Dorothy Parker was a famously wry, witty, and acerbic writer and critic, with a low opinion of relationships. Her wit was apparent from an early age, referring to her father’s second wife as “The Housekeeper.” She was described by journalist and critic Alexander Woolcott as “a combination of Little Nell and Lady MacBeth.” As a literary critic, she said of one book, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” The author of the book? Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. My name’s Moxie….
This episode drops on Intl Womens Day, and I’ve covered a lot of remarkable women on the show, for a number of remarkable reasons, but today we focus on ladies for their remarks, for their wit and their wild ways. Tallulah Bankhead is a name I’ve known for many years, but never really knew anything about her. Back in the day, going to the big “computer show and sale” at the raceway complex with my dad, circa 1996, I picked up some cd-roms of FVM video games and some educational stuff like Microsoft Encarta Musical Instruments and some reference that included hundred of famous quotes. Some of you I realize will have no idea what I just said, a few of you will be unclear what a cd-rom is, but a few of you just got a cold chill like someone walking across your grave. Tallulah Bankhead’s wit featured prominently with quotes like, “If I were well behaved, I’d die of boredom,” “I read Shakespeare and the Bible, and I can shoot dice. That’s what I call a liberal education,” and “I’ll come and make love to you at five o’clock. If I’m late, start without me.” ‘I like her,’ I thought, but didn’t look into who she actually was until this week. Considering she’s the inspiration for one of Disney’s most iconic villains, you’d think I’d have come across something between then and now, but not.
Bankhead, the daughter of an Alabama congressman and future speaker of the House, was named after her paternal grandmother, whose name was inspired by Tallulah Falls, Georgia. That grandmother would raise her when her mother died a few days after her birth and the loss sent her father into a pit of depression and alcoholism. Little Tallulah was… difficult. Tallulah discovered at an early age that theatrics were a viable outlet for gaining the attention, good or bad, that she craved. A series of throat and chest infections as a child had left her with a raspy voice which would later become her trademark. It also made her stand out from her classmates, but Tallulah was not the type to be bullied and soon became the terror or students and the bane of teachers. She would find herself sent to, and expelled from, two different convent schools, the first for once for throwing ink at a nun and the next time for making a pass at one.
At 15, Bankhead submitted her own photo to film industry magazine Picture Play, winning a small part in a movie and a trip to New York. She was allowed to go only by promising her father, a Congressman, she’d abstain from men and alcohol, but as she famously put it in her autobiography, “He didn’t say anything about women and cocaine.” She was a self-described “technical virgin” until 20. Though she lacked training and discipline, she possessed a dazzling stage presence, her husky voice providing fascinating contrast with her good looks. Quickly ascending to stardom, she just as easily gained renown for her quick-witted outspokenness and indefatigable party going. In New York, Bankhead moved into the famous Algonquin Hotel, a hotspot for the artistic and literary elite of the era, and was quickly rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous.
After several years starring in films and on stage in New York, Bankhole’s acting was praised, but she had not yet scored a big commercial hit. So, she moved to London in 1923, where her stardom grew. Her fame heightened in 1924 when she played Amy in Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted. The show won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize.
But Bankhead was best known for her antics off-stage. She’d drive her Bently recklessly through London and if she got lost, she’d hire a black cab to drive to where she was going and she’d follow him. She spent her nights at booze and drug-filled parties, partaking liberally, and reportedly smoked 120 cigarettes a day, which is kind of dubious because how would you have time for anything else. She also openly had a series of relationships with both men and women, including some very famous female personalities of the day. Names attached to her, with or without facts to back it included Greta Garbo, Hattie McDaniel, the first AfrAm actress to win an Oscar, and singer Billie Holiday.
One thing that’s known with great certainty is that she talked openly about her vices, and women just weren’t supposed to do that. Hell, they weren’t supposed to *have vices. She found herself included in Hays’ “Doom Book”, which would help her inspire a Disney villain, since only the worst of the worst were in the Doom Book, but it didn’t do much for her career. Brief refresher on the Hays Code, and you can hear lots more about it in the episode Words You Can’t Say on TV or Radio, way back in Oct 2018 before I started numbering episodes, the Hays Code a set of strict guidelines all motion pictures companies operated under from 1934 to 1968. It prohibited profanity, suggestive nudity, sexual perversions like homosexuality, interracial relationships, any talk of reproductive anything, and, in case you were unclear where all this came from, it banned ridicule of authority in general and the clergy in particular. This is why married couples in black&white sitcoms slept in separate beds. The Doom Book, which was either a closely guarded secret or never physically existed, was said to have contained the names of over 150 thespians considered too morally tumultuous to be used in movies. So this is the law of the land when a gal like Tallulah Bankhead is running around in cursing like a sailor in hedonistic, drug-fueled, openly-bisexual glee.
