Hollywood did, however, give Tallulah financial independence and she left with $200,000 and a resolve to return to the stage. It would be a decade before she made another film.
She opened on Broadway to rapturous applause in Forsaking All Others. Joan Crawford would star in the film version a year or so later in some sort of revenge by the studio. Had Tallulah stayed, she may have got the role. Critics raved but the stage show lost money – $40,000 of Tallulah’s money. She was to play Jezebel on stage but had to have a hysterectomy and the role went to Miriam Hopkins (1902-72 massive heart attack). The hospital bills were costly. But her reputation for stripping off at parties and walking around naked was at its height.
“Nobody seemed particularly startled by it,” said Burgess Meredith (1907-97 melanoma) about one party he attended. He said what was funny to him was her friends paid almost no attention to it and went on playing their games or talking. “She was way ahead of her time,” said Meredith of Tallulah’s almost sexless hedonism. She may have been at home in the 1970s but now it’s all a bit of a no-no.
She met the actor John Emery (1905-64) who she would marry for a few years. He was apparently well hung…
Then Gone with the Wind came into her life. Despite the futility of the films she made in Hollywood, she wanted the role of Scarlett O’Hara. In fact, producer David O. Selznick (1902-65 heart attack) thought he had found Scarlett when he saw her on the stage and she was invited to test for the role. Busy on stage in New York, Tallulah flew through storms to get to Los Angeles for the test on time and despite being exhausted, the results were promising… but I guess Selznick said that to all the girls and when ninety actresses were tested Tallulah knew the role wasn’t hers. Vivien Leigh (1913-67 pneumonia or tuberculosis) ten years younger than Tallulah got the part.
Tallulah married Emery in August 1937 three months after weeping at the end of her affair with Napier. Why they married nobody knew. Maybe he loved her or the money. Emery called the marriage “a challenge”.
“Does this mean you plan to retire?,” a journalist asked 35-year-old Tallulah.
“If I wanted to retire, you idiot, would I have married an actor?,” she said.
Tallulah said Emery reminded her of John Barrymore and he had the profile. He was a second rate one though if that was the case. Some said Tallulah was a ball-breaker and actor Robert Ryan (1909-73 lung cancer) wondered how an essentially gentle man like Emery got involved with Tallulah.
They did Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra together, in the hopes of starring in future stage productions together, but it tanked and finished after five performances following being lambasted by the critics.
Despite a lack of funds, the parties started at Tallulah’s at 3am.
Vincent Price remembers Tallulah visiting him in his dressing room in the late 1930s and she was sitting on the washbasin… taking a pee!
“You know, if she hadn’t been, I’d have been terribly disappointed. Because that was part of the Tallulah legend,” said Price.
With the outbreak of World War II, director Otto Preminger’s (1905-86 lung cancer) family was trapped in Austria and Tallulah used her father’s connections in Washington to get them out. It was then Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes came into her life. It would be Bette Davis who would play Tallulah’s role in the 1940 movie… the bitchy role of Regina Giddens. Giddens was the embodiment of an evil, grasping monster and those who saw Tallulah on stage were astonished. Hellman said: “it was the best part she ever had.”
Then she met a young Tennessee Williams who offered her his first play Battle of Angels which he had written for her. She turned him down.
With the British fleeing Dunkirk, Tallulah went on the wagon dramatically for the duration… Meanwhile her father died and she still refused a drink. Her ex-lover Napier died flying in the Battle of Britain that same year. The two main men in her life were suddenly gone. She did drink spirits of ammonia as “medicine” and grew bored with the year long plus run of The Little Foxes, swearing and lifting her skirt on stage as if drunk.
When Lillian Hellman went to complain, Tallulah’s maid said: “Miss Bankhead took a purgative last night and doesn’t feel well.” To which Hellman replied: “Yes, tell her, it’s on stage!”
The Little Foxes run was cancelled and shortly after she divorced Emery. Instead, she took up with an eight-day old lion cub she bought from a circus for $100 and bottle fed it. She named him Winston and would take him on curtain calls until he was on a leash. The cat would horrify guests at her hotel by upturning furniture and leaping into their laps.
