Cocaine Isn’t Habit-Forming. I Should Know. I’ve Been Using It for Years

Tallulah Bankhead? Lillian Hellman? Dashiell Hammett? Apocryphal?

tall09Dear 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: 1

“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: 2

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: 3

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.

In 1945 a joke about sleeping pills was printed in newspapers such as the “Omaha World Herald” of Omaha, Nebraska. The same gag was included in the compilation “Laughing Stock” by the book publisher and quotemeister Bennett Cerf: 4 5

“I think you ought to stop taking sleeping pills every night,” the doctor told a famous star. “They’re habit forming.”

“Habit forming!” repeated the star. “Don’t be absurd. I’ve been taking them for 20 years.”

QI conjectures that the above dialog was a sanitized version of the remark by Bankhead which was probably circulating by the 1920s or 1930s. Alternatively, an earlier version of this joke may have inspired Bankhead to construct her quip.

In 1947 a close variant was printed in “The Oelwein Daily Register” of Oelwein, Iowa. The item appeared together with miscellaneous pieces of humor under the title “Ginger Snaps”: 6

A certain actress was told by her doctor that she should stop taking sleeping pills. “They’ll become an unbreakable habit,” he warned.

“Don’t be silly,” the actress retorted angrily. “I’ve been taking those pills every night for 20 years and they’re not a habit yet!”

In 1952 Bankhead published “Tallulah: My Autobiography” as noted previously in this article. The actress would mischievously display a bottle of cocaine lozenges obtained via a prescription to friends and acquaintances:

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.”

In 1954 a syndicated newspaper columnist presented an anecdote of uncertain veracity featuring the Florida Senator George A. Smathers. An irritated constituent told the politician that her access to a “health-giving nostrum” had been sharply restricted by a new government edict: 7

Senator Smathers called the Food and Drug Administration and was informed that “cure-all” had been placed on the prescription list, because it is habit forming. Senator Smathers relayed this to the woman.

She was indignant, “It is not habit forming!” she cried. “I know it’s not, because I’ve been taking it every day for twenty-five years!”

In 1973 the playwright Lillian Hellman published the memoir “Pentimento”, and she described an encounter between Bankhead and the writer Dashiell Hammett who was the long-time lover of Hellman and a former detective with the Pinkerton agency. Bankhead embraced Hammett and said she was a “sucker for a handsome man”: 8

He thanked her and said he didn’t much like to be around people who took dope, in his Pinkerton days he had been more afraid of them than of murderers. They talked that over for a while but I lost track until I heard her shout at him. “You don’t know what you are talking about. I tell you cocaine isn’t habit-forming and I know because I’ve been taking it for years.”

In 1974 “The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes” included the following instance ascribed to Bankhead: 9

Cocaine isn’t habit-forming. I should know — I’ve been using it for years.

In conclusion, QI suspects that both Tallulah Bankhead and Lillian Hellman are unreliable narrators on this topic. Yet, both agree that Bankhead made a remark of this type, and QI concurs. Bankhead was probably deliberately projecting a persona, and she was aware that her statement was humorously self-contradictory.

Images Notes: Picture of cocaine powder released by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Promotional photo of Tallulah Bankhead via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of pills from frolicsomepl at Pixabay. Images have been retouched, cropped, and resized.

(Great thanks to K whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.Thanks to Nigel Rees who listed the 1952 citation in “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”.)

Notes:

  1. 1952, Tallulah: My Autobiography by Tallulah Bankhead, Quote Page 98, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1952, Tallulah: My Autobiography by Tallulah Bankhead, Quote Page 101, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1952, Tallulah: My Autobiography by Tallulah Bankhead, Quote Page 100 and 101, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1945 October 15, Omaha World Herald, Of Course Not (Acknowledgement to The Cocklebur), Quote Page 12, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1945, Laughing Stock: Over Six-hundred Jokes and Anecdotes of Uncertain Vintage, Edited by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 133, Grosset and Dunlap, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1947 August 26, The Oelwein Daily Register, Ginger Snaps, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Oelwein, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1954 February 9, The Record-Argus, The Switch That Satisfies by George Dixon, Quote Page 9, Column 8, Greenville, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1973, Pentimento by Lillian Hellman, Quote Page 177, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1974, The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes by Leslie Halliwell, Section: Tallulah Bankhead, Page 15, (Reprint of 1973 edition Granada Publishing, London), Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York. (Verified on paper)