Tallulah Bankhead

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Tallulah Brockman Bankhead [1] (January 31, 1902 - December 12, 1968) was a United States actress, talk-show host and bonne vivante, born in Huntsville, Alabama.


Family life

She was the daughter of Congressman William Brockman Bankhead, niece of Senator John H. Bankhead II, and granddaughter of Senator John H. Bankhead. Her parents sent her to various schools in an attempt to keep her out of trouble, which included a year at a Catholic convent school (although her father was a Methodist and Tallulah's mother was an Episcopalian). Apparently these attempts didn't "take". Tallulah had no children, but was the godmother of Brook Seawell and Brockman Seawell, children of her lifelong friend, Georgia-born actress Eugenia Rawls and Rawls' husband, Donald Seawell.

Early career

At 15, Tallulah Bankhead won a movie-magazine beauty contest and convinced 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 known as a hard-partying girl-about-town. She also became known for her wit, although as screenwriter Anita Loos, another minor Roundtable member said: "She was so pretty that we thought she must be stupid."

In 1923, she made her debut on the London stage, where she was to appear in over a dozen plays in the next eight years. Famous as an actress, she was famous, too, for her drinking, drug taking, and many affairs with men and women. By the end of the decade, she was one of the West End's — and England's — best-known celebrities.

Mid career

She returned to US in 1931 to be Paramount Pictures' "next Marlene Dietrich", but Hollywood success eluded her in her first four films of the 30s. Critics agree that her acting was flat, that she was unable to dominate the camera, and that she was generally outclassed by Dietrich, Carole Lombard, and others.

Nevertheless, David O. Selznick called her the "first choice among established stars" to play Scarlett O'Hara, but nobody else agreed; polled, moviegoers thought otherwise.

Her screen test for Gone with the Wind put her out of the running for good. Selznick decided that she was too old (at 34) for Scarlett's antebellum scenes.

Returning to Broadway, Tallulah's career stalled in unmemorable plays until she played Regina in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939). Her portrayal won her the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Performance, but Bankhead and Hellman 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; Hellman (an equally staunch Stalinist) objected strenuously, and the two women didn't speak for the next quarter of a century.

More success and the same 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 the play's director, Elia Kazan, but both denied it.

In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock cast her as the cynical journalist, Constance Porter, in Lifeboat. The performance is widely acknowledged as her best on film, and won her the New York Screen Critics Award.

After World War II, Bankhead appeared in a revival of Noel 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 billed larger than any other actor in the cast, although she usually granted equal billing to Estelle Winwood, a frequent co-star, and Bankhead's "best friend" from the 1920s until Bankhead's death in 1968.

Following her father's example, Bankhead was a staunch Democrat and campaigned 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.

Late career

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. Her appearance as herself on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Comedy Hour in 1957 as The Celebrity Next Door — drunk, according to Ball — is a cult favorite, as is her role as the "Black Widow" on the 1960s campy television show, Batman, which turned out to be her final screen appearance. Bankhead's radio program on NBC was The Big Show and was billed to stem the tide of television. The program did not keep television from flourishing but it had Meredith Willson as its musical host, and featured top stars from Broadway, films, radio, and elsewhere--including Fred Allen, George Jessel, Groucho Marx, Ethel Merman, Dame Vera Lynn and Margaret Truman.

Bankhead's career was in decline by the mid-1950s. Her outrageous behavior, fueled by a two-bottle-a-day consumption of Old Grand Dad, continued unabated. And behavior that was endearingly wicked in a flapper starlet of the Twenties was wearyingly vulgar in an aging, falling star in the Sixties. Bankhead never faded from the public eye, but was increasingly a caricature of her former self. By this time, when she appeared as "Blanche DuBois" in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire gay fans cheered and laughed at her performance, hurting its dramatic tone and preventing her from achieving the desired result of a faded Southern woman.

Although she received fairly good notices for "Midgie Purvis", the eponymous character who pretended to be twenty years older in order to be grandmotherly and have access to children, the play did not sell well and it closed within the season. Bankhead's last performance, in Williams's play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, lasted only a week.