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” Tallulah would say, “He loves to do that to people. It’s his way of having fun.” After nipping a few people, he went to the Bronx Zoo.
After doing Clash by Night on stage directed by Method Acting founder Lee Strasberg (1901-82 heart attack) – he knew Tallulah would be no Method convert – she bought a house in the country, where upon finding herself lonely, filled it with dogs and young men who were often in her plays.
Meanwhile, Alfred Hitchcock was preparing his next film Lifeboat (1944). Tallulah, under financial duress, took the part when it was offered for $75,000. For those who don’t know, Lifeboat is a bit of a stunt film of sorts in the Hitchcockian manner as it is set almost entirely on a lifeboat with assorted survivors from a torpedoed ship during World War II. The stunt, or challenge, being how to make such a cramped setting for a film seem interesting.
Tallulah perpetually tortured German actor Walter Slezak (1902-83 suicide by gunshot) who played the Nazi on board the lifeboat. She called him a “Nazi” over and over again in a kind of semi-serious way. She would also lift her skirt every time the cast stepped into the set of the lifeboat, using a ladder, to reveal each morning she was wearing no underwear.
Hitchcock, however, had a ball as there was nothing he didn’t like about Tallulah. He thought her “four letter word” vocabulary healthy and loved her “tremendous sense of humour”.
When the fact she wore no panties became an issue that went to the top of 20th Century Fox studios – Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-79 pneumonia) – it was Paula Strasberg (1909-66 bone marrow cancer) who finally told Tallulah that the panties were not on! History is divided over whether she did finally wear them after that.
“The whole point about Tallulah,” Hitchcock summed up, “was that she had no inhibitions. Now some people can take that, others can’t.”
With the gigantic water tanks often dousing the cast for storm scenes, Tallulah got a bout of pneumonia. It was treated but it came back with one shot to do. Tallulah did it with a temperature of 104 degrees.
Then came “Ernst Lubitsch’s” (1892-1947 heart attack) A Royal Scandal (1945) which was a film about Catherine the Great (1729-96 stroke) of Russia – a woman of lax morals, who had heaps of lovers and a lust for literature.
Lubitsch offered the part to Tallulah for $125,000 for fifteen weeks’ work. She signed. But Lubitsch had a heart attack, although he had, fortunately, been there for rehearsals. Otto Preminger was hired to replace him. But Preminger lacked “the Lubitsch Touch” for comedy… Just watch Skidoo (1968). Lubitsch continued to haunt the set and rushes in the projection room. He even told Preminger he had dinner with Greta Garbo (1905-90 renal failure and pneumonia) who wanted to come out of retirement to play the role. But Preminger said “no” as he was a good friends with Tallulah – remember she saved his family. Lubitsch avoided Tallulah for the rest of the shoot until one day he started yelling at her in no uncertain terms… something which left her humiliated and shattered, crying on the floor of her dressing room. The crew looked as though they had seen a fatal car wreck and Tallulah threatened to walk. She said she would never steal a scene which Lubitsch had accused her of doing.
“I would never do such a thing,” she cried, “not even Barrymore!”
It ended with Lubitsch and Tallulah shaking hands and in the previews of the film, Preminger noted a feeling of coldness among the audience despite many laughs. Lubitsch films are of comedy of manners type or farces. Some say Garbo would have done it better, others were happy with Tallulah.
“Your majesty…,” says actor William Eythe (1918-57 hepatitis).
“Call me Catherine,” responds Tallulah.
The film has a kind of affinity to another Russian set movie: The Kremlin set The Death of Stalin (2017), in terms of its black comedy. That film is so deadpan at moments when it’s not a farce, and its wit seems so unintended, that no-one really thought it was a comedy. Maybe it was a bad one as I was the only one laughing. And I laugh at A Royal Scandal too.
“Do you know what you are?,” says actor Sig Ruman (1884-1967 heart attack) to a head palace official played by Charles Coburn (1877-1961 heart attack).
“I know but I deny it,” retorts Coburn.
And another line: “No wonder he didn’t answer my last letter,” says Ruman, without irony, upon hearing of a death of a friend.
