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Photographed on July 15, 1941
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The Wham from Alabam’,” as Tallulah Bankhead was called, is one of entertainment’s most colorful personalities. She is now known mainly for her wild antics: she was said to have smoked over one hundred cigarettes and consumed two bottles of bourbon a day, and had over five hundred love affairs. Marlene Dietrich called her “the most immoral woman who ever lived,” and Bankhead herself wrote, “Apostates have hinted that I’m the ill-begotten daughter of Medusa and the Marquis de Sade.”1 But she was also dubbed “one of the great wits of an entire era”2 and “perhaps the greatest actress this country has ever produced.”3

At fifteen, Bankhead won first prize in a Picture Play magazine contest—a trip to New York and a part in a film. Upon arriving in New York, she moved into the Algonquin Hotel and soon charmed her way into its famous literary and artistic circles. She befriended Ethel Barrymore, who tried to convince her to change her name to Barbara. However, Joseph Hergesheimer and Carl Van Vechten threatened her with, “If you change your name, we’ll neither of us ever write another word.” Van Vechten added, “Keep it. It is very odd; also it is very easy to remember.”4 She agreed, and Vanity Fair later wrote, “she’s the only actress on both sides of the Atlantic to be recognized by her first name only.”5

Bankhead’s stage and film roles at this time were minor. Frustrated, she went to London; her first appearance there, in The Dancers, created a sensation. A Tallulah craze was born, and young women began to dress, talk, and wear their hair like her. Her fans were dubbed the “gallery girls” by the press, and whenever she came onstage they became ecstatic, chanting “Tallulah, Tallulah” or “Tallulah Hallelujah.”

After her success in London, Bankhead went to Hollywood under contract with Paramount Pictures. They billed her as “the next Marlene Dietrich,” but all her films were mediocre. In 1936, convinced that she could “play the pants off Scarlett,” she campaigned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, but was denied the part. Film success came only in 1944 with Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Her performance earned her a New York Film Critics Award.

Bankhead also had mixed success on the stage. In 1937, she and then-husband John Emery staged Anthony and Cleopatra, with Carl Van Vechten’s wife Fania Marinoff playing the role of Charmian. The play garnered Bankhead her worst reviews ever, including, “Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra—and sank.” In true Bankhead fashion, she was undaunted, claiming, “As far as I’m concerned Shakespeare should have left Anthony and Cleopatra in Plutarch, where he found them.” In 1939, however, she had a hit as Regina Giddens in Lillian Helman’s The Little Foxes. Her performance has been called “a theatrical milestone.” In 1942, she had her second great success in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Production was often difficult as there was considerable tension between Bankhead, her producers, and her fellow actors.

From 1943 to 1956, Bankhead lived on her sixteen-acre estate, named Windows, with her numerous pets, including several dogs, a mynah bird, and a pet lion named Winston Churchill. Van Vechten’s photograph of Bankhead includes Winston as a cub; Bankhead gave Winston to the Bronx Zoo when he became too big and “started gnawing on people’s ankles.”

Bankhead died in 1968, but she did not disappear. Several plays based on her life have played on and off-Broadway. Tovah Feldshuh, star and co-author of Tallulah Hallelujah! and star of Tallulah’s Party, said, “She was a groundbreaker for women. She was a self-created woman. She didn’t take no for an answer. And she would not give up her youth.”6

1 Tallulah Bankhead Tallulah: My Autobiography NY: Harper, 1952 p. 1
2 Anita Loos “Tallulah” Playbill for the Helen Hayes TheatreFeb. 1969
3 Michael Myerberg to Thornton Wilder 23 Oct. 1942 Thornton Wilder Papers Beinecke Library Yale University
4 Bruce Kellner Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades Norman: Oklahoma, 1968 p. 150
5 Cleveland Amory and Frederic Bradlee Vanity Fair: A Cavalcade of the 1920s and 1930s NY: Viking, 1960 p. 149
6 Richard Zoglin “Tallulah Times Three” Time 27 Nov. 2000 p. 86

 

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