Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Hurricane Called Tallulah

Just because it tickled me pink, here is the most marvellous anecdote about the fearsome Miss Bankhead from Slings and Arrows: Theatre in My Life, the memoirs of Robert Lewis:
In those grandiose Hollywood days, you didn't just give a dinner party. You produced it. It had to have a "motif," and the theme of this one at Arthur Freed's was "Russia, our wartime ally." As I entered the house, two huge Cossacks, complete with shiny boots and Russian blouses, greeted me. A yellow-braided, comrade maidservant in native dress took my coat. Although simple, peasant borscht and black bread would undoubtedly be served, it was clear to me at once that I was NOT the only one there who did make five grand or more a week. I could sense that Freed was hard put to find a way to introduce me around. The only credit of mine he knew was my direction of My Heart's in the Highlands. Vincente Minnelli had to tell him I had had an "artistic success" with it, about as dirty a jab as you can get on the gold coast. Or on Broadway, for that matter. As Freed manoeuvred me gingerly toward Tallulah Bankhead, I could see his face screwing up in an apologetic smile.

"Tallulah, this is Bobby Lewis. You know he directed that Saroyan play." Miracle of miracles, she had actually seen it.

"Darling, you're a poet," she growled, grabbing my arm. With this she backed me out of the room onto the terrace and pinned me to the stone wall:

So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet-season'd showers are to the ground

she began in the well-known, husky voice and went on to the end of the sonnet without dropping a syllable. Though sufficiently convinced we were both poetic, I was also cold, and I started back into the warm room, hungrily eyeing the canapés, the drinks, and the famous personages who were going to spin me to the top of the Hollywood heap. Little did I know the power of poetry, or of Tallulah. Fully revved up now, she laid a second sonnet on me and then a third and a fourth. Standing in the chill night air, frozen with admiration at how many of the poems she knew, I was also panicked with the realization that Shakespeare had written over one-hundred and fifty of these little masterpieces. I screamed over her rendering of

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold time's fickle glass

that, if I wasn't to die of pneumonia, I had better have a glass with some liquor in it, fast. This suggestion brought her magically back to a more prosaic state of mind, and I darted indoors.

It was well known that Tallulah was having a long ride on one of her famous "wagons," this one having to do with her abstinence from alcohol until her beloved England would have won the war. I was present, later, in her Pound Ridge house, during the time when Bankhead swore she would never take a drink again until Adlai Stevenson became president - a long drought that would have been unless you understand what she meant by "on the wagon." She meant you weren't to make her a drink; but that didn't stop her from taking a good gulp from yours, his, hers, anyone's. It was also apparently OK for her to imbibe some witch's brew concocted of Coca Cola and spirits of ammonia. For an additional high, she popped and sniffed some odd capsules that her sister Eugenia insisted were used to revive horses that slipped and fell on the winter ice. Tallulah always said of her sister, "She the witty one. I'm the pretty one."

(One night, during this Adlai Stevenson no-drink-for-Tallulah period, our heroine was, as usual, loudly defending the Democratic party, to which her Speaker of the House father and Senator uncle belonged, against the staunch Republicanism of her friend, theatrical agent Edie van Cleve. At one point, to support the logic of her position, Tallulah delivered Edie a huge kick in the ass. Sister Eugenia, next to me on the couch, stopped the passing butler. "Sylvester," she said, "will you please find out what it is that Miss Bankhead isn't drinking and bring me one of those.")

Cut back, as we say in the movies, to the Arthur Freed party. As I re-entered the living room where everyone was having cocktails, I was surprised to hear Tallulah, following behind me, call out, "I want to propose a toast, darlings." Although the war was not quite over, it was clear that Tallulah was ready to acknowledge victory for the Allies. Her drink was brought, and she raised her glass high. "To Franklin Delano Roosevelt, commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States of America!" With that, she downed the drink and - whoosh - dashed her glass into the fireplace. Now when I say glass, you understand I'm not talking about those inexpensive tumblers you get out when you're having a big party. I'm talking about a gold-rimmed number that Mrs. Freed had had engraved at Tiffany's. Both Freeds stared into the hearth at their shattered treasure. Moving away, thanking God that the toast was over, the Freeds were halted by the actress's next booming order: "I'll have another." This, too, was brought.

"Winston Churchill, bulldog of the British Empire!" Gulp - and whoosh - down went the second glass into the fireplace. The Freeds looked at each other in horror, mentally counting up the Heads of State on our side. Tallulah went through them all, concluding with Chiang Kai-shek. She didn't even skip her hated Stalin. The ceremony seemingly over, everyone started a hasty retreat from the mound of broken glass in the fireplace. "I'll have another," commanded Tallulah. I racked my brains trying to figure which Allied Head of State she'd overlooked. "Field Marshal Montgomery!" she cried. An agonized groan emerged from Freed as everyone realized she was preparing to go through every five-star general, as well as those with only four, three, two, or one star - and most likely to continue onto and through the privates. Somewhat less patriotic than Tallulah, our host tiptoed gracelessly away, leading the rest of the guests to the various tables set up in the dining room.