Another memorable thing about A Royal Scandal is the remarkable number of highly bejewelled necklaces Tallulah wears throughout the film. It’s not the greatest movie but there are a few laughs to be had. Tallulah is almost unrecognisable in costume at times.
The film, while not a flop, disappointed at the box office. And the film roles dried up for Tallulah again.
Silly, but Tallulah turned down the stage role of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams because it had the ‘n’ word in it. Tallulah was brought up by black nannies, was on the original board of the NAACP and the first white woman to appear on the cover of Ebony magazine. She flopped in another play instead before finding some success with Noel Coward’s Private Lives. It ran three years.
She was asked to test for the movie version of The Glass Menagerie (1950) and that test would take three days and cover three scenes.
“I was absolutely floored by her performance,” said director Irving Rapper (1898-1999). “It’s the greatest test I have seen in my life. I couldn’t believe I was seeing such reality…” The crew were stunned too.
It is probably not surprising that Williams always said he wrote his plays with Tallulah’s voice in mind. Executives who saw the test came out with tears streaming down their face. But Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952 liver and abdominal cancer) got the part. All because Warner Studio head Jack L. Warner (1892-1978 heart inflammation) was sick of Errol Flynn’s (1909-59 heart attack) trouble with the bottle – they didn’t want the same thing with Tallulah. And for some reason the test was ordered burned.
She did radio with some success. Then came a court case where a secretary-maid was altering Tallulah’s checks and pocketing the difference. The maid charged that Tallulah made her buy marijuana and cocaine and made her roll so many joints that she could make 98 in five hours! She said she also took care of Tallulah’s gigolos. And Tallulah regularly beat her! The trial ended after thirteen days – Tallulah’s lucky number – and the woman was charged with stealing. Tallulah’s reputation, such that it was, remained intact.
She wrote her autobiography in 1952 and it remained on the bestseller list for 26 weeks, revealing she really did have wit and the gift of the gab. She recorded it on a tape recorder.
When she finally did Streetcar, it was an opening night full of gay men in the audience. They all laughed at Tallulah’s low voice as if she was a lesbian. She had finally become a caricature of herself to the audience. She was shaken and disappointed by the experience, while Williams who saw the Coconut Grove performance said she gave a bravura performance, one of “great gallantry and courage”.
She carried on, an addiction to sleeping pills and bourbon taking its toll as she tried to smother pain. It also turned her memory to mush. In her later years she would watch soapies. She still worked on stage but it was an ordeal for directors in her later years as she searched for soft spots to strike blows to their egos. And her poor memory had her alter scripts.
She did Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore which was turned into the film Boom! (1968) with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It closed quickly around the time JFK was assassinated in 1963. She would never appear on Broadway again. She started to call herself the hermit of 57th Street as she was now living on the thirteenth floor in a building in New York. She had a portable oxygen tank to gasp air between cigarettes due to her emphysema.
“She was the most sensational case of the aging process being unkind,” said her friend Orson Welles (1915-85 heart attack). “I’ll never forget how awful she looked at the end and how beautiful she looked at the beginning.”
Hammer Pictures then offered her Fanatic (1965), or the more Tallulah-like title it was released under in the United States – Die! Die! My Darling!
She took it for $50,000 and ten percent of the profits after being persuaded by friends. In it, she would play a homicidal maniac, following in the footsteps of aging stars in the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? mould.
She had a Rolls Royce meet her in London and take her to the Ritz. She was no longer interested in London and upon trying to trace old friends said: “They’re all dead and didn’t leave a forwarding address.”
She didn’t lie about her ill health to the insurers and it nearly cost her the job. They wouldn’t insure her and she gambled her salary until shooting ended. They accepted.
Actress Stefanie Powers said they had to “turn on” a disinterested Tallulah to get a good performance. It worked to the point where Powers said Tallulah did most of her stunt work.
“She lifted me with a tremendous amount of strength,” said Powers.
At the end of the shoot, Tallulah gave director Silvio Narizzano (1927-2011) a medal inscribed with a devil and she drove off in a Rolls Royce with the numberplate HEL 777.
