Robert Temple - Author of The Sphinx Mystery

The following article about Tallulah Bankhead was published on March 18, 2000, in the London Daily Telegraph (page 21, in the News Review section) under the title Sex, Eton boys and the Tallulah Bankhead I knew, with the subtitle: 'Robert Temple says that recent reports of the actress's behavior were not in keeping with the protective side of her character'. The original poster for the production of Here Today which I have kept all these years was reproduced with the article, together with a photo of Tallulah when she was young, captioned: 'Bankhead: "She would devour anyone, male or female, if they were available"'. I am reproducing my article in full, having restored some portions which were cut by the editor for reasons of space:

Tallulah when she was young, as the character Judith Traherne in the play Dark Victory (later made into a film). This play only ran for six weeks, during which time Tallulah was ill and could barely drag herself to the stage. This photo shows her sultry look, which she cultivated.

I couldn't help feeling protective towards Tallulah Bankhead when I saw her name dragged across the press recently. Molesting teenage boys? Well, I was a teenage boy who was also very close to her, and the true story of how this really was needs to be told. Then it will be possible for people to understand her better. I was 17 and Tallulah admitted to being 65. The year was 1962. It was a hot summer in Milburn, New Jersey, where I was working as the prop boy at a summer stock theatre called Papermill Playhouse. Cinema stars of yesteryear toured these top summer theatres as stars of traveling theatrical productions; in this way I met and worked with such legendary figures as Walter Pidgeon, Myrna Loy, the childhood actress Margaret O'Brien, and even young upstarts like Nancy Sinatra who were exploiting a famous name in a different way. I missed working with Gloria Swanson by a week.

However fascinating, temperamental, glamorous or compelling any of these people may have been, they all faded like the sky at sunrise when the human hurricane named Tallulah Bankhead materialised one day. It turned out that I was the only one who could handle her. I calmed her, made her feel easy, and steadied her like a mad stallion. She had quarreled with the house manager within seconds of arrival, and stormed off to change hotels because the bathing arrangements weren't to her taste. I was deputed to prevent her from leaving the production and bankrupting the theatre. I rushed off in her entourage and did not reappear again for more than 48 hours. During that time we did not sleep. Tallulah had superhuman energy, went many nights without any sleep at all, and had bourbon instead of blood in her veins. One of her problems was that she wore everybody out, and they collapsed around her like rag dolls. No one could keep up with her. At the age of seventeen, I had enough stamina and a sufficient streak of anarchy in my character to match her erg for erg and joule for joule as her daemonic psyche cranked out more energy than a Nikola Tesla generator and sent flashes of blinding lightning across the room. If she could drink half a bottle of bourbon in thirty minutes, so could I (I had not yet had hepatitis and my liver was up for it). If she could smoke fifty Craven A cigarettes in ten minutes, never quite finishing one before lighting another, I could fight my way through the fog of their smoke, and just still see her like in an old Basil Rathbone movie.

We lived on chicken salad sandwiches and chilled neat bourbon for those 48 hours, continually supplied by room service. Neither of us closed an eyelid, and I listened as intently as she talked. She talked about her youth, her father and grandfather who were famous politicians, her family, her years in convent schools, her career, the disappointing six films with Paramount, about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Lifeboat, of her fears, her friendship with Tennessee Williams (whom I later came to know and who had written Sweet Bird of Youth for her), about politics, more politics, and politics again. She read all seven daily New York newspapers (which then existed) cover to cover every day. She devoured books, she devoured people, she devoured penises (especially black ones), she devoured vaginas and breasts, she devoured chicken salad at the rate of several chickens a day, she practically ate her cigarettes, she devoured life, life, life. She was a freak. It wasn't normal. She couldn't stop. She couldn't sleep. She had to talk, she had to go on musing and thinking and commenting, remembering, reconstructing, deconstructing, analysing, tearing apart and speculating. She had the energy of one hundred people, and there was no way to turn it off.

As I was at the time I knew Tallulah,
Age 18.
This meant that Tallulah was lonely. Because there was nobody properly to share this superhuman tornado-life with. Primarily, Tallulah was a lesbian, and her lover and companion of several decades was the actress Estelle Winwood, a dainty and demure woman twenty years older than Tallulah who was present on the tour, and whom I came to know as well as Tallulah. But Estelle, being at least 85 years old and as thin as a pencil, naturally turned in early.

During our first 48 hours together, I passed the endurance and interest tests. I listened carefully enough and threw in some suitably wild observations of my own. We became bonded. Tallulah actually remembered my name and didn't call me 'dahling', which was the ultimate compliment, since the real reason she called every body 'dahling' was because she couldn't be bothered to remember what they were really called, as there were too many of them.

Tallulah was totally uninhibited about nudity and without a thought would strip down to her knickers and wander around with her breasts undulating. It never occurred to her that there was anything at all unusual about this or that I might find it odd. She had not the slightest intention of being provocative. She never once betrayed the slightest flicker of sensuality towards me. When she was wandering around naked it was because she needed to go to the loo or wanted to try out another outfit or wanted to hold a cold bottle of bourbon against her chest because of the intolerable heat and the insufficiency of the air conditioning.

