Another side of a movie legend

February 19, 2010

A new play about controversial actress Tallulah Bankhead previews this week in New York City, but it leaves out some of her most important controversies.

"DESPITE ALL you may have heard to the contrary, I have never had a ride in a patrol wagon" is the opening line of Tallulah Bankhead's 1952 autobiography. This one sentence speaks volumes about the sensational, controversial (pick your adjective) public image of the stage and screen star of the 1940s. It was an image she worked hard at creating and maintaining.

Over the years, she has been the subject of six plays, including the most recent, Looped, written by Matthew Lombardo and starring Valerie Harper, that begins previews this week in New York City. This is quite a feat for someone who starred in only a dozen films, the most famous being Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 Lifeboat.

Why the interest? A lot of Bankhead's attraction comes from her biting, sarcastic sense of humor and her flouting of America's hypocritical morality when she was most in the public eye.

The ads for the upcoming Broadway show includes these lines:

She answered her front door naked. She went out in public without panties. She drank like a fish, popped pills, smoked like a chimney, cursed like a sailor, slept indiscriminately with men and women--and was eminently and shockingly quotable. Long before today's misbehaving celebrities, there was acclaimed star of stage and screen, Tallulah Bankhead.

Well, maybe so, but what's been omitted from the many plays and biographies about Bankhead are the courageous stands she took against Jim Crow in American theater, and in support of campaigns to stop lynching, expose the horrors of the Southern sharecropping system and defend accused murderer James Hickman.

TALLULAH BANKHEAD was born in 1902 into an wealthy aristocratic family in Alabama. Her father, William, would eventually become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1936 to 1940 during Franklin Roosevelt's second term as president. She was also the niece and granddaughter of senators.

She was by all accounts an intelligent, independent and strong-willed child. Tallulah won a beauty contest when she was 15 and moved to New York City to become a stage actor. Eventually, she moved to London to pursue her stage career and returned to the U.S. in 1931.

She tried to break into Hollywood films but with little success. Some thought that because of her deep, husky voice, she was going to be the next Marlene Dietrich, the German actress who made it big in Hollywood in the early 1930s.

It wasn't until the late 1930s, after she returned to Broadway, that she found fame and success--her breakthrough performance was in The Little Foxes (1939), penned by Communist Party sympathizer Lillian Hellman.

The play revolves around the fictional Southern aristocrat Regina Hubbard Giddens, who struggles for wealth and freedom within the suffocating confines of early 20th century Alabama society. The main characters of the play are thinly disguised versions of Hellman's Southern relatives.

The Little Foxes was tailor-made for Bankhead's talents and life experience. She could intimately identify with setting and characters of the play. Bankhead won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best performance. Her stage success spawned a political awakening in Bankhead, or the confidence to go public with long felt but hidden ideas.

She broke with her Southern Democratic family's conservatism, particularly its virulent racism, though she remained personally close to her father. Bankhead clearly saw herself as an aristocratic rebel. She also adopted the endearing or annoying (depending on your point of view) habit of calling everyone "darling"--or as she pronounced it, "DAH-ling."

Several months after The Little Foxes ended its run on Broadway, Bankhead threw herself into organizing the weeklong Fourth Annual National Sharecroppers Awareness Week in New York City in May 1940. The annual event was organized by two Socialist Party-allied organizations--the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Workers Defense League, its political defense agency.

The event was endorsed by a broad array of organizations, and its purpose was to raise awareness and funds for Southern sharecroppers who worked in semi-feudal conditions and faced state and vigilante violence when they attempted organize.

She worked tirelessly with Broadway and Hollywood star Paul Muni (famous for his film Scarface) and other members of the Sharecropper's Awareness Week theater committee. The week culminated in a huge rally at Madison Square Garden. Among the featured speakers were A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Walter White and W.E.B. Dubois of the NAACP, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party.

From there, Bankhead made a point of an appearing in interracial casts on stage or screen, and supporting Black athletes. She shared the stage in a Chicago production of The Little Foxes for several weeks with African American actors Abbie Mitchell and John Marriott in the summer of 1940.

Bankhead was in the crowd cheering on Black world heavyweight champion Joe Louis against Chilean boxer Arturo Godoy. Louis won. In 1942, when asked her choice for greatest living American, she said her first choice was Franklin Roosevelt. Her second choice was Joe Louis.

All of this may seem tame in retrospect, but remember, this was Jim Crow America, and many, including her relatives back in Alabama, saw her behavior as nothing less than scandalous.

Despite the sudden death of her father in 1940, Bankhead's status as the daughter of the late speaker of the House seems to have protected her from the wrath of such institutions as the local police departments or the FBI. She doesn't have an FBI file, for example--something that other vocal critics of American bigotry had.

HER CAREER flowered as she became vocal in her opinions. In 1944, she gave her best screen performance as the cynical reporter Constance Porter in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat. She shared the screen with Canada Lee, second only to Paul Robeson as the most important Black stage actor in the U.S. at the time. Lee played Bigger Thomas in the stage production of Richard Wright's Native Son.

