Tallulah Brockman Bankhead (January 31, 1902 – December 12, 1968) was an American actress of the stage and screen, talk-show host, andbonne vivante. Bankhead was also known for her deep voice, flamboyant personality, and support of liberal causes, which broke with the tendency of Southern Democrats at the time to support a more conservative agenda. She was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 1981.
Early life and family
Bankhead's former residence inWashington, D.C.
Bankhead was born in Huntsville, Alabama, to William Brockman Bankhead and Adelaide Eugenia "Ada" Bankhead (née Sledge). She was born on the second floor of what is now known as the Isaac Schiffman Building; a marker was erected to commemorate the site and, in 1980, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. "Tallu" was named after her paternal grandmother. Her mother died of blood poisoning (Septicemia) on February 23, 1902, three weeks after Bankhead's birth. She had an elder sister, Evelyn Eugenia.
She came from the powerful Bankhead and Brockman political family, active in the Democratic Party in the South in general and Alabama in particular. Her father was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1936 to 1940. She was the niece of Senator John H. Bankhead II and granddaughter of Senator John H. Bankhead.
She and her sister were mostly reared by their paternal grandmother, Tallulah James Brockman Bankhead, at Sunset in Jasper. Bankhead's family sent her to various schools in a vain attempt to keep her out of trouble, which included several years at a Roman Catholic convent school (although her father was a Methodist and her mother an Episcopalian). She also attended Mary Baldwin College. The young Bankhead was described as "an extremely homely child," overweight and with a deep, husky voice resulting from chronic bronchitis. However, others described her as an exhibitionist, performer, personality, and star from the very beginning.
In her autobiography, Bankhead claimed that her "first performance" was witnessed by none other than the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Her Aunt Marie gave the famous brothers a party at her home near Montgomery, Alabama, in which the guests were asked to entertain. "I won the prize for the top performance, with an imitation of my kindergarten teacher," Bankhead wrote. "The judges? Orville and Wilbur Wright."
At 15, Bankhead won a movie-magazine beauty contest and persuaded her family to let her move to New York. She quickly won bit parts, first appearing in a non-speaking role in The Squab Farm. During these early New York years, she became a peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table and was known as a hard-partying girl-about-town. During this time she began to usecocaine and marijuana, going as far as saying "Cocaine isn't habit-forming and I know because I've been taking it for years." However, she did not consume alcohol to any great degree. She also became known for her outspokenness. Once, while in attendance at a party, a guest made a comment about rape, and Bankhead reportedly replied "I was raped in our driveway when I was eleven. You know darling, it was a terrible experience because we had all that gravel." She professed to having a ravenous appetite for sex, but not for a particular type. "I've tried several varieties of sex. The conventional position makes me claustrophobic. And the others give me either stiff neck or lockjaw", she said.
Once, at a party, one of her friends brought along a young man who boldly told Bankhead that he wanted to make love to her that night. She did not bat an eye and said, "And so you shall, you wonderful, old-fashioned boy." Another version of the story holds that Bankhead met Chico Marx at a party before her reputation had overturned the presumption that William B. Bankhead's daughter would be disgusted by Marx's typically crude (yet generally effective) approach. According to Dick Cavett, after Marx had been cautioned to be on his best behavior with Bankhead, the two first spoke at the punch bowl.
- "Miss Bankhead."
- "Mr. Marx." And, as everyone breathed a sigh of relief, Chico told her, "You know, I really want to fuck you." She replied, "And so you shall, you old-fashioned boy."
In 1918 she made her stage debut at the Bijou Theatre in New York. In 1923, she made her debut on the London stage at Wyndham's Theatre. In London she was to appear in over a dozen plays in the next eight years, most famously, The Dancers. Her fame as an actress was ensured in 1924 when she played Amy in Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted. The show won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize. She was famous not only as an actress but also for her many affairs, infectious personality and witticisms like "There is less to this than meets the eye" and "I'm as pure as the driven slush." She had the reputation of being sexually available to anyone she found attractive, famous or not. Her longest known affair during this period in her life was with an Italianbusinessman named Anthony de Bosdari, which lasted just over one year. By the end of the decade, she was one of the West End's – and England's – best-known and most notorious celebrities.
with Bankhead and her portrait (1929)
While in London, Bankhead also bought herself a Bentley, which she loved to drive. She was not very competent with directions, however, and constantly found herself lost in the London streets. She would telephone a taxi-cab and pay the driver to drive to her destination while she followed behind in her car. During her eight years on the London stage, Bankhead earned a reputation for making the most out of inferior material. For example, in her autobiography, Bankhead described the opening night of a play called Conchita:
"In the second act ... I came on carrying a monkey ... On opening night the monkey went berserk ... (he) snatched my black wig from my head, leaped from my arms and scampered down to the footlights. There he paused, peered out at the audience, then waved my wig over his head ... The audience had been giggling at the absurd plot even before this simian had at me. Now it became hysterical. What did Tallulah do in this crisis? I turned a cartwheel! The audience roared ... After the monkey business I was afraid they might boo me. Instead I received an ovation."
Hollywood and Broadway
Bankhead returned to the United States in 1931, but Hollywood success eluded her in her first four films of the 1930s. She rented a home at 1712 Stanley Street, in Hollywood, and began hosting parties that were said to "have no boundaries". Bankhead's first film was Tarnished Lady (1931), directed by George Cukor, and the pair became fast friends. Bankhead behaved herself on the set and filming went smoothly, but she found film-making to be very boring and did not have the patience for it. She didn't like Hollywood either. When she met producer Irving Thalberg, she asked him, "How do you get laid in this dreadful place?" Thalberg retorted, "I'm sure you'll have no problem. Ask anyone." Although Bankhead was not very interested in making films, the opportunity to make $50,000 per film was too good to pass up. Her 1932 movie Devil and the Deep is notable for the presence of three major co-stars, with Bankhead receiving top billing over Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, and Cary Grant, and remains the only film with both Cooper and Grant as the film's leading men. She later said, "Dahling, the main reason I accepted [the part] was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper!"
In 1934, after recuperating in Alabama, she returned to England. After only a short stay, she was called back to New York to play in Dark Victory. Although Bette Davis played the leading character in the 1939 film version, she openly admitted in later years that she had emulated Bankhead in the role. Bankhead continued to play in various performances over the next few years, gaining excellent notices for her portrayal of Elizabeth in a revival of Somerset Maugham's The Circle.
David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind (1939) called her the "first choice among established stars" to play Scarlett O'Hara. Although her screen test for the role in black-and-white was superb, she photographed poorly in Technicolor. Selznick also reportedly believed that at age 36, she was too old to play Scarlett, who is 16 at the beginning of the film (the role eventually went to Vivien Leigh). Selznick sent Kay Brown to Bankhead to "sound her out" about playing prostitute Belle Watling in the film, which she turned down.
Returning to Broadway, Bankhead's career stalled at first in unmemorable plays. When she appeared in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra with her husband, John Emery, the New York Evening Post critic John Mason Brown wrote "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra – and sank." However, her portrayal of the cold, ruthless Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939) won her the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Performance. Bankhead and playwright Hellman, both formidable women, feuded over the Soviet Union's invasion of Finland. Bankhead (a staunch anti-Communist) was said to want a portion of one performance's proceeds to go to Finnish relief, while Hellman (who had defended the Moscow Trials of 1936, and was a member of the Communist Party USA in 1938-40) objected strenuously, and the two women did not speak for the next quarter of a century.
More success and another New York Drama Critics' Circle Award followed her 1942 performance in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, in which Bankhead played Sabina, the housekeeper and temptress, opposite Fredric March and Florence Eldridge (Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, and also husband and wife offstage). During the run of the play, some media accused Bankhead of a running feud with Elia Kazan, the play's director which Kazan confirmed in his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, published by Doubleday in 1988. Kazan stated that Bankhead was one of the few people in his life that he ever actually detested.
Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat
In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock cast her as the cynical journalist, Constance Porter, in her most successful film, both critically and commercially,Lifeboat. Her performance was acknowledged as her best on film and won her the New York Film Critics Circle Award. A beaming Bankhead accepted her New York trophy and exclaimed, "Dahlings, I was wonderful!" After World War II, Bankhead appeared in a revival of Noël Coward'sPrivate Lives, taking it on tour and then to Broadway for the better part of two years. The play's run made Bankhead a fortune. From that time, Bankhead could command 10% of the gross and was billed larger than any other actor in the cast, although she usually granted equal billing toEstelle Winwood, a frequent co-star and close friend from the 1920s until Bankhead's death in 1968.
Bankhead circulated widely in the celebrity crowd of her day and was a party favorite for outlandish stunts, such as doing cartwheels in a skirt while wearing no underwear or entering a soirée stark naked. Always extravagant, upon leaving the theater one evening she encountered a Salvation Army band passing around the tambourine. Reaching into her purse, Bankhead withdrew a twenty dollar bill, tossed it into the tambourine and exited into a taxi with the remark, "There darlings, I know it's been a rough winter for you Spanish dancers".
Though Bankhead's career slowed in the mid-1950s, she never faded from the public eye. Although she had become a heavy drinker and consumer of sleeping pills (she was a lifelong insomniac), Bankhead continued to perform in the 1950s and 1960s on Broadway, in the occasional film, as a highly-popular radio show host, and in the new medium of television.
In 1950, in an effort to cut into the rating leads of The Jack Benny Program and The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show which had jumped from NBC radio to CBS radio the previous season, NBC spent millions over the two seasons of The Big Show starring "the glamorous, unpredictable" Tallulah Bankhead as its host, in which she acted not only as mistress of ceremonies but also performed monologues and songs. Despite Meredith Willson's Orchestra and Chorus and top guest stars from Broadway, Hollywood and radio, The Big Show, which earned rave reviews, failed to do more than dent Jack Benny's and Edgar Bergen's ratings.
The next season, NBC installed her as one of a half-dozen rotating hosts of NBC's The All Star Revue on Saturday nights. Bankhead's most popular television appearance was her December 3, 1957, appearance on The Ford Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show. Bankhead played herself in the classic episode titled "The Celebrity Next Door". The part was originally slated for Bette Davis, but Davis had to bow out after cracking her vertebra. Lucille Ball reportedly was a fan of Bankhead's and did a good impression of her. By the time the episode was filmed, however, both Ball and Desi Arnaz were extremely frustrated by Bankhead's behavior during rehearsals. It took her three hours to "wake up" once she arrived on the set and she often seemed drunk. She also refused to listen to the director and she did not like rehearsing. Ball and Arnaz apparently did not know about Bankhead's antipathy toward rehearsals or her ability to memorize a script quickly. After rehearsals, the filming of the episode went without a hitch and Ball congratulated Bankhead on her performance.
In 1956, Bankhead appeared as Blanche DuBois in a revival of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1956), but reviews were poor. She received a Tony Award nomination for her performance of a bizarre 50-year-old mother in the short-lived Mary Coyle Chase play, Midgie Purvis (1961). Her last theatrical appearance was in another Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963), directed by Tony Richardson. Although she received good notices for her last performances, her career as on the American stage was coming to an end.
Her last motion picture was a British horror film, Fanatic (1965), co-starring Stefanie Powers, which was released in the U.S. as Die! Die! My Darling!. Her last appearances onscreen came in March 1967 as the villainous Black Widow in the Batman TV series, and on the December 17, 1967, episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour comedy-variety TV series, in the "Mahta Harry" skit.
Bankhead was an avid baseball fan whose favorite team was the New York Giants. This was evident in one of her famous quotes, through which she gave a nod to the arts: "There have been only two geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare. But, darling, I think you'd better put Shakespeare first."
Religion and politics
Bankhead expressed some interest in spirituality, but did not outwardly pursue it, although in 1932 she met with the Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba.
Like her family, Bankhead was a Democrat but broke with many Southerners by campaigning for Harry Truman's reelection in 1948. While viewing the Inauguration parade, she booed the South Carolina float which carried then-Governor Strom Thurmond, who had recently run against Truman on the Dixiecrat ticket, splitting the Democratic vote. She is credited with having helped Truman immeasurably by belittling his rival, New York's Governor Thomas E. Dewey.
Bankhead married actor John Emery, the son of stage actors Edward Emery (circa 1861–1938) and Isabel Waldron (1871–1950), on August 31, 1937, at her father's home in Jasper, Alabama.Bankhead filed for divorce in Reno, Nevada, in May 1941. It was finalized on June 13, 1941. The day her divorce became final, Bankhead told a reporter, "You can definitely quote me as saying there will be no plans for a remarriage."
Bankhead had no children but was the godmother of Brook and Brockman Seawell, children of her lifelong friend, actress Eugenia Rawls, and Rawls's husband, Donald Seawell.
Sexuality and sexual exploits
An interview that Bankhead gave to Motion Picture magazine in 1932 created quite a commotion. In the interview, Bankhead ranted wildly about the state of her life and her views on love, marriage, and children:
"I'm serious about love. I'm damned serious about it now ... I haven't had an affair for six months. Six months! Too long ... If there's anything the matter with me now, it's not Hollywood or Hollywood's state of mind ... The matter with me is, I WANT A MAN! ... Six months is a long, long while. I WANT A MAN!"
Time ran a story about it, and, back home, Bankhead's father and family were perturbed. Bankhead immediately telegraphed her father, vowing never to speak with a magazine reporter again. However, following the release of the Kinsey Reports, she was once quoted as stating, "I found no surprises in the Kinsey Report. The good doctor's clinical notes were old hat to me ... I've had many momentary love affairs. A lot of these impromptu romances have been climaxed in a fashion not generally condoned. I go into them impulsively. I scorn any notion of their permanence. I forget the fever associated with them when a new interest presents itself."
In 1933, Bankhead nearly died following a five-hour emergency hysterectomy due to venereal disease. Only 70 pounds (32 kg) when she left the hospital, she stoically said to her doctor, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson!"
Rumors about Bankhead's sex life have lingered for years, and she was linked romantically with many notable female personalities of the day, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Eva Le Gallienne, Alla Nazimova, as well as writer Mercedes de Acosta and singer Billie Holiday. Actress Patsy Kelly claimed she had a sexual relationship with Bankhead when she worked for her as a personal assistant. John Gruen's Menotti: A Biography notes an incident in which Jane Bowles chased Bankhead around Capricorn, Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber's Mount Kiscoestate, insisting that Bankhead needed to play the lesbian character Inès in Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit (which Paul Bowles had recently translated), but Bankhead locked herself in the bathroom and kept insisting "That lesbian! I wouldn't know a thing about it."
Bankhead never publicly described herself as being bisexual. She did, however, describe herself as "ambisextrous".
On December 12, 1968, Bankhead died in St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan at 7:45 A.M., aged 66. The cause of death was double pneumonia, complicated by emphysema, malnutrition, and possibly a strain of the Hong Kong flu which was running rampantly worldwide at that time. Her last coherent words reportedly were "Codeine ... bourbon." A private funeral was held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Kent County, Maryland on December 14. A memorial service was held at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York City on December 16. She was buried in Saint Paul's Churchyard, near Chestertown, Maryland where her sister lived.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Tallulah Bankhead has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6141 Hollywood Blvd.
MI5 investigation of Eton school scandal
In 2000, declassified papers thrust Bankhead into the limelight of public scandal posthumously. She had been investigated by MI5 during the 1920s amid rumors she was corrupting pupils atEton. The documents alleged that she seduced up to half a dozen public schoolboys into taking part in "indecent and unnatural" acts. This rumor had sent shockwaves through the 1920s British establishment.
The documents compiled by the British Aliens and Immigration Department allege that the investigation was scuttled by a determined cover-up by Eton's headmaster, Dr. Cyril Argentine Alington. The allegations were based purely on gossip and word of mouth, and lacked credible evidence. It appears that they were assembled by MI5 at the urgings of a Home Office minister.