Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Tallulah the Tosspot and Her Reefer Binge

Catching a still-sharp Tallulah Bankhead guesting on an old Merv Griffin show clued me in to the fact that she'd written a book, Tallulah, My Autobiography, which was the #5 nonfiction best-seller of 1952, according to a New Yorker profile by Robert Gottlieb.

The daughter of an Alabama Senator, Bankhead won a beauty contest at the age of 16, and headed to New York City to start an acting career around 1918. She starred in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat and had a "calamitous" stage run in "Antony and Cleopatra" in 1937, around the time when she tried "reefer." She achieved stage success two years later with her "commanding performance" in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes.” (She lost the film role to Bette Davis, who later imitated Tallulah in All About Eve).

In addition to her acting, Tallulah was a member of the Algonquin Roundtable and known for her wit. One witticism was, "Only good girls keep diaries. Bad girls don't have the time." She also said, “I'm the foe of moderation, the champion of excess. If I may lift a line from a die-hard whose identity is lost in the shuffle, 'I'd rather be strongly wrong than weakly right'."

Chapter 4 of her autobiography, titled "Flirtation with Sin" begins, "You've heard, I'm sure, about Tallulah the tosspot!" She asserts that her party girl reputation happened mostly because of her waggish nature. For instance, her association with cocaine, she claims, came from a joke she told at parties shortly after she arrived in New York with acting ambitions. Writing that she had become "numbed and nauseated" and full of remorse after drinking, "Thereafter when offered a drink at parties, I'd say, 'No, thank you. I don't drink. Got any cocaine?' Thus did I start the myth that I was an addict."

After she repeated the line at one party, the host offered her some "glistening crystals" of coke, and she felt compelled to try it, feeling "no sensation save that born of another achievement." Months later she was given heroin instead of cocaine and, "The effects were pleasant and dreamy. The world seemed uncommonly rosy, but not for long." She soon became "actively ill." "I've never touched either since, except medicinally," she declared.

She then wrote of a physician in London who sprayed cocaine in her throat to help with laryngitis. Filling his prescription for pills labeled "Cocaine and Menthol" at a London pharmacy, and "obsessed with a desire to shock people, I whipped the vial out at every opportunity." When asked, "Isn't it habit-forming?" she'd reply, "Cocaine habit-forming? Of course not. I ought to know. I've been using it for years." She continues:

"Since I'm in my narcotic phase I might as well let you in on my reefer binge, if a handful of reefers spread over four weeks can be so classified. I was carrying on a lopsided duel with Cleopatra when I first tested marijuana on the cue of a friend who swore reefers were the next thing to ambrosia."

"They may have been ambrosia to him, but my first one only brought on a fit of giggles and an overpowering hunger. Hunger is something I can't afford to create artificially, since I'm always either dieting or about to start. At the time I was deep in theosophy, and Madame Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled and Secret Doctrine. My giggles over, unreliable witnesses report I started to spout poetry of my own coinage. Very good it was, swore those perjurers.

"What with Cleopatra, back income taxes, a lost love and other considerations too gruesome to set down here, I was depressed, not to say broke. The reefer consumed, I felt that I had the key to the universe. Never more need I fret and worry. The complexities of my life became crystal clear. For a few moments so vivid seemed my comprehension of the things that conventionally haunt me I felt kinship with God." 

Quite the experience! However she then goes on to say, "In retrospect I distrust my emotions. Perhaps it was the spell of Madame Blavatsky. Perhaps I'd fused Poe and his laudanum with me and my reefer. Thus exalted, shortly I repeated the experiment. It didn't come off. I was closer to the pawnbroker than to God." She says those two experiences were "the sum of my trifling," and concludes, "Fortunately my skirmished with forbidden fumes and philters never created in me any craving, physical or mental, any desire to promote an experience to practice."

On drinking, she wrote, "Tippling? That's something else again. I enjoy drinking with friends, even though I know it occasionally leads me to conduct not easy to condone....I'm not a compulsive drinker. I'll drink what and when I damn well please." Later in her life, she mixed alcohol with prescription drugs, reportedly to her detriment.

Tallulah may have been the model for this 1937 cartoon, published the year that the Marijuana Tax Act effectively made marijuana illegal in the US. In it, marijuana represented by a woman who resembles Bankhead is literally being kicked out of a pharmacy by federal inspectors (up until then, cannabis had been available in pharmacies in various formulations).

In 1948, Bankhead and other cast members were accused of using marijuana during the New York City production of Noel Coward's play "Private Lives." She contacted the FBI and requested an FBIHQ tour for John Emory, her husband, and Director Robert Sinclair. She also corresponded with Director Hoover.

