In Tallulah Bankhead’s autobiography there is an odd little anecdote concerning her adventures in London’s fast lane.
“In London I visited a charming little house in Chelsea, with a top-floor room lined with tinfoil.The habitues called it Silvertown. A quite respectable friend asked me if I’d like to smoke some opium.
Acceptance was obligatory for a femme fatale . I was fascinated by the preliminaries, melting the pellets, tamping them into the bowl of the pipe. My imagination running riot, I felt like the daughter of Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer’s malign Chinese. The effects were pleasant and dreamy. The world seemed uncommonly rosy but not for long…. On the way home, my escort and I became actively ill. We were so sick that we flung ourselves on my bed and collapsed. There my maid found us in the morning, ashen and wretched.”
As with most stories told by, or about, Tallulah, this needs taking with a pinch of salt (or perhaps coke).However, biographer Joel Lobenthal interviewed Glenn Anders, who confirmed the expedition to the “opium den”, although he denied that Bankhead indulged – then or at any other time. The latter part of his statement is patently untrue but it does allow us to place the visit in 1927, during the run of She Knew What She Wanted (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/sir-patrick-hastingstallulah-bankhead-and-beatrix-lehmann/ ).
Tallulah would have been no stranger to the rituals of opium use. Her great love in her early London years had been the publicly-respectable but privately very louche Napier “Naps ” Alington , whose friendships with the likes of Princess Murat and Jean Cocteau were built around a mutual fondness for the drug.
So, if it existed, whose was this house? Who was the respectable friend? Is Tallulah, as I suspect, collapsing a number of visits into one self-serving anecdote? She was seeing a lot of Gwen Farrar at the time but her residence, though certainly charming , hardly fits most people’s definition of small. However, Farrar’s circle included Dolly Wilde, Ruth Baldwin and Olivia Wyndham who were all opium-users and all lived in Chelsea for at least part of 1927. Then there are the Dean Pauls and the ubiquitous Tony De Gandarillas – but again one would hesitate to call them respectable. Bankhead did know most of these people, particularly the ones who frequented the Gargoyle Club on Dean Street – where Elvira’s guest Brian Howard was to later become almost a permanent feature. Howard had his own battles with opium but these had not really started yet.
Unfortunately, I can find no other reference to Silvertown in reminiscences of the era. I am fairly positive that there was such a room but it was probably in the house of an older,more seasoned and less well-known user. If anyone knows otherwise please get in touch. If nothing else, the anecdote indicates that drug use was an established aspect of Chelsea life, albeit a fairly discreet and “underground” one.
Silvertown is possibly a morbid reference to one of the great tragedies to hit London in the First World War when a munitions factory blew up, killing 73 people. See Silvertown Explosion .