She would throw something on, then she would throw something off, and light some more Craven A's and drink another half bottle, and throw something on again, restless, driven, unable to settle except when she was riveting me with her stories and then like a powerful goddess her gimlet eyes would pierce through me, holding me, allowing no wiggle room. What she was like in those moments is well recorded in her last film, Die, Die, My Darling!, in which she was to a degree type-cast.

The portrait of Tallulah by Augustus John, done during the time she lived in London and was originating the lead roles in numerous Noel Coward plays such as Fallen Angles. At the time she lived at 10 Prince Albert Road, London, NW1, where I later lived myself. This painting used to hang on the wall behind the grand piano in Tallulah's New York flat. where I was mesmerised by it, as it was the first Augustus John I had ever seen, and it was a wonderful new style of art to me at the age of seventeen.
During my subsequent close friendship with Tallulah, - for she decided to 'adopt' me as a pet for some time after I passed all my tests, - I befriended Robert Williams, her black chauffeur. Walking around in her knickers, Tallulah would sometimes make detours for twenty minutes or more into one of the bedrooms of her suite, to have a quick bonk with Robert. To her, Robert was a 'black buck', and she was a Southern girl for whom what was then still called miscegenation held an irresistible thrill. I remember one day Robert took me to lunch, as he often did, and it was precisely as I was about to eat my roast pork and carrots that he said to me as casually as can be:' You know, I've been a gigolo all my life.' I was mortified. My friend Robert a gigolo? At 17 I was the world's leading prude and it really stretched my tolerance to have to admit that a close friend of mine had always been a gigolo. But I forgave him because he was so nice. Tallulah's exhibitionism was always seen to best advantage in a large gathering. I once helped her to organise a dinner for 150 people, most of them strangers, at rather short notice in a hotel ballroom because she felt like singing 'Bye, Bye Blackbird', which she croaked in her throaty voice, leaning forward in a confidential way as if everybody was really interested to hear that 'no one here can love or understand me'. She had suddenly felt the need to have an audience for this favourite song of hers. She was dressed as usual in her black cat-suit and pearls. Being extremely rich, she insisted that all the guests had to have the most expensive menu, even though she didn't even know who most of them were. And champagne flowed like water, while at our table Tallulah stuck to her chilled bourbon and mostly talked to Estelle, who looked bored with yet another huge bash and pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders as a protection against the whole event.

In Tallulah's Manhattan apartment, which was decorated with impeccable antiques, behind the boudoir grand piano as you entered her sitting room, was the magnificent glowing portrait of her which Augustus John had painted in her youth when she was the toast of London and originating the Noel Coward plays such as Fallen Angels. Tallulah had been the toast of everywhere for so long, she didn't know that it was possible to sit quietly. And the remarkable thing was that the same glow that could be seen in the portrait of the vivacious youngster still emanated from her, an octave lower of course, but still overwhelming in its force and impact on everyone.

Tallulah's voracious sexual appetites were really 90% for women, with only the occasional 'black buck' thrown in for spice. I remember the 1930s director Monty Banks saying to me wistfully that when he stayed next door to Tallulah's suite in a Paris hotel once, there was a genuine queue of beautiful girls waiting outside in the corridor to get into Tallulah's bed, when he himself couldn't get a single date. - 'How did she do it?' he mused. 'And she could work her way through fifteen girls in a night with no problem when she was young,' he said. Tallulah's bed as a sacred artifact was so important to her that when she lived at 10 Prince Albert Road in London in her youth, she knocked down and rebuilt the wall of her bedroom to make more room for a giant sized bed for her key activities. I learned this because I too later lived in that house and was shown the incriminating wall. But this is the main point: Tallulah had a genuine and almost superstitious regard for sexual innocence. She would devour anyone, male or female, if they were on the available list. But I am convinced that she would never seduce a teenager. And I do not believe she had sex with any of the Eton boys unless they were already well-practiced in the erotic arts before they ever met her. It may seem difficult to believe of a woman of her appetites, but she respected the young and would never taint them. Partly this was because her wildness was a kind of rebellion at having to grow up at all. Inside, she was still in her teens herself, and I suspect she spent her life acting out some early sexual molestations which had been made against her, trying to expunge the memory of them with totally unrestrained licentiousness. She would have killed anyone who might have tried to seduce me or corrupt me, so furiously protective was she. She herself was determined to be bad, because she believed herself to be irredeemable and 'lost'. But she would die to protect genuine innocence when she encountered it. And she was lonely. What she really wanted was some teenage friends. We could be kids together. With me, and doubtless the earlier teenagers mentioned recently in the press, Tallulah could have fun like a kid once more. She could enjoy the illusion that she too was once again innocent, that she too was not grown up yet, she could once again be a tomboy on the plantation in Alabama who had not yet been raped, or whatever it was that happened to her to make her so desperate and to think of herself as so fallen. Therefore if there is anything I think crucial about dear, tormented Tallulah, it is this: she was a good person with a good heart, and I miss her. Apart from being the most overwhelmingly powerful personality I have ever met, Tallulah was genuinely someone to be adored for her kindness, her generosity of spirit, and her capacity for true disinterested friendship. She was intellectually brilliant, as witty as Oscar Wilde, and a tribute to the vibrancy and radiance of the human spirit. From the mud into which she repeatedly flung and enmired herself, she shone and glistened like the cliffs of Dover in the sun. Tallulah, I hope you are not still so tormented, wherever you are.


© Robert Temple 2009-2022