Magazine article The Spectator

The Toast of the Twenties

Magazine article The Spectator

The Toast of the Twenties

Article excerpt

The toast of the Twenties

Hugh Massingberd

TALLULAH BANKHEAD

by Bryony Lavery

Absolute Press, Bath, 6.99, pp.144

John Betjeman used to call the lavatory `the Lavery' and I fear my initial reaction to this curious paperback by Bryony Lavery (a playwright not apparently related to the Irish artist) was that it deserved to go down the pan.

Such a crude response seemed appropriate after being nudged in the ribs by Lavery's prattling prose, with its rushes of capital letters, adjectives, the f-word and wearisome asides (`Dear Reader', `me Hearties', `We're in that jolly old McCarthy era, folks!', `get this') that made me feel I was sitting next to one of St Trinian's more obstreperous pupils. The result might be categorised as Sapphic Solipsism.

The spirit of Lesbos that hangs all too heavily over the proceedings is dictated by the publishers earmarking poor old Tallulah for their 'Outlines', described as the first series of books to explore and portray the various and often unexpected ways in which homosexuality has informed the life and creative work of the influential gay and lesbian artists. . .

The trouble is that, while undoubtedly bisexual, Tallulah, stylish embodiment of the Twenties' (The Green Hat and so forth), deserves better than to be annexed as a Divine Dyke in the pantheon of Gay Icons. Anthony Powell, who once danced with her in a night club after she had delivered a withering crack about Sybil Thorndike, recalls in his memoirs (not, it seems, consulted by Lavery) `much fun and charm, as well as a very decided toughness'. And Bankhead's witty barbs - `There's less to this than meets the eye' - are ill served by a running commentary of leaden facetiousness.

Yet, if one can ignore the embarrassing nonsense and the Sapphic special pleading, somehow there is a perceptive study struggling to escape from underneath the persiflage. …

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