Tallulah Bankhead by Anastasia Orekhov
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Anastasia Orekhov has been living and part of the East London gay scene for the past decade. She's done everything from being a Diva Magazine covergirl to running the short lived but unforgettable queer night - 'Crap Fag' - at The Glory before it was The Glory. Always eager to contribute to a more empathetic relationship to all things queer she has volunteered with the London Switchboard, an LGBT+ community helpline as well as writing various articles that seek to explore what it's all about to be living in such contradictory time of high visibility and yet high vulnerability, of which this is the most recent. Find her blurry Insta snaps @eyeslooksee
It’s almost impossible to explain what it feels like to grow up gay if you’ve only grown up straight. For me, there was no flashbulb moment, no Big Bang realisation. It was slow and clunky. Like being in an unknown kitchen and opening all the cupboards before you find the one you were looking for. Your sense of sexual self ebbs and flows with the gossip of the playground. Of course I’m not... but am I? During that time, you don’t have heroes, but you need them. You need them to hang onto like small totems, to roll them around the palm of your mind when you’re in doubt. Because all of that, the coming out, the being happy, the being in love with your gayness - is a stumble, then a step and then a sprint.
Tallulah Bankhead was my totem. I can’t remember how I heard about her, but I’ve never forgotten her way with words. “My father warned me about men and booze,” she wrote in her autobiography. “But he never mentioned a word about cocaine and girls.” Cheesy now, perhaps, but God I loved that brassy confidence. When Tallulah Bankhead was challenging her dinner companions with sassy small talk – “I’m a lesbian… and what do you do?” - in the 1920s, I, 70-odd years later, was struggling with the world ‘girlfriend’.
Bankhead was from an American aristocratic family, but not a rich one. It was a background that imbued her with privilege but not means. An important distinction that endeared her to me all the more. She was an actress but one forever pulled in opposite directions of taste. Beautiful yes, very much so, but hers was a beauty that didn’t translate well to cinema. Gravelly voiced in a way that worked best in theatres but was more acclaimed when it finally emerged from Bette Davis’s mouth. Her film of note was ‘Lifeboat’, a DVD of which a crush gifted me when we were dating. I watched a dreary 15 minutes of it before giving up; but was utterly transfixed for days by the picture of her under the moonlight in the boat of the title. I realised later how that perfectly encapsulated her charm, which was always more visual than sincere. Bankhead racked up over 300 performances in theatre, radio and film, all of which she hustled. I didn’t love Tallulah Bankhead for her artistic output, though the perseverance was admirable and readily identifiable. I loved her because of her politics, her temerity, her almost pathological inability to wear underwear in a professional context. I loved her because she had the balls to be the kind of woman I was oscillating in presenting myself as.
Years passed, I became more socially confident in that way one does. I would, on occasion, trot out the name Tallulah Bankhead, but I had stopped voraciously reading basic HTML pages listing her best quotes. I no longer believed that her final words were ‘codeine... bourbon…’. Instead, when I was least expecting it, I came across a New Yorker article that changed everything I thought I knew about her. My gay hero, my lesbian icon who was posh and had long hair at a time when my queer landscape mainly looked like Rhona Cameron, turned out not to be gay at all. She was not even bisexual; at least not by her admission. She instead chose to describe herself as “ambisextrous”. Her lesbian flings were sidelined to crass chatter about how endowed John Barrymore was. I remember my first response was embarrassment: how could I have conflated this tragic creature as my queer idol? It felt like a fitting end to our relationship when I read that her response to strangers when they’d stop her and ask “Aren’t you Tallulah Bankhead?” was “I’m what’s left of her darling.”
I wondered what it meant for her to be my idol and that's when I realised she was perfect. She was absolutely unaccountable to anyone but herself. I needed to see that in a shape I thought I recognised. The truth is, as impossible as it is to explain what it feels like to grow up gay, you do end up figuring it out. You do so because without knowing it, you will come across someone who teaches you the mechanisms of being fearless. For me, it was Tallulah.
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.