Elvira, we are told, kept a photograph of Tallulah Bankhead at her bedside while she was on remand in Holloway. Whether she was simply an adoring fan, like so many stage-struck young women of the period, or whether she knew Tallulah personally or through the notorious Farm Street parties, we cannot be sure. As they shared a mutually very close friend, Audrey Carten, it is almost certain that Elvira had at least met the American actress, whose London lifestyle remains the very picture of 1920′s “Smart Set” excess.
Tallulah as Jean Borotra, Impersonation Party 1927 ( Georgia Doble and Elizabeth Ponsonby also in picture)
There was one person involved in the trial who most definitely did know Tallulah. Oddly enough, it was her Defence Counsel, Sir Patrick Hastings, whose performance in court reduced the prosecution case to tatters and may well have saved Elvira’s life. Patrick Hastings was not only the leading (and most expensive) Advocate of his day, he was also a playwright. In 1926, Tallulah had starred in Scotch Mist, his controversial study of a failed marriage – complete with amorous wife and jealous husband.
The play was not very well received but Tallulah’s popularity (and the fact that the Bishop of London denounced it from the pulpit as an example of the immorality of the era) ensured a good run of 117 performances. In the course of the production, Hastings formed a very favourable impression of Miss Bankhead.
In his autobiography, he wrote, ” I always found Tallulah extremely charming and both my wife and I liked her enormously. Not only was she a delightful actress, but she was free from those exhibitions of the artistic temperament which are not wholly unknown in the theatre and can on occasions become a perfect nuisance”. In the light of Hastings ill-concealed disgust at the behaviour of some of Elvira’s set during the trial, this is a revealing statement. It also makes one wonder what Hastings really thought about his client’s character and her frequent “exhibitions”.
Scotch Mist was sandwiched between two much greater triumphs in Tallulah’s London stage career. She had just finished playing Iris Storm in Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat. That Tallulah should play the embodiment of female modernity in what was (briefly) seen as the embodiment of the modern novel was surely appropriate and Tallulah’s army of female fans loved her in the role – her scenes in chic lingerie did no harm either.The novel was a best-seller and although it has dated badly, its importance in cementing the image of a certain type of new (and possibly dangerous) femininity cannot be exaggerated. Iris Storm racing around Mayfair in her yellow Hispano-Suiza inspired many real-life counterparts – not least Elvira.
After Scotch Mist Tallulah opted for a change of style and earned much critical praise for her portrayal of Amy, a waitress, in Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted. The play was a success (it had already been a hit in America) but its lack of glamour and raciness disappointed Tallulah’s “Gallery Girls” who also “knew what they wanted” from their idol.
Bankhead’s understudy in all three productions was the redoubtable Beatrix Lehmann, whose theatrical success seemed not to have suffered from her, by contemporary standards, very open lesbianism. From her emergence from RADA in 1924 to her death in 1979, Beatrix was a striking figure – on and off-stage. Male co-star and Tallulah’s then-current lover, Glenn Anders said that ”Tallulah must have been in love with her. We were together all of the time”. Beatrix’s sister was the writer and part-time Bright Young Person, Rosamond, whose 1927 novel “Dusty Answer“, with its bold depiction of homosexuality among the young university set, caused a sensation of its own. Her later works, particularly “The Echoing Grove” (1953) place her in the front ranks of twentieth century English writers. Through Beatrix, Anders and Bankhead spent many weekends at Rosamond’s country home.
Her brother was John Lehmann , a key figure in the London literary scene of the late 1930s and 1940s and an important chronicler of male homosexual life in the Capital during the Second World War. Beatrix herself wrote two novels in the early 1930s.
Beatrix Lehmann by Angus McBean 1937
Beatrix lived at St.George’s, Hanover Square in the heart of Mayfair throughout the late 20s and early 30s. It is likely that she would have known many of Elvira’s circle – although her tastes seem more literary and Bloomsbury-oriented than most of the “theatrical” crowd. We know that she was friendly with Lytton Strachey, Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Tennant. Whether she was close to any of the Lesbian sub-cultural groups is less certain. At one weekend gathering, Beatrix was described by her sister as being “full of high spirits and devilry” , which would have endeared her to Elvira – if not to Sir Patrick Hastings.
She enjoyed a long and triumphant career on stage, in films and latterly on television.Among her more famous cinematic appearances are those in “The Passing of The Third Floor Back” (1935) and The Spy Who Came in From The Cold (1965). She is now probably best known for her performances as Professor Rumford in the 1978 Doctor Who series “The Stones of Blood”. She is regularly voted “best supporting part ever” by the worshippers of that particular cult.
I wonder how many of those fans would associate the good Professor with wild times with Tallulah in the London of the 1920s?