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Lives and Letters
     

Lives and Letters

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by Robert Gottlieb
 

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The product of a lifetime immersed in the literary, performing arts, and entertainment worlds, Lives and Letters spotlights the work, careers, intimate lives, and lasting achievements of a vast array of celebrated writers and performers in film, theater, and dance, and some of the more curious iconic public figures of our times.

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Overview

The product of a lifetime immersed in the literary, performing arts, and entertainment worlds, Lives and Letters spotlights the work, careers, intimate lives, and lasting achievements of a vast array of celebrated writers and performers in film, theater, and dance, and some of the more curious iconic public figures of our times.

From the world of literature, Charles Dickens, James Thurber, Judith Krantz, John Steinbeck, and Rudyard Kipling; the controversies surrounding Bruno Bettelheim and Elia Kazan; and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her editor, Maxwell Perkins.

From dance and theater, Isadora Duncan and Margot Fonteyn, Serge Diaghilev and George Balanchine, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse.

In Hollywood, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, Douglas Fairbanks and Lillian Gish, Tallulah Bankhead and Katharine Hepburn, Mae West and Anna May Wong.

In New York, Diana Vreeland, the Trumps, and Gottlieb's own take on the contretemps that followed his replacing William Shawn at The New Yorker.

And so much more . . .

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Squalid demises are unusually common in these lively, sardonic sketches of creative types—heavily weighted toward long-dead writers, Old Hollywood icons and dance pioneers—gathered from magazine pieces by Gottlieb, former editor-in-chief of Knopf and the New Yorker (he closes with a bitter retort to Renata Adler’s acid-etched memoir of his tenure at the magazine). Gottlieb claims he is "not drawn to sagas of self-destructing divas," but that is false: Judy Garland ("illness, addiction and degradation"), Isadora Duncan (a "ghastly wreck"), Katharine Hepburn ("vulgar and pathetic desperation to stay up to date and in the limelight"), and Tallulah Bankhead (last words: "'codeine—bourbon’") are among the many tragic figures he profiles. Fortunately, his ambivalent, sometimes intimate appreciations of his subjects, many of whom he edited or otherwise knew, deftly illuminate the talent that preceded the denouement. Many of the pieces are reviews of biographies that serve as foils to Gottlieb’s own interpretation; they let him deplore salacious scandal-mongering while quoting it, and embrace psychoanalysis—Charles Dickens’s mother issues, Harry Houdini’s bondage fetish—while mocking it. These essays are really criticisms of their subjects’ lives—amusing and engaged, but somewhat cool and dissatisfied, ready with praise but attuned to the revealing flaw. 20 b&w illus. (May)
Library Journal
This collection of pieces about actors, dancers, literary figures, and others shows that Gottlieb (former publisher, Alfred A. Knopf; Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt) always knows what he's writing about. He wrote many of these essays using the publication of a particular new book as its raison d'être, but the pieces quickly move beyond being simple book reviews. Gottlieb's personal experiences with some of his subjects make those pieces—on such giants as George Balanchine, Elia Kazan, Diana Vreeland (Gottlieb edited Kazan's and Vreeland's memoirs and played an important volunteer role in Ballanchine's New York City Ballet for years)—especially compelling. His pieces on Steinbeck, Kipling, and The International Encyclopedia of Dancing are models of intelligent commentary, as is his assessment of the lasting influence of F.R. Leavis's perpetually undersubscribed journal of literary criticism, Scrutiny (1932–53). Least interesting may be those where Gottlieb had no firsthand contact with the contemporary figure he is writing about, e.g., Princess Diana or California murderer Scott Peterson. Even here, though, his observations are always on the mark. VERDICT This fine collection will appeal especially to readers of The New Yorker (although these pieces come from a broader selection of periodicals), but there's something here for all lovers of the creative life. Strongly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 11/8/10.]—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429961066
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
04/26/2011
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
448
Sales rank:
857,646
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Lives and Letters


By Robert Gottlieb

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Copyright © 2011 Robert Gottlieb
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-6106-6



CHAPTER 1

Dah-ling


Most famous stage actors tactfully fade away. Who today is interested in Katharine Cornell, that First Lady of the American Theater? Or that other First Lady, Helen Hayes? Or that First among Firsts, Ethel Barrymore? (Well, yes, she was the great-aunt of Drew.) Of the theatrical greats of their day, only Tallulah Bankhead, who died in 1968, has not gone gentle into oblivion. Since her death, there have been seven biographies, the latest, Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady, by Joel Lobenthal, published only recently. And her own book, Tallulah, the number-five nonfiction bestseller of 1952 (number one was the Revised Standard Version of the Bible; Whittaker Chambers's Witness was number nine), is recently back in print.

