Tallulah Bankhead: Glorious, Glossy Machine

Tallulah, in 1939, the time of The Little Foxes, photographed by Horst. P. Horst. (Corbis)

Tenn in Conversation
New Orleans

No intelligent playwright ever trusted her fully, because her pact was with the public--that slavering, fanatical public. It is inconceivable to us now to realize that there was an actress, a theatre actress, who had throngs of fans lined up to watch her eat, shop, and walk down a street. And the theatres! They throbbed and pounded like sports arenas, and there was always that glorious moment--in Coward, Barry, and, God help us, Williams--when she broke character and beamed out at the audience. 'It's all for you darlings,' she transmitted. Maddening but fascinating, and so exciting. No one cut a figure across a stage like she did. She could upstage a crucifixion with the right dress, and she would gladly do so, if the pay was sufficient.

Life disappointed her; reality had repeatedly let her down, and God knows I can cop to that. After a few drinks, and if there was no promise of cock in the room, she could speak to you as a person, as a real being with feelings and doubts, and she would admit that life was something she was in charge of creating for herself, daily. Judgment Day comes hourly, she told me, and I'm holding the trumpet. So the wise person got behind her glittery train and followed blindly and happily. She was terribly generous with her time and her money and her spirit--not so much with her humanity.

Tallulah, drink and cigarette in hand, at a party in 1954. (Corbis)

The truth is that she loved her audiences passionately, gave to them indiscriminately, and that was her greatest relationship--with a mass of people who waited on her every movement and whose lives she honestly improved. It is hard to conceive of the fact that she traveled this country--and parts of other countries--and defined, for a very long time, what glamour and talent were. Maybe she fed her actress' soul with a diet of meringue, and maybe her life was devoted to glossy dross, but no one to my mind has done it better, and you could set your watch to her laugh lines, crossovers, and flips of her hair. She was a glorious, glossy machine, and you can't tell me we don't need those.


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