Bankhead, Tallulah (1902–1968)

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Bankhead, Tallulah (1902–1968)

American actress who eschewed formal training, built a career on the stage, and dipped into films, but eventually eclipsed her own career with the force of her public personality. Name variations: (childhood nickname) Dutch; (adult nicknames) Tallu, Lulas, Die Donner (the thunder). Pronunciation: Tuh-LOO-luh BANK-hed. Born Tallulah Brockman Bankhead on January 31, 1902, in Huntsville, Alabama; died of pneumonia in St. Luke's Hospital, New York City, New York, on December 12, 1968; buried in Rock Hall, Maryland; daughter of William "Will" Brockman (a lawyer, U.S. congressional delegate, and speaker of the house) and Adelaide "Ada" Eugenia (Sledge) Bankhead; attended Convent of the Sacred Heart, Manhattanville, New York; Mary Baldwin Seminary, Staunton, Virginia; Convent of the Visitation, Washington, D.C.; Holy Cross Academy, Dunbar, Virginia;

and Fairmont Seminary, Washington, D.C.; married John Emery (an actor), on August 31, 1937 (divorced, June 13, 1941); no children.

Won Picture Play Magazine's "Screen Opportunity" contest and went to New York (1917); had walk-on in silent film When Men Betray (1918); moved into Algonquin Hotel (1918); had walk-on in The Squab Farm (1918); appeared in The Dancers in England (1923); returned to U.S. for Paramount Pictures contract (1931); appeared in The Little Foxes (1939); purchased "Windows" (1943); named radio's "Woman of the Year" (1951); hosted ABC's "All-Star Revue" on television (1952); appeared for last time on Broadway in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1964); filmed Die! Die! Darling! in England (1964); appeared on Batman (1967).

Stage roles:

Gladys Sinclair in The Squab Farm (1918); Penelope Penn in 39 East (1919); Phyllis Nolan in Everyday (1921); Maxine/Tawara in The Dancers (1923); Mary Clay in Forsaking All Others (1933); Sadie Thompson in Rain (1935); Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (1937); Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1939); Lily Sabina in The Skin of our Teeth (1942); Amanda Prynne in Private Lives (1944, 1948); Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1956); title role in Midgie Purvis (1961); Mrs. Goforth in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1964).

Film roles:

Nell in Who Loved Him Best? (Mutual Film Corporation, 1918); Alice Edwardes in When Men Betray (Graphic Film Corporation, 1918); Nancy Courtney in Tarnished Lady (Paramount, 1931); Pauline Sturm in The Devil and the Deep (Paramount, 1932); Carol Morgan in Faithless (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932); Constance Porter in Lifeboat (20th Century-Fox, 1944); The Czarina in A Royal Scandal (20th Century-Fox, 1945); Mrs. Trefoile in Die! Die! My Darling! (Hammer Films/Columbia, 1965).

Radio series:

Mistress of Ceremonies, "The Big Show" (NBC, 1950–1952). Television: Mistress of Ceremonies, "All Star Revue" (NBC, 1952–1953); "The Milton Berle Show" (NBC), "The Jack Paar Show" (NBC), "The Tonight Show" (NBC), "Batman" (ABC), "The Merv Griffin Show" (all 1953–68).

Buckets of cold water would eventually stop a tantrum but not always. The spectacle of the young girl thrashing on the floor in rage often resulted in a soaking at the hands of her paternal grandmother, called "Mamma," who wearied of her namesake's unladylike behavior. Mamma did her best to instill the values of proper Southern womanhood in her granddaughters, and the family hoped that age would bring the girl self-control; instead, Tallulah Bankhead turned this type of dramatic exhibition into her personal trademark.

Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born on January 31, 1902, second daughter of William and Ada Bankhead . Just two weeks later, Ada Bankhead died. Consequently, Tallulah and her sister Eugenia , who was one year and one week older, lost their father, as he distanced himself in order to come to terms with his grief. Henceforth, the sisters shared celebrations on Eugenia's birthday.

The Bankhead sisters lived with their paternal grandparents in Jasper, Alabama, but also spent portions of their childhood with their aunt Marie Bankhead Owen in Montgomery, Alabama, and in Washington, D.C., because of the political demands on both their grandfather, U.S. Senator "Captain John" Hollis Bankhead, and later their father who was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1917. When not living with them, William Bankhead visited the girls often; he also spoiled them. After five years, when John Bankhead insisted that his son take more responsibility for the girls, Will returned to live with them in his parents' home and became the most important person in Tallulah's life. Perhaps to cheer him, Tallulah became a mimic and something of a performer. When Will cuddled Eugenia and talked of his departed wife, Tallulah turned cartwheels to regain the spotlight.

