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03 February 2013

Happy Belated Birthday, Miss Bankhead, Dahling!

Don't mess with a Congressman's daughter.
"Say anything about me, darling, as long as it isn't boring."

"My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine." 

Tallulah Bankhead, who passed away in 1968 at the age of 66, would have turned 111 years old last Thursday. In her lifetime she only made 15 movies and only performed in 23 Broadway stage productions. Her only claim to literary fame was an autobiography entitled "My Autobiography." And she was only 5'3".

So why should we remember Tallulah Bankhead?

Because she was a nut. A character. A bonne vivante. A persona (to use the magic word). In short, Tallulah Bankhead was a very interesting person.

Politics and Family (one and the same thing for the Bankheads)
Tallu was named after her grandmother, who practically raised Bankhead and her sister while the men in the family were in Washington running the country. The Brockman/Bankheads were Alabama Southern Democrats. Tallulah's father was Speaker of the House from 1936-1940, and her uncle and grandfather were both Senators (John H. Bankhead I and II).
Tallulah Bankhead on "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour" (1957)
"I read Shakespeare and the Bible, and I can shoot dice. That's what I call a liberal education."
Bankhead was an avid supported of the New York Giants.
"There have been only two geniuses in the world: Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare. But darling, I think you'd better put Shakespeare on first."
New York City
At the age of 15, Bankhead moved to New York city to pursue her acting career. A shameless party girl, Tallulah made no bones about experimenting with every new experience she came upon, from cocaine to marijuana, alcohol, and sex. She became chummy with Dorothy Parker's group of friends, eventually becoming a periphery member of the Algonquin Round Table. After becoming successful on Broadway, Bankhead moved to London for several years to work in the West End before relocating to Hollywood to make movies.
"Cocaine isn't habit-forming and I know because I've been taking it for years."
Tallulah and Katharine: Besties or Freinemies?
Tallulah Bankhead's first film in Hollywood was directed by none other than our friend George Cukor, long-time chum of Katharine Hepburn. Cukor was famous for his lavish parties (the only parties Hepburn ever attended out in Tinsel Town), and that's how the two women met. Although the two didn't hit it off at first, they came to respect each other in the end.
     "'Of all the dreary, opinionated college girls I ever hoped to meet!' Bankhead exclaimed to Cukor after her first encounter with Kate, insisting that Kate reminded her of nothing so much as 'a New England spinster.'
     And Kate complained: 'I must say your friend Miss Bankhead uses all sorts of words. I don’t think it’s very amusing.'
     Before Tallulah left for New York, Cukor arranged to show her a rough cut of Kate’s work-in-progress. After the screening, she rushed to the set of Little Women. Tears pouring down her cheeks, and clutching three wet handkerchiefs, Bankhead fell on her knees before Kate.
     'Tallulah!' Cukor turned a cool eye on her. 'You’re weeping for your lost innocence.'
      Bankhead provided the first hint that Little Women would be Kate’s biggest box-office hit to date."
(Leaming 284)
Tallulah Bankhead, President Herbert Hoover, Helen Hayes, and Katharine Hepburn
Miss Hepburn was touched by Bankhead's enthusiasm for her work, but the two did not socialize as much as the press believed. In 1990, Hepburn tried to set the record straight on their friendship in the public eye:
“I know practically nothing about Tallulah. She always assumed we were much greater friends than we actually were. I thought she was a damned good actress when she cared to be. And a very entertaining personality. But I honestly don’t know any more than this.” (Tallulah: A Bio-Biography)
While Hepburn denies any deep and lasting sort of friendship, it is clear that she respcted Miss Bankhead's talents. She certainly harboured no ill-feeling toward her. In fact, when Miss Bankhead was one of the few to send Miss Hepburn a wire of condolence after Spencer Tracy's death, she replied with a very heartfelt letter.

In her autobiography (the one brilliantly titled "My Autobiography"), Miss Bankhead describes her admiration for Katharine Hepburn:
“Katharine Hepburn is one of the most stimulating women I know. She’s unfeminine in that she scorns gossip, backbiting, and logrolling. She has an intelligent curiosity about everything. She spits out her opinions no matter how unpopular they may be. She makes no professional or social concessions. She’s a gal I’d like to have on my side in a jam.”
The Very Best of Tallulah Bankhead
I would have loved to see Miss Bankhead in the Broadway performances that were later made into films starring Bette Davis: DARK VICTORY (1939) and THE LITTLE FOXES (1941). Everyone says that Davis's portrayal of Margo Channing in ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) was based on Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead herself liked to refer to the movie as "All About Me" on her radio show.

Bankhead's "The Big Show" radio broadcast is still an absolute delight, especially if you love classic film. Every week she hosted a 90-minute program with the best star line up Hollywood and New York could offer. It was a variety show that featured the best in comedy, musical, and dramatic talent. Full episodes are available online, and I strongly suggest that you check it out. Here's a clip from a segment Tallu did with the fabulous Marlene Dietrich.

Bankhead proved what a great actress she could be in Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT (1944). Bankhead plays a glamorous journalist who rules the roost, or rather the lifeboat, lost at sea after their ship is sunk by a German sub. When the lifeboat picks up the U-boat captain, the American survivors must decide what to do with him, and they certainly don't all agree. But through fair weather and foul, Tallulah never stops being fabulous.

I will leave you with this clip from LIFEBOAT. I hope you'll enjoy it and join me in wishing Tallulah Bankhead a very Happy Belated Birthday! We still love you, Tallu!


  1. Oh, Tallulah. She's quite something, isn't she? I've never seen the picture of Kate with Tallulah, Helen Hayes, and Herbert Hoover. Do you know the story behind it? It's a Republican sandwich with Democratic bread!

    1. I'm afraid I couldn't tell you - I found it on Tumblr. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Fascinating woman. Only 15 movies?! No way!

    I loved her in Lifeboat. I can't imagine anyone else in that role.

  3. I love her radio shows - I have heard several now, and to hear her verbally sparring with her guests is a joy to hear!

    Film4 here in the UK has recently screened Lifeboat, which I enjoyed watching again - I agree, I can't imagine anyone else in that role either.

    1. I can probably see Bette Davis or Rosalind Russell in that role - maybe even Barbara Stanwyck - but there is no doubt that Tallu's performance is absolutely priceless. Thanks for commenting!

  4. She was a great personality. I never saw too many of her films, but Lifeboat was quite good!


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