A Gentleman's Mother, Bette Davis, Clifton Webb, Her Cardboard Lover, Jeanne Eagels, Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed, Leslie Howard, Martin Brown, Rain, Sadie Thompson, Tallulah Bankhead, The Exciters, W. Somerset Maugham
Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born in Huntsville, Alabama on January 31, 1902. Her mother, Adelaide, died of blood poisoning three weeks after Tallulah’s birth. Her father William, a prominent Democrat, suffered bouts of alcoholism and depression, and Tallulah was largely raised by her grandmother.
As a child, Tallulah was eclipsed by her pretty older sister, and developed a proclivity for attention-seeking behaviour. Her famously husky voice was a result of chronic bronchitis caused by childhood illness. By the age of fifteen, she had blossomed into a stunning Southern belle, and sent her photo to Picture Play magazine, as part of a contest. She won a trip to New York, where she briefly appeared in a movie.
Tallulah moved into the Algonquin Hotel and soon became a regular at wild parties. A promiscuous bisexual, she was also a cocaine user. She made her stage debut in The Squab Farm (1918), and won her first important role alongside Katherine Cornell and Francine Larrimore in Nice People (1921.)
In August 1922, the Boston Sunday Globe reported that Tallulah was in rehearsal for The Exciters – a play previously mooted for Jeanne Eagels, who was twelve years her senior. Eagels had recently starred in A Gentleman’s Mother, also penned by Martin Brown. However, the show had folded before reaching Broadway.
“I was idle until the fall of 1922 when I impersonated ‘Rufus Rand’ in The Exciters, a comedy which belied its title,” Tallulah recalled in her autobiography. “It succumbed to popular disapproval after five weeks. I’ll capsule the plot. Rufus was nineteen, semi-paralyzed because of a motor accident. In a fit of caprice she marries a burglar. Want to hear more? I didn’t think so.”
Neither did the audience. Premiering at the Times Square Theatre on September 22, The Exciters closed at the end of October after forty-three performances. Still better-known for her flamboyant personality than her talent, Tallulah decided to try her luck in Europe. In 1923, she appeared alongside Gerald Du Maurier in The Dancers at Wyndham’s Theatre, London. An instant sensation, Tallulah’s style was copied by a bevy of teenage girls who followed her every move.
While starring in The Creaking Chair (1924), Tallulah heard that Rain, a smash on Broadway for Jeanne Eagels, was coming to London. “I had been in London eighteen months when approached by Basil Dean to play Sadie Thompson,” Tallulah recalled. On January 4, 1925, the New York Times noted that Rain would soon be produced at St Martin’s Theatre. No actress had been cast, but the move was driven by Rain’s remarkable success in the United States. A nationwide tour—which Jeanne had begun in Chicago—was planned to last two years. According to Tallulah, producer Basil Dean proposed that the show would open no later than June 30, after she finished her West End run in The Creaking Chair, and Maugham returned to England. Dean suggested that Tallulah should sail to New York to see Jeanne in the role.
Tallulah boarded the Berengaria, and arrived in Manhattan on February 25, ready to watch Jeanne as Sadie—but she was already in Pittsburgh. After finally seeing Rain, Tallulah booked a return journey aboard the Aquitania, but Basil Dean and Maugham had also reserved cabins, and the producer thought it best that Tallulah did not meet the author yet. She was forced to find another passage, and recounted a terrible journey on “a cattle boat that consumed ten days in crossing. Among the passengers were a corpse and the two daughters of the Governor General of Canada. I locked myself in my cabin and played the jazz records Sadie played in the second act as I acted out my part.”
“Maugham sat in the dark auditorium throughout the first rehearsal,” Tallulah wrote. “I gave I’m sure what was a brilliant imitation of Jeanne Eagels. I felt my impersonation would electrify Maugham, but if it did he didn’t show it and avoided me afterwards.”
Maugham was unmoved by her performance, and she was replaced by Olga Lindo three days later. Adding insult to injury Tallulah was offered Lindo’s role in Tarnish, a part she’d turned down to accept Rain. “I was inconsolable,” Bankhead admitted. “I had hysterics and sobbed as I not sobbed since foiled as a child. That night I gave one of my phoniest performances in my life. Returning to my service flat, I put on Sadie’s Pago Pago costume, gulped down twenty aspirin tablets, turned on Sadie’s record, then I stretched out on my bed to await the end.”
Tallulah scribbled a note: “It ain’t gonna Rain no moh.” She fell asleep “dramatizing every detail of my suicide … I was awakened the next morning by the telephone. It was Noel Coward. I felt marvellous.” Coward wanted her to star in Fallen Angels. After seeing the play, Maugham invited her to lunch, congratulating her on “the most brilliant comedy performance he’d seen.”
Meanwhile, Lindo brought Sadie to the London stage—but the production was a failure. Years later, playwright Roland Leigh told Tallulah that during a conversation at his home in the south of France, Maugham confessed his biggest professional mistake had been “not letting Tallulah Bankhead play Rain.”
Fortunately, Tallulah had another hit on her hands with Falling Angels. Although some critics considered Coward’s tale of two women sharing recollections of a former lover to be rather scandalous, the play’s notoriety only increased its popularity. “…I had a line: ‘Oh, dear, rain!’” she recalled. “I couldn’t resist the temptation to alter that line on opening night. On reaching it I mustered up my Sadiest Thompson voice and said: ‘My God, RAIN!’ The audience roared!”
She went on to star in The Green Hat (1925), based on Michael Arlen’s controversial novel; and They Knew What They Wanted (1926), which had won a Pulitzer Prize for author Sidney Howard. In August 1928, Tallulah played another role originated by Jeanne Eagels. Her Cardboard Lover had opened on Broadway in 1927. Jeanne’s British co-star, Leslie Howard, went on to recreate the role with Tallulah in London. Audiences were delighted to see her appear onstage in lingerie, and she was mobbed on opening night. After 173 performances, she toured Scotland and later revived the role in the United States. In 1929, she starred in a British-made, five-minute short film of the same name.
Actor Clifton Webb, a close friend of Eagels, was comforted by Tallulah when Jeanne died suddenly in New York on October 3, 1929. “We wanted to talk to somebody about this tragedy,” he remembered, “and ended up with Tallulah Bankhead and Beatrice Lillie at the Elysee where Tallulah lived and stayed for up for hours.”
In 1930, she played Marguerite Gautier in Our Lady of the Camellias, before returning to America permanently. Like Eagels before her, Tallulah was signed by Paramount – and marketed as ‘a combination of Jeanne Eagels and Marlene Dietrich’. She starred in several films, including Tarnished Lady (1931), Devil and the Deep and Faithless (1932.) But the Hollywood lifestyle was not to her liking, and she made her Broadway comeback in Forsaking All Others (1933.) That year, she nearly died while undergoing an emergency hysterectomy to combat venereal disease. In 1934, she starred in Dark Victory, which was later filmed with Bette Davis.
A decade after being rejected by Somerset Maugham, Tallulah Bankhead was cast by Rain’s original producer, Sam Harris, in a Broadway revival. “The throaty Tallulah this season made a name for herself along the Gay White Way and now she is to step into the Jeanne Eagels role of Sadie Thompson,” the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported in January 1935. “Much promise is held for the actress in the forthcoming part, which is believed by many to ideally suit the talents of Miss Bankhead.”
When Rain opened at the Music Box Theatre on February 12, columnist Paul Harrison noted many celebrities in the audience, including Gary Cooper and his wife Veronica, Beatrice Lillie, Noel Coward, Adolph Zukor, B.P. Schulberg, Francine Larrimore, Ben Lyon, and Bebe Daniels. The revival was not a success, however, and closed after forty-seven performances.
Varied reasons were given for its failure. Aside from Bankhead, the casting was all wrong. Some felt the story should have been modernized to reflect changing attitudes, rather than remaining set in 1920. As always, Tallulah had the last word: “I caught up with the Reverend Davidson ten years too late.”
In 1937, Tallulah appeared in another ill-fated revival, of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. That year, she married actor John Emery. They divorced in 1941. After starring in Maugham’s The Circle (1938), Tallulah won the role of a lifetime as the vindictive Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Like Jeanne Eagels in Rain, Tallulah’s performance would become a theatrical legend. And like Eagels, she would miss the chance to play the role onscreen. For the second time in her career, Tallulah was usurped by Bette Davis.
She followed this with Clifford Odets’ Clash by Night (1941), and another acclaimed role, opposite Fredric March in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942.) In 1944, she was lured back to Hollywood, giving her finest movie performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. In 1948, she enjoyed another stage success in a revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.
Tallulah was infuriated by Bette Davis’ portrayal of an egotistical actress in the 1950 movie, All About Eve, as she believed it was based on herself. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s theatrical satire also featured a tribute to Jeanne Eagels. Despite her outrageous reputation, Tallulah had a sensitive side. She was unfailingly generous to those in need, especially children, and helped families to escape the Spanish Civil War and World War II. She was also an early supporter of civil rights for African-Americans, much to the chagrin of her relatives in the South.
Worried by Tallulah’s rumoured alcoholism, producer Jack Warner replaced her with Gertrude Lawrence in his screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which sank without trace. Tallulah began working in radio and television, as well as starring in a 1956 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. Her final stage role was in another Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Fittingly, the part had once been played by Bette Davis.
A lifelong insomiac, Tallulah was addicted to sleeping pills, which triggered psychotic episodes; and after many years of heavy smoking, she was diagnosed with emphysema. In 1965, she starred in a cult horror film, Fanatic (or Die! Die! My Darling), and later appeared as the Black Widow in a 1967 episode of TV’s Batman. Tallulah Bankhead died of pleural pneumonia at St Luke’s Hospital, Manhattan, on December 12, 1968, and was buried near her sister’s home in Maryland.
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