Giving up on Hollywood, Bankhead returned to Broadway for a decade or so, where she reached her zenith with her performances in The Little Foxes and The Skin of Our Teeth, both of which earned her the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and was briefly married to actor John Emery. [a la Sam O’Nella] Never heard of him? Me neither. What’s his story? I didn’t bother. In 1943 she decided to give Hollywood a second try, but Hollywood hadn’t had the same thought about her. There was one bright spot, being cast in and praised for Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat in 1944.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bankhead’s hedonistic lifestyle and excessive drinking had taken its toll. Critics complained that she had become a self-caricature, which feels like a real oof. She kept her career afloat by publishing a best-selling autobiography, touring in plays like Private Lives and Dear Charles, before headlining her own nightclub act. In 1965 she made her last *film appearance, playing a homicidal religious fanatic in the British thriller Die! Die! My Darling! Tallulah Bankhead’s final acting assignments included a “Special Guest Villain” stint on the TV series Batman. When she was advised that the series was considered “high camp,” her response was vintage Tallulah: “Don’t tell me about camp, dahling! I invented it!”
Am I ever going to tell you which Disney villain she inspired? I supposed, if I must. Disney animator Marc Davis once told of his creative process when tasked to create the villain for an upcoming film. (It was 1961 if you want to try to guess.) The chaaracter would become iconic, instantly recognizable whether cartoon or real life. Davis looked to real-life “bad” women, and while he said there were a number of different people who he kept in mind while drawing her, one name rose to the top – Tallulah Bankhead. So no matter if her movie or Broadway career is forgotten, Bankhead will always live on as Cruella de Ville.
When she was good, she was very good. But when she was bad, she made film history. Whether making films, writing plays or flirting with the camera, Mae West was undisputedly the most controversial sex siren of her time and she even landed in jail because of it. She was the queen of double entendres on and off screen, delivering some of the best-remembered quips in movie history. You know the line, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”, yeah, that was West In “She Done Him Wrong.” in 1933.
Mary Jane West was born on Aug. 17, 1893 in Queens, NY to a boxer turned cop and a former corset and fashion model. The acting bug bit the heck out of West when she was tiny, bringing home talent show prizes at age 5. At age 12, she became a professional vaudeville performer. She was secretly married at age 17, but only lived with her husband for a few weeks, though they didn’t legally divorce for 31 years. The adult West was rumored to have secretly married another man, but on the whole she preferred younger men. Her long-term partner Paul Novak was 30 years her junior.
West was also rumored to have worn custom 8 in platform shoes, because she was only 5’2”. Two tangents, I would have *massive respect for anyone who could even walk in 8in platform, and that’s something all the women in today’s discussion have in common – they’re all my size.
In 1926, under the pen name “Jane Mast,” West wrote, produced and starred in a play called Sex, about a sex worker named Margie La Monte who was looking to better her situation by finding a well-to-do man to marry well if not wisely. Mae West was sentenced to 10 days in prison and given a $500 fine, charged with “obscenity and corrupting the morals of youth.” The rumor mill went into overtime when she was behind bars – she was permitted to wear silk underpants instead of prison-issue or the warden wined and dined her every night. West was set free after serving eight of the ten days and remarked to reporters that it was “…the first time I ever got anything for good behavior.” Before the show was raided in February of 1927 around 325,000 people had come through the turnstiles. Buns in seats, laddie, buns in seat.
Not bothered in the slightest, and probably keenly aware of all the free publicity she just got, West appeared in a string of successful plays, including “The Drag,” a 1927 play that was banned from Broadway because of its homosexual theme. If you think people try to tell you what to say these days, imagine having to deal with the likes of the Hays Code or the Catholic Legion of Decency, which I maintain sounds like a pro-wrestling tag team. She was an advocate of gay and transgender rights, which were at the time generally throught to be the same thing, and her belief that “a gay man was actually a female soul housed in a male body” ran counter to the belief at that time that homosexuality was an illness. Her next play, The Pleasure Man ran for only one showing before also being shut down with the whole cast being arrested for obscenity, but this time getting off thanks to a hung jury. West continued to stir up controversy with her plays, including the Broadway smash “Diamond Lil” in 1928, about a loose woman of the 1890s.
Dominating the Broadway scene was nice, but West had her eyes set to the, well, to the west and Hollywood. West was 38 years old at the time, which is the age when the phone stops ringing for many actresses, but Paramount Pictures offered West a contract at $5000 a week ($80,000 now) and –luckily for all of us or I might not be talking about her right now– they let her re-write her lines. Her first film, Night After Night, set the tone for her on-screen persona right from jump street, from her first line where a hat check girl says to her “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.” To which West replied, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” Within three years she was the second highest paid person in the United States. The only person earning more was the publishing magnate friggin’ William Randolph Hearst.