In late 1951, Bankhead fired her personal secretary, Evyleen Cronin, for stealing money from her. In a public trial over the incident, Cronin's lawyers alleged that Cronin's job included "paying for marijuana, cigarettes, cocaine, booze and sex." Cronin also testified that Bankhead taught her to roll marijuana cigarettes. Because of this, Bankhead may have been the inspiration for the Alexandra de Lago character in Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth, whose young male companion (played by Paul Newman in the 1962 film adaptation, pictured) tries to blackmail over her use of hashish. She is also said to be the inspiration for Cruella de Vil in Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmations.

Rumored to have had an affair with Billie Holiday, Bankhead once said to a stranger at a party, “I’m a lesbian. What do you do?” She was friendly with Eleanor Roosevelt, campaigned for Truman and Kennedy, and in the early fifties, during McCarthysim, she said, “I think Senator McCarthy of Wisconsin is a disgrace to the nation.” Her final public appearance was on the “Tonight Show” (where she chatted with Paul McCartney and John Lennon).

Tallulah Bankhead died in 1968 when a bout of Asian flu was more than her emphysema could tolerate. Before slipping into a coma after being hooked to a ventilator in a New York City hospital, her only discernible words were barely audible requests for codeine and bourbon.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Grace and Frankie and Ruth and Maria

Season 4 of the Netflix series "Grace and Frankie" starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, is now available for binge watching, preferably while stoned.

The pot jokes begin in Episode 1, when Grace's daughter Brianna (June Diane Raphael) gets "buzzed" with Frankie (Tomlin), while Grace (Fonda) drinks martinis with her other daughter Mallory. Afterwards, Grace asks Brianna, "Why don't you take after your mother and drink, instead of smoking doobies with your burned-out Aunt Frankie?"

At least Grace notices that Mallory is drinking earlier than usual (while swigging a mid-day martini herself). Her advice about her daughter's hurt feelings over her ex-husband is to hurl her anger at him, as she acts the angry drunk herself. In a later episode, Brianna is told by her boyfriend that she's using marijuana as a coping mechanism, like her mother uses booze. Since she'd been smoking since breakfast, that may have been true. Nobody in the series gets high like people really do: having insights or meaningful conversations after expanding their minds.

While their ex-husbands ponder having more sex with a hot younger man, Grace does all she can to rebuff a younger suitor (Peter Gallagher) and Frankie leaves her lover man in Santa Fe so she can return to her family. The women fear that one of their vibrators-for-the-elderly product has sent a little old lady to more than her "little death."

"You're famous for not being able to multitask," Grace tells Frankie. "You can't even task." Pot-loving Frankie is portrayed as so unreliable that she can't be left alone with her granddaughter. Meanwhile, Grace's ex-husband reveals she has only "not drank" a few times, and delineated the three terrible stages of her alcohol withdrawal. Grace pops pain pills to deal with a knee problem (which could lead to overdose, given her alcohol intake) and we get to see her horrible scar after her knee surgery. Oh, and Frankie's daughter-in-law must have her baby without an epidural. But the men have no health issues at all except for feeling fatigued after being arrested while protesting for gay rights. (Judge Hempstead gets them out of jail.) It's the women (not their husbands) who are sent to live in assisted living, which they manage to escape by season's end. I liked Fonda as this Grace much better.

It's nice that the season came out on Women's March weekend because there's a mention of Susan Faludi's Backlash, which is a great book. The stoner "Friend" Lisa Kudrow guest stars in the first two episodes, and no less than Talia Shire plays Frankie's long-lost sister Teddy who used to give her a hard time about her "reefer."

Netflix has also brought back "Disjointed" starring Kathy Bates as a pot dispensary operator for 10 more episodes. The season opener, a 4/20 special, starts with a sweet musical number and has Bates's character Ruth confronting her earlier activist self. She decides to convene a cannabusiness women's empowerment group, where the women fight among themselves until Dabby (Betsy Sodaro as womankind's answer to Cheech & Chong) saves the day (in a way).

The writers haven't gone anywhere with the tension established in last season's pilot between Ruth's hippie values and those of her son, an MBA who sees the dispensary more as a business. Instead they did the whole thing in parody, complete with poop jokes and a rip-off of "The Help."

There are some genuine scenes with Bates's love interest (played by of Peter Riegert of Animal House), and with Maria (Nicole Sullivan), wherein Ruth introduces the concept of "Grasslighting" to her friend.

Budtender Jenny (Elizabeth Ho), a young Chinese woman, must deal with her mother's disapproval when she chooses to heal with herb instead of staying in medical school. (Too bad she couldn't do both.) She does a nice segment on Chinese hempen history, which could be good for awareness because the show is available with Chinese subtitles.

Season 2 of "High Maintenance," co-created by Katja Blichfield, is now showing on HBO.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Her-Storic Golden Globes Ceremony

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