Tallulah Brockman Bankhead (January 31, 1902 – December 12, 1968) was an American stage and screen actress. She was a member of the Bankhead and Brockham family, a prominent Alabama political family. Both her grandfather and her uncle served as US Senators; her father served as a US Representative in Congress for 11 terms, the final two as Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Primarily an actress of the stage, Bankhead appeared in several films including an award-winning performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944). She also had a brief but successful career on radio and made appearances on television as well.
In her personal life, Bankhead struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction; she reportedly smoked 120 cigarettes a day and often talked openly about her vices. She also openly had a series of relationships with both men and women.
Bankhead supported foster children and helped families escape the Spanish Civil War and World War II. She was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1972, and the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 1981. During her career, Bankhead amassed nearly 300 film, stage, television and radio roles.
Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born on January 31, 1902, in Huntsville, Alabama, to William Brockman Bankhead and Adelaide Eugenia "Ada" Bankhead. "Tallu" was named after her paternal grandmother, who in turn was named after Tallulah Falls, Georgia. Her father hailed from the Bankhead-and-Brockman political family, and was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1936 to 1940. Her mother, Adelaide "Ada" Eugenia, met her father William Bankhead on a trip to Huntsville to buy her wedding dress for her wedding with another man.
The two fell in love at first sight and were married on January 31, 1900, in Memphis, Tennessee. Their first child, Evelyn Eugenia (January 24, 1901 – May 11, 1979), was born two months prematurely and had some vision difficulties.
The following year, Tallulah was born on her parents' second wedding anniversary, on the second floor of what is now known as the Isaac Schiffman Building. which in 1980 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Three weeks after Bankhead's birth, her mother died of blood poisoning (sepsis) on February 23, 1902. Bankhead was baptized next to her mother's coffin.
William B. Bankhead was devastated by his wife's death, which sent him into a bout of depression and alcoholism. Consequently, Tallulah and her sister Eugenia were mostly reared by their paternal grandmother, Tallulah James Brockman Bankhead, at the family estate called "Sunset" in Jasper, Alabama.
As a child, Bankhead was described as "extremely homely" and overweight, while her sister was slim and prettier. As a result, she did everything in her efforts to gain attention, and constantly sought her father's approval. After watching a performance at a circus, she taught herself how to cartwheel, and frequently cartwheeled about the house, sang, and recited literature that she had memorized. She was prone to throwing tantrums, rolling around the floor, and holding her breath until she was blue in the face. Her grandmother often threw a bucket of water on her to halt these outbursts.
Bankhead's famously husky voice (which she described as "mezzo-basso") was the result of chronic bronchitis due to childhood illness. She was described as a performer and an exhibitionist from the beginning, discovering at an early age that theatrics gained her the attention she desired. Finding she had a gift for mimicry, she entertained her classmates by imitating the schoolteachers. Bankhead claimed that her "first performance" was witnessed by none other than the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, when her Aunt Marie gave the famous brothers a party at her home near Montgomery, Alabama, in which the guests were asked to entertain. Bankhead also found she had a prodigious memory for literature, memorizing poems and plays and reciting them dramatically.
In 1912, Tallulah and Eugenia were enrolled in the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville, New York when Eugenia was 11 and Tallulah was 10. As William's political career brought him to Washington, the girls were enrolled in a series of different schools, each one a step closer to Washington, D.C. When Bankhead was 15, her aunt encouraged her to take more pride in her appearance, suggesting that she go on a diet to improve her confidence. Bankhead quickly matured into a southern belle. The girls were not really tamed by the schools, however, as both Eugenia and Tallulah went on to have a lot of relationships and affairs during their lives. Eugenia was more of an old romantic as she got married at 16 and ended up marrying seven times to six different men during her life, while Tallulah was a stronger and even more rebellious personality, who sought a career in acting, was into lust in her relationships even more than love, and showed no particular interest in marrying, although she did marry actor John Emery. Bankhead married actor John Emery 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 was also childhood friends with American socialite, later novelist, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, the wife of American author and expatriate F. Scott Fitzgerald.
At 15, Bankhead submitted her photo to Picture Play, which was conducting a contest and awarding a trip to New York plus a movie part to 12 winners based on their photographs. However, she forgot to send in her name or address with the picture. Bankhead learned that she was one of the winners while browsing the magazine at her local drugstore. Her photo in the magazine was captioned "Who is She?", urging the mystery girl to contact the paper at once. Her father Congressman William Bankhead sent in a letter to the magazine with her duplicate photo.
Arriving in New York, Bankhead discovered that her contest win was fleeting, but she quickly found her niche in New York City. She soon moved into the Algonquin Hotel, a hotspot for the artistic and literary elite of the era, where she quickly charmed her way into the famed Algonquin Round Table of the hotel bar. She was dubbed one of the "Four Riders of the Algonquin", consisting of Bankhead, Estelle Winwood, Eva Le Gallienne, and Blyth Daly. The Algonquin's wild parties introduced Bankhead to cocaine and marijuanam but she did abstain from drinking.
