Wild child & actress extraordinaire
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Tallulah Bankhead is hailed as one of the great stage actresses of the 20th century and has been the most celebrated actress for more than two decades on Broadway New York and in London’s West End.
She was famous for mainly five things:
- Her beauty
- Her natural, intense acting style
- Her captivating personality full of boundless energy, determination and zest for life
- Her witty lines (both on- and off-stage)
- Her sexual dalliances with both men and women and her overtly sexualized predatory image
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Tallulah Bankhead’s Upbringing
Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born in 1902, into an influential political family of Democrats. She had a sister, Eugenia, who was about a year older than her. Her mother actually died only three weeks after her birth from blood poisoning and Bankhead was baptized next to her mother’s coffin. The father, who was ridden by grief, went into a deep depression. So, Eugenia and Tallulah were raised mostly by their paternal grandmother and lived only part of the year with their father. This left both girls with a feeling of never belonging anywhere.
Tallulah was a bit overweight while her sister was slim and pretty and was being fussed about constantly – that’s why Tallulah started to try to gain attention from her father and others every which way possible. She cartwheeled around, recited poems, threw tantrums, held her breath until blue in the face.
She knew early on that she had a gift for performing and mimicking others and entertained her classmates with impressions of her teachers.
When Tallulah was ten her father thought that the only way to handle the girls was by sending them to a Convent school in a suburb of New York. Tallulah was lonely and felt like the odd one out. She felt like „an untouchable“ walking in a black veil because of her bad behavior in a line of white veiled classmates during an end-of-year ceremony. She might have done better in school, if she had been involved more in school plays, where her natural gifts would have been put to good use.
Tallulah was pretty smart and was capable of learning poetry and long pages of lines quickly by heart due to her photographic memory, but her behavior was erratic and unpredictable, so she was only ever cast in minor parts of a play. Also, she looked way too odd – still plum, childishly short cut hair and acne, on of the great joys of the teenage years. She was rather a loner, not by choice but by circumstance and lived in her dreamworld of movie magazines and stage magazines. Until Florence McGuire came along – a woman Talulah’s father became involved with and wanted to get married to. Although Tallullah first opposed this new woman, she learned that there were advantages to having a grown woman around: Florence taught her about style and beauty, advised her to let her hair grow out, go on a diet, do exercise and follow some beauty treatments – and it worked. Half a year later, Tallulah was about 20 pounds lighter, acne free and with her longer locks and big eyes really lovely to look at. She know could see herself as the movie star that she longed to be.
How did Tallulah Bankhead start her stage and movie career?
Tallulah sent her photo to Picture Play magazine that hosted a contest – 12 lucky winners would get a trip to New York and a movie part. Tallulah posed for this photo in a borrowed hat and fox stole and sent in her photograph, but forgot to add her name or address. She would find out by accident that she was one of the winners when a few weeks later the photographs of the winners were printed in Picture Play and above hers was the question „Who is she?“ She was excited to go and start her movie career, but her family opposed her plans, especially when she revealed that she intended to stay in New York City even after the movie was finalized. She was stubborn and finally her grandfather realized that she and the family would not have any peace if they didn’t let her go – so she went to New York at only 15 years of age with her aunt Luise.
The company she had won the competition for went bankrupt and it was a long three months wait to get another role that the organizers of the Picture Play contest had promised her. Finally, the vehicle for her debut was found and she filmed fantastically with her newly emerged cheekbones, her long hooded eye lids and the dewy skin. She was young and beautiful and had that special thing. And you know what she did? She tore up the 25$ that she earned for the role, which today would be roughly $600 and said that she was determined to make it and earn more! She haunted the trade press and stage agents for work. Eventually, her family got behind her ambition because she showed so much entrepreneurial and determined spirit.
After another three months of auditions and being scrutinized, she got a role in a stage play – and that was cruel. Because the actresses didn’t like to have an ambitious, beautiful, energetic 16 years old amidst their crowd. Things got even worse when her performance in the play was hailed by a critic – who was actually influenced by the Bankhead family who pulled some favors. The other actors didn’t talk to her anymore at all for the remainder of the play. After that she had some minor movie roles and was lauded as „a novice of rare intelligence and beauty“ by the Tribune.
Talulah’s aunt Luise cut their living costs by moving from their little flat in the theatre district to a hotel that she had heard was a great establishment: The Algonquin Hotel. Turns out that the Algonquin was quite the opposite – it was the hotspot of all creatives of New York’s theatre scene. When Tallulah wasn’t working, she started to hang around the lobby and the entrance hall, always on the look out for a star, an actor or actress to start a conversation with. When there was a party, she always tried to either charm or clown her way into it.
British actress Estelle Winwood is quoted saying in Judith Mackrell’s book „Flappers“ that she „had never seen anyone so pretty“. Tallulah was different and exciting with her extraordinary looks of long hooded eyes and dewy skin, her Southern drawl and her entertaining manners and gifts for performing. What she kept on doing was mimicking others – instead of classmates and teachers it were the people she wanted to befriend – the actors and stars of Broadway. She actually got invited to a big CondeNast party on the one condition to perform her imitation of Ethel Barrymore.
At the Algonquin, Tallulah got to know Estelle Winwood, Eva Le Gallienne and Blyth Daly, these four would be dubbed the „Four Riders of the Algonquin“. Estelle Winwood and six-foot tall actress Jobyna Howland, also one of the Algonquin residents, actually took it onto themselves to be Talulah’s guardians – seeing that Tallulah had something to eat and was in bed most nights, after aunt Luise and also Florence her stepmother could not and would not endure the Algonquin and chaperoning Tallulah, who was getting out of hand with the wild crowd of the hotel.
Jobyna Howland was also the one that put Tallulah in touch with Rachel Crothers, a successful New York playwright, who had affairs with women and often pushed their careers. She was enamored with Tallulah, put her as understudy to the leading lady at one of her plays and guided her towards professional training in elocution and dance. Tallulah had her breakthrough role in Crother’s play Nice People. It was the perfect role for Tallulah that not only informed the most successful of her roles, but also her personal image off stage.
Tallulah’s appeal on- and offstage
One has to really fathom the personality of Tallulah Bankhead to get her intensity. She was physically very beautiful with dewy skin, very prominent beautiful cheekbones, large hooded eyes, a slender frame, a husky voice (due to chronic childhood bronchitis) and beautiful ash blonde hair. But apart from that she had something different to offer. She was full of energy and was described to always move and dance and live for the moment. Her determination to make it as a movie or stage actress was so intense that she channeled all her energy into becoming a personality that the theatre managers would want to hire. But – she actually was a naturally gifted actress anyways without proper technique, full of emotion, raw, but at the same time witty and funny. She must have been absolutely enchanting, captivating all the people she encountered.
Nice People had been written by Rachel Crothers especially for Tallulah Bankhead – that’s why the role fit her like a glove: „a beautiful, independent, wise-cracking flirt“. Her character’s dialogue was studded with careless, colorful slang: everything was „divine“ „darling“, „mad“ and „the cat’s pyjama’s. Her character Hallie was fashionable treacherous and fashionably blasé about sex.“ It was perfect for Tallulah because she had such a deep, throaty voice (initially caused by ´Bronchitis and aggravated by her heavy smoking) that was simply perfect for all the sexual irony and innuendo that Crothers had written for her. And Tallualh used this role as a blueprint for her off-stage persona – using lines from this play, the way she delivered them and how to behave
Additionally, at the Algonquin, In contrast to her upbringing, Tallulah Bankhead learned how to cuss and talk dirty and use an array of words she earlier had been forbidden to. She learned that provocation got reaction and that she could use sexual innuendos, a little bit of skin, underwear or a sudden burst of doing a cartwheel to grasp attention. She sexualized her persona with the help of her on-stage persona and it was when the media published a hint of her affair with Eva Le Galienne, she actually described and introduced herself at parties as a lesbian. Tallulah created her self-image as a confident, sexual and sensual woman with witty-one liners in her arsenal, which were actually informed by her roles and things that she overheard. She was great at impersonating herself and the persona that she wanted to create. The line between offstage Tallulah and onstage Tallulah blurred and that attracted her first true fans. The so-called gallery-ites, who would stand on the upstage gallery night after night.
Tallulah got great reviews and her fan base grew, they cheered and seemingly almost destroyed the plays, shrieking with excitement when Tallulah said something racy or did one of her signature moves. Tallulah loved her fans, she invited them backstage, was impressed by their gifts, like flowers and chocolates, got to know them and their stories and love lives. Tallulah became somebody. She was a becoming a star of Broadway.
When being heartbroken by her lover, who went back to London, Tallulah was approached by Charles Cochran, a British producer, who was fascinated by Tallulah and wanted her to come to England and act in a play by Gerald du Maurier. Although the role might already be gone, he insisted that Tallulah would be perfect. He went back to London and telegrammed her that the role was gone, but Tallulah wanted the role, she wanted England – some new frontiers and the country the man she loved lived in. So, with the help of a family friend she just sailed over to London – not knowing whether there was a role waiting for her or not. Her wonderful characteristics of denial and determination shone brightly in that moment.
Tallulah Bankhead’ve love life
Seventeen year old Tallulah was extremely beautiful and siren-like, described by fellow actress Jane Cowl as „the most violently beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.“ The crowd at the Algonquin was quite different from what Tallulah had been brought up in. Her father had actually warned her not to drink and not to get entangled with men. She did not drink at all and was not involved with men initially – instead, she started cocaine and got romantically involved with women.Her famous quip “My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.“ Sums um her attitude and wit. The first lesbian relationship she entered in was with Eva Le Galienne and Tallulah was eager to know about lesbian lovemaking and truly enjoyed it. She had several more female lovers afterwards, including Mercedes de Acosta who was the long-time lover of Greta Garbo. And rumour has it that Bankhead dubbed de Acosta “Countess Dracula“ after their affair.
Tallulah’s first love affair with a man was in 1921, when Tallulah was 19 years old. It was an English aristocrat by the name of Napier George Henry Alington, who was known in New York for his bisexual tastes and his love of alcohol and debauchery. Tallulah fell for him – fast and hard. But he was cruel – one minute he was attending to her every wish, then he vanished for an unknown amount of time and then resurface again. For Tallulah that was a known pattern from her childhood – her father had been absent (physically and emotionally) at different times and was hardly ever around when she needed him. But, one day, Naps went back to England abruptly leaving Tallulah defeated.
Tallulah followed him after being conned by a lover for a role in London’s West Wend. Something that really came to shine in London, was Tallulah’s sexual appetite as well as her love for alcohol and drugs. She started to have varied affairs with men and also with women, like Radclyffe Hall, Una Troubridge, Barbara Bach and singer Florence Mill. But, apparently, she found men a bit more interesting and had more encounters with them – resulting in four pregnancies that she got aborted before she was 30 years old.
Tallulah Bankhead’s time in London
When she arrived in London, Tallulah actually had no role. Du Maurier had given it to another actress just like Cochran had telegrammed. But Tallulah did not take no for answer. She approached du Maurier again the next day, this time in a glamorous outfit, her hair let down and accidentally looking exactly like the character du Maurier had envisioned. He was so impressed with her that he gave the role to Tallulah. It was a flapper role again, a young woman with a convincing energetic personality who eventually got the man in the times of Jazz and Fun and Alcohol. The play ran successfully for 43 weeks! And Tallulah made British fans. Again – the gallery girls that shrieked and screamed and turned into her following.
She made new friends and created a new circle of influencers and creatives around her, one of them Olga Lynn, who was a socially active, rich woman who invited Tallulah to live rent free in her large home in London – and she introduced Tallulah to her vast network. To quote writer Percy Colson: „To be a friend of Oggie’s is a liberal education in Who’s Who and What’s What“.
Tallulah developed her off-stage persona further and when she moved out from Olga Lynn’s into a flat of her own, she welcomed guests half-naked and hosted parties from her bathtub. And of course, she worked on her repertoire of one-liners. Cecil Beaton said about her: „She had developed her personality to such an extent that she always seems natural. But it is only acting.“ And Tallulah herself would later confess that it was all an act that she was full of doubt and anxiety underneath.
When Tallulah starred in Fallen Angels, it was her absolute breakthrough role – it was HER persona, a flapper – with innuendo, witty lines, sensual behavior and she did such a good job that her fanbase was the most devoted at the time. The evening standard wrote about her: „Miss Tallulah Bankhead is on the stage what every woman in the gallery in some degree wishes to be, the dream fulfillment made manifest.“
Tallulah was so famous, that she could be referred to only be her first name, which isn’t surprising as it was an extraordinary name, but she was so famous that her name was turned into a verb „to do a Tallulah“ or just „to Tallulah“ that tried to capture her provocative exuberance. But her image caught up with her and Cecil Beaton noted that she turned into a caricature of herself. She was becoming known for seducing any man and becoming the woman she always had pretended to be. And then things happened.
First, her fans abandoned her when she acted in a challenging play in a role different from her usual flapper self which was applauded by the critics. But that was not the Tallulah the gallery girls wanted to see and did not back Tallulah anymore. And that support system of shrieks had been the most valued self-esteem crutch for Tallulah
Second, her lover Napier got engaged to another woman
Third, her sexual, predatory image caught the imagination of reporters who started to invent stories the public accepted as truth readily, because her image had been so meticulously created that it had become a monster of its own.
Fourth, her debt piled up due to her unpaid taxes and her extravagant lifestyle
It was then that she got the role of Kitty in „Let us be Gay“, in which Tallulah delivered the line „I’ve been so gay – so, full of, so empty.“ And that was convincingly herself. With all these things happening she felt empty and hopeless.
Thats when Walter Wanger entered the scene, he was an independent producer at Paramount Pictures and lured her back to New York with a great offer.
Return to the US, Hollywood and Broadway Success
Tallulah went back to the US and did make some movies in Hollywood but found them incredibly boring – she loved the stage, the energy of plays and the touring schedule. So, after roughly two years she returned to Broadway in a series of productions and worked continually, even after an emergency hysterectomy due to gonorrhea when she was 31 years old. Apparently she had told the doctor: „Don’t think this has taught me a lesson.“
She was the first choice as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, when it was planned in black and white – but she didn’t film well enough in Technicolor – that’s why Vivien Leigh was chosen.
But Tallulah Bankhead had great successes on Broadway as well as on screen. Between 1939 and 1952, she starred as Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes on Broadway for which she was awarded Variety magazineÄs best Actress of the year and got another Variety award as well as the New York Drama Critics’ Award for Best Performance for her role as Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth. Hitchcock cast her in Lifeboat which brought her another New York Film Critics Circle award.
She did radio, stage, TV and movies and was even booked for the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas for $ 20.000 /week in 1953, which is roughly $230.000 today – per week.
After that she was seen on TV and in movies and interviews almost continually up to her death in 1968, when she was 66 years old. Her last appearance on screen was NBC’s Tonight Show, in which she helped interview the Beatles.
It is documented how frail, ailing and old-looking she was at only 60 years old – living life to the fullest with all vices, drugs, alcohol, partying and smoking more than 100 cigarettes a day really caught up with her. She actually died from pneumonia that was exacerbated by smoking and malnutrition
Tallulah Bankhead’s Influence on Culture
Tallulah Bankhead’s last words were reportedly „‘codeine… bourbon’
And that sums up the picture of the party-hungry always energetic, live-in-the-moment larger-than-life persona that Tallulah Bankhead had created.
She is the inspiration behind Cruella de Vil, the villain in 101 Dalmatians
- Her husky voice due to chronic bronchitis in her childhood is mimicked by voice actress Betty Lou Gerson
- Cruella’s extraordinary 1940s glamour
- Her reckless driving – Tallulah Bankhead was known to drive around London in her Bentley at high speed, being a danger for herself and others
Also, in Firefly Lane, a Netflix original, one of the two main characters who is played by Katherine Heigl is also called Tallulah, and her sexualized behavior is very much a show covering up her inner doubts, trauma and anxiety. Surely, that name has not been chosen by chance.
- Don’t smoke, don’t have unprotected sex and eat healthy
- Know who you want to become and create her
- Hone your qualities of determination and denial – they are your best friends
- Immerself yourself in the environment that will help you get where you want to be
- Work through your childhood traumas so they do not catch up with you later in life
With all my love!