Once in a while, I dream about opening a bar. Nothing big – something the size of Smoking Lily’s 4 x 11 boutique on Johnson Street, actually – decorated in velvet and faux fur. A kind of Big Bad John’s for drag queens, serving expensive martinis, and adorned with a shrine to Tallulah Bankhead, the most flamboyant tourist to have passed through this city in the last 50 years.
In sober moments, though, I realize that my Tallulah’s would have a hard time keeping up with the notorious reputation of its namesake. Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born in Alabama in 1902, into a prominent political family – her grandfather and uncle were U.S. senators, and her father was Speaker of the House of Representatives – but she became an actress, famous for her outrageous performances both on and off stage as she blazed through Broadway, London’s West End, and Hollywood.
In her cigarette-scorched, baritonal voice, Tallulah provided gossip columnists with hundreds of shocking bon mots. She openly admitted to drinking heavily and dabbling with drugs: “Cocaine isn’t habit-forming, darling. I should know, I’ve been taking it for years.” She claimed to have enjoyed more than 500 sexual partners, including actors John Barrymore and Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller – and Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich too, who called her “the most immoral woman alive.”
“I’m a lesbian,” Tallulah once announced to a stranger at a party. “What do you do?”
Tallulah’s connection to Victoria came through Dola Cavendish, the youngest daughter of James Dunsmuir, the coal baron and British Columbia premier who built Hatley Castle (now Royal Roads University) in 1908. After her brief marriage to Cmdr. Henry Cavendish (wedding photo at right), Dola moved to London, worked in the fashion business, and spent every free minute at West End theatres. She became captivated by Tallulah, who developed such a rabid following during the 1920s that hordes of screaming “gallery girls” threw flowers to her from the balconies after every performance. Dola insinuated herself into Tallulah’s circle, and became the star’s secretary and trusted friend, travelling with her everywhere.
But in 1941, Dola’s sister Kathleen died in an air raid on London, and Dola moved back to Victoria to take care of Kathleen’s daughters. She built a mansion named Dolaura (photo below left), on property her father had willed to her, at 501 Belmont Road in Colwood. From then on Tallulah visited Victoria regularly – with Dola shouting at the airport, “Make way for Miss Bankhead!” – and they stayed at Dolaura for weeks at a time.
Tallulah’s house parties were epic. Freda Bemister, who worked as a housekeeper at Dolaura in the 1960s, recalls that one time a drunken judge got his car stuck in the mud outside the house, and the tow-truck driver was rewarded by drinking champagne from Tallulah’s shoe. “I never made a pot of coffee the entire time I was there,” says Mrs. Bemister, whose husband was often recruited to go buy more cases of Dola’s favourite gin. “Miss Bankhead never ate breakfast. Instead, she asked for mint juleps.”
Tallulah, a born exhibitionist, also spent much of her time parading around the house in the nude, enjoying the feeling of the ocean air on her naked body. “The cook wouldn’t serve Miss Bankhead dinner unless she had her clothes on, which wasn’t very often,” says Mrs. Bemister. (Tallulah often acted without panties, too: during filming of her best-known movie, 1944’s Lifeboat, director Alfred Hitchcock heard so many complaints from other actors that he famously said he wasn’t sure whether the problem should be referred to the makeup department, or hairdressing.)
Although Dola rarely left the mansion, Tallulah did get out to enjoy Victoria’s arts scene. Through the painter Flemming Jorgensen, married to one of Dola’s relatives, Tallulah got to know members of The Limners collective. (That’s Jorgensen and Tallulah at right, in 1959.) In 1963 she performed at the Royal Theatre in a touring comedy, and in 1964 she endowed several seats at the McPherson Playhouse to help pay for its renovations.
Tallulah even enlisted Freda Bemister to read a script for a trashy 1965 psychodrama, entitled Die! Die! My Darling. “‘Tell me if you think this suits me,’ she said,” Mrs. Bemister recalls. “It did.” (You can see a trailer for it here, although better is Tallulah’s “Celebrity Next Door” episode on the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Comedy Hour, watchable here.)
Dola died in 1966, leaving Tallulah $30,000 in her will. Tallulah provided a bed of roses for the funeral, and a pillow of gardenias for Dola’s head. Tallulah died two years later, of double pneumonia; reportedly her final words were “Codeine – bourbon.” The federal government took over Dolaura but let the mansion fall into ruin, and tore it down in 1996.
Tallulah’s legend has endured, however. She inspired female impersonator Craig Russell, and the Cruella De Vil character (left) in Disney’s 101 Dalmations. Her autobiography, the #5 bestseller of 1952, remains in print and available for Amazon’s Kindle. And Looped, a comedy based on an incident when Tallulah took eight hours to re-record a single line for her last movie, recently played on Broadway.
Reportedly during one of Tallulah’s last visits to Canada, a customs officer checking passports asked her if she was the Tallulah Bankhead. She replied, “I’m what’s left of her, darling.” Even four decades after her death, what’s left of Tallulah is hard to ignore.
PS Thanks to Royal Roads University Archives for providing many of the above photos.
UPDATE (August 26, 2009): A letter appeared in this week’s Monday Magazine, regarding the above post:
In the very early 1960s, I worked for a veterinarian. I was 17 or 18 and very naïve, especially about women – especially older women. Mrs. Dola Cavendish (Dola Dunsmuir in your article) had one of her dogs in the clinic and it was due to go home, but no one was available to pick it up. The vet asked if I could take it home for Mrs. Cavendish; I agreed. I understood Tallulah Banhkead was in town and staying with her.
I knew about Tallulah, but didn’t think I had seen her in the movies. Reputation said she might be a cross between a vamp and a tramp – on and off the stage. Upon arrival, I was shown in with the dog. Tallulah rushed over and held my chin, saying, “Oh, dahling, isn’t he so sweet!” Uh oh, I could feel my face go a very deep vermilion. “Do come and sit down,” she said. I could see they were drinking, so I stammered that I was told to return to the clinic immediately.
A short meeting with Tallulah was much too big for this teenager!
Gerry Harris, Victoria