Her shortcomings notwithstanding, Tallulah always remained a personality who got good notices in the media. According to author Brendan Gill's Tallulah, when Bankhead entered the hospital for an illness, an article was headed "Tallulah hospitalized, Hospital Tallulahized".

Dick Cavett repeated on film the story that she responded to Chico Marx's statement: "I'd really like to fuck you", with, "And you shall, you dear boy, and you shall." (The line may have been a particular Bankhead trademark whenever a man to whom she was attracted propositioned her so bluntly.) She even purchased a lion cub from a circus in Reno, Nevada for $100 and named him Winston Churchill, but eventually gave him up when he got too large to handle.


Tallulah Bankhead died in New York City of double pneumonia arising from influenza, complicated further by emphysema, at the age of 66 on December 12, 1968, and is buried in Saint Paul's Churchyard, Chestertown, Maryland.

Signature quotes


Please visit Wikiquote for a list of quotes by Tallulah Bankhead


  • Who Loved Him Best? (1918)
  • When Men Betray (1918)
  • Thirty a Week (1918)
  • The Trap (1919)
  • His House In Order (1928)
  • Tarnished Lady (1931)
  • My Sin (1931)
  • The Cheat (1931)
  • Thunder Below (1932)
  • Make Me a Star (1932) (Cameo)
  • Devil and the Deep (1932)
  • Faithless (1932)
  • Stage Door Canteen (1943)
  • Lifeboat (1944)
  • A Royal Scandal (1945)
  • Main Street to Broadway (1953)
  • The Boy Who Owned A Melephant (1959) (narrator)
  • Die! Die! My Darling! (1965)
  • The Daydreamer (1966) (voice)

Stage Performances

  • The Squab Farm (1918)
  • 39 East (1919) (only appeared in 6 performances, hired as a replacement for star Constance Binney, but Actors Equity strike halted the production)
  • Footloose (1919)
  • Nice People (1921)
  • Everyday (1921)
  • Danger (1922)
  • Her Temporary Husband (1922)
  • The Exciters (1922)
  • The Dancers (1923)
  • Conchita (1924)
  • This Marriage (1924)
  • The Creaking Chair (1924)
  • Fallen Angels (1925)
  • The Green Hat (1925)
  • Scotch Mist (1925)
  • They Knew What They Wanted (1926)
  • The Gold Diggers (1926)
  • The Garden of Eden (1927)

MI5 investigation of Eton school scandal

Recently declassified papers thrust Tallulah in the limelight of public scandal posthumously. She had been investigated by MI5 amid rumours she was corrupting pupils at Eton. 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 C A Alington. The allegations were based purely on gossip and word of mouth. It appears that they were assembled by MI5 at the urgings of a Home Office minister.

The dossier, assembled when she was 32, contains allegations that while in Britain the actress:

  • performed indecent acts with under-age boys from Eton College
  • was a lesbian who was also promiscuous with men
  • was thrown out of her home by her father because of immoral conduct
  • moved in a social circle which was a centre of vice.

In the whole of the file there was no credible evidence that Miss Bankhead had any "abnormal" sexual tendencies, or that any ground existed to keep her out of Britain.

The report that a group of Eton boys took part in a sex session with her at an hotel in Berkshire was discreetly investigated by police and the headmaster was interviewed. However, nothing was discovered except that a couple of boys had been dismissed for breaking school rules on riding in a car.

However, the investigator known only as FHM wrote: "The headmaster is obviously not prepared to assist HO by revealing what he knows of her exploits with some of the boys, ie. he wants to do everything possible to keep Eton out of the scandal."

External links

{{Persondata |NAME=Bankhead, Tallulah |ALTERNATIVE NAMES=Bankhead, Tallulah Brockman |SHORT DESCRIPTION=actress |DATE OF BIRTH=January 31, 1902 |PLACE OF BIRTH=Huntsville, Alabama, United States of America |DATE OF DEATH=December 12, 1968 |PLACE OF DEATH=New York, New York, United States of America }}

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