At age 10, along with her sister, Tallulah entered boarding school. Enrolling in the same grade throughout their lives due to Eugenia's frailty, they originally attended the Catholic Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville, New York, where Tallulah's temper soon had them in trouble. The next year, the girls attended the Mary Baldwin Seminary in Staunton, Virginia. Tallulah's outrageous behavior caused their dismissal before Thanksgiving, and the Bankhead sisters moved to their third boarding school, the Convent of the Visitation, at about the same time that their father remarried. Tallulah's disruptive behavior continued. The family attempted to reign her in by sending Eugenia off to a different school, but Tallulah grew listless until her sister rejoined her at the Holy Cross Academy at Dunbar. The following year, the sisters attended Fairmont Seminary in Washington D.C. to prepare for their Congressional society debuts; neither girl graduated.

At age 15, Bankhead began entering movie-magazine contests. When the Picture-Play Magazine Opportunity Contest announced its 12 finalists, the list included Tallulah, winner of a trip to New York to begin a theatrical career. Reluctantly, her grandfather agreed to finance her trip as long as her aunt, Louise Bankhead Lund , acted as chaperon.

Despite her connections, Tallulah faced the usual problems of a beginning actor; she lacked formal training, had no experience, and spent her days visiting talent agents. She also had to overcome her aunt's lack of enthusiasm. The two shared an apartment before moving into the famed Algonquin Hotel in February 1918. The Algonquin housed the Round Table or Vicious Circle, a large number of actors, producers, and writers, including Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker . Aunt Louise had naively selected the heart of the theatrical district for her niece's new home.

Finally, Bankhead wrangled a bit part on Broadway as Gladys Sinclair in The Squab Farm in March 1918. Soon after, she appeared in a silent film, When Men Betray. Although her career seemed to quickly stall, her restless energy and beauty earned her attention from other Algonquin residents. Aunt Louise stood as the only impediment to her social life; finally in the summer of 1919, when she became unable to stand Tallulah's moods, Aunt Louise left her charge and joined the Red Cross in Paris. Aunt Marie took her place, but eventually Tallulah was on her own.

Though Bankhead made another silent film, she disliked the medium and longed to appear on stage. To avoid being called home, she stretched her pennies until she owned only one dress and ate by "tasting" people's dishes while flitting in and out of conversations in the Algonquin dining room. Soon, she was cast in her first speaking role on Broadway as Penelope Penn in Rachel Crother 's 39 East. She tackled the role by mimicking the previous star, Constance Binney , and evidence of her tendency towards disruption appeared. Bankhead refused to place a hat, a visual cue for another actor, in its appointed place.

Bankhead was developing her off-stage persona as well. Utilizing her Southern flair, she ingratiated herself to the Algonquinites, though she did not become one of the Circle. She patterned her personality after the flapper that she had portrayed in Crother's Nice People in 1921 ("flappers" were young women who flaunted the bounds of conventional demeanor). Bankhead talked nonstop, dated extensively, spent money she didn't have on gifts, flung insults wildly, sniffed cocaine, and had a propensity for turning cartwheels sans undergarments at parties. Eventually, drinking joined smoking as part of her repertoire. By 1922, Bankhead had appeared in several Crothers plays, including one written for her titled Everyday, but stardom eluded her. When a British love interest, bisexual Baron Napier Alington or "Naps," returned to England, Tallulah considered taking her career overseas.

Fortuitously, English theater promoter Charles Cochran telegraphed from England about a part. Though he wired again telling her the part had been cast, Bankhead arranged passage anyway and feigned ignorance of the second wire. In London, she checked into the Ritz on borrowed funds and convinced Cochran to hire her and pay the previously engaged actress as well. In 1923, Tallulah Bankhead burst onto the London theater scene in The Dancers and developed a dedicated audience, dubbed the "Gallery Girls" by the critics, who cheered fanatically on her entrances and exits. Bankhead made it a point to learn their names and seek their opinions.

When she moved into singing teacher Olga Lynn 's well-appointed house at Naps' suggestion, Bankhead escalated her hold on London society. Oggie's home reinforced her grandmother's teachings about lady-like behavior, but Tallulah chose to ignore many of the rules. Though she concealed her behavior from her father by not sending home clippings, she continued to receive visitors naked, served cocktails from her bath, quipped outrageously, held weekly bacchanals, and generally defied social conventions for the sake of publicity. Meanwhile, her stage career continued unabated through Conchita, This Marriage, and The Creaking Chair, all 1924. Savings allowed Bankhead to purchase a green Talbot automobile, but her limited sense of navigation led her to hire cabs to lead her. When her acquaintances found this amusing, Bankhead continued the practice and began to develop an increasing air of helplessness.

I hate to go to bed, I hate to get up, and I hate to be alone.

—Tallulah Bankhead

Although she apparently enjoyed her new life in England, Tallulah longed for better parts. She appeared in Noel Coward's Fallen Angels (1925), followed by The Green Hat (1925) and The Scotch Mist (1926). Leasing a home, she began creating a household of servant-friends: a dresser, a butler, a cook, and a personal secretary. Their duties ranged from opening cigarette tins to listening to her into the wee hours.

In 1926, Bankhead shifted away from glamorous roles and signed on for the role of the waitress, Amy, in They Knew What They Wanted. Though her performance amazed the critics, her gallery disliked it, and Tallulah sorely missed their adoration. In 1927, the British public voted Bankhead one of the nation's ten "most remarkable" women in The Sphere magazine poll. Having proven her ability, she returned to gallery-pleasing roles, playing a chorus girl in The Gold Diggers (1926), a cabaret dancer in The Gardenof Eden (1927), and various parts in thrillers like Blackmail (1928), Mud and Treacle (1928), and Her Cardboard Lover (1928). Theatergoers began to complain about the antics of her fans, but Tallulah reveled in their attention.

On the personal side, Bankhead's intention of marrying Naps was thwarted when he married someone else in 1928. Her sister Eugenia appeared in a tiny role in London before running off with another of Tallulah's beaus. Tallulah then shared her house with Count Anthony de Bosdari and they planned to marry, then called it off in May 1929. In 1930, she took on a last dramatic role in another attempt to demonstrate her ability, but The Lady of the Camellias proved beyond her scope. That fall, Bankhead signed a lucrative contract with Paramount Pictures and returned to America.

Greeted by her father and stepmother at dockside, Tallulah moved directly into a suite at the Elysee Hotel off Park Avenue in New York. After a whirl of interviews, she plunged into movie production for The Tarnished Lady. One scene introduced her to the clubs of Harlem, and Tallulah began to visit there regularly to buy cocaine, listen to jazz, and observe the uninhibited nightclub scene. As she settled back into New York, her circle of friends expanded to include aviator Louisa Carpenter , torch singer Libby Holman , and singer Billie Holiday . Paramount Pictures intended Tallulah to become a film star in the mode of Garbo or Dietrich and placed her in films suited to those stars. Bankhead did not fit, however, and they flopped.

Paramount then moved her to Hollywood where she rented a furnished mansion and spent money rashly despite the economic problems of the nation. When the Depression caused Paramount to cut salaries in 1932, Tallulah suffered a double whammy: the federal government ordered her to pay $15,000 in back taxes just as her extended family turned to her for financial assistance. Her sixth film with Paramount, The Devil and the Deep (1932), brought a small amount of success, and the company loaned her to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Showing an uncanny sense for bad timing, Bankhead granted an interview to Motion Picture magazine in which she expressed her desire for a man. The "I-Want-a-Man-Story" scandalized an industry which had been trying to counteract perceptions of low morals in the film community. Although her MGM movie, Faithless, finally gave her a non-Dietrich vehicle, the uproar over the article undercut it. With her contract completed, Tallulah returned to New York.

Dipping into her savings, Bankhead financed a stage production of Forsaking All Others. Although she chose her producer and actors well, she ran the show as loosely as she ran her household. While on the road, the play attracted an audience similar to England's fans, but it did not appeal to the average Broadway theatergoer. To further complicate matters, it opened on Broadway on the same day in 1933 that Franklin D. Roosevelt closed the banks in an effort to stabilize the failing financial system. Before the show shuttered after 14 weeks, Bankhead had lost $40,000. She jumped into an other play, Jezebel, but suffered severe abdominal pain and spent nine weeks in the hospital, while actors rehearsed at her bedside. Numb with codeine, she returned to the play briefly before being readmitted to the hospital for a hysterectomy in November. While friends assumed she had suffered from cancer, a sheepish Tallulah never corrected their belief. She had apparently contracted gonorrhea. Depressed, she developed a dependence on opiates during her recuperation and spent the last of her savings on medical bills.

In 1934, Bankhead opened in Dark Victory on Broadway to horrible reviews and, ill with a head infection, bowed out and was replaced by Bette Davis . Although, in her next engagement, Tallulah's portrayal of prostitute Sadie Thompson in Rain pleased the tour audiences, once again she failed to garner good reviews on Broadway. Her inability to generate a following in Times Square began to be noticed.

