The more I research the life of the actress Tallulah Bankhead, the more I realise she must have been the nemesis of every Hollywood publicist in the 1930’s. Bankhead started her career on the stage and had a publicist, Jimmy Julian, by the time she was 16. He was the publicist responsible for launching her career which he did by submitting numerous press releases to the NY press and finally got her picture in the paper.
After a number of years abroad, she returned to the U.S. in 1931 to be Paramount Pictures’ next Marlene Dietrich. She was already well known, as her father was a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and she was the niece of U.S. senator, William Brockman Bankhead II .
From here on, Tallulah Bankhead proved to be by far the most outrageous actress of any generation. The likes of Madonna and Pamela Anderson are known for using their bodies and creating rumours to further their career; Tallulah had done this to perfection fifty years previously! She was known for her infectious personality and her sharp wit. Of acting she said “I hate acting, it’s sheer drudgery”. About herself she would say “I’m as pure as the driven slush”. She was said to have had over 500 lovers, male and female, and the apparent reason for her entering Hollywood was, in her words, “to fuck Gary Cooper”. After her life threatening hysterectomy in 1933 due to contracting gonorrhea, she famously said ” I got it either from Gary Cooper or George Raft… do you think I’ve learned my lesson now?”
Her outrageous tongue caused havoc amongst other Hollywood stars. She said to Ginger Rogers once, “any husband of yours, is a husband of mine”. She told Joan Crawford she’d had an affair with Joan’s then husband, Douglas Fairbanks Junior.
She then looked Joan straight in the eye and said “and you’re next”. At one Hollywood couple’s wedding Tallulah reported ” I’ve had both of them, darling, and neither was any good!”. Jimmy Julian, the man who’d launched her simply couldn’t control her. Howard Dietz, Bankhead’s studio publicist, was the man who spent all his waking hours trying to suppress all incendiary material and get the press not to print these quotes, nor indeed to print any pictures of Tallulah on the many occasions she stripped in public.
She was known, at society parties, to stand on her head to prove she had no knickers on. She also drove into a swimming pool at a party in full evening gown. When she got out, she did a striptease for the crowd saying everyone was simply dying to see her body.
All these pictures were prevented from being published at great effort from the studio publicist. Tallulah was incorrigible. Her sex and drug innuendos were killed off as quickly as possible: As Marlene Dietrich had told reporters that she put gold dust in her hair, Tallulah then responded by telling her studio publicist to leak that she put gold dust in her pubic hair.
Tallulah told journalists, “Cocaine is not habit forming, I’ve been using it for over 20 years!”. She was literally uncontrollable and probably as a result, she never really attained the critical heights that other actresses of her era did. In the studio’s opinion, she was a loose cannon and they spent all their time suppressing information.
Louis Meyer of MGM was extremely disapproving of her, especially when the news broke of her affairs with Barbara Stanwick and Joan Crawford. Because of this, we will never know whether she actually had as much talent as an actress as she did as a party animal.
In another age, all this lewd and debauched behaviour would be lapped up by the press and promoted by publicists. But then, if you ran a studio, it was too dangerous to put all your money into something so volatile. Bankhead was too extraordinary for her time. The likes of Lindsay Lohan today seem like characters from Listen With Mother in comparison.