Not many people remember Tallulah's stage performances, and not many more see her few movies, yet here she is again, hectoring, demanding attention, catastrophically self-destructive; a star more than an actress, a personality more than a star, a celebrity before the phenomenon of celebrity had been identified. How appropriate that her final public appearance was on The Tonight Show (where she chatted with Paul McCartney and John Lennon). And what a complicated professional trajectory that suggests, given that her first real success — in London in 1923, forty years before the Beatles — was opposite Sir Gerald du Maurier, then the British theater's leading matinee idol. ("Daddy," his daughter Daphne exclaimed, the first time she encountered Tallulah, "that's the most beautiful girl I've ever seen in my life.")

Tallulah, with her signature "dah-ling"s and her notorious peccadilloes and her endlessly caricaturized baritonal gurgle of a voice — a voice that the actor-writer Emlyn Williams said was "steeped as deep in sex as the human voice can go without drowning" — would be easy to dismiss as a joke if she hadn't also been a woman of outsize capacities. As it is, the story of her messy life reaches beyond gossip and approaches tragedy.

Tragedy, in fact, struck at the beginning. Her twenty-one-year-old mother — "the most beautiful thing that ever lived" — died of complications following Tallulah's birth, leaving her father, Will, so grief-stricken that he collapsed into a pattern of alcoholism, self-pity, and absence which lasted for years. The Bankheads of Alabama weren't rich, but they were aristocracy — Will Bankhead's father and brother were both United States senators — and the motherless Tallulah and her sister, Eugenia, were reared by their grandparents and aunts with strict guidelines (which they ignored) and a strong sense of privilege (which they indulged). Once Will pulled himself together, he went on to become a successful politician, ending as a much-admired Speaker of the House under Roosevelt. Tallulah, in turn, was a lifelong passionate Democrat, and took credit — some of it deserved — for helping elect both Truman and Kennedy.

Politics was not the only passion that Tallulah inherited from her father — as a very young man, he had gone to Boston to try his luck as an actor. (He was hauled back home by a no-nonsense letter from his mother.) Even as a little girl, Tallulah was crazy to perform, and frequently when Will, somewhat the worse for drink, drifted home with his pals, he would lift her up onto the dining-room table and have her entertain the boys with risqué songs. She reveled in it. A plump child with startlingly gold hair, Tallulah was an exhibitionist from the beginning.

Another side of her dramatic temperament expressed itself in wild tantrums when she didn't get her way. ("To deny me anything only inflames my desire.") She would throw herself down, beat the floor, grow purple in the face, scream bloody murder. Her sister would hide in the closet, but her commonsensical grandmother would simply fling a bucket of water in her face.

There were attempts at conventional education for the Bankhead girls. Eugenia, however, eloped in her debutante year with a boy she had met that day. As for Tallulah, at fifteen she convinced her family that she was born to be an actress, and her senatorial grandfather staked her to an assault on Broadway. Chaperoned by her Aunt Louise, she found herself living at the Algonquin Hotel in its early palmy days, and there she encountered the greats of the theatrical profession, including John Barrymore, who, true to form, tried to seduce her in his dressing room. She had no schooling as an actress and she lacked discipline, but she had vivid charm and looks, and she was absolutely determined to prevail. "I was consumed by a fever to be famous, even infamous," she wrote.

In her desperation to be noticed, she experimented with alcohol and cocaine, but her main shock tactics involved sex. Apparently, her first affair was with the celebrated actress Eva Le Gallienne, three years her senior, but although she liked to boast about her irregular love life — "I'm a lesbian," she announced to a stranger at a party. "What do you do?" — she also told a friend, "I could never become a lesbian, because they have no sense of humor!" Perhaps she found later women friends like Billie Holiday funnier than Le Gallienne. On the whole, though, her taste was for men, and early on she met the man she undoubtedly cared for longest and most deeply, "Naps" Alington — Napier George Henry Sturt Alington, the third Alington baron — who was, in the words of Lee Israel, her most perceptive biographer, "a soft-spoken, blond tubercular — well cultivated, bisexual, with sensuous, meaty lips, a distant, antic charm, a history of mysterious disappearances, and a streak of cruelty."