Bankhead joined Lee in the fight to stop the extradition of Herman Powell from New Jersey. Powell, an African American, was sentenced to life in prison for the "murder" of a white woman in Georgia as a result of a car accident on a rainy day, in which both he and the woman were severely injured. She died of her wounds five days after the accident, and Powell was nearly lynched.

After serving one year of a life sentence, Powell escaped from prison and fled to New Jersey, where he and his wife lived in peace for two years before he was arrested by local police. A 30-month battle ensued, in which Tallulah Bankhead, Canada Lee, Paul Robeson and Joe Louis campaigned to stop Powell's extradition. Despite an all-out effort, Powell was sent back to a Georgia chain gang at the end of 1946.

From campaigning for Powell, Bankhead moved onto an issue that she felt equally passionate about--Jim Crow in the American theater. The particular target of Bankhead and other civil rights activists' anger was the National Theater in Washington, D.C.

Black actors could appear in stage productions at the National Theater, but African Americans were forbidden to attend performances. "It is not only a national disgrace but an international scandal that our great country's capital should make a laughing stock of our Constitution and Bill of Rights by discriminating against any human being," Bankhead told reporters in December 1946.

She was appearing at the National Theater at the time, and under the contract obligations of the stage actors' union--Actors Equity--she couldn't refuse to perform. Actors Equity got a change in contract language the following year that allowed actors to refuse to work in segregated theaters.

A Washington, D.C., community campaign against the National Theater led by the Committee for Racial Democracy, and a boycott of the theater by Actors Equity, forced the theater to close in 1948. It reopened as an integrated theater in 1952.

In 1947, Bankhead began her longest tour of a play since The Little Foxes with Noël Coward's Private Lives. She was in Chicago for the summer when she was asked to speak out against lynching. The previous year, 28 confessed lynchers had been acquitted of the murder of Willie Earle by an all-white jury in Greenville, S.C. This incident, along with many others, gave new life to a campaign to pass a federal anti-lynching bill.

Thirty-seven Chicago aldermen urged President Harry Truman to push for passage of an anti-lynching bill. Bankhead spoke on the South Side at a July rally sponsored by the Chicago Citizens Committee Against Lynching, where she told 500 people in the overwhelming Black audience that lynching was one of "her pet hates," and how her father stopped a lynching when he was a student at the University of Alabama.

IT WAS during her stay in Chicago that Sidney Lens, a socialist trade union official active in the city's retail industry, approached her about speaking at a rally in support of James Hickman. Lens was an early and active participant in the defense committee for Hickman, an African American father of nine, who was facing execution for the murder of his slum landlord, David Coleman, also an African American, whom Hickman strongly believed was responsible for the arson/murder of his four youngest children.

Lens and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, along with many trade union and civil rights leaders, rallied to Hickman's defense, pointing to the racist covenants that prevented Blacks from living where they desired in Chicago, and the failure of the police and state's attorney's office to investigate the death of the Hickman children.

Bankhead's involvement in the Hickman campaign was something of a coup for Lens. He recalled three decades later:

I was leaving my office on Dearborn Street one evening when I noticed her name on the marquee half a block away. She was starring in a new play. On the spur of the moment, I went to the stage door and asked for her. To my surprise, she knew about Hickman and was immensely sympathetic.

Bankhead spoke to a packed audience at the Metropolitan Community Church and, according to Lens, "drew tears from the whole audience" with a riveting speech:

It seems to me a shameful condemnation of our society that 2,000 years after Christ, people are still herded together into Black ghettoes merely because their skins have different pigmentations than other people. No one condones murder or any act of violence. I hope the day shall come soon when humanity can resolve not only its racial problems but all problems coolly and rationally; when emotional acts of violence--be they individual or national--can be eliminated.

So long, however, as there exists anywhere on Earth one minority that is treated with contempt, that is herded into Black slum areas, that is abused and insulted, so long will we have violence, hate, brutality, savagery. So long as there exists a Jewish problem, or a Mexican problem--or a problem of any minority--so long will one form of violence beget another.

I am proud to be one of the humble gladiators in this struggle against narrow prejudice and stupidity. I am glad to lend my efforts so that there shall be no more James Hickman tragedies.

Why is it that we don't know this side of Tallulah Bankhead's life? Part of it has to with Bankhead herself. She published her autobiography in 1952, when McCarthyism was destroying the lives of thousands of people. Hollywood and Broadway stars regularly downplayed their past associations with radical or unpopular causes.

The other reason is the mysterious choices that biographers and playwrights make about their subjects, usually based on what they think will be "popular." Sometimes they're right, and other times they're wrong. But either way, it usually means that we never see the complete person.

As a new play about Tallulah Bankhead opens, it's important to remember there was another side to her that is worth knowing.

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