Tallulah Bankhead was an American stage and film actress who was best known for her wit, her outrageous personality, and her husky voice. She gained critical acclaim in the US and the UK for her roles as an actress and gained notoriety in her personal life for her drinking, drug use, and her sexual exploits. Below are 45 scandalous facts about the famous actress.
Tallulah Bankhead was born into a family of Alabama royalty. Her father was Speaker of the House in Congress for two terms, her grandfather and uncle were senators, and her family estate and the building where she was born are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Talk about a lot to live up to!
2. Whirlwind Romance
When Bankhead’s mother Adelaide (Ada) met the man who would become her father, it was on a trip to Huntsville, Alabama to buy a wedding dress. The pair fell instantly in love and she called off her engagement to marry William Brockman Bankhead.
3. Unusual Menagerie
Bankhead was a big animal lover and she loved to collect unusual pets. Her assortment included a lion named Winston Churchill, a myna bird named Gaylord, and a monkey named King Kong. She also had a fondness for dogs and owned a Maltese, a wire-haired terrier, a Pekingese named Napoleon, and a Sealyham Terrier she’d been given by Alfred Hitchcock after they’d finished filming Lifeboat, which she named Hitchcock.
4. An Offer She Couldn’t Refuse
Making movies wasn’t really something that Bankhead aspired to or enjoyed, much preferring the stage to film. Of course, a girl’s got to eat, and when Paramount Studios came knocking with a chance to make $50,000 per film, she couldn’t pass it up. Always the comedienne, she later quipped “The only reason I went to Hollywood was to [hook up with] that divine Gary Cooper.”
5. I Hate You Too!
Bankhead seriously hated the Axis powers in WWII and never hesitated to express her views—unfortunately for her co-star Walter Slezak, who had Austrian background. Despite his being a vocal critic of the German government, she made him her personal punching bag. When Italy surrendered and Slezak said that he hoped that meant the war would come to an end, that still wasn’t good enough for Bankhead, who responded with, “I hope they spill every drop of German blood there is. I hate them all! And I HATE YOU!” How are you supposed to respond to that?
6. A Total Outlier
When asked why he chose to cast someone like Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat, Hitchcock explained that he wanted a someone who was as different and unlike the norm as possible, making her his first choice for the role of Constance Porter.
7. Fabricated Feud
To increase interest in Bankhead’s 1965 film Die! Die! My Darling!, the press invented a feud between her and Stephanie Powers, a la Joan Crawford/Bette Davis. Unlike the latter two, they got along quite nicely and continued their friendship after the movie was done.
8. Camping it Up
Bankhead’s final TV role before her death in 1968 was a guest spot on Batman as the Black Widow. When producer William Dozier explained that his vision for the cameo was to play up the camp, she reportedly replied: “Don’t talk to me about camp, dahling; I invented it!”
9. Schoolboy Scandal
Trouble seemed to go hand-in-hand with Bankhead, and she almost got thrown out of England when MI5 called her immoral for becoming involved with a group of Eton schoolboys. The only thing that saved her was the fact that the school refused to cooperate with a special branch inquiry in order to keep the scandal from getting out. The boys ended up having to leave school as a result of the scandal, but they probably thought it was worth it!
10. The Savior of Radio
In 1950, Bankhead ventured into a new medium- radio. The Big Show as it was titled, was a 90-minute variety show featuring popular actors, singers, and comedians, with Bankhead as the Mistress of Ceremonies. The show was a huge success, and critics went as far as to call it the “savior of radio.” It wasn’t, but it did run for two years and gained her legions of new fans as well as a Woman of the Year award in 1951.
11. Shocking the Crew
Bankhead famously did not like wearing underwear, a fact which she enjoyed flaunting on the set of the film Lifeboat. Every morning she would have to climb a ladder to get to the set, and she delighted in climbing ahead of her crew members revealing her lack of underwear. When a female reporter visiting the set complained, the studio head went to talk to Hitchcock, who was pretty entertained by the whole thing and wouldn’t interfere.
12. Looping it In
In Hollywood, the process of recording a line of dialogue that has to be matched to an already filmed scene is called looping. When Bankhead recited the famous line from the film “You must die! Die, my darling!”, it didn’t turn out clearly and she had to loop it in. On the day she was to record the line, she arrived at the studio drunk and four hours late, and it took the actress the rest of that day to get it right.
13. Full Circle
In the 1965 film Die! Die! My Darling! Stefanie Powers appeared opposite Bankhead, and probably never imagined that she’d get to play the eccentric actress 45 years later. The play Looped was originally written for Valerie Harper (for which she was nominated for a Tony), but due to her brain cancer diagnosis, Harper was unable to continue with the play on its national tour, and suggested Powers take the role in her place.
14. Take Care of Eugenia
Tragically, Bankhead’s mother Adeline died of blood poisoning just a few weeks after Tallulah was born. As she lay dying, she begged her sister-in-law to take care of Tallulah’s older sister Eugenia, and that “Tallulah will always be able to take care of herself.” Seeing as Bankhead was practically a newborn at the time, how could she possibly have known?
