Tallulah Bankhead gets some of the best lines in Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series, Hollywood. “I’m as pure as the driven slush,” she tells her table mate in a scene set at one of George Cukor’s legendary parties.
The real life Tallulah (portrayed by Paget Brewster in the series) had some epic comeback lines herself. She also had some of the best jewelry in town, including one of the most iconic pieces of the 20th century.
Bankhead grew up in a prominent Alabama family before moving to New York in 1917 and soon became a part of the city’s famed Algonquin Circle. By 1923 she was off to do theater in London before returning home and straight to Hollywood in the 1930s.
She was back and forth between New York and Los Angeles for most of her career and the rest of her life. Along the way she met a Sicilian Duke who was making a reputation for himself as a jeweler. His name was Fulco di Verdura.
I was first made aware of the friendship between these two legends listening to my friend Jim Haag, managing director of Verdura, lecture on the designer’s work, life, and occasional exploits. “The Patricia Corbett book on Verdura talks about Verdura crawling Soho pubs with Tallulah around 1930. She loved his irrepressible, brittle wit which was a match for hers,” Haag emailed after watching a few episodes of the new series.
“In the early 1930s they both spent time together in Hollywood. Verdura had arrived with Nicky de Gunzburg and he joined the expatriate boheme at the Garden of Allah — his best friends being Tallulah and film writer Anita Loos," Haag told me. "Tallulah took her pub crawls to New York and she and Verdura were a fixture in the new emerging and very glittering cafe society in the late 30s and 40s."
Tallulah ventured into television with The Big Show in 1950–which she hosted and performed in—and Verdura was by her side when she celebrated her television debut at an all-night champagne bash. "Pinned to her gown was her Verdura Lion’s Paw shell brooch from what she called her 'tragedy fund' of jewels. Two years ago I met her great niece in Montecito and she brought me a picture of an older Tallulah wearing the same brooch at her wedding. How fun to see how much she loved it,” Haag recalls.
The Lions Paw Brooch is a Verdura signature at the level of the jeweler's collectible Maltese Cross pendant (worn by Diana Vreeland) and Curb Link bracelet (adored by Garbo). But the Lions Paw brooch is, to some, even more covetable because if it scarcity. It all depends on the discovery of a natural shell that meets Verdura’s standards.
They occasionally appear at auction, and a select few are created each year and available at the Verdura salon in New York. The Lion's Paw design was first introduced after Verdura purchased a shell from New York’s Museum of Natural History in the 1940s. He gilded and studded it with stones— sometimes rubies, occasionally sapphires—and a legend was born. The first brooch was made in October 1940 and sold to Millicent Rogers. Not long after, Tallulah Bankhead got one of her own.
The pink shell brooch is listed in her last will and testament, in addition to a diamond and sapphire pendant, a moonstone and sapphire bracelet, and a star sapphire ring with diamonds. The “pink shell brooch with gold and diamonds” was bequeathed to Louisa Carpenter, a DuPont heiress, first woman master-of-hounds in America, licensed pilot, and close friend of Bankhead’s. One might now recall one of Bankhead’s other famous sayings: “My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.”
Bankhead collected other pieces designed by her party partner-in-crime Fulco Di Verdura. One is a diamond brooch she can be seen wearing emerging from underneath a table at a party. The other is a Verdura constellation bracelet, which she had engraved with the astrological signs of her five boyfriends and two girlfriends, which brings to mind another Bankhead-ism: "I'm the foe of moderation, the champion of excess." Hard to disagree with that one. One can never have too much Verdura.
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