In 1919, after roles in three other silent films, When Men Betray (1918), Thirty a Week (1918), and The Trap (1919), Bankhead made her stage debut in The Squab Farm at the Bijou Theatre in New York. She soon realized her place was on stage rather than screen, and had roles in 39 East (1919), Footloose (1919), Nice People (1921), Everyday (1921), Danger (1922), Her Temporary Husband (1922), and The Exciters (1922). Though her acting was praised, the plays were commercially and critically unsuccessful. Bankhead had been in New York for five years, but had yet to score a significant hit.
Restless, Bankhead moved to London.
In 1923 she made her debut on the London stage at Wyndham's Theatre. She appeared in over a dozen plays in London over the next eight years, most famously in The Dancers and The Gold Diggers. 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.
While in London, Bankhead bought herself a Bentley, which she loved to drive. She was not very competent with directions and constantly found herself lost in the London streets.
During her eight years on the London stage and touring across Great Britain's theatres, Bankhead earned a reputation for making the most out of inferior material.
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. After over eight years of living in Great Britain and touring on their theatrical stages, she did not like living in Hollywood. 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's receiving top billing over Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, and Cary Grant; it is the only film with Cooper and Grant as the film's leading men.
Returning to Broadway, Bankhead worked steadily in a series of middling plays which were, ironically, later turned into highly successful Hollywood films starring other actresses.
But Bankhead persevered, even through ill health. In 1933, at age 31, while performing in Jezebel, Bankhead nearly died following a five-hour emergency hysterectomy due to gonorrhea, which she claimed she had contracted from either Gary Cooper or George Raft. She had four abortions before she had a hysterectomy.
Weighing only 70 lb (32 kg) when she left the hospital, she vowed to continue her promiscuous and party lifestyle, stoically saying to her doctor "Don't think this has taught me a lesson!"
From 1936 to 1938, David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind (1939) called Bankhead the "first choice among established stars" to play Scarlett O'Hara in the upcoming film. Although her 1938 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).
Her brilliant portrayal of the cold and ruthless, yet fiery Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939) won her Variety magazine's award for Best Actress of the Year. Bankhead as Regina was lauded as "one of the most electrifying performances in American theater history". During the run, she was featured on the cover of Life.
Bankhead earned another Variety award and the New York Drama Critics' Award for Best Performance by an Actress followed her role in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, in which Bankhead played Sabina, the housekeeper and temptress.
Bankhead appeared in a revival of Noël Coward's Private 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.
Bankhead wrote a bestselling autobiography Tallulah: My Autobiography. (Harper & Bros., 1952) that was published in 1952. Though Bankhead's career slowed in the mid-1950s, she never faded from the public eye. Her highly public and often scandalous personal life began to undermine her reputation as a terrific actress, leading to criticism she had become a caricature of herself. Although a heavy smoker, heavy drinker, and consumer of sleeping pills, Bankhead continued to perform in the 1950s and 1960s on Broadway, radio, television, and in the occasional film, even as her body got more and more frail from the mid 1950s up until her death in 1968.
In addition to her many affairs with men, she was also linked romantically with female personalities of the day, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Hattie McDaniel, Beatrice Lillie, Alla Nazimova, Blyth Daly, writers Mercedes de Acosta and Eva Le Gallienne, and singer Billie Holiday. Actress Patsy Kelly confirmed she had a sexual relationship with Bankhead when she worked for her as a personal assistant.
Bankhead never publicly used the term "bisexual" to describe herself, preferring to use the term "ambisextrous" instead.
In her later years, Bankhead began to attract a passionate and highly loyal following of gay men, some of whom she employed as help when her lifestyle began to take a toll on her, affectionately calling them her "caddies". Though she had long struggled with addiction, her condition now worsened – she began taking dangerous cocktails of drugs to fall asleep, and her maid had to tape her arms down to prevent her from consuming pills during her periods of intermittent wakefulness. In her later years, Bankhead had serious accidents and several psychotic episodes from sleep deprivation and hypnotic drug abuse. Though she always hated being alone, her struggle with loneliness began to lapse into a depression. In 1956, playing the truth game with Tennessee Williams, she confessed, "I'm 54, and I wish always, always, for death. I've always wanted death. Nothing else do I want more."
Bankhead's most popular and perhaps best remembered television appearance was the December 3, 1957, The Ford Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show. Bankhead played herself in the classic episode titled "The Celebrity Next Door".
Her last theatrical appearance was in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963), a revival of Tennessee Williams play. She had suffered a severe burn on her right hand from a match exploding while she lit a cigarette, and it was aggravated by the importance of jewelry props in the play. She took heavy painkillers, but these dried her mouth, and most critics thought that Bankhead's line readings were unintelligible.
Her last motion picture was in a British horror film, Fanatic (1965). For her role in Fanatic, she was paid $50,000. Her last appearances on television came in December 17, 1967, episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour comedy-variety TV series, in the "Mata Hari" skit.
Bankhead moved into 230 East 62nd Street in the late 1950s, and then to a co-op at 333 east 57th Street (#13-E).
Bankhead died at St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan on December 12, 1968, at age 66. The cause of death was pleural double pneumonia. Her last coherent words reportedly were a garbled request for "codeine ... bourbon".
Despite claiming to be poor for much of her life, Bankhead left an estate valued at $2 million (equivalent to $14,884,211 in 2020).
A private funeral was held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Kent County, Maryland, on December 14, 1968. 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, Eugenia, lived.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Bankhead has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6141 Hollywood Blvd.