In the weeks following Truman’s defeat of Dewey in the 1948 presidential election, the actress Tallulah Bankhead was hitting a pinnacle of national fame. Already renowned for her work on stage and film, her political role only increased her visibility. She earned that era’s mark of the pop culture’s esteem by landing on the cover of Time magazine, just three weeks after the election.
Despite her genuine and well-earned reputation as a heavy-drinking party girl, Bankhead took her professional work seriously, and there were no reports of her missing performances or slurring lines as a result of her love of liquor. It was an important distinction for it carried a political implication when she reacted in a very public and very unusual way to express her liberal views on civil rights.
Two months after the election, President Truman invited Tallulah Bankhead to his January 20, 1949 Inauguration. After arguing loudly with a guard at the Capitol Building, outraged that, not recognizing her, he questioned her invitation, the actress was seated on the swearing-in stand and watched Truman take the oath. That was not the dramatic scene, however, which thrust the actress in the next day’s news.
It was later, at the Inaugural parade where Tallulah Bankhead made her stand – literally and figuratively. Seated in the reviewing stand behind the Supreme Court, not far from Mrs. Truman and several of her friends, she watched and cheered as the parade of state floats and governors in open convertibles passed by. Typically, each governor would rise as their car slowed in front of the President, then nod or bow in respect to the Chief Executive. Standing with his Vice President at the front of the reviewing stand, at one point Truman noticed which governor was approaching his reviewing stand and froze into a rigid position. He refused to lower his eyes or in any other way acknowledge South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond. As Time magazine reported, “He bared his teeth in a steely grimace and his eyes looked straight ahead.”
Suddenly, the subdued murmurs of Democratic Party officials who resented Thurmond for both his opposition to civil rights and his candidacy challenge to Truman gave way to the roar of an unearthly boom. It was not cannonfire, but rather Tallulah Bankhead, who rose from her chair and unleashed a volley of loud booing the moment Thurmond ‘s car was within view. As one witness put it, “She was behind the dignified Supreme Court with their silk hats, and she just about blew their hats off.” Bankhead continued on until Thurmond had completely passed. While nobody else among the V.I.P.’s joined her, neither did anyone stop her. In fact, First Lady Bess Truman said in a loud whisper to friends seated beside her, “I wish I had the courage to do that.” Moments later, however, the actress had vanished from the parade stand, not to be seen at any other Inaugural events, absent from the Inaugural Ball where other guests had hoped to see her. Speculation began that she had been asked to leave or led away for either her behavior – or her drinking.
Harry Truman and Tallulah Bankhead shared more than politics. While she was famous for being able to empty a bottle of bourbon in a half-hour, he contained his love of the corn mash booze to a glass during poker games. Still, both had enough of an appreciation for the liquor to insist on the same rare, expensive brand of Old Rip Van Winkle, made only in small batches in Kentucky. Tallulah Bankhead was not drinking Old Rip Van Winkle at the 1949 Inaugural Parade, however, nor any bourbon or other alcohol for that matter. While it seemed inevitable that it was intoxication which led her to boo Thurmond, it was an utterly baseless charge. Her angry reaction to Thurmond may have been spontaneous, but it was a stone-cold sober venting to shame him for resisting racial integration in her beloved South. Besides this, she had to remain especially nimble and conscious of time that day. She slipped away from the Inaugural Parade stand and had to forego the Inaugural Ball that night because she rushed to Union Station to catch the last possible train to New York and perform that night in Private Lives.
The Truman-Bankhead friendship continued on. He made a point of telling the press that her autobiography was one of the best books he’d ever read. On March 4, 1951, Bankhead had his daughter Margaret, a fledging opera singer and actress, on The Big Show as a guest . The President listened in from his vacation home in Key West, Florida. After the show, he immediately called Bankhead, profusely emotional in his appreciation for the help she’d given his daughter.
Sometimes, however, the mutual admiration got out of hand. At a 1958 National Democratic Party fundraiser held at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, with some seven hundred guests watching the former President on the podium, the actress dashed up to plant a big, wet kiss on his cheek, which he seemed to appreciate as they held hands.
Recalling a famous picture of Truman playing the piano as actress Lauren Bacall sat atop it, dangling her beautiful legs inches from his face, a press aide suggested Tallulah “sit down on his knee so they can take a picture.”
Remembering how enraged his wife had been at that picture, the President turned in alarm to Frank Kelley a National Democratic Party speechwriter seated beside him, and whispered, “Get her away! My God, Bess would kill me.” Instead, the thoughtful but cautious Truman grabbed hold of Bankhead tight across her back, preventing her from doing the deed while giving the photographers a shot of them both broadly guffawing.
The duo did not see each other again after that. A year before her death in 1967, however, Tallulah Bankhead ran into old friend Alice Longworth, the Republican who went Democratic in 1948. Both were guests of another Truman – Capote – at his famous Black and White costume Ball. For the actress, now failing in health, a highlight of the evening was having Alice credit her as a factor for helping get Truman elected. Said a witness, Bankhead “was caught off-guard by that, but swelled with pride.”