In high school I had to write a paper about a famous Alabamian for our "Alabama History" class. Most people chose Jesse Owens or Helen Keller or (for some strange reason) Nell Carter. I chose Tallulah Bankhead. At the time I really didn't know much about her, but the name was so unusual I knew she couldn't be boring. And boy, was I right about that.
Marlene Dietrich called her "the most immoral woman who ever lived." She was known for smoking a hundred cigarettes a day (despite a life-long battle with chronic bronchitis), drinking bourbon and whiskey like water (her last words were bourbon...codeine), having affairs with men and women (the likes of Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo) and taking off her clothes at the drop of a hat. In an age when starlets' reputations were crafted by studios I think she must have been a bit too much for Hollywood to handle as she had much more success on London and New York stages than she did in the movies.
There are things that came from her mouth that I'm too embarrassed to even print here! Here's a little taste of some of the tamer things she was known to have said:
- “It's the good girls who keep the diaries; the bad girls never have time.”
- “Nobody can be exactly me. Sometimes even I have trouble doing it.”
- “My father warned me about men and booze but he never said anything about women and cocaine.”
- “Cocaine habit-forming? Of course not. I ought to know. I've been using it for years.”
- “I read Shakespeare and the Bible, and I can shoot dice. That's what I call a liberal education.”
- “The only thing I regret about my past is the length of it. If I had to live my life again I'd make all the same mistakes - only sooner.”
OK, fine. Here are a couple that I probably shouldn't repeat:
- "I was raped in our driveway when I was eleven. You know darling, it was a terrible experience because we had all that gravel."
- "Don't think this has taught me a lesson!" Upon having an emergency hysterectomy for severe gonorrhea (she claims she received from Gary Cooper).
- "How do you get laid in this dreadful place?" Referring to her short stay in Hollywood.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. They get worse! She was quite a handful. Just Google her and Chico Marx to see what I mean.
Here's a little bit of Tallulah on Edward R. Murrow's TV show "Person to Person" circa 1953. What in the world does she have in her lap?!
"Dah-ling" by Robert Gottlieb in The New Yorker, 2005
Tallulah by Brendan Gill (out of print), 1972
Tallulah Bankhead: A Scandalous Life by David Bret, 1997
Tallulah: My Autobiography (Southern Icons Series) by Tallulah Bankhead, 1952
Tallulah!: The Life and Times of a Leading Lady by Joel Lobenthal, 2004