One can’t find two names from politics and entertainment more seemingly dissimilar than that of President Harry S. Truman and actress Tallulah Bankhead. Yet apart from the fact that one was a marital monogamist and the other a bisexual minx, their politics made friendship logical.
Today, Bankhead is largely known through reruns of of her role as the croaky crook “Black Widow” on the 1960s Batman series, a special guest appearance on the 1950s Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, and Alfred Hitchcock film Lifeboat. More famous for her stage work, the height of her fame was the late 40s and early 50s when she hosted The Big Show on the radio; with the culture shifting to T.V. it proved ephemeral but given how sound stimulated the listener’s imagination, it was the right venue for her blend of raspy bronchitis, echoing bellow and sandpapery sophistication as she cracked jokes about her hard partying. Her stagey Persona, however, overshadowed her dogged commitment to civil rights.
An avid sports fan, she attended New York Giants baseball games to yell her throaty cheer for African-American players and fellow Alabamians Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. In 1938, when another African-American Alabamian, prizefighter Joe Louis knocked out the prize of Nazi Germany Max Schmeling in a rematch, Tallulah climbed her chair and shouted her unmistakable “bravo.” A close friend of another African-American Alabamian, musician W.C.Handy, she was even closer to the legendary Louis Armstrong. On her second week of The Big Show, Armstrong was her guest. Others whom Bankhead insisted on sharing the microphone with were Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters, the Ink Spots, and Josephine Baker. When the drug-addicted Billie Holliday was under investigation by the F.B.I. she dashed off a note of support attesting to the singer’s good character.
With her Daddy serving as the powerful Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1936 to 1940, and her grandfather and uncle serving as two succeeding U.S. Senators from Alabama, Bankhead was acutely political. Five years after Speaker Bankhead’s term ended, his colleague, the U.S. Senator from Missouri was inaugurated Vice President and inherited the presidency when Franklin D. Roosevelt died three months later, in April 1945. His name was Harry Truman. The new President was already a big Bankhead fan, having joined her father and uncle at several of her theatrical performances in Washington in previous years.
At the Democratic Convention which nominated him for the presidency in 1948, he insisted on a civil rights plank in the party’s platform. It so angered the backbone of the Democratic Party, the “Solid South,” that it prompted a walkout of southern segregationist delegates, known as the “Dixicrats,” led by South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond.
Two weeks after the convention, Truman issued the executive orders which desegregated the U.S. military and prohibited any discriminatory hiring practices in the federal government. Despite the moral duty of doing this, many Democrats supporting Truman felt it was politically deadly decision to make just before an election and they believed there was no way Truman could possibly win. Frustrated with these pessimists, Tallulah Bankhead entered the arena. “I was positive Truman would win,” she said. She had further, personal motivation, as well.
After their walkout of the Democratic National Convention, Thurmond and his southern followers formed the “States’ Rights Democratic Party.” At their convention which nominated him as president, and Mississippi governor Fielding Wright as vice presidential candidate, Thurmond angrily declared, “There’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, schools and homes.”
Almost as egregious for Tallulah Bankhead, however, was the fact that the Dixicrats held their convention in her beloved Alabama. She declared that segregation and the Dixicrat gathering in her home state was a desecration to the memory of her dear, old Southern “Grandpappy,” and her beloved Daddy.
A member of Actor’s Equity and rabid supporter of unions, Bankhead was asked by David Dubinsky, head of the American Federation of Labor to introduce Truman in a campaign radio address to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union he was making from the White House. Then starring in Private Lives on Broadway, she convinced her Republican producer to let her make the ten minute address during intermission, from her dressing room. Tallulah rewrote her own remarks some ten times. Besides evoking the memory of her Daddy, she blamed the 80th Congress for ignoring “his passionate pleas for veterans’ housing, for curbs on inflation, for legislation to aid and comfort the great mass of our population,” but it was her evisceration of the character of natty New York Governor Thomas Dewey, the Republican presidential candidate, that made headlines. It might be called one of the first negative campaign ads:
“Yes, I’m for Harry Truman, the human being. By the same token, I’m against Thomas E. Dewey, the mechanical man. Mr. Dewey is neat. Oh, so neat. And Mr. Dewey is tidy. Oh, so tidy. Just once I’d like to see his hair rumpled, a gravy stain on his vest, that synthetic smile wiped off his face. It seems a great pity to risk exposing Mr. Dewey to the smells and noises and ills of humanity. Far better to leave him in his cellophane wrapper, unsoiled by contact with the likes of you and me….What is Mr. Dewey for? Again and again he has said that he is for unity. Will all the candidates for disunity please stand up? Come, come, Mr. Dewey. Act like a grown-up. The next thing we know you’ll be endorsing matrimony, the metal zipper and the dial telephone. If Mr. Dewey has any genius it lies in his ability to avoid expressing an opinion on any controversial subject. Mr. Dewey is the great neutral. Mr. Truman is the great partisan – the partisan of our troubled millions.”
Truman’s press secretary Charlie Ross vetted the speech before she delivered it, insisting she remove the reference to Dewey under cellophane and wishing she could see him “with his necktie knotted under his ear.” She refused to budge on the first, threatening not to make the speech. The reference stayed. She immediately caught the implication of the second objection and cut it: the visual impression was of hanging, and lynching. Her concluding remark, “our troubled millions,” was a veiled reference to the segregation of African-Americans. Airing at ten p.m. on October 21, 1948, President Truman listened in from the White House, an aide remembering “the President smiling” through Tallulah’s remarks.
Ten days later, at a Madison Square Garden rally where he spoke, Tru wanted Tallu with him, to again attack Dewey in a speech to follow his own. She was all too happy to comply, pausing on her way to the podium to kiss his hand – as Bess Truman watched this little interaction from behind Harry, with a public smile.
Contrary to growing myth, however, Tallulah Bankhead did not declare that Dewey looked like a cake ornament. That was a remark made by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, her friend from earlier Washington years, the razor-witted daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and widow of Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth. Despite her staunch Republican Party ties, Longworth was as independent as Bankhead, and suggested her presidential loyalties had switched to the Democrats in 1948, when she snapped rhetorically, “How can anyone vote for someone that looks like the man on top of the wedding cake for President?”
Although no recording of her remarks for Truman can currently be located, some sense of how she melded her raspy, dramatic articulation to her political sensibility is found in this recording she made during World War II, a reading of a patriotic poem, “What Is America?”
On Election Day, Truman won a majority percentage of formerly Republican African Americans in key electoral states, and against all odds and predictions, he defeated Dewey. Since it wasn’t until the early morning hours that Truman was declared the winner, Tallulah’s noisy Election Night party at New York’s Hotel Elysee went late, very late. True to form, she kept the party going for five days and nights.
Bankhead had eviscerated Dewey to help Truman win. But there was one other politician she wasn’t done with yet.
Part II: Tallulah Bankhead’s “stand” on civil rights at Harry Truman’s 1949 Inauguration: