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Tallulah Brockman Bankhead (January 31, 1902 – December 12, 1968) was an American actress of the stage and screen. She has been romantically linked to Greta Garbo, Hope Williams, Beatrice Lillie, Patsy Kelly, Katharine Cornell, Billie Holiday, Libby Holman, Hattie McDaniel, Eva Le Gallienne, Barbara Stanwyck, Mercedes de Acosta, Marlene Dietrich. The film All About Eve was supposedly about Bankhead and Lizabeth Scott's relationship. Hollywood is an American drama web television miniseries about a group of aspiring actors and filmmakers during the Hollywood Golden Age in the post-World War II era trying to make their dreams come true. Paget Brewster as Tallulah Bankhead is a fictionalized version of the actress; she is portraied as one of the usual guests at George Cukor's infamous parties, as one of the customers of Scotty Bowers' notorious gas station, and as having a friends with benefits relationship with Hattie McDaniel.
Bankhead was known for her husky voice, outrageous personality, and devastating wit. Originating some of the 20th century theater's preeminent roles in comedy and melodrama, she gained acclaim as an actress on both sides of the Atlantic. Bankhead became an icon of the tempestuous, flamboyant actress, and her unique voice and mannerisms are often subject to imitation and parody.
She was the daughter of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives and Congressman from Alabama, William Bankhead, and Adelaide Eugenia Sledge, who died a few days after her birth. Tallulah was a member of the Brockman Bankhead family, a prominent Alabama political family; her grandfather and uncle were U.S. Senators and her father served as an 11-term member of Congress, the final two as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Tallulah's support of liberal causes such as civil rights broke with the tendency of the Southern Democrats to support a more typically aligned agenda and she often opposed her own family publicly.
In 1917, chaperoned by her aunt, Bankhead moved to New York and was a guest of the Algonquin Hotel, the meeting place of the Roundtable, including, among others, Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker. Her first break arrived when she became the weekend replacement for Constance Binney in Rachel Crothers' 39 East (1919). Impressed with Bankhead's work, Crothers wrote several plays expressly for her, including Nice People (1921) and Everyday (1921).
Between 1918 and 1922 she was the life of many grand Broadway parties with her outrageous behavior and imitations of famous personalities, and she was regularly spotted in the free-spirited Harlem nightclubs with celebrities such as Noël Coward and Cole Porter. According to Jeffrey Carter, at this time she was probably engaged in a few lesbian affairs, Estelle Winwood is rumored to have been her first lover.
Beginning of the 1920s she moved to London to work in the Gerald du Maurier's company. During this time she was romantically involved with Gwen Farrar. While in London on a long vacation, Dola Dunsmuir met Tallulah Bankhead, with whom she formed a long lasting friendship.
In 1936 Bankhead had a minor success in George Kelly's Reflected Glory. In 1942 she was Sabina, the French maid in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Out Teeth. In the 1950s she took the complex and challenging role of Blanche in a revival of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
In her personal life, Bankhead struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction, and was infamous for her uninhibited sex life. Bankhead was capable of great kindness and generosity to those in need, supporting disadvantaged foster children and helping several families escape the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Bankhead was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1972, and the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 1981. Upon her death, Bankhead had amassed nearly 300 film, stage, television, and radio roles.
Bankhead was famous not only as an actress, but also for her many affairs, compelling personality, and witticisms such as, "There is less to this than meets the eye." and "I'm as pure as the driven slush." Bankhead was an avid baseball fan whose favorite team was the New York Giants. This was evident in one of her famous quotes, through which she gave a nod to the arts: "There have been only two geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare. But, darling, I think you'd better put Shakespeare first." Bankhead identified herself as an Episcopalian despite the fact she wasn't the typical churchgoing type.
Bankhead married actor John Emery, the son of stage actors Edward Emery (circa 1861–1962) and Isabel Waldron (1871–1950), on August 31, 1937, at her father's home in Jasper, Alabama. Bankhead filed for divorce in Reno, Nevada, in May 1941. It was finalized on June 13, 1941. The day her divorce became final, Bankhead told a reporter, "You can definitely quote me as saying there will be no plans for a remarriage."
Bankhead had no children, but she had four abortions before she was 30. She was the godmother of Brook and Brockman Seawell, children of her lifelong friend, actress Eugenia Rawls, and Rawls's husband, Donald Seawell.
An interview that Bankhead gave to Motion Picture magazine in 1932 generated controversy. In the interview, Bankhead ranted wildly about the state of her life and her views on love, marriage, and children:
I'm serious about love. I'm damned serious about it now ... I haven't had an affair for six months. Six months! Too long ... If there's anything the matter with me now, it's not Hollywood or Hollywood's state of mind ... The matter with me is, I WANT A MAN! ... Six months is a long, long while. I WANT A MAN!
Time ran a story about it, angering Bankhead's family. Bankhead immediately telegraphed her father, vowing never to speak with a magazine reporter again. For these and other offhand remarks, Bankhead was cited in the Hays Committee's "Doom Book", a list of 150 actors and actresses considered "unsuitable for the public" which was presented to the studios. Bankhead was at the top of the list with the heading: "Verbal Moral Turpitude". She publicly called Hays "a little prick".
Following the release of the Kinsey reports, she was once quoted as stating, "I found no surprises in the Kinsey report. The good doctor's clinical notes were old hat to me ... I've had many momentary love affairs. A lot of these impromptu romances have been climaxed in a fashion not generally condoned. I go into them impulsively. I scorn any notion of their permanence. I forget the fever associated with them when a new interest presents itself."
In 1933, Bankhead nearly died following a five-hour emergency hysterectomy due to venereal disease. Only 70 lb (32 kg) when she left the hospital, she stoically said to her doctor, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson!"
Rumors about Bankhead's sex life have lingered for years, and she was linked romantically with many notable female personalities of the day, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Hattie McDaniel, Beatrice Lillie, Alla Nazimova, writers Mercedes de Acosta and Eva Le Gallienne, and singer Billie Holiday. Actress Patsy Kelly confirmed she had a sexual relationship with Bankhead when she worked for her as a personal assistant. John Gruen's Menotti: A Biography notes an incident in which Jane Bowles chased Bankhead around Capricorn, Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber's Mount Kisco estate, insisting that Bankhead needed to play the lesbian character Inès in Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit (which Paul Bowles had recently translated). Bankhead locked herself in the bathroom and kept insisting, "That lesbian! I wouldn't know a thing about it."
Bankhead never publicly described herself as being bisexual. She did, however, describe herself as "ambisextrous".
Tallulah Bankhead House, NYC
Tallulah Bankhead moved into 230 East 62nd Street in the late 50s. On December 12, 1968, Bankhead died in St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan at 7:45 am, aged 66. The cause of death was pleural double pneumonia, complicated by emphysema due to cigarette smoking, malnutrition, and possibly a strain of the flu which was endemic at that time. Her last coherent words reportedly were a garbled request for "Codeine ... bourbon."
Despite claiming to be poor for much of her life, Tallulah Bankhead left an estate valued at $2 million.
A private funeral was held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Kent County, Maryland, on December 14. A memorial service was held at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York City on December 16. She was buried in Saint Paul's Churchyard, near Chestertown, Maryland, where her sister lived.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Bankhead has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6141 Hollywood Blvd.
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