15. Just Clowning Around
Even as a little girl, Bankhead demonstrated a penchant for theatrics. She used to do impressions of their teachers for her classmates, would memorize poems and plays and give dramatic recitations, and all around enjoyed having everybody’s eyes and attention on her. It’s no wonder she went into show business.
16. Seriously Sexy
Bankhead was known for her husky voice, and actor/writer Emlyn Williams once described it as “steeped as deep in sex as the human voice can go without drowning.” She was also considered to be incredibly stunning, which must have made her an irresistible combination!
17. A Different Kind of Education
As Bankhead and her sister got older, the pair became a bit too much for their grandmother to handle and she and her sister were sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville, New York. It was at these schools that Bankhead was rumored to have had her first sexual experience with girls, giving her a very different kind of education than what her father imagined she’d receive.
18. That’s Even Worse!
During the McCarthy era, a friend of Bankhead’s was accused of being a communist. Bankhead went on the radio to express support for her friend and asked her outright if the accusation was true. The actress told her that since her father was a Republican, she guessed she was as well. Bankhead, a lifelong Democrat, exclaimed “A Republican! That’s worse than being a goddamn communist.”
19. Brilliant But…
Irving Rapper, the director of the film version of The Glass Menagerie, was absolutely blown away by Bankhead’s screen test, calling it the greatest performance he’d ever seen. Unfortunately, studio head Jack Warner refused to cast her, because Errol Flynn (who had already been cast) was an alcoholic, and he didn’t want two alcoholics in the film. Bankhead promised not to drink while they were filming, but that wasn’t good enough, and the role went to Gertrude Lawrence instead.
20. Fierce Temper
To go along with Bankhead’s flair for the dramatic was a fierce temper to match. Growing up, if she didn’t get her way, she’d throw herself on the floor kicking and screaming until her face turned purple. Her sister was a bit freaked out by her tantrums and would hide in the closet, but her grandmother was completely unphased and would throw a bucket of water in her face. That ought to teach her!
21. I Guarantee It!
During the filming of Die! Die! My Darling! Bankhead got sick and couldn’t work. The producers were considering replacing her in the role, but she wasn’t having it. Bankhead promised to forfeit her entire salary as a guarantee that she’d finish filming—as long as they didn’t replace her, of course. Now that would be a hard offer to refuse!
22. Men and Women Equally
Throughout her life, Bankhead enjoyed sexual relationships with both men and women, but she never used the term bisexual. Instead, she described herself as “ambisextrous,” which really has a nice ring to it.
23. Bankhead’s Boys
For the last decade or so of her life, Bankhead surrounded herself with a group of young, gay men who took on the roles of cook, chauffer, escorts, script readers, and would even hold her hand when she went to sleep. The young men became known as caddies. Ted Hook, the owner of the Backstage restaurant in New York City, was one of Bankhead’s beloved caddies and stayed with her for five years.
24. The Wits of the Round Table
By the end of WWI, the Algonquin Hotel in New York was the place to be for writers, actors, playwrights, and other celebrities. In 1919, a group of New York City playwrights, writers, critics, and other clever elites started meeting daily for lunch at the hotel, where they cleverly roasted one another and their opponents. The tradition continued until 1929, during which time Bankhead used her considerable charm to gain an occasional spot at the table.
25. Mystery Winner
When Bankhead was 15 years old, she entered a contest in Picture Play magazine that selected winners based on their photographs, which came with a prize of a free trip to New York and a movie role. Bankhead was selected as one of the winners, but there was one problem. She forgot to include her name and address with her entry, leading the magazine to post the picture with a caption reading “Who Is She?”
26. Accidental Discovery
As it turned out, Bankhead was an avid magazine reader, and she just happened to be skimming through the magazine when she saw her picture under the winners. To prove her identity, she had her father write them a letter that he sent along with a copy of the picture, and after that, she was off to New York.
27. Off-Stage Clashes
Bankhead’s performance in Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes firmly established her as a dramatic actress and made Hellman famous. Offstage, however, the two clashed over politics. Bankhead was anti-communist and a liberal Democrat. When Stalin invaded Finland, Bankhead wanted to donate the funds from a special performance to the Finnish Relief Fund.
Much to Bankhead’s dismay, Hellman and director Herman Shumlin refused. Bankhead stopped speaking to Hellman for a quarter of a century, and wrote critical letters about the playwright to Time magazine. She certainly knew how to hold a grudge!
28. One True Love
There were two men in Bankhead’s life whom she claimed to truly love. One of those men was Napier George Henry Sturt, the 3rd Baron Alington—Naps for short—whom she met through her roommate Beth Martin while living in New York. He arrived at the party in his PJs, an overcoat, and with a bottle of gin in his pocket, and Bankhead was immediately smitten.
29. Absent Lover
It turned out that Naps was quite the rake, and he really messed with Bankhead’s head. She was completely devoted to him when she wasn’t working, but he ran hot and cold with her, often disappearing for days at a time without a word. He thought so little about her that one day he announced he was going back to England and didn’t say anything about how they might keep in touch or keep their relationship going. What a jerk!