The meal that followed made Alice's mad tea party seem like a quiet dinner at Emily Post's. Finding herself alone, a condition she couldn't endure for ten seconds, Tallulah came loping into the dinner room and plopped down at the extra bridge table in the corner, to which I had been relegated. She wouldn't eat anything. Tallulah was religious about not mixing food and liquor, not even stooping to contaminate her drink with a bit of nourishing lemon peel. As a matter of sad fact, when she was rushed to the hospital for what turned out to be her final illness, I was told that she hadn't eaten any food for five days.

The Slavic dinner having begun with some very special caviare, the serfs arrived with the hot borscht and piroshki. As a blonde-plaited maid came over to our table with a couple of steaming plates of the soup, Tallulah, in a sudden rush of comradely affection, enveloped the poor girl in a Russian bear hug. Borscht and piroshki went flying over heads and into laps. At the other end of the room, where he had hoped he was safely settled, Mr. Freed, rising ever so slightly, stared at our battlefield with a kasha-under-the-nose expression but didn't dare approach the formidable enemy.

The second skirmish began with the arrival of the shashlik. These were held high on huge flaming swords by the Cossack waiters. As Tallulah, smiling a maniacal challenge at the flames, rose and advanced, the terrified servants danced around the tables trying to avoid her. By now the more prudent guests were scurrying out of their seats and fleeing the inevitable scorched earth of the dining area back to the living room.

As soon as the retreat had been accomplished, Tallulah, flushed with victory, sailed in and took up her post at the fireplace, the scene of her earlier triumph. As she glowered contemptuously at the entire cowardly assemblage, Arthur Freed did what any normal host would do on finding he had a loaded tigress in his living room. He turned to Judy Garland and said, "Won't you sing something?" In a split second, Roger Edens, not head of the music department of the Freed unit for nothing, was banging out an introduction at the piano. Judy, terrified, hung onto the curve of the piano, glazed eyes down. Her famous tremolo rapidly growing to a wobble, she sang, "The last time I saw Paris, her heart was young and . . . " She never got to "gay" for, from the fireplace, looking under and up from her tremulous eyelashes, Tallulah, unwilling to relinquish her generalship for more than a couple of bars, slowly growled, in her lowest contrabass, "I - hate - young - people."

Ominous silence followed. The only movement in the room was the smoke pouring from the patrician Bankhead nostrils. How would our brave host manage the perilous generation gap between the two stars? He did the only thing possible - unless you are crazy enough to suppose that with the help of fifteen or twenty of the Boldest male guests, plus cossacks, he could simply have tossed Tallulah out. Wearing the most pathetic, pleading expression since the little match girl, Freed gently placed a forefinger to his trembling lips, which he pursed silently, into a "shh" position.

To this mildest of reprimands, Tallulah reacted as though a volley of cannon shot had been fired at her. She swooped down on Freed, grabbed that offender by his collar, and pulling his face ignominiously up against hers, barked, "How dare you shush me, you - you - songwriter!" A triumph of the art of acting made this noble profession sound as if it were the lowest perversion. Eyeballs rolling back, Judy, our shaking chanteuse, slowly started sinking to the rug. The lightning manner in which Vincente Minnelli gathered up the stricken singer and helped her to a couch made it clear he'd be, as indeed he was, the next man in Judy's life.

Now all hell broke loose. Some joined the resuscitation of Judy. Others expressed hushed disapproval of the hurricane called Tallulah. Still nobody dared come near her physically. Nobody, that is, except one white haired gentleman who approached her and said, quietly, "Miss Bankhead, I would like to hear the song."

"Who the hell are you?" was Tallulah's witty rejoinder.

"My name is Jerome Kern. I wrote it."

The virago dissolved at once. Tears streaming down her face, Tallulah flung her limp body on poor Mr. Kern. "I know every song you ever wrote," she sobbed and promptly began with "Who-o -o stole my heart away, Who-o-o. . . " Without missing a note, and just as she had done with me earlier in the evening, she backed Kern out of the room, this time down the hall and into a study, closing the door behind them. Seizing on this lull in the battle, the guests all flew out of the house in a magical Disney-like exit. As I passed the room where Bankhead was treating Kern to what was surely going to be an all-night, captive musical feast, I could hear the basso profundo version of "Why do I love you?" just getting under way.

My first glamorous night out in Hollywood was over. A week later, on Armistice Day, on a Manhattan street, Jerome Kern collapsed and, soon after, died.
Slings and Arrows by Robert Lewis


  1. I recently read a great bio on Tallulah, which made me love her all the more.

    1. Can you imagine being a fellow guest at that party? Jx

  2. I just had to come read your provided link. What a story!!! She was certainly something, and never not entertaining. Besides, it's not a party till there is a mound of Tiffany old fashions in the fireplace.

    1. It's not every party, after all, where you could get a drunken Miss Bankhead, a fainting Judy Garland, and a terrified-almost-to-death Jerome Kern, is it? Jx


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