West not only made her own career, she insisted a young Cary Grant be cast opposite her, putting Grant on the road to his Golden Age icon status. That was ‘33’s “She Done Him Wrong,” which contained her most famous quote, but I’m sorry to tell you that you’ve been saying it wrong your whole life. Yes, your whole life. You’ve seen it parodied in cartoons. The line isn’t “Why don’t you come up and seem me sometime?” “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” Am I being painfully pedantic to point this out? Yes. …. That’s all.
The public loved Mae West, but her blunt sexuality onscreen rubbed censors the wrong way. In 1934, they began deleting overtly sexy lines and whole scenes from her films. Not about to take that lying down, West doubled up on double entendres, hoping that the censors would delete the most offensive lines and miss the subtler ones. More controversial films followed. West was already 50 when she made “The Heat’s On,” but her youthful look and performance made the film a cult favorite. She also got banned from the radio for a sketch about Adam and Eve opposite Don Ameche, was on TV a few times, and even recorded two successful rock albums, decades before the late Christopher Lee. Bonus facts: Cassandra Peterson, aka Elvira Mistress of the Dark, was once the lead singer of an Italian punk rock band.
The script for this episode started with Bankhead, West, and Dorothy Parker. I recognized that they were demographically pretty similar, though Parker was Jewish and there’s a wild theory out there that West was mixed-race, so I started asking around for WOC/LGBT of that same era and one name came up again and again, a name I’d never heard of, an oversight I now know to be a damn shame if ever there was one. Presenting for the elucidation of many listeners, Moms Mabley. Moms, plural not possessive, had been a vaudeville star for half a century on what was called the Chitlin Circuit, before white audiences began to discover her. Her trademarks were her old lady persona, complete with house coat, dust cap and waddling shuffle, and her raunchy, man-hungry humor, which is funny in a few ways when you consider she was an out-and-proud lesbian.
Although Moms spent her professional life making people laugh, her personal life had more than its share of grief. If you’re not in the mood for tragic backstory, I totally understand if you want to hit your jump-30 button. Born Loretta Mary Aiken in North Carolina in 1894, Moms was the grandaughter of a slave and one of 16 children. She was the victim of rape twice before the age of 14, once by an older black man and the other by the town’s white sheriff. Both rapes resulted in pregnancies; both babies were given away. Loretta’s father, a volunteer fireman, had been killed when a fire engine exploded, and her mother was run over and killed by a truck while coming home from church on Christmas Day. Her stepfather forced her to marry a man she didn’t even like, one assumes to pare down the number of dependent minors in the house. At the age of 14, Loretta ran away to join a minstrel show. A young girl out in the world on her own would normally be a recipe for disaster, heartache and suffering, but Moms had already had enough of all those, thank you very much. She took the name Mabley from her first boyfriend and acquired the nickname Moms later on, though none of my sources, and they are regrettably few and superficial, recounted why. She was only in her early 20’s when she devised the old lady character and kept her persona up until her actual age exceeded the character.
Like all who played vaudeville, she had multiple talents: dancing, singing, jokes. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she had a gift for crafting original material far stronger than the stock routines others toured with. At the prompting of the vaudeville team Butterbeans and Susie, she moved to New York City in the early 20’s and found herself in the the Harlem Renaissance. “I never went back across the Mason-Dixon line,” recalled Mabley. “Not for another thirty years.” Toward the end of her life, Moms would say “There were some horrible things done to me. I played every state in the Union except Mississippi. I won’t go there; they ain’t read.” She hardly needed to back then anyway, playing the Apollo so often she could probably have gotten her mail forwarded there.
There used to be a showbiz expression, “It won’t play in Peoria,” meaning something will not be successful for a wide, Joe Everyman (read: white) audience, and Moms certainly fit that bill. Moms talked about sex constantly. That’s not surprising from female comics these days, though it still isn’t as acceptable as it is for male comics. But unlike the male comics of Mom’s day, she slid into the jokes sideways with a double-entendre or a well-placed pause, rather than the straightforward use of obscenity that would become popular with such later black comedians as Richard Pryor. Although Loretta herself was a lesbian, Moms was that of ”dirty old lady” with a penchant for younger men. She made fun of older men, subtly ridiculing the ways they wielded authority over women as well as the declining of their sexual powers. Her signature line became: ”Ain’t nothin’ an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a young man.”
She moved from vaudeville into films, but Hollywood wasn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for black actors and film-makers. That’s okay, they said, we’ll just do it ourselves. As early as 1929 there were over 460 “colored movie houses” across America. owned and operated by, and catering specifically to, African-Americans, with all-Black cast films, shorts, and even newsreels. But it would be fair to say that these were B-movies, filmed in a couple of days, with whatever equipment and people you could cobble together. Hell, scenes were usually shot in one take, because editing requires more time and money. Where they shone was in the musical numbers, crafting scenes that would have shamed MGM or Warner Brothers, if only they’d had any budget at all. Comedian Slappy White remembered, “It wasn’t hard casting the actors. All of us were out of work before the picture started [and we] would all be out of work again as soon as it was finished.” Moms starred in 1948’s Boarding House Blues where she played landlord to a building of rent-dodging vaudeville performers, which is an amazing premise. The film also showcased “Crip” Heard, a tap dancer with only one arm and one leg. And the best thing about Boarding House Blues? You can actually see it! It’s on the free Tubi app, link in the show notes, not a sponsor, and I plan to watch it as soon as I can make myself sit still for 1.5 hours. Watch-party anyone?
Film was nice and everything, but it was vinyl records that gave Moms the boost she needed to expand her audience. Comedy records were *the thing in the early 60’s.Her first vinyl appearance came a few years prior with the 1956 Vanguard Records release A Night at the Apollo. The album is a fascinating social document with liner notes written by Langston Hughes. Of the many other noteworthy things about that album is the fact that Moms wasn’t paid for her part in it. So she was understandably reluctant when the Chess brothers asked her to cut an album with them. Phil and Leonard Chess were Jewish immigrants who arrived in Chicago a few months prior to the stock market crash who were able to buy some South Side bars after the end of prohibition. Their Macomba Lounge became a hot spot when they started booking live music, mostly rhythm and blues, which drew in the biggest crowds. The brothers noticed this, and that the acts who had people lining up around the block, weren’t available on records, so they started a record company. Chess Records signed names like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. These records delivered new found joys for the white public and offered posterity for Chicago’s African-American crowd. Always on the lookout for what was popular with their original Black audience, Chess Records asked Moms Mabley to sign, but she understandably didn’t want to get screwed again. Luckily her manager was able to persuade her and Moms Mabley on Stage (also known under the name Moms Mabley: The Funniest Woman Alive) was produced.
Chicago was host to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club, a venue that always featured a strong roster of Black performers and plenty of white bohemians, and that’s where she recorded Moms Mabley at The Playboy Club. Y’all gotta see this album cover, link in the shownotes. If you were to listen to On Stage and then Playboy Club, you’d notice something…different between the two albums. On Stage was recorded at The Apollo and opens with a thunderous cacophony of cheerings. Playboy Club, not as much, because that album was recorded in front of an all-white audience. It was time for a cross-over. It was also the time for civil rights –lunch counters, fire hoses, marches. Mabley’s act became increasingly political, but her benevolent old grandma persona made her non-threatening and more accessible to white crowds. Moms knew white audiences needed to hear her message now, and that they might actually hear her. She was just a little old lady, shuffling onto the stage, how threatening could she be? Plus she was on the biggest TV shows of the day –Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Flip Wilson, Mike Douglas, the Smothers Brothers– and they were okay, so she must be okay.
Moms had crossed over. She played Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. She put out more albums, including my favorite title, Young Men Si, Old Men No. She began acting in big studio films, like The Cincinatti Kid, with Steve McQueen. In 1966 Moms returned to the South for the first time in over three decades. It, uh, didn’t go great. In the middle of her show, five shots rang out in the theater and Moms scrambled off-stage. Thankfully, the shots went nowhere near her, originating apparently from a fight between audience members. Regardless, a story made the rounds that one of the bullets went straight through her floppy hat. “I hadn’t been in Columbia, South Carolina, for thirty-five years,” explained Moms, “and [now] bullets ran me out of town.”
Music became a regular part of her act, and a cover version of “Abraham, Martin and John” hit No. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 on July 19, 1969, making Mabley, at 75, the oldest living person to have a U.S. Top 40 hit. Mabley continued performing in the 1970s. In 1971, she appeared on The Pearl Bailey Show. Later that year, she opened for Ike & Tina Turner at the Greek Theatre and sang a tribute to Louis Armstrong as part of her set. While filming the 1974 film Amazing Grace, (her only film starring role) Mabley suffered a heart attack. She returned to work three weeks later, after receiving a pacemaker. She is survived not only by her children (she had four other children as an adult), but by more contemporary comedians who remember her and want to keep her story alive. She was the subject of a Broadway play by Clarice Taylor, who played one of the grandma’s on the Cosby Show; two projects from Whoopi Goldberg, one being the comedy show that put Goldberg on the map in 1984 and a documentary in 2013, and in season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, where she was portrayed by lifelong fan Wanda Sykes.
And that’s… Dorothy Parker’s wit was, deservedly, the stuff of legend. Of the Yale prom, she said, “ If all the girls attending it were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” It was that saucy humor that got her fired from her job as a staff writer at Vanity Fair. Parker spoke openly about having had an abortion, a thing that simply was not done in the 1920’s, saying, “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.” A firm believer in civil rights, she bequeathed her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Remember