Tallulah Bankhead? Lillian Hellman? Dashiell Hammett? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The most obtuse quotation I know of was uttered by the actress Tallulah Bankhead whose erratic behavior caused Dashiell Hammett, the well-known author of popular detective novels, to complain about her drug use. Bankhead reportedly defended herself with the following parodic remark:
I tell you cocaine isn’t habit-forming and I know because I’ve been taking it for years.
Was this really spoken by Bankhead?
Quote Investigator: In 1952 “Tallulah: My Autobiography” was released by the movie star, and she wrote about her experiences with heroin and cocaine. Bankhead stated that when she was young she wished to shock people, but she was not really an addict. For example, when she was offered a drink at a party she sometimes responded with:
“No, thank you. I don’t drink. Got any cocaine?” Thus did I start the myth that I was an addict.
Eventually, in the 1920s, she did tentatively experiment with drugs. She snorted heroin which she was told incorrectly was cocaine, and it made her extremely ill. Because or her bad experience she stated:
I’ve never touched either since except medicinally.
Indeed, she did use cocaine therapeutically to maintain her voice according to her own account. Her desire to appear scandalous led her to formulate the comical and infamous quotation. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
In London, when I had one of my frequent attacks of the actor’s nightmare, laryngitis, Sir Milson Reese, the King’s doctor, sprayed my throat with a solution laced with cocaine. It stimulated my larynx, relieved strain on my vocal chords, reduced my chances of becoming mute during a performance.
At Boots, the London chemists, where I presented the prescription, I was given a bottle of pale little lozenges, labeled “Cocaine and Menthol.” Obsessed with the desire to shock people, I whipped the vial out at every opportunity. I’d hold it out to my friends: “Have some cocaine?” “Tallulah, isn’t it habit-forming?” “Cocaine habit-forming? Of course not. I ought to know. I’ve been using it for years.”
A different story about the quotation has been told by Bankhead’s one-time-friend Lillian Hellman who was a notable Broadway playwright. Hellman’s account was given in the 1973 memoir “Pentimento” which is excerpted further below. The dramatist suggested that Bankhead did have a serious drug dependency.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.