My recently bought copy of Tallulah Bankhead’s autobiography (which looks as if it’s still in print) turns out to be an ideal winter evening read. She describes her notoriously rackety life without remorse: “Let’s face it, my dears, I have been tight as a tick! Fried as a mink! Stiff as a goat!” “I’ve rejoiced in considerable dalliance, and have no regrets… I found no surprises in the Kinsey Report.”
It’s all done in style – at least in Tallulah’s version of events, most of which sounds completely made-up, but probably isn’t: “It’s true I once pinwheeled along Piccadilly, but I was only answering a taunt of my companion – Prince Nicholas of Roumania. You know those Roumanian princes! Not all of them are on key.” At one point, she suffers from some kind of flesh-eating virus that has doctors contemplating cutting off her upper lip to stop the infection reaching her brain, and takes the opportunity to adopt “one of those half-masks which make Moorish and Turkish maidens so provocative”.
She had a lion cub called Winston Churchill, and went on the wagon to show solidarity with the British after Dunkirk (although Robert Lewis said she replaced alcohol with ‘sniffing odd capsules that her sister Eugenia insisted were used to revive horses that slipped and fell on the ice’).
Since she’s writing in 1953, some areas are skated over – she never hints at the rumours of her affairs with famous women from Greta Garbo to Billie Holiday, although she does tackle head on the 1920s scandal about her corrupting minors at Eton (perhaps because it pretty obviously wasn’t true, in spite of being investigated by MI5).
When she gives evidence against a secretary who’s embezzled from her, Time magazine reported that onlookers “fully expected Miss Bankhead to pull out a small, pearl-handed revolver from her handbag and shoot both defendant and her counsel.”
She didn’t make many films, preferring the stage. Strangely her last role was as a teetotal religious zealot in a Hammer horror film – “the ultimate in stabbing suspense”: