Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Oh, Tallulah!

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


At 4:07 PM, Anonymous Mat Wright said...


What a wonderful article - never knew Victoria had such vibrant members of 'society'

Well done

At 8:33 AM, Blogger KC said...

Fascinating article. Makes me think of the Anita Loos quote: "Tallulah never bored anyone, and I consider that humanitarianism of a very high order indeed." I've yet to hear a less than thrilling story about this woman.

At 6:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story. I had posted the question in a forum, asking if anyone knew the details of that house. I grew up in Belmont Park in the sixties and we were all terrified by that mansion, positive that some creepy old witch lived there. Someone mentioned the Tallulah connection and I found your article. Thanks. It would seem that, as young boys, we had good reason to be afraid!!

At 5:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know if there is any connection with Mabel Fortune Driscoll and Charlotte Armstrong?

At 2:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too grew up in Belmont Park during the 60s/70s and played near the mansion (had my first drag of a cigarette in the barn on the property). We kids believed a witch — Deloris — lived there. It all makes sense now ...

At 7:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

to the anonymous that lived in Belmont Park. Do you know of any history of a child drowning in well anywhere around here? I had a dream of a woman with long grey hair come to me telling me that a child drowned in the well, and that the children here now still have to be careful

At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will add this. My father was servicing Dola's furnace and she asked if he and his family would like to come a live there at Daloura while she was away. We moved in and lived there for abut 2 year in 1953/54. I remember being terrified the first night with the fog horns blowing. Also we made apple cider up in the barn, had fancy parties with family, my dad rode his motorcycle into the house and down the hall, my mom was a Brown Owl for the neighbourhood Belmont park girls. My sister and I had to walk to Colwood school bypassing Belmont school because we were not from the military families. My best friend at the time was Connie Cownden who did live in the park. I also recall the floor to ceiling stacked book shelves on each side of the hallways. There was a room at the end of the upper floor housing artifacts, like a complete Medieval Knight Suit , pretty scary stuff, but what an experience. Have many pictures of our time there.

At 2:52 PM, Blogger Fred Rowe said...

I have an inscribed hardcover copy of Tallulah: My Autobiography (1951). Got it from a distant relative years ago when I lived in Victoria. It must have been given as a gift to Ms. Cavendish because the inscription reads "To Dola with All My Love, Tallulah".

At 8:10 AM, Blogger ross said...

Fred: a valuable book. If you're ever selling it, let me know!

At 8:48 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Who owns the land where the house used to sit? DND? I walk there all the time.

At 10:31 PM, Blogger ross said...

Not sure ... I think it's part of Royal Roads now.

At 9:30 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

The house is no longer there. The fruit treea are still there and its garden is overgrown. Its quite mysterious. All thats left is the foundation. My kids and I visit to pick fruit as we lived in the military quarters.

At 12:56 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

It's quite a pity, I've lived here in BP for eight years and only learned the true history of the site earlier this year. Can only imagine what the military families thought of the ruckus that went on down there.

At 4:31 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I live in Belmont park and walk every day through that property thank you for shedding light and a fantastic story ..I'll have to bring a bottle for gin for her one of these days ..lol

At 3:37 PM, Blogger GLOVER ARTS said...

I didn't know of a child drowing at Dola's estate, but in the mid 1950's one of our friends hung himself from a tree on her property. We never knew if it was accidental or it was suicide.


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