Biography of Tallulah Bankhead

Flamboyant Actress

Tallulah Bankhead
Tallulah Bankhead, about 1930. (Moviepix/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

"If I had my life to live over again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner."

Award-winning actress Tallulah Bankhead left a lasting mark on stage and screen, known for her flamboyant personality, racy affairs, and deep voice.

Dates: January 31, 1902 - December 12, 1968

Occupation: actress; radio talk show host; television host

Organizations: Democratic Party

Religion: Episcopalian, educated at Roman Catholic schools

Early Life

Tallulah Bankhead was born in Alabama, daughter of Congressman William Bankhead (later Speaker of the House, 1936-40). Her mother died of complications from childbirth several weeks later, and she was raised in part by her aunts and grandparents. She was named Tallulah for her grandmother, who was named for a waterfall, Tallulah Falls, in Georgia. She was educated in New York City, Staunton, Virginia, and Washington, DC. Her exhibitionist personality was apparent from an early age.

Starting Out

Tallulah Bankhead's first part in a film was in 1917 and her first stage role in 1918. After a few other minor roles in film and on stage, she went to England in 1923, where she became famous for her flamboyant personality and deep voice and was popular in the six plays in which she appeared.

Career

Tallulah Bankhead returned to the United States in 1931 with a Paramount Pictures contract, and then was off to New York in 1933, where she was diagnosed and treated surgically for advanced gonorrhea.

Tallulah Bankhead then returned to the New York stage in Dark Victory, Rain, Something Gay and Reflected Glory. Her 1937 film, Antony and Cleopatra, was considered a definite flop.

In 1939, she received awards for her work in The Little Foxes by Lillian Helman, and in 1942 she won awards for her performance in Skin of Our Teeth.

Her film performance in Hitchcock's Lifeboat in 1944 won yet more awards; in 1948 she starred in Otto Preminger's A Royal Scandal and in 1948 she starred on stage in Private Lives by Noel Coward.

Tallulah Bankhead retired from the stage in 1950, beginning a radio show with many celebrity guests. In 1952 she hosted for a television show and published her autobiography. She appeared on Steve Allen and Lucille Ball's television shows and starred in a nightclub act in Las Vegas.

Several attempts at reviving her stage career either failed or had modest success. Her last acting performance was on the television series ​Batman in 1967.

Personal Life

Tallulah Bankhead married actor John Emery in 1937 and they divorced in 1941. She had no children. After her 1942 success, she bought a home in rural New York where she entertained frequently. Estelle Winwood and Patsy Kelly were among the guests who lived with her there.

Many ask whether Tallulah was a lesbian. Undoubtedly, she did have sex and relationships with women, as well as men. Her name was linked during her lifetime with many people -- men and women -- and she carefully nurtured her wild reputation. She was also known for using cocaine and often mentioned that she did.

Tallulah Bankhead was active in politics, supporting Democratic and liberal causes and campaigning for Franklin D. Roosevelt. She helped to raise funds for war relief and the war effort during World War II. She was also a fan of the New York Giants.

Biographies

  • Bret, David. Tallulah Bankhead: A Scandalous Life
  • Brian, Denis. Tallulah, Darling: A Biography of Tallulah Bankhead
  • Carrier, Jeffrey L. Tallulah Bankhead: A Bio-Bibliography