While vacationing on Langdon Island in 1937, the bi-sexual Bankhead met actor John Emery. A few days later, she announced their engagement. With her father ascending to the post of speaker of the house in Congress, it seemed appropriate, and Bankhead believed she was in love. A small family wedding took place at her father's house in Jasper on August 31, 1937, and the couple settled into her suite at the Gotham Hotel. Though the two envisioned an acting partnership and undertook Antony and Cleopatra as their first project, the hoped-for pairing failed to materialize. Tallulah's drinking began to cause problems, as did John's already heavy habit.

In 1939, Bankhead landed one of her most successful roles, Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman 's The Little Foxes. When the play opened in New York, she gave a magnificent performance and received rave reviews and a best-actress citation from Variety. As the long New York run came to an end and the company prepared to tour, her marriage began to unwind, and both parties turned to extramarital affairs. While on tour in 1940, Bankhead received word that her father had lapsed into a coma; he died before she could reach him. A month later, she learned that Naps died in the Battle of Britain. When the tour ended in 1941, John requested a divorce to marry actress Tamara Geva ; Tallulah agreed but, to avoid any indication that another party influenced their break-up, she exacted a promise that he would not marry for one year. Emery married Geva exactly one year after the final divorce decree.

Meanwhile, Bankhead took the role of Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth. During the production, her reputation as a petulant, troublesome actress was enhanced. She refused to take direction, stormed out of rehearsals, stole lines, and divided the cast. Nonetheless, she was cited Best Actress of 1942 by the New York drama critics. She also bought her house in Bedford Village, New York, and dubbed it "Windows." Bankhead moved her unconventional household and her ever-changing group of "caddies" (her term for a retinue of young, often gay, men who were willing to put up with her whims) into the house. Increasingly, she relied upon them to keep her company and care for her. The household witnessed unusual levels of drinking, drug use, constant entertaining, exotic pets, and Tallulah's unceasing devotion to her afternoon "soapies." Those who left Windows usually did so out of self-preservation; Bankhead gave freely of all she had but exacted an exhausting toll.

During these years, she increasingly relied upon barbiturates, codeine, cocaine, and alcohol. Although she entertained constantly, her visitors slowly declined in number; too often the evenings ended with the hostess passed out. In an effort to raise funds, she returned to films, giving an award-winning performance, her best on screen, in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat. The New York Screen Critics awarded her Best Actress of the Year for 1944. The critical success led to her next role as Catherine the Great of Russia in A Royal Scandal (1945), but the film did not make her popular with audiences as she had hoped. Wrote biographer Lee Israel: "She was, in all regards, simply too big for the medium."

In 1947, Bankhead returned to Broadway and bombed in The Eagle Has Two Heads, before opening in Coward's Private Lives in October 1948. After its Broadway stint, the show went on tour, but Bankhead's behavior was becoming more erratic and costly. At one stop, Marblehead, Massachusetts, her nightly party got out of hand. When the police arrived at the door, she greeted them naked and drunk. Her stint in jail was brief, but she was directed out of town. That fall, while testing for the movie of The Glass Menagerie, she greeted director Irving Rapper at the door of her dressing room in nothing but a hat. Nevertheless, the part looked to be hers until she drank a fifth of whatever and staggered onto the set spouting curses and demands. Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros., instructed the director to test the next actress. Bankhead began to disrupt the touring production of Private Lives on stage as well. She numbed herself with booze, marijuana, and opiates, turned lines into lewd suggestions, played tricks on actors on stage, and mugged for the audience. The rest of the cast avoided her as much as possible. Although the production deteriorated, the audiences were delighted.

The National Broadcasting Company hired her to be mistress of ceremonies for radio's "The Big Show" which premiered in November 1950. Tallulah felt uneasy with the lack of a defined character role and hassled the show's writers before it opened, but her personality made it work. Her stylized persona, supplied with customized material, filled the gaps between the parade of name performers who sang, joked, or played music over the air waves. Despite a London kickoff for the second season, however, the show's appeal faded as listeners wearied of her style.

Increasingly, Bankhead would often call friends the day after and apologize for any public embarrassment she might have caused them. As members of her household and friends continued to drift away, Bankhead sold her country home and purchased a townhouse in New York. She then took on the role of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and attempted to subvert her usual self-caricature. Unfortunately, her audience refused to take her seriously when the play toured Florida, but Bankhead worked hard to erase personal traits from her portrayal of Blanche, tacitly demanding the audiences accept Blanche as Blanche and not as Tallulah playing Blanche. She had a relatively successful opening at New York's City Center in February 1956.