Tallulah was generally out of funds, scrounging meals and running up bills at the Algonquin, whose long-suffering owner, Frank Case, announced at one point, "I can either run this hotel or look after Tallulah Bankhead. I can't do both." Although she was slowly progressing from walk-ons and small parts to leads in undistinguished plays, after some five years in New York the big breakthrough hadn't come, and she was frustrated, anxious, and broke. When the chance came to play opposite du Maurier in London, she leaped at what she saw as an opportunity to conquer the West End. (Hadn't a fashionable astrologer told her that her future lay across the Atlantic? "Go if you have to swim.") The play was called The Dancers, and she was Maxine, a Canadian saloon dancer who eventually marries Tony the bartender, who turns out to be the Earl of Chively. With her glorious hair, her unique voice and accent, her unrestrained dancing and cartwheeling (during her English career, she cartwheeled whenever the script allowed, and sometimes when it didn't), she did indeed conquer the West End.

Throughout the ten-month run of The Dancers, a group of rabid young women gathered nightly up in the gallery to express their love for their heroine by screaming, stomping, throwing flowers. Within three years, she had attracted the most loyal and vociferous following in London. Observing this phenomenon, Arnold Bennett noted, "Ordinary stars get 'hands.' If Tallulah gets a 'hand' it is not heard. What is heard is a terrific, wild, passionate, hysterical roar and shriek. Only the phrase of the Psalmist can describe it: 'God is gone up with a shout.'" She informed a reporter from New York, "Over here they like me to 'Tallulah.' You know — dance and sing and romp and fluff my hair and play reckless parts." She had become a verb!

During her London years, Tallulah appeared in sixteen plays, ranging from outright junk (Conchita, The Creaking Chair, Mud and Treacle) to the Pulitzer Prize — winning They Knew What They Wanted. She missed playing Sadie Thompson in Somerset Maugham's Rain when Maugham nixed her at the last minute, making her so despondent that she thought she'd give suicide a try, and, according to Lobenthal, "swallowed twenty aspirins, scribbled a suicide note — 'It ain't goin' to rain no moh' — and lay down on her intended bier." The next morning, feeling fine, she was wakened by a phone call begging her to step into a leading role in Noël Coward's Fallen Angels.

Her life in London was hardly restricted to work. She was as famous for her shenanigans offstage as for her flamboyant performances. In her autobiography, she confides, "Have I darkly hinted that for eight years I cut a great swath in London? Well I damned well did, and it was all a spur to my ego, electrifying! London beaux clamored for my company." Her highly publicized flings extended from the tennis champion Jean Borotra to Lord Birkenhead to a fraudulent Italian aristocrat whom she almost married. And, of course, Napier Alington was always on her mind and often in her bed.

But as the decade drew to a close she decided that it was time to go home: She was approaching thirty, Naps was marrying the daughter of an earl, and she was out of money, since she always spent everything she earned, and then some. And suddenly the way was open to her, via an extraordinary offer from Paramount, beginning at $5,000 a week. This was the moment when, with the recent coming of sound, Hollywood was signing up every attractive stage star it could find, and the exotic Tallulah, with her husky seductive voice, could well prove to be the next Garbo, the next Dietrich. "Hollywood for me I'm afraid," she wrote to her father and, in January 1931, embarked for New York.

In a year and a half, Bankhead made six feature films (and a lot of money), but none of them really worked. It didn't matter whether she was leaping off a balcony rather than go back to her blind husband, escaping from a submarine that her crazed husband had sabotaged, or going on the streets to procure money for the medicine needed by her desperately ill husband — reviewers said either that she was wasted on such clichéd vehicles or that she didn't live up to the better of them. The bottom line is that audiences just didn't take to her. George Cukor, who directed her once, concluded that she wasn't naturally photogenic: "On the screen she had beautiful bones, but her eyes were not eyes for movies. They looked somehow hooded and dead." The reality was that she was first and always a creature of the stage, all about projecting her larger-than-life personality at an audience, never about allowing a camera to explore her face and reveal her feelings. The movies caged and suppressed her. (They did the same thing to another stage phenomenon, Ethel Merman.) Bette Davis, who clearly had benefited from studying her speech patterns and vocal mannerisms, burned up the screen; Tallulah doused it.

She did, however, have a good time in Hollywood, what with her Rolls, her suntan, and her nonstop parties. Joan Crawford reminisced, "We all adored her. We were fascinated by her, but we were scared to death of her, too ... . She had such authority, as if she ruled the earth, as if she was the first woman on the moon." There were the usual sexual escapades, including an encounter with Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller in the Garden of Allah pool, about which she reported that she had been "a very satisfied Jane." Yet the biggest scandal she created was a remark she tossed off in an interview: "I haven't had an affaire for six months. Six months! Too long ... . I WANT A MAN." This was not the kind of publicity the studios — or the production code — could condone, and it helped send her back to Broadway (with her earnings of $200,000).

For half a dozen years, she failed at everything she tried on the stage, most spectacularly in 1937, when she had the calamitous misjudgment to take on Antony and Cleopatra: She had no classical technique, and she refused to be coached. The text was butchered, too — in the climactic scene, for instance, the deaths of Cleopatra's handmaidens were eliminated ("Because, of course, darling, we only want one death in that scene!"). One critic wrote that she was "more a serpent of the Swanee than of the Nile"; another famously quipped, "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra — and sank."

Also trapped in this disaster was a second-rank actor named John Emery, whom Tallulah had picked up on the summer circuit and, rather casually, married. Emery was good-looking, capable, and amiable. Best of all, he bore a marked resemblance to John Barrymore, and not only in profile: Years earlier, when Barrymore revealed himself to her in his dressing room, Tallulah had sworn to herself (and anyone within earshot) never to sleep with any man who wasn't "hung like Barrymore," and went on to claim that she had stuck to her word. (Since she also claimed five hundred or more conquests, perhaps she wasn't always so picky.) One of Tallulah's party tricks was to escort guests to the master bedroom, fling back the covers from the bed in which Emery was sleeping, and crow, "Did you ever see a prick as big as that before?" So size mattered, but eventually, in his case, not enough. Soon she was telling people, "Well, darling, the weapon may be of admirable proportions, but the shot is indescribably weak." Within a few years, the marriage, such as it was, was over.

During the thirties, Tallulah had entered the hospital for what was announced as an "abdominal tumor" but was actually a case of gonorrhea — contracted, she was to say, from George Raft — so violent it brought her close to death. It led to a five-hour radical hysterectomy, and by the time she left the hospital she was down to seventy pounds. Undaunted, she announced to her doctor, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson!" The hysterectomy left her not only psychologically shaky but erotically diminished — again and again, she testified to her lack of physical pleasure, telling Tennessee Williams's friend Sandy Campbell, for instance, that she couldn't reach an orgasm with any man she was in love with. (She gave as an example the multimillionaire Jock Whitney.) Louise Brooks reported to Kenneth Tynan, "I always guessed that she wasn't as interested in bed as everyone thought." Apparently, Tallulah cared more about the act of conquest than about the sexual act itself.

Another aspect of her pathology was her unrestrained exhibitionism. She was famous for throwing off her clothes at parties, for leaving her bathroom door open, for working without panties on. When she was performing in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, so many people in the audience complained that Actors' Equity had to order her to wear underpants onstage. When she was making Lifeboat, Alfred Hitchcock, as Lobenthal puts it, fielded complaints "with his much-quoted deliberation about whether the matter needed to be referred to the makeup or the hairdressing department."

In the late thirties, after the failure of her vigorous campaign to secure the role of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, her luck changed. Her commanding performance in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, as a malevolent Southern matron who stands by coldly while her husband dies, riveted Broadway. A month after the opening, in March 1939, she was on the cover of Life, and the text of the accompanying story was unambiguous: "Somehow it seemed impossible to find adequate parts for this strange electric woman with the languid eyes, the panther's step and the siren's husky voice. But now ... she fills, for the first time, a role carved big and fierce enough for her talent." Her triumph was unalloyed, except for the fury and chagrin she felt at losing the film version to Bette Davis.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Lives and Letters by Robert Gottlieb. Copyright © 2011 Robert Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert Gottlieb was the president, publisher, and editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf, and the editor of The New Yorker. He contributes to The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Observer.


Robert Gottlieb has been the editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker. He is the author of Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhard, George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, and Lives and Letters (FSG, 2011), and is the dance critic for The New York Observer.

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