Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Tallulah Bankhead And Blogger's Block

I was trying to write about the former, got the latter for my pains and now try to write through the latter. Makes sense, right?

The backstory: Some time ago I read on the net the old story about one of the Marx brothers going to a party Tallulah Bankhead gave and asking, in the greeting line, whether he could f**k Tallulah that night. Her answer presumably was "So you shall, you old-fashioned boy, you."

Here's the cleaned up version of that story.

So I got interested in Bankhead, an American actor better known for her scandalous life and outrageous quips than her career. Because here was a woman who seemed to go through men (and women) in sex the way someone like James Bond might have.

I wanted to know more about her, from a feminist point of view, and for that I needed a good source. But, alas, the two books I found on her don't seem quite trustworthy. One is written by a woman who later made a living by forging letters from famous people and the other is written by a man, presumably a close friend of Bankhead, whom her relatives characterized as an annoying hanger-on and no friend at all.

That's the time to toss an idea into the divine garbage bin. But somehow I have not been able to do so. Probably because of quips like these:
Tallulah herself was not very interested in making films. The opportunity to make $50,000 per film, however, was too good to pass up. She later said, "The only reason I went to Hollywood was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper."
She did f**k that divine Gary Cooper, it seems:
Tallulah didn't waste any time jumping into a new project. After beginning rehearsals for Jezebel in August of 1933, she suddenly experienced excruciating abdominal pains and was rushed to a hospital. Her condition worsened and nine weeks later, after considerable bed rest and the halting of Jezebel, she was diagnosed with a life-threatening case of gonorrhea. An emergency hysterectomy had to be performed to save her life. It has been widely speculated that Tallulah got gonorrhea from Gary Cooper. However, she had so many sexual partners at the time that it is impossible to know the truth.
I wanted to understand how the media and the public treated someone like Bankhead as opposed to someone like Gary Cooper, purely on the basis of their private lives. And I wanted to know how much of Bankhead's reputation was a commercial creation and how much was based on her real behavior.

But the aspect of her I found most interesting was the fame and following she developed among young working class women while acting in London:
Tallulah's most fervent fans were young working class women. To them, Tallulah was the embodiment of their fantasies - a fashionable, beautiful girl living a glamorous life. The fans became somewhat of a cult, copying and emulating Tallulah's dress, hair and personality. They waited outside the theater forty-eight hours in advance of a new Tallulah opening. They attended her plays several times a week and never missed a premiere or a closing. They would become ecstatic when Tallulah appeared on stage, cheering wilding and chanting "Tallulah, Tallulah" or "Tallulah Hallelujah". The press wrote about them frequently and even gave them a name - "gallery girls".

Tallulah herself was an "accessible" icon. She reveled in her fans' idolatry and always acknowledged them, on-stage or off. She would blow them kisses from the stage and utter "thank you, dahlings", which would result in even more cheering. After a performance, Tallulah would greet her fans, sign autographs, chat with them and inquire about their family and loved ones. Sometimes, she would even invite them to her dressing room or to her home for a visit. One of the devoted gallery girls, Edie Smith, became a Tallulah employee and was with her for over thirty years.

I have bolded the statement I disagree with in that quote. Those women could have identified with almost any female star of that era if they simply wanted to emulate "a fashionable, beautiful girl living a glamorous life." That's what female stars did. My own theory is that the fans loved Tallulah because of her refusal to live according to the traditional code for women and because she was independent and assertive.

There you have it. The post that never quite came to life but kept blocking all the other posts up in that queue.