasm with any man she was in love with. (She gave as an example the multimillionaire Jock Whitney.) Louise Brooks reported to Kenneth Tynan, “I always guessed that she wasn’t as interested in bed as everyone thought.” Apparently, Tallulah cared more about the act of conquest than about the sexual act itself.
Another aspect of her pathology was her unrestrained exhibitionism. She was famous for throwing off her clothes at parties, for leaving her bathroom door open, for working without panties on. When she was performing in Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” so many people in the audience complained that Actors’ Equity had to order her to wear underpants onstage. When she was making “Lifeboat,” Alfred Hitchcock, as Lobenthal puts it, fielded complaints “with his much-quoted deliberation about whether the matter needed to be referred to the makeup or the hairdressing department.