Monday, February 26, 2007

Pink Navy Girl in Every Port: Miss Tallulah Bankhead

Possums, we have a recollection of an episode of Absolutely Fabulous in which Edina dismisses the way her gay ex-husband has been smitten by Patsy’s fabulous sister thus: “Typical! A bitch with a drug habit, and you’re anybody’s, aren’t you?”

We’ll cop to that, but, as it turns out, this week’s bitch with a drug habit, er, Pink Navy Girl in Every Port, happens to be Miss XaXa’s selection, and our first American (so you don’t think we wander only in foreign ports)—the one, the only, the fiercest bitch the State of Alabama ever produced, Miss Tallulah Bankhead.

Endowed with a voice that one writer described as “steeped as deep in sex as the human voice can go without drowning,” Miss Tallulah came from Alabama aristocracy. Her uncle and her grandfather were U.S. Senators, and her father was the Speaker of the House of Representatives under Roosevelt.

Like every Southern belle, Miss Tallulah tried at every turn to get her own way, with some occasions more successful than others, and stated, “To deny me anything only inflames my desires.” Her tantrums were treated with a bucket of water by her no-nonsense grandmother.

At fifteen she moved to New York to be an actress, and checked into the Algonquin Hotel. Yes, the one with the round table. John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather) put the moves on Miss Tallulah, exposing himself to her in his dressing room, after which she swore publicly that she would never bed a man who wasn’t “hung like Barrymore.” She later claimed to have kept her word.

Like many another ingénue, she tried lesbianism and cocaine. Her first experiment was with the great lady of the theater, Eva Le Gallienne; she took to introducing herself to strangers at parties with, “I’m a lesbian. What do you do?” She may also have had an affair with Billie Holiday. Not that she could exactly make up her mind, as she also declared, “I could never become a lesbian because they have no sense of humor.”

She eventually ended up in London, where she had a great success, until she was rejected by Somerset Maugham (the gay novelist married to famous decorator Sirie Maugham) to play Sadie Thompson, the floozy who tempts a minister in the tropics in his play, Rain. As a result, she tried to commit suicide by swallowing 20 aspirins and writing a suicide note that read, “It ain’t goin’ to rain no moh.” She awoke the next day in fine fettle to the news that she would star in a Noël Coward play.

She then made her way to Hollywood and a well-paid career in undistinguished movies. She had loads of fun, though, including a tryst with Tarzan himself, Olympic swimming medalist Johnny Weissmuller, in the swimming pool of the Garden of Allah, after which she declared herself “a very satisfied Jane.”

She eventually married John Emery, a good-looking man who was a second-rate actor, but whose charms were undeniable. According to a piece in The New Yorker:

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?”….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.

She contracted a severe case of gonorrhea from actor George Raft, which led to hospitalization, a hysterectomy and severe weight loss. She left the hospital weighing 70 pounds, but proclaimed to the doctor, “Don’t think this has taught me a lesson!”

Like some of today’s celebrities, she was given to flashing audiences. Because so many people in the audience complained during the run of a Thornton Wilder play, Actors’ Equity had to order her to wear knickers while onstage. The same problem came up, as it were, while she was filming Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, which, according to a biographer, led Hitchcock to respond “with his much-quoted deliberation about whether the matter needed to be referred to the makeup or the hairdressing department.” Sounds like Kelly Wearstler.

Unfortunately, her film career didn’t add up to much, and the stage work dried up as well. By the 1950s, she had a radio show, a rather saucy memoir on the bestseller list, and made appearances on I Love Lucy as herself. In 1968, she died from double pneumonia. A giver of great quote to the end, her final words were, “codeine—bourbon.”

Miss Tallulah, referred to as “Humphrey Bogart in silk panties” and as the “most thoroughgoing libertine and free-swinging flapper of the age,” left a trail of anecdotes and quips. Apparently, she was given to swimming in nothing but a string of pearls. Her reasoning? “I just wanted to prove I was a natural ash blonde.”

And Miss XaXa’s favorite quotes:

- I'll come and make love to you at five o'clock. If I'm late, start without me.

- It's the good girls who keep diaries; the bad girls never have the time.

- My father warned me about men and booze... but he never said anything about women and cocaine.