Childhood & Early Life
Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born in Huntsville, Alabama, on January 31, 1902. Her parents were William Brockman Bankhead and Adelaide Eugenia ‘Ada’ Bankhead. She had an elder sister, Eugenia. Her father belonged to the Bankhead-and-Brockman political family and was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1936 to 1940.
Her mother died of blood poisoning just three weeks after Tallulah’s birth. After her mother’s death, her father suffered from depression and alcoholism. As a result, her paternal grandmother took care of her and her sister.
As the girls grew up, her grandmother found it difficult to handle them. They were then sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville, New York, in 1912. The girls were frequently moved from one school to another, as their father’s political career required him to move from place to place.
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When Tallulah Bankhead was 15, she sent her photo to a ‘Picture Play’ contest, which promised a trip to New York and a role in a movie to the winners. Although she forgot to send her name and address with her photo, later she came to know that she was one of the winners.
She contacted the magazine and soon arrived in New York. She was given a minor role in ‘Who Loved Him Best’. Not satisfied with the role, she started looking for other ways to venture into the entertainment industry in New York.
Soon she found her way to the Algonquin Hotel and used her charm to enter The Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York City writers, actors, and critics. She also started attending Algonquin's wild parties, which introduced her to drugs.
At the Algonquin group, she befriended some actresses and got offers for three silent films—‘When Men Betray’ and ‘Thirty a Week’ in 1918 and ‘The Trap’ in 1919.
Around this time, she made her stage debut in ‘The Squab Farm’ at the Bijou Theatre. In 1919, she appeared in two more plays, ‘39 East’ and ‘Footloose’.
She preferred stage performance to screen, as she did not have the patience to shoot for films and TV series for months. So she took up more stage projects. In 1921, she performed in two more plays, ‘Nice People’ and ‘Everyday’.
In 1922, she performed in three plays—‘Danger’, ‘Her Temporary Husband’ and ‘The Exciters’. Although her performances were critically praised, none of the plays were successful.
Frustrated by her unsuccessful career in New York, she moved to London after her five-year stay in the city. In London, she made her debut on the stage at Wyndham's Theatre in 1923. During her eight-year stay there, she performed in over 12 plays including ‘The Dancers’, which was a hit.
She came to prominence in 1924 with her performance in the play ‘They Knew What They Wanted’, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
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In 1931, she moved to Hollywood and appeared in the film ‘Tarnished Lady’. Although she found filmmaking to be boring, she could not ignore it as she was making $50,000 per film.
She was cast in two films, ‘Devil and the Deep’ and ‘Faithless’ in 1932. However, neither of the films helped in promoting her career.
She returned to the New York stage in 1934 and performed in some unmemorable plays like ‘Dark Victory’, ‘Rain’, ‘Something Gay’, ‘Reflected Glory’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’.
In 1938, she was featured in the play ‘The Circle’ which gained good reviews. This was followed by her breakthrough role in Lillian Hellman's play ‘The Little Foxes’, in which she portrayed Regina Giddens.
On the big screen, she found success in 1944 when she was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Lifeboat’ as journalist Constance Porter.
In 1950, NBC hired her as the host of ‘The Big Show’ and spent millions on the show over two seasons. However, the show failed to meet the expectations of the producers.
Her most famous television role came in ‘The Ford Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show’ in December 1957. She played herself in the episode ‘The Celebrity Next Door’.
Bankhead's career and her popularity started fading in the mid-1950s mainly due to her drug abuse, alcoholism, and her scandalous personal life. Despite being a heavy smoker and drinker and a regular consumer of sleeping pills, she continued to perform on the stage, radio, television and films till the1960s.
Tallulah Bankhead was romantically and sexually linked with many notable female personalities including actresses Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, writers like Mercedes de Acosta and Eva Le Gallienne, and singer Billie Holiday.
Actress Patsy Kelly also confirmed that when she worked as her personal assistant, she had a sexual relationship with Bankhead.
In 1933, Bankhead had a critical five-hour long emergency hysterectomy due to venereal disease.
She married actor John Emery on August 31, 1937. They divorced in 1941. She had no children, but she had gone through four abortions before she was 30.
During the early 1950s, she not only struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism, but also started taking drugs due to her sleeplessness. She also suffered from psychotic symptoms and depression due to loneliness.
She suffered from double pneumonia and died on December 12, 1968, at the age of 66.