See her autobiography (1952); memoir by E. Rawls (1979); biographies by B. Gill (1972), L. Israel (1972), K. Tunney (1973), and J. Lobenthal (2004).
Bankhead came from a powerful Democratic political family in the South in general and Alabama in particular. Her father was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1936-1940 (in the 74th, 75th, and 76th Congresses), immediately preceding Sam Rayburn. She was the niece of Senator John H. Bankhead II and granddaughter of Senator John H. Bankhead. Bankhead herself was a Democrat, albeit one of a more liberal stripe than the rest of her family.
Her older sister Evelyn Eugenia Bankhead was born January 24, 1901 and was known as "Sister." "Sister" died on May 11, 1979. She was married seven times, the first three to Morton McMichael Hoyt (April 4, 1899 - ?), brother of romance novelist Nancy Hoyt and poet Elinor Wylie. She was also married to Wilfred Lawson Butt (July 1, 1905 in England - September 8, 1979 in La Mesa, California) in 1929, Howard B. Lee in 1930, Edward Ennis White in 1931 and William D. Sprouse. "Sister" also was a lover of Louisa d'Andelot Carpenter.
Her family sent Tallulah to various schools in an attempt to keep her out of trouble, which included a year at a Catholic convent school (although her father was a Methodist and her mother was an Episcopalian).
In 1923, she made her debut on the London stage, where she was to appear in over a dozen plays in the next eight years, most famously, The Dancers. Her fame as an actress was ensured in 1924 when she played the waitress Amy in Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted. The show won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize. She was famous not only as an actress but also for her many affairs, infectious personality and witticisms like "There is less to this than meets the eye" and "I'm as pure as the driven slush." She was brash, brazen, and apt to say anything. This trait made her widely popular. She was known for her promiscuous behavior, and had the reputation of being sexually available to anyone she found attractive, famous or not. Her longest known affair during this period in her life was with an Italian businessman named Anthony de Bosdari, which lasted just over one year. By the end of the decade, she was one of the West End's — and England's — best-known and most notorious celebrities.
While in London, Bankhead also bought herself a Bentley, which she loved to drive. She wasn't very competent with directions, however, and constantly found herself lost in the London streets. She would telephone a taxi-cab and pay the driver to drive to her destination while she followed behind in her car. The press loved this.
Bankhead's first film was Tarnished Lady (1931), directed by George Cukor, and Cukor and Bankhead became fast friends. Bankhead behaved herself on the set and filming went smoothly, but she found film-making to be very boring and didn't have the patience for it. She didn't like Hollywood either. When she met producer Irving Thalberg, she asked him, "How do you get laid in this dreadful place?"
Bankhead herself was not very interested in making films. The opportunity to make $50,000 per film, however, was too good to pass up. She later said, "The only reason I went to Hollywood was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper."
One of Bankhead's most notorious events was an interview that she gave to Motion Picture magazine in 1932, in which she ranted wildly about the state of her life and her views on love, marriage, and children:
However, 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.
Thus, comments such as that quoted above and many other actions in her life led to her reputation, of which she never made excuses. She was outspoken and uninhibited. By the standards of the interwar years, Bankhead was quite openly bisexual, but she successfully avoided scandal related to her affairs, regardless of the gender of her lovers. She was known to have stripped off her clothes on several occasions while attending parties, which shocked people in attendance, but nonetheless she remained magnetic to those who knew her well. Her personality, it was said, made her almost irresistible as a friend, or a lover.
Rumors about her sex life have lingered for years, and she was linked romantically with many notable female personalities of the day, including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Eva Le Gallienne, Laurette Taylor, and Alla Nazimova, as well as writer Mercedes de Acosta, and singer Billie Holiday.
She was reportedly extremely excited when she was first able to meet the elusive Garbo, but whether they were sexually involved has never been determined beyond a doubt. The two women played tennis together often, and were said to have enjoyed one another's company, but Garbo was extremely protective of her private life and secretive about her lovers. Bankhead was married to actor John Emery (May 20, 1905 in NYC - November 16, 1964 in NYC) on August 31, 1937 in Jasper, Alabama and divorced on June 13, 1941 in Reno, Nevada. He was the son of stage actors Edward Emery (? - 1938) and Isabel Waldron (1871 - 1950).
Actress Patsy Kelly made a claim to author Boze Hadleigh, which he included in his 1996 book about lesbianism in Hollywood's early years, that she had a long lesbian affair with Bankhead. 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), but Bankhead locked herself in the bathroom and kept insisting "That lesbian! I wouldn't know a thing about it."
In 1932, she expressed some interest in spirituality, but did not outwardly pursue it, except for a time when she met with the Indian mystic, Meher Baba.
In 1933, Bankhead nearly died following a five-hour emergency hysterectomy for an advanced case of gonorrhea, which she claimed she contracted either from George Raft or Gary Cooper. Only 70 pounds when she left the hospital, she stoically said to her doctor, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson!"
Returning to Broadway, Bankhead's career stalled in unmemorable plays. When she appeared in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" with her husband, John Emery -- who liked to ape John Barrymore onstage -- The Times' Brooks Atkinson wrote "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile, last night, and promptly sank!" All the laughing stopped, though, when she played the cold and ruthless Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939). Her portrayal won her the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Performance, but Bankhead and Hellman feuded over the Soviet Union's invasion of Finland. Bankhead (a staunch anti-Communist) was said to want a portion of one performance's proceeds to go to Finnish relief, while Hellman (an equally staunch Stalinist) objected strenuously, and the two women didn't speak for the next quarter of a century.
More success and the same award followed her 1942 performance in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, in which Bankhead played Sabina, the housekeeper and temptress, opposite Fredric March and Florence Eldridge (Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, and also husband and wife offstage). During the run of the play, some media accused Bankhead of a running feud with the play's director, Elia Kazan. Kazan confirmed the story in his autobiography, and he stated that Bankhead was one of the few people in his life that he ever actually detested.
In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock cast her as the cynical journalist, Constance Porter, in Lifeboat. The performance is widely acknowledged as her best on film, and won her the New York Film Critics Circle Award and her only Academy Award nomination. Almost childlike in her immodesty, a beaming Tallulah accepted her New York trophy and exclaimed, "Dahlings, I was wonderful!"
After World War II, Bankhead appeared in a revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives, taking it on tour and then to Broadway for the better part of two years. The play's run made Bankhead a fortune. From that time, Bankhead could command 10% of the gross and was billed larger than any other actor in the cast, although she usually granted equal billing to Estelle Winwood, a frequent co-star, and Bankhead's "best friend" from the 1920s until Bankhead's death in 1968.
Bankhead circulated widely in the celebrity crowd of her day, and was a party favorite for outlandish stunts such as underwearless cartwheels in a skirt or entering a soirée stark naked. She is also said to have been so engrossed in conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt that she dropped her drawers and used the toilet while the first lady was still talking. Always extravagant, upon leaving the theater one evening she encountered a Salvation Army band passing around the tambourine. Reaching into her purse, Miss Bankhead withdrew a twenty dollar bill, tossed it into the tambourine and exited into a taxi with the remark, "there dahlings, I know it's been a rough winter for you Spanish dancers."
Like her family, Bankhead was a Democrat, but broke with most Southerners by campaigning for Harry Truman's reelection in 1948. While viewing the Inauguration parade, she booed the South Carolina float which carried then-Governor Strom Thurmond, who had recently run against Truman on the Dixiecrat ticket, splitting the Democratic vote. She is also credited with having helped Truman immeasurably by belittling his rival, New York's Governor Thomas E. Dewey. Tallulah said Dewey reminded her of "the little man on the wedding cake."
In 1950, in an effort to cut into the rating leads of The Jack Benny Program and The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show which had jumped from NBC radio to CBS radio the previous season, NBC spent millions over the two seasons of The Big Show starring "the glamorous, unpredictable" Tallulah Bankhead as its host, in which she acted not only as mistress of ceremonies but also performed monologues and songs, many of which can be heard on the album "Give My Regards To Broadway!" Despite Meredith Willson's Orchestra and Chorus and top guest stars from Broadway, Hollywood and radio--including Fred Allen, Fanny Brice, Groucho Marx, