TALLULAH BANKHEAD Biography - Actors and Actresses

 
 

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TALLULAH BANKHEAD

Name: Tallulah Brockman Bankhead                                                                 
Born: 31 January 1902 Huntsville, Alabama, U.S.                                                   
Died: 12 December 1968 New York, New York, U.S.                                                   
                                                                                                 
Tallulah Brockman Bankhead (January 31, 1902 - December 12, 1968) was an                         
American actress, talk-show host and bonne vivante.                                               
                                                                                                 
Bankhead was born in Huntsville, Alabama to William Brockman Bankhead and                         
Adelaide Eugenia Sledge, and was named after her maternal grandmother. She                       
has been described as "an extremely homely child", overweight and with a deep,                   
husky voice resulting from chronic bronchitis.                                                   
                                                                                                 
Bankhead came from a powerful Democratic political family in the South in                         
general and Alabama in particular. Her father was the Speaker of the United                       
States House of Representatives from 1936-1940 (in the 74th, 75th, and 76th                       
Congresses), immediately preceding Sam Rayburn. She was the niece of Senator                     
John H. Bankhead II, and granddaughter of Senator John H. Bankhead. Bankhead                     
herself was a Democrat, albeit one of a more liberal stripe than the rest of her                 
family.                                                                                           
                                                                                                 
Her family 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 her mother, who died at her birth, was an Episcopalian).                           
                                                                                                 
At 15, 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.     
During this time she experimented with cocaine and marijuana, but did not                         
consume alcohol to any great degree. She 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." She became known for saying almost                   
anything, whether true or not. Once, while in attendance at a party, a guest                     
made a comment about rape, and Bankhead replied "I was raped in our driveway                     
when I was eleven. You know darling, it was a terrible experience because we had                 
all that gravel".                                                                                 
                                                                                                 
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, most famously, The Dancers. Her fame as                   
an actress was ensured in 1924 when she played the waitress Amy in Sidney Howard's               
They Knew What They Wanted. The show won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize. She was famous                 
not only as an actress but also for her many affairs, infectious personality and                 
witticisms like "There is less to this than meets the eye" and "I'm as pure as                   
the driven slush." She was brash, brazen, and apt to say anything. This trait                     
made her widely popular. She was known for her promiscuous behavior, and had the                 
reputation of being sexually available to anyone she found attractive, famous or                 
not. Her longest known affair during this period in her life was with an Italian                 
businessman named Anthony de Bosdari, which lasted just over one year. By the                     
end of the decade, she was one of the West End's and England's best-known                         
and most notorious celebrities.                                                                   
                                                                                                 
While in London, Bankhead also bought herself a Bentley, which she loved to                       
drive. She wasn't very competent with directions, however, and constantly found                   
herself lost in the London streets. She would telephone a taxi-cab and pay the                   
driver to drive to her destination while she followed behind in her car. The                     
press loved this.                                                                                 
                                                                                                 
Promiscuity came naturally to Bankhead, and she went to bed with anyone who was                   
interested. She professed to having a ravenous appetite for sex, but not for a                   
particular type. "I've tried several varieties of sex. The conventional position                 
makes me claustrophobic. And the others give me either stiff neck or lockjaw,"                   
she said. Once, at a party, one of her friends brought along a young man who                     
boldly told Bankhead that he wanted to make love to her that night. She didn't                   
bat an eye and said, "And so you shall, you wonderful old-fashioned boy."                         
                                                                                                 
She returned to the 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. She                   
rented a home at 1712 Stanley Street, in Hollywood, and began hosting parties                     
that were said to "have no boundaries." On September 9, 1932, she was                             
featured on the cover of Film Weekly.                                                             
                                                                                                 
Bankhead's first film was Tarnished Lady (1931), directed by George Cukor, and                   
Cukor and Bankhead became fast friends. Bankhead behaved herself on the set and                   
filming went smoothly, but she found film-making to be very boring and didn't                     
have the patience for it. She didn't like Hollywood either. When she met                         
producer Irving Thalberg, she asked him, "How do you get laid in this dreadful                   
place?"                                                                                           
                                                                                                 
Bankhead herself was not very interested in making films. The opportunity to                     
make $50,000 per film, however, was too good to pass up. She later said, "The                     
only reason I went to Hollywood was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper."                             
                                                                                                 
One of Bankhead's most notorious events was an interview that she gave to Motion                 
Picture magazine in 1932. She was obviously letting off steam from her                           
frustrated attempt at a movie career and she ranted wildly about the state of                     
her life and her views on love, marriage, and children:                                           
                                                                                                 
"I'm serious about love. I'm damned serious about it now.... I haven't had an                     
affair for six months. Six months! Too long.... If there's anything the matter                   
with me now, it's not Hollywood or Hollywood's state of mind.... The matter with                 
me is, I WANT A MAN! ... Six months is a long, long while. I WANT A MAN!"                         
                                                                                                 
Hollywood was becoming increasingly conservative, partly as a result of past                     
scandals, and partly because Will H. Hays and others had formed the infamous                     
Production Code. The code dictated not only what the studios could show in their                 
films, but how actors had to conduct themselves off-screen. As predicted, the                     
interview created quite a commotion. Will Hays was furious. Time ran a story                     
about it, and, back home, Bankhead's father and family were really rather                         
perturbed. Bankhead immediately telegraphed her father, vowing never to speak                     
with a magazine reporter again.                                                                   
                                                                                                 
However, following the release of the Kinsey Reports, she was once quoted as                     
stating;                                                                                         
                                                                                                 
"I found no surprises in the Kinsey Report. The good doctor's clinical notes                     
were old hat to me..I've had many momentary love affairs. A lot of these                         
impromptu romances have been climaxed in a fashion not generally condoned. I go                   
into them impulsively. I scorn any notion of their permanence. I forget the                       
fever associated with them when a new interest presents itself."                                 
                                                                                                 
Thus, comments such as that quoted above and many other actions in her life led                   
to her reputation, of which she never made excuses. She was outspoken and                         
uninhibited. By the standards of the interwar years, Bankhead was quite openly                   
bisexual, but she successfully avoided scandal related to her affairs,                           
regardless of the gender of her lovers. She was known to have stripped off her                   
clothes on several occasions while attending parties, which shocked people in                     
attendance, but nonetheless she remained magnetic to those who knew her well.                     
Her personality, it was said, made her almost irresistible as a friend, or a                     
lover.                                                                                           
                                                                                                 
Rumors about her sex life have lingered for years, and she was linked                             
romantically with many notable female personalities of the day, including Greta                   
Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Eva Le Gallienne, Laurette Taylor,                       
Hattie McDaniel, and Alla Nazimova, as well as writer Mercedes de Acosta, and                     
singer Billie Holiday.                                                                           
                                                                                                 
She was reportedly extremely excited when she was first able to meet the elusive                 
Garbo, but whether they were sexually involved has never been determined beyond                   
a doubt. The two women played tennis together often, and were said to have                       
enjoyed one another's company, but Garbo was extremely protective of her private                 
life and secretive about her lovers. Bankhead was married to actor John Emery                     
from 1937 to 1941.                                                                               
                                                                                                 
Actress Patsy Kelly made a claim to author Boze Hadleigh, which he included in                   
his 1996 book about lesbianism in Hollywood's early years, that she had a long                   
lesbian affair with Bankhead. John Gruen's Menotti: A Biography notes an                         
incident in which Jane Bowles chased Bankhead around Capricorn, Gian Carlo                       
Menotti and Samuel Barber's Mount Kisco estate, insisting that Bankhead needed                   
to play the lesbian character In√®s in Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit (which Paul                     
Bowles had recently translated), but Bankhead locked herself in the bathroom and                 
kept insisting "That lesbian! I wouldn't know a thing about it."                                 
                                                                                                 
In 1932, she expressed some interest in spirituality, but did not outwardly                       
pursue it, except for a time when she met with the Indian mystic, Meher Baba.                     
                                                                                                 
In 1933, Bankhead nearly died following a five-hour emergency hysterectomy for                   
an advanced case of gonorrhea, which she claimed she contracted either from                       
George Raft or Gary Cooper. Only 70 pounds when she left the hospital, she                       
stoically said to her doctor, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson!"                         
                                                                                                 
In 1934, after recuperating in Alabama, she returned to England. After only a                     
short stay, she was called back to New York to play in Dark Victory. She                         
continued to play in various performances over the next few years, mostly                         
mediocre. Nevertheless, David O. Selznick called her the "first choice among                     
established stars" to play Scarlett O'Hara. However, moviegoers answering a poll                 
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.                   
Unable to capture Hollywood, Bankhead returned to her most-loved acting medium,                   
the stage.                                                                                       
                                                                                                 
Returning to Broadway, Bankhead's career stalled in unmemorable plays until she                   
played the cold and ruthless Regina Giddens 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, while 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. Kazan                   
confirmed the story in his autobiography, and he stated that Bankhead was one of                 
the few people in his life that he ever actually detested.                                       
                                                                                                 
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 Film Critics Circle Award. Almost childlike in her immodesty, a                 
beaming Tallulah accepted her trophy and exclaimed, "Dahlings, I was wonderful!"                 
                                                                                                 
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 was 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.                       
                                                                                                 
Bankhead circulated widely in the celebrity crowd of her day, and was a party                     
favorite for outlandish stunts such as underwearless cartwheels in a skirt or                     
entering a soiree stark naked. She is also said to have been so engrossed in                     
conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt that she dropped her drawers and used the                     
toilet while the first lady was still talking.                                                   
                                                                                                 
Like her family, Bankhead was a Democrat, but broke with most Southerners by                     
campaigning 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.                                                                   
                                                                                                 
Though Tallulah Bankhead's career slowed in the mid-1950s, she never faded from                   
the public eye. Although she had become a heavy drinker and consumer of sleeping                 
pills (she was a life-long insomniac), 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 Show in 1957 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.                                                                         
                                                                                                 
In 1950, in an effort to cut into the rating leads of The Jack Benny Program and                 
The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show which had jumped from NBC radio to CBS                   
radio the previous season, NBC spent millions over the two seasons of The Big                     
Show starring "the glamorous, unpredictable" Tallulah Bankhead as its host, in                   
which she acted not only as mistress of ceremonies but also performed monologues                 
and songs. Despite Meredith Willson's Orchestra and Chorus and top guest stars                   
from Broadway, Hollywood and radio--including Fred Allen, Fanny Brice, Groucho                   
Marx, Ethel Merman, Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, Jimmy Durante, Martin & Lewis,                     
George Jessel, Judy Garland, Ethel Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, Jose Ferrer and                     
Judy Holliday, The Big Show, which earned rave reviews, failed to do more than                   
dent Jack Benny's and Edgar Bergen's ratings.                                                     
                                                                                                 
Bankhead, who proved a masterful comedienne and intriguing personality, however,                 
was not blamed for the failure of The Big Show--television's growth was hurting                   
all radio ratings at the time, so the next season NBC installed her as one of a                   
half dozen rotating hosts of NBC's The All Star Revue on Saturday nights.                         
Although critics, pros and the sophisticated set loved her, and Tallulah's                       
monologues became classics, she was not among the hosts renewed for the                           
following season.                                                                                 
                                                                                                 
Bankhead's most popular television appearance and the one that is still seen                     
widely today was her December 3, 1957 appearance on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz                   
Hour. Bankhead played herself in the episode titled "The Celebrity Next Door".                   
The part was originally slated for Bette Davis, but she had to bow out after                     
cracking her vertebra.                                                                           
                                                                                                 
Lucille Ball was a fan of Bankhead's and did a good impression of her. By the                     
time the episode was filmed, however, both Ball and Arnaz were at their wit's                     
end over Bankhead's behavior during rehearsal: she refused to listen to the                       
director and she did not like to rehearse. It took her three hours to "wake up"                   
once she arrived on the set and everyone thought she was drunk most of the time.                 
Ball and Arnaz apparently didn't know about Tallulah's antipathy toward                           
rehearsing or her incredible ability to memorize a script. The actual taping of                   
the episode went off without a hitch, and Bankhead impressed everyone with her                   
line readings and professionalism". Lucille Ball later said that she was                         
conned by Bankhead who purposely made her think she would screw up to throw her                   
off kilter. Desi Arnaz said that Bankhead walked all over him and Ball, and they                 
hadn't known this was typical behavior for Tallulah.                                             
                                                                                                 
Bankhead also appeared as Blanche DuBois in a revival of Tennessee Williams's A                   
Streetcar Named Desire (1956), but reviews were poor. She received a Tony Award                   
nomination for her performance of a bizarre 50-year-old mother in Mary Chase's                   
Midgie Purvis (1961). Her last theatrical appearance was in another Williams                     
play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963). Although she received                     
good notices for her last performances, her career as one of the greats of the                   
American stage was coming to an end.                                                             
                                                                                                 
Her last motion picture was a British horror film Fanatic (1965) co-starring                     
Stefanie Powers, which was released in the U.S. as Die! Die! My Darling!.                         
                                                                                                 
Her last appearance on screen came in March 1967 as the villainous Black Widow                   
in the Batman TV series.                                                                         
                                                                                                 
According to author Brendan Gill, when Bankhead entered the hospital for an                       
illness, an article was headed "Tallulah Hospitalized, Hospital Tallulahized."                   
This headline was a testament to Bankhead's large, charismatic personality (which                 
inspired much of the "personality" of the character Cruella De Vil in Disney's                   
One Hundred and One Dalmatians).                                                                 
                                                                                                 
Bankhead had no children, but was the godmother of Brook and Brockman Seawell,                   
children of her lifelong friend and actress Eugenia Rawls and Rawls's husband,                   
Donald Seawell. She was known for her kindness to animals and children.                           
                                                                                                 
An avid baseball fan, Bankhead was a fan of the New York Giants. She once said                   
that, throughout history, there have only been two geniuses, "Willie Shakespeare                 
and Willie Mays."                                                                                 
                                                                                                 
Bankhead was also a fan of the soap opera, The Edge of Night. It has been said                   
that after watching a female character agonize over a man, Bankhead contacted                     
the producers of the show and said, "Why doesn't she just shoot the bastard?"                     
                                                                                                 
On May 14, 1968, Bankhead was a guest on The Tonight Show with Joe Garagiola as                   
the guest host, along with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They were in New York                 
to announce the formation of their new company Apple Records. Bankhead,                           
reportedly a bit inebriated, told Lennon and McCartney that she would love to                     
learn how to meditate, as they had in India with the Maharishi in February 1968.                 
Around that time, fans were shocked to see Bankhead on the cover of The National                 
Enquirer. The tabloid informed its readers that the actress was aware that she                   
had only months to live. "There's nothing you, or I, or anybody can do about it,"                 
she was quoted.                                                                                   
Tallulah Bankhead died in St. Luke's Hospital in New York City of double                         
pneumonia arising from influenza, complicated by emphysema, at the age of 66 on                   
December 12, 1968, and is buried in Saint Paul's Churchyard, Chestertown,                         
Maryland.