Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born on January 31st, in Huntsville, Alabama, to William Brockman Bankhead and Adelaide Eugenia Bankhead in 1902. The Bankheads were a formidable political family. Her father, grandfather, and uncle were all respected, influential statesmen. Tallulah’s mother, “Ada” of Como, Mississippi, was visiting Huntsville to buy a wedding dress when she first met William Bankhead. They fell hard and fast. Needless to say, Ada’s previous wedding was cancelled. They married on January 31st, 1900, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Tallulah’s older sister, Eugenia, was born a year before she was, in 1901. Her mother, sadly, died only three weeks after Tallulah’s birth. On her deathbed she told her sister-in-law, “Take care of Eugenia, Tallulah will always be able to take care of herself.” Devastated by his wife’s death, William sent Eugenia and Tallulah to Jasper, Alabama, to live with their grandmother. The two would divide their time between her and aunt Marie Owen in Montgomery.
Though certainly pretty in her own right, Tallulah’s sister was more conventionally beautiful, so Tallulah felt the need to get attention in her own ways : singing, reciting, acrobatics, tantrums and holding her breath tell her face turned blue. Often grandmother would “calm her down” by dousing her with a bucket of water. This was long before ADD had been discovered. At the age of 15 Tallulah came into her own, and while her older sister Eugenia was getting married (at 16) she had much more grand designs for the future.
An avid reader of movie magazines, Tallulah spotted a contest for aspiring screen stars. Twelve winners would receive a trip to New York and roles in a film on the strength of their photograph alone. She was so excited she sent her picture without any contact information, and when Picture Play ran the shot with the caption : “Who is she?” her father replied with another copy of the photo and a letter of confirmation. A couple of tantrums later, he agreed to let Tallulah go to New York along with her aunt as chaperone.
In New York City Tallulah and the eleven others got the royal treatment. She got her first taste of film and stage acting and was hooked. Her early performances at this time were not especially noteworthy, indeed, her career was checkered with hits and misses epic and trivial. It was at this time that she became used to the glamorous, high-octane, dissolute lifestyle of actors and artists. It wasn’t long before she and her aunt moved into the Algonquin, with its parade of celebrities and geniuses from a myriad of disciplines. For the most part she preferred the stage, where the nuances of her one-of-a-kind demeanor and zeal for life came through in abundance. She attended parties and found small stage parts until she reached the age of consent, at which time (at the urging of an astrologer) she left New York for London where she was invited to star in a play.
For seven years Bankhead was the toast of London. British audiences adored her, whether the content was classy or tawdry. A group of aficionados who emulated Tallulah (gallery girls) would cheer whenever she made an entrance and, delighted, she would wave back at them, saying, “Thank you dahlings.” She was an extremely accessible star and would happily greet her fans at the stage door, signing autographs, inquiring as to their health, sometimes even making them guests in her home. She bought a large home with a team of servants she often treated more like companions, gabbing with them until all hours and playing bridge, which she loved. Attempting to match the film success of other exotic beauties such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, Paramount lured her away from England. Dubious though she was, the money was simply too good to pass up (especially in the midst of mounting debts).
In January of 1931, Tallulah Bankhead sailed to the studios Paramount kept in New York and working for the first time with George Cukor. The film was called The Tarnished Lady and was followed by two more, My Sin and The Cheat, all three of which lacked sparkle or pop. She moved on to Hollywood to see if she could do any better. Riding with her on the train was Joan Crawford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Tallulah told her, “Dahling, you’re divine. I’ve had an affair with your husband. You’ll be next.” Sadly her experiences with film acting were mostly disappointing with one exception, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Many fans came to know her solely from this one movie and her performance in it was implacable and memorable. Apparently Hitchcock knew just how to put Bankhead’s talents to their best use.
After her debacle with the movies, Tallulah returned to the stage, and the theatre is where she made her mark. She triumphed in numerous roles, including the conniving Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Sabina in Thornton Wilder’s epic comedy of survival, The Skin of our Teeth, and Noel Coward’s Private Lives. In 1952, she was hostess to a wildly popular radio variety show in which she bantered with guests such as Marlene Dietrich, George Sanders and Earl Wilson.
Her trademark whiskey voice (more like molasses, really) coupled with her dry wit and impeccable timing made The Big Show a ringing success. Tallulah continued to perform in various venues. The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas paid her a generous $20,000 per week to perform in a one-woman show which included monologues, songs and poem readings. She went on to play heroines of Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, but neither ever quite left the ground. She had great successes in all mediums, including television, when they found just the right fit for Bankhead’s ingenious flare for the wicked and outré.
Tallulah Bankhead was always very frank and forthcoming about her sexual appetites. She never hedged about her openness to taking lovers of both genders. “My father warned me about men and booze but he never said anything about women and cocaine.” She purportedly had liaisons with Billie Holliday, Eva La Galliene, Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes de Acosta, Hattie McDaniel and wisecracking comic actress from Brooklyn, Patsy Kelly, probably best known for a supporting role in Rosemary’s Baby. Embroidery aside, Tallulah, who certainly never hid her attraction to men, took her female friendships very seriously, imbuing them with playfulness and devotion. Some, apparently had romantic components while some did not.
In Boze Hadleigh’s 1994 book, Hollywood Lesbians, Patsy Kelly confirmed that she and Tallulah had been lovers as well as friends. Bankhead never stayed with any one paramour for very long, though Kelly lived with her in her mansion (Windows) in Bedford, New York, for many years. Of the numerous subjects featured in Hadleigh’s book, Kelly was one of the few to be absolutely direct, describing herself as a dyke and enumerating her own numerous affairs. When Hadleigh asked her to discuss Greta Garbo she said, “Talking about Garbo is like talking about Asia. What would you like to know?”
Tallulah Bankhead led a life of rapturous adventure and sensual celebration, peppered with skewed humor and a penchant for the outspoken. She frequently hired friends as employees (the dividing line nearly invisible) and loved to have young, handsome gay men act as her valet, mixing drinks and drawing her baths. Her parties and quips were the stuff of legend, and while she felt emotions with grandeur, she took disappointments in stride. When she was diagnosed in earlier days with a nearly fatal case of gonorrhea, she mischieviously (though perhaps not without cause) blamed Gary Cooper. She died at the age of 62, December 12th, 1968, ending a raucous, tempestuous life. And she never wasted a moment of it.
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November 17th, 2011 at 9:13 am
Another interesting spotlight on history…and of the south! Great work.Oh, I would aspire to one part of her life:"loved to have young, handsome gay men act as her valet, mixing drinks and drawing her baths."However opportunity knocked but once and I did not hear the knock! Damn!!!