In her lifetime, Tallulah Bankhead’s name became synonymous with outrageous theatricality—a characteristic she displayed onstage and off. Born on January 31, 1902, Bankhead was a member of one of the most distinguished families in Huntsville, Alabama. (Both her father and grandfather had been U.S. congressmen.) Several weeks after her birth, Bankhead’s mother died, and she and her older sister were sent to live with relatives in the town of Jasper. She spent much of her youth, however, in boarding schools, where at an early age she showed her fiair for the dramatic. Her show business career began in 1917 after she won a contest held by Picture Play magazine. As her prize, she traveled to New York City to appear in a bit movie part. She stayed on in the city, taking up residence at the Algonquin Hotel, a haunt for literary wits of the era. The fiamboyant Bankhead became a favorite of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and others of the famed “Algonquin Round Table” in the hotel bar. At 21, Bankhead decided to try her luck on the English stage. She was an immediate sensation, although few of the plays in which she performed were memorable. The attraction instead was Bankhead herself. Her larger-than-life personawitty, urbane, and dressed to the hilt—was especially popular with young women. To them, Bankhead represented a new breed, an independent woman who felt no compunction to obey society’s constraints.
Bankhead spent eight years in London, but in 1931 the money of Hollywood lured her home. She signed a five-picture contract with Paramount, which misused her by trying to promote her as a femme fatale. By 1934, she had returned to the stage, this time in New York.
Bankhead’s acting style was highly mannered, guided far more by natural instinct than studied technique. Her lack of formal training was never more evident than when she appeared in Antony and Cleopatra with John Emery, an actor she married in 1937. Emery’s performance was highly praised, while Bankhead’s suffered in the comparison. In 1941, the marriage ended in divorce. Bankhead, however, did earn great acclaim for two classic roles she originated: Regina in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1939) and Sabina in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). For both roles, she received the award for the best acting of the year from the New York Drama Critics Circle.
In 1944, she was also recognized by the New York Film Critics Circle for her performance in her one great film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Bankhead retired from the stage in 1950, but found a second career as a star of radio. As the host of the popular Big Show (1950–52), she interviewed celebrities and entertained her listeners with references to an exaggerated rivalry between her and BETTE DAVIS, who performed several of her signature stage roles on screen. During the 1950s, she also hosted NBC’s All-Star Revue (1952–53) and frequently had guest appearances on other television programs.
Bankhead made her final stage appearance in 1964 in Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Her return, however, was hardly a triumph. Many years of hard living had taken their toll. Cast as an aging actress destroyed by drugs and liquor, Bankhead was more living her part than playing it. She made only two more professional appearances on television—one on Batman, the other on The Tonight Show—before her death from emphysema on December 12, 1968.
Bret, David. Tallulah Bankhead: A Scandalous Life. New York: Robson Books/Parkwest, 1996.
Brian, Denis. Tallulah, Darling. New York: Pyramid Books, 1972.
Carrier, Jeffrey L. Tallulah Bankhead: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood, 1991.
Gill, Brendan. Tallulah. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Give My Regards to Broadway. Aei, CD, 2000.
Lifeboat (1944). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1999.