30. Going Out With a Laugh
Bankhead’s cause of death in 1968 was primarily pneumonia, but in reality, her hard-living lifestyle was just as much to blame for her death as anything. Her alleged last words were “Codeine…bourbon,” which totally fit her comic personality.
31. Go West Young Woman!
By 1922, Bankhead had been struggling in New York for a few years already with little success. In another stroke of luck and good timing, the British producer Charles Cochran (whom Bankhead had met earlier that fall) got in touch about a play that was opening in London the following year that he thought she’d be perfect for.
It wasn’t a guarantee by any means, but an astrologer had told her that her future was in England and to “go if you have to swim,” so she took the advice to heart and went.
32. Moving to Mars
Bankhead had not even turned 21 when she set sail for England, and had never been off of US soil in her entire life. She later admitted that she thought she was going to Mars and was scared to death.
33. No Lessons Learned
In 1933, Bankhead was forced to undergo a 5-hour lifesaving hysterectomy as a result of having contracted a sexually transmitted infection. Despite only weighing 70lbs. when she left the hospital, she was quick to tell her doctor “Don’t think this has taught me a lesson!”
34. The Wild Sister
Bankhead’s sister Eugenia was one year older than Tallulah, but was no more easily tamed than her sister. She married seven times, first at 16, and two of her marriage were to the same man. In the last 10 years of her life, she finally settled down in Maryland, but not before having traveled around the world.
35. In Excess
Someone who smokes an average of a pack of cigarettes a day is considered to be a heavy smoker, but Bankhead, never one to do anything in moderation, took heavy smoker to a whole new level. She was said to smoke in excess of 100 cigarettes and drink two bottles of bourbon a day. It’s a wonder she had time to do anything else.
36. Easy to Remember
Bankhead’s friend Ethel Barrymore tried to convince her to change her name to Barbara, but Bankhead’s writer friends Joseph Hergesheimer and Carl Van Vechten talked her out of it, pointing out that Tallulah is an odd and therefore easy name to remember. Bankhead agreed, and left it as is.
37. A New Sensation
Her career in New York may not have taken off to the level she’d hoped for, but Bankhead quickly became the toast of London, drawing her own crowd of groupies whom the press labeled “Gallery Girls.” The girls would walk, talk, and dress like Bankhead, and as soon as she made her entrance on stage, they’d chant her name.
38. Hello Dah-ling
Bankhead’s trademark was calling everybody “Dah-ling”. When an interviewer asked her why, the answer was actually quite simple—it was because she was bad at remembering names.
39. Cover Girl
Not surprisingly, Bankhead was frequently photographed for magazine covers. She made history when she became the first white woman featured on the cover of Ebony magazine, and was one of the few actresses of stage or screen to make the cover of Time and Life.
40. Seeking Scarlett
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Vivien Leigh as the infamous Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara, but before Leigh was given the role, Bankhead was supposedly producer David O. Selznick’s first choice. It seemed like the role was a lock, until Selznick saw that she tested poorly in Technicolor. That, combined with the fact that he thought 36 was too old to portray a 16-year-old Scarlett at the beginning of the film ended up costing her the role.
41. Is it Real?
Meeting Greta Garbo was one of Bankhead’s great ambitions, but their first meeting wasn’t exactly a traditional meet and greet. Bankhead walked up to Garbo and pulled her eyelash, telling Garbo that she just wanted to see if it was real. Amazingly, the two hit it off and became friends, playing tennis together on a weekly basis.
42. Disney’s Dastardly Diva
Cruella de Vil, the villainess from Disney’s animated film 101 Dalmatians, was based largely on Tallulah Bankhead. Like her fictional counterpart, she was flamboyant, larger than life, and famous for her dangling cigarettes and fashionable clothes, and she helped make Cruella one of the most iconic film villains of all time.
43. Unsuitable for the Public
Because of her healthy libido and her “verbal moral turpitude” (behavior considered contrary to good moral values), the committee behind the Hays Code (who decided what passed as suitable content for movies) listed her in their doom book as one of 50 performers who were “unsuitable” for the public. She responded to her blacklisting in true Tallulah fashion by calling Hays a “little prick.”
44. Friends in High Places
One of Bankhead’s rumored lovers was Billie Holiday, whom she met when the not-quite-yet famous singer used to party in Harlem. They were so close that when Holiday was arrested for heroin possession in 1949, Bankhead wrote F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover to ask for leniency for her friend. Hoover, who was completely infatuated with Bankhead, did her a solid and told her not to hesitate to call him again if she ever needed anything.
45. A Disappointing Rejection
One of the roles that Bankhead had set her heart on playing was Sadie Thompson in Somerset Maugham’s Rain. She was so upset when Maugham dropped her from the play that she swallowed a bunch of Aspirin and left a suicide note that said: “It ain’t goin’ to rain no moh.” She woke up the next morning right as rain, and was offered a leading role in Noel Coward’s play Fallen Angels. Boy, was she lucky!