“No words can express my relief that the picture is over,” said Narizzano, “she is magnificent but impossible.”
Fanatic does show that Tallulah’s beauty had all but vanished. It was not surprising when asked if she was Tallulah Bankhead, she would respond with: “What’s left of her.”
With fingers yellowed from chain smoking, Tallulah gives what could be described as a restrained performance… as the mother of the now deceased boyfriend of Powers. She tells Powers when Powers visits that she hoped Stephen died “a virgin soul” as they are so much more beloved by the almighty. She also chastises Powers for not going to church regularly. The voice of Tallulah is its usual croak and she carries herself with some carriage in her first scene.
“I keep it as a harsh reminder of what I was,” says Tallulah to Powers about the scrapbook of her days as an actress, while otherwise lying down holding a teddy bear and conversing with her late son.
Also in the cast is a young Donald Sutherland playing someone with an intellectual disability as it becomes clear that Powers is being held captive in the country household under threat of death should she try to escape. With little more than a couple of Bibles on her vast empty bookshelves, Tallulah reads from one of them for an entire Sunday and then serves bland vegetarian food full of wheatgerm.
“You will not regret staying I promise you… You are a virgin, aren’t you?,” says Tallulah.
The film may not be as much fun as it sounds but there is a novelty in that the character Tallulah plays is one of total conflict – a Bible thumping puritan who wouldn’t hesitate to kill. It’s a part made for Tallulah, it would appear, and she is up to the limited material written by sci-fi and horror old hand Richard Matheson (1926-2013).
“They are insane,” says Powers. “All of them.”
It’s a shame Tallulah wasn’t well enough to take on more horror or other film roles in general, let alone teevee. She didn’t like her photos being used on the set of Die! Die! My Darling!, nor did she like the film being renamed with this title and tried to sue Columbia Pictures which distributed it in the United States.
The actual line in the film is famous for having to be looped. That is, re-recorded for the final soundtrack. Remixing was done in New York and Tallulah turned up drunk and four hours late. She really didn’t like that title! It then took the rest of the day to capture that one immortal line. So infamous is the session that it was turned into a play called Looped which won a Tony nomination for actress Valerie Harper (1939-2019 lung cancer which spread) in the Tallulah role in 2010.
Other Tallulah traits that are in the film are that when she takes Powers to the village her character doesn’t stop talking. Also, the painting of her son, who she is almost incestuously obsessed with, looks like an oil painting of her beloved Lord Napier. Furthermore, Tallulah gets stabbed in the back, although literally this time, by her maid, just like the one who took her to court. It was Tallulah’s last movie.
“I’d rather give both food and drink up than cigarettes,” said Tallulah.
She said of Hitchcock: “The gentlest of men and a real genius.”
She made an appearance in the spoof series Batman as Black Widow in 1967 but it isn’t remembered fondly by fans.
“I have emphysema,” she would say. “It’s a terrible thing.” And she would light another cigarette.
Stefanie Powers would visit her in New York.
“Nothing in her lifestyle was mundane,” she said. “She never liked to go to the toilet alone. She loved to have an audience.”
She even went once with the door open while former First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962 heart failure) was present.
“I’m a natural blonde and I’m ready to prove it,” she would say.
In the end, she was painfully gaunt and frail. There was an epidemic of flu in December of 1968 and Tallulah caught it which turned into pneumonia.
Her agent knew she wouldn’t fight to live. Maybe it was the new administration in the White House! She went into delirium and her last coherent words were; “… codeine-bourbon…”
And she died on the night of 12 December 1968 of pneumonia complicated by emphysema.
Having led a life some may have called “depraved”, Tallulah retained an almost childlike innocent quality. Her body wracked by years of self-abuse… one of her greatest fears was she would disgrace her beloved father the politician. Some people just called her sexual and vicious at times but she could also be generous with her money and was an obvious joy to non-conformists. Perhaps if she had worked at it, she might have been a great actress. She seemed to be giving a continual performance… part of the show-off child within her. Was she making up for the mother she lost at three weeks of age?
There’s no doubt though, Tallulah was a darling!