Monday, November 8, 2010

Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968)

The American born beauty got her break at the age of 16 after winning a local beauty contest in her home state of Alabama.  With a father who was the Speaker of the U.S House of Representatives during the mid 1930's Tallulah could have done most anything but her passion was for acting so she found her way to NYC and the Broadway stage.  She was offered a role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1920 but refused it after sexual advances from Broadway heavyweight and acting royalty John Barrymore.

After little success in New York Tallulah relocated to London in 1923 with the hopes of landing a role in theater there.  Over the next few years she became one of the most popular stars in London's West End.  Having achieved her goal and garnering notice from Paramount Studios she left London at the end of 1926 and relocated to Hollywood to try her hand at films.  Her first two films were "Woman's Law" 1927 and "His House in Order" 1928.  Neither film got much notice and it wasn't until Tallulah starred in "Tarnished Lady" 1931 opposite Clive Brook that the reviews were favorable. She played a gold digger in the film who runs around Manhattan trying to land a rich husband only to wind up alone and pregnant. It was directed by the great George Cukor.  Paramount must have felt Tallulah was perfect for the part of a woman driven to marry into wealth as she filmed 'My Sin" and "The Cheat" that same year with similar plots.

She churned out three films in 1932 but it was 'Devil and the Deep" that year that critics noticed. Most likely because it starred Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton and newcomer Cary Grant.  Not content with her lack of success and no offers for challenging film roles coming her way Tallulah returned to New York and to the theater where she remained for the next 11 years.  She married the stage and film actor John Emery in 1937 but their marriage ended in divorce in 1941.

with Gary Cooper

Tallulah was well known on the social scene in New York where she was always the life of the party with her chain smoking, excessive drinking of her beloved Kentucky Bourbon and by often taking her clothes off and sitting around in the nude.  She returned to Hollywood in 1943 where she landed a role in Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Lifeboat" 1944.  I've seen the film a couple of times and Ms Bankhead's performance is great but Hitchcock had a way to make his leading ladies get the most of their on screen presence.  She went on to star in Otto Preminger's "A Royal Scandal" 1945.  Once again restless and bored with Hollywood Tallulah took another break and didn't appear again on film until the 1960's. I'm sure she was having a fantastic time and a continuous party wherever she was during her hiatus. 

click on autograph from my collection and photos for a larger view

She was involved in a scandal stemming from a legal case involving her housekeeper during the 1960's. Tallulah charged her former housekeeper with embezzlement and when the case went to trial the housekeeper got up to testify and let loose with some very salacious accusations about her former employer.  She stated that Ms Bankhead never went anywhere that she didn't have a suitcase by her side that was full of cocaine, morphine, amphetamines, marijuana and other drugs along with drug paraphernalia.  There were also accusations that Tallulah kept company with certain well known lesbians around the social scene which was no surprise to her inner circles but quite a revelation during the trial and to Tallulah's adoring public.  

Her next appearance on screen was in Die! Die! My Darling" 1965 then in "The Day Dreamer" 1966.  She did a few television voice overs and went back to her first love, the Broadway stage where she gained her biggest following.  Sadly Tallulah passed away from pneumonia in 1968. She is buried at St Paul's Kent Churchyard in Chestertown Maryland.  Her grave site can be viewed HERE.  

in "Lifeboat" 1944

Interesting Tallulah Bankhead Facts:

She smoked over 100 cigarettes a day and drank scotch and bourbon like water.

The rumors about her bisexuality have her linked in affairs with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Alla Nazminova and the singer Billie Holiday.  After Time Magazine ran an article suggesting her bisexuality she immediately sent a telegram to her very rich and powerful parents denying the accusations.  

She nearly died after an emergency hysterectomy caused by a venereal disease and was quoted as saying "Don't think this has taught me a lesson" directed to her physician upon leaving the hospital. 

She was considered for the role of Scarlet O'Hara and tested for the role but after seeing how much older she looked on film the role went to the much younger and photogenic Vivien Leigh. Tallulah was 36 at the time "Gone with the Wind" was filmed and Scarlet was only 16 at the beginning of the movie.

Tallulah who was never keen on acting once said the only reason she went to Hollywood was to sleep with that divine Gary Cooper. (She used more colorful language but I won't use her exact words here.) 

She was the first white woman to appear on the cover of Ebony Magazine.

She loved jazz and would often be seen out all hours of the night listening to Jazz in Speakeasy's all over Harlem.

She once owned a pet lion named Winston.

President Harry S. Truman once said that her autobiography was the best book he had read upon coming to the White House.

A small town in Louisiana was renamed Tallulah after her after she spent the night there in the 1930's.

She was said to be the inspiration for the character Cruella DeVil in "101 Dalmations"

She was infamous for not wearing underwear and the crew and cast of the film "Lifeboat" complained about her constantly flashing them when climbing up the ladder during filming. Director Alfred Hitchcock quipped " I don't know if this is a matter for wardrobe or for hairdressing"

The character Bette Davis played in "All About Eve" was based on a real life incident by Tallulah Bankhead.  Bette despised Tallulah so I'm sure she got a real kick out of playing such an over the top drama queen. 

Her last on screen appearance was in the television show "Batman" in 1966.

When her former housekeeper charged that Tallulah made her roll her joints for her Tallulah shot back with "God, good help is so hard to find"

A shrewd businesswoman she had an estate worth over 2 million dollars at the time of her death.

She loved children and not being to have any of her own she was a foster parent to many underprivileged children.

Upon meeting producer Irving Thalberg she asked him "How do you get laid in this dreadful place" 

Personal Quotes:

Upon seeing an old lover for the first time in years she said "I thought I told you to wait in the car".

On why she called everyone dahling she stated that she was terrible with names and once introduced a friend of hers as Martini.  Her name was actually Olive. 

She once quipped "It's the good girls who keep diaries, the bad girls don't have the time"

She quoted "My father warned me about men and booze but her never said a thing about women and cocaine"  She also said "Cocaine isn't habit forming, I've been using it for years. and that she had a suitcase of cocaine handy since the age of 16.

She once said "Don't think I don't know who's spreading all this gossip about me! After all the nice things I've said about that hag Bette Davis and when I get ahold of her I'm going to rip out every hair in her mustache"

She once quoted "The only thing I regret about my past is the length of it. If I had to do it all over again I would do everything the same only sooner"

I've read Tallulah's autobiography but its been awhile so I need to read it again then add some to her post.  She certainly did live her life on her terms and she left one heck of a legacy.

Until next time find a great old movie and unwind,

*All autographs and signed documents are from my collection and have been authenticated.  I won't bore anyone with those documents unless requested for your amusement since this site isn't about buying or selling memorabilia. : )


  1. I love her, what a larger than life personality. And what a pity there isn't a filmed record of her in The Little Foxes. Much as I like Bette Davis, I'd have loved seeing Bankhead's Regina.

  2. As someone who shares the name, the only difference between her signature and mine is the "u" and "h".

    1. Anon,
      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment.
      I'm quite fond of the name Tallulah. You're lucky to have been given such a fab birth name.
      Please come back often!
      Happy Holidays!

  3. I think it is a shame that she wasted her life on booze and drugs. There is so much excitement and joy to be found in life. You must first find it from within. Then realize the joy in giving of yourself.
    George Carlin spoke on drugs and alcohol. His basic premise was that they have been around for a long time for a reason. They do give a certain amount of pleasure for a time. Eventually the pain out ways the pleasure. Soon there is only pain.
    Her vices robbed her of her beauty and eventually her life. A lesson to us all.