Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bestsellers List Revisited: Holiday Season 1952-53 (part 2): Tallulah Tells Her Story

First edition, 1952
The Committee Room continues its look back at the holiday season bestsellers of sixty years ago. TCR's last posting discussed East of Eden by John Steinbeck which was number one on the New York Times bestselling fiction list. We turn now to non-fiction. At the top of the Times list was My Autobiography by the legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead.

Published by Harper and Brothers, Bankhead's My Autobiography settled into the number one spot in October 1952 and stayed there through the Christmas and New Year's 1953 season. Other titles in the non-fiction top ten at this time were The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson, which had been on the list for over a year, and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

At the time of My Autobiography's release, Bankhead was fifty years old and experiencing a career boost as one of the hosts of The All Star Revue, a highly touted television variety show, on NBC. She had moved to television after two years of hosting The Big Show, a prestigious NBC radio variety program. Bankhead's gift for witty repartee was used to good advantage in variety show introductions though guests on the programs often approached her with trepidation, knowing her unpredictability.

Paperback, 1953
According to biographer Denis Brian, Bankhead began tape recording her life story in the summer of 1951 at her Bedford Village, New York home. The transcribed tapes of Bankhead's anecdotal, name-dropping (often of personalities now forgotten) and selectively revealing reminiscences were organized and edited by leading show business press agent Richard Maney. At the opening of My Autobiography Bankhead offers a "Citation to Richard Maney for Conduct Above and Beyond the Call of Duty" but doesn't specify what he did.

Born in Alabama in 1902, Bankhead won a beauty contest as a teenager which led to an acting career. In the early 1920s, after a few small roles in the New York theater, she got a part in a British stage production. In London she quickly gained notoriety for her flamboyant, eager to shock behavior off-stage as much as for her acting in plays such as Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted.

In My Autobiography Bankhead touches upon experiences with heroin and marijuana and says she uses cocaine only medicinally in the form of lozenges. She informs her readers that "I hate to go to bed, I hate to get up, and I hate to be alone. My inability to cope with these prejudices leads to complications, excesses and heresies frowned upon in stuffier circles." She was also a compulsive talker and a chain smoker, by some counts going through more than one hundred cigarettes a day. In recent years it has been speculated that Bankhead suffered from undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Young Bankhead painted by
Augustus John, 1930 (National
Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC)
In the early 1930s Bankhead returned to the United States. She made a few unmemorable films for Paramount Studios and found Hollywood dull. Bankhead writes -- "Save for a few convivial rebels most of the picture folk were too tangled up in taboos, option nets and other professional frights to relax. There was another deterrent to hi-jinks. If you have to face a camera at seven in the morning you think twice before opening the second quart of Old Grand-Dad."

Bankhead went back to the New York stage where her Southern drawl overlaid with a British accent became a much parodied trademark. Her most notable appearances were in The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder, Clash By Night by Clifford Odets, and especially as Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman's drama about an avaricious Southern family.

My Autobiography is dedicated to "Daddy." Bankhead's father was Alabama politician William Bankhead. A young lawyer at the time of Tallulah's birth, William Bankhead was elected to Congress when Tallulah was fourteen and went on to serve as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1936 to his death in 1940. His apogee as a politician coincided with his daughter's high point as an actress in The Little Foxes. Tallulah's grandfather John Hollis Bankhead and uncle John Bankhead II were U.S. Senators from Alabama.

The Big Show, NBC Radio,
c. 1950
Bankhead's autobiography stayed at number one until February 1953 when it fell to number two, overtaken by the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a modernized rendering of the King James Bible. It finally dropped out of the top ten in April 1953, making room for, among others, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale and The Silent World by Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

Bankhead and John Steinbeck have more in common than having their books on top of the fiction and non-fiction best sellers lists at the same time. In 1943, Bankhead returned to Hollywood to star in Lifeboat, a suspense drama about a varied group of passengers -- including Bankhead as a sophisticated, mink coat clad journalist -- adrift in the Atlantic after their ship was sunk by a German U boat. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat was based on an unpublished novella by Steinbeck.

In January 1943 Steinbeck wrote to his agent -- "Today Kenneth MacGowan of 20th Century asked me to come out and talk to him. It seems that the Maritime Commission has asked Hitchcock to do a picture about the men of the merchant marine and he wants me to write the story...I shall write it as a novelette which I will be free to publish if I want to."

After supplying the original story and rough outline of a script, Steinbeck withdrew from the project and several other writers worked on the screenplay. Released in 1944, Lifeboat was publicized as "By John Steinbeck" though the official screenplay credit went to Broadway and Hollywood journeyman writer Jo Swerling.

Steinbeck disliked the completed film, especially the African-American seaman character, played by Canada Lee. Steinbeck complained to Twentieth Century-Fox that his original script did not offer a "stock comedy Negro. On the contrary there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic half pathetic Negro there was a Negro of dignity, purpose and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me."

Steinbeck was also objected to the film's unrealistic depiction of a lifeboat. "I know that one man can't row a boat of that size and in my story, no one touched an oar except to steer," he wrote to his agent. Steinbeck requested that his name be removed from any connection with the film but his request was not acted upon.

Bankhead and Steinbeck also share nearly identical lifespans. Bankhead was born January 31, 1902 in Huntsville, Alabama. Steinbeck was born four weeks later in Salinas, California. Bankhead died in Manhattan on December 12, 1968 of pneumonia complicated by emphysema. Steinbeck died in eight days later, also in Manhattan, of heart disease complicated by emphysema.

Bankhead as The Black Widow, Batman TV
series,  final acting job, 1967
In 2004, the University Press of Mississippi issued a new edition of My Autobiography as the first entry in its Southern Icons series. In a postscript to the new edition, the University Press editors write that the "inimitable Tallulah Bankhead's rousing life gives the series an exhilarating launch."

Here's more information --

Tallulah: A Passionate Life (Informative online database)

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters.  Edited by Elaine Steinbeck and R. Walsten. 1975.

The Committee Room.  Interesting Articles for Interested Readers.


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