The effort seemed too much; she reverted to being Tallulah on stage in her next production, The Ziegfeld Follies (1956), and in those that followed. The abuse of her body, and particularly her lifelong chain-smoking, began to affect her ability to perform; her contracts now stipulated a 20-minute break between each of her film scenes so she could catch her breath. She began to stumble and have accidents: breaking ribs, burning her hand with a cigarette, and bruising arms and legs. She refused to wear glasses except to read, and the brittleness of age combined with the pills and alcohol to make her more fragile. Her latest live-in companion feared leaving her alone in the town house—she had once fallen asleep while smoking and set her dog on fire—and her dependence upon opiates caused psychotic episodes.

When Bankhead received the manuscript for Midgie Purvis (1961), she went into training; she had a private nurse regulate her substance use, and she ate regularly to prepare for the title role. During rehearsal, there were script changes from night to night and generally the play did not find its mark; the critics gave mixed reviews. Despite her preparations, Tallulah had to face her increasing need for actual assistance in daily living. She sold her town house and bought a condominium to avoid stairs; her emphysema eventually required her to use an oxygen tank, but she could not stop smoking, though she tried repeatedly. As her household and circle of friends diminished, her reliance on her "caddies" increased. She stayed home more and more, filling her waking hours with discussions about politics, the occult, and medical oddities.

She turned down a role opposite Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but she accepted Tennessee William's offer to play Flora Goforth in a revision of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore in 1964. Again she prepared by reigning in her habits, but she didn't blossom into health like she had in the past. Throughout her life, Bankhead had been able to learn her lines by listening to them twice, now she had trouble remembering them at all. The show closed after five performances on Broadway.

That same year, Bankhead traveled to England to make her last film. Avoiding the press, she put everything into the job, but due to her history of poor health, she arranged for Columbia to hold her $50,000 salary as a guarantee that she would finish the movie. She drank vitamin cocktails and diverted her usual excesses into gambling on horses and playing poker. Though she vigorously objected to the changing of the film's name during shooting, because she hated her trademark "dahling" by that time, it went to theaters as Die! Die! My Darling! in 1965.

In December 1968, Bankhead contracted the Asian flu. When she did not respond to treatment, her doctor suggested hospitalization. After several days, she asked to see her sister, but by the time Eugenia arrived, pneumonia had set in and Tallulah lapsed into a coma. The only intelligible words she uttered before dying on December 12, 1968, were "codeine-bourbon." When her friends arranged her burial, they dressed her in one of her favorite cigarette-burned, red silk wrappers and slipped her father's rabbit's foot into the casket.


Bankhead, Tallulah. Tallulah: My Autobiography. NY: Harper, 1952.

Brian, Denis. Tallulah, Darling: A Biography of Tallulah Bankhead. NY: Macmillan, 1972.

Carrier, Jeffrey L. Tallulah Bankhead: A Bio-Bibliography. Bio-Bibliographies in the Performing Arts series, Number 21. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Israel, Lee. Miss Tallulah Bankhead. NY: Putnam, 1972.

suggested reading:

Campbell, Sandy. B: Twenty-nine Letters from Coconut Grove. Verona, Italy: Martino Mardersteig of Stamperia Valdonega, 1974 (a series of letters by one of Bankhead's houseguests while on tour).

Gill, Brendan. Tallulah. NY: Holt, 1972 (photobiography).

Rawls, Eugenia. Tallulah: A Memory. Birmingham, AL: Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama, 1979 (personal account by a lifelong friend).

Tunney, Kieran. Tallulah: Darling of the Gods: An Intimate Portrait. NY: Dutton, 1973.

related media:

Baxt, George. The Tallulah Bankhead Murder Case. NY: International Polygonics, 1987.

Lang, Tony, and Bruce Coyle. Tallulah Tonight, one-woman show, starring Helen Gallagher , produced at the American Place Theatre, 1988.

Portrait of Tallulah Bankhead by Augustus John. National Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1929.

Siegel, Arthur. Tallulah: Libretto (23-page typescript), New York Public Library Reserve Library, 1983.

Siegel, Arthur, and Helen Gallagher. Tallulah (recording), Painted Smiles, 1991.


Bankhead Family papers, State of Alabama Department of History and Archives, Huntsville, Alabama; Theater Collection, Library of Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, New York City, New York; Eugenia Rawls and Donald Seawell Theater Collection, Southern History Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Eugenia Rawls Papers, Denver Public Library, Denver, Colorado; and Fred Allen Papers, Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts.

Oral history interview taped in Phoenix in 1964, resides in the Lewis Audiovisual Research Institute and Teaching Archive, Tucson, Arizona.

Laura Anne Wimberley , Department of History, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas