Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968) was an actress, lesbian, proto-feminist, wit, raconteur, and one of the 20th century’s most dangerous women. When she first arrived at the Algonquin Hotel she noted that sophisticated New Yorkers had a tough, biting, brilliant way of speaking. She was from the South and was raised not to swear or talk dirty, but her new glamorous friends peppered their quips with obscenities and slang to give them an edge. She took note of the most skilled among them, writer Dorothy Parker. Parker’s sly, skewering, scintillating, cynical comments were her defense in a male-dominated world and they were her trademark. Parker’s banter while lunching at the Round Table would make its way to Manhattan parties that evening.
Bankhead wasn’t as talented as Parker, but she studied how her quips generated publicity. Half consciously, half intuitively, she cultivated her natural exhibitionism, adding lines and attitudes from her stage roles to build a repertory of wicked wisecracks.
Her affair with actor Eva Le Gallienne caused a sensation in the press, with magazines alluding to Bankhead’s “close friendships” with several women. So, instead of heading back to the closet, Bankhead began introducing herself at parties by dryly dropping: “I’m a lesbian. What do you do?”
Another of her trademark quips was probably the result of a misunderstanding. Noted theatre critic Alexander Woollcott, no slouch in the quip department himself, escorted Bankhead to a performance of a play. When asked for her opinion, fearful that she hadn’t really understood the play, Bankhead answered: :There is less in this than meets the eye”. She had probably meant to say: “There is more to this…”, but Woollcott pounced on the line and quoted it in his column.
Bankhead found herself to be considered one of the great wits of Manhattan, and she worked hard to make sure that reputation stuck. In private, she could terribly insecure and suffered from dreadful stage fright, but in public she would launch sharp, shocking, but seemingly spontaneous one-liners, tossing back her hair, taking a calculated drag on her cigarette and offering things like: “I’m as pure as the driven slush”, “My father warned me about men and booze but he never said anything about women and cocaine.” or “I don’t give a fuck what people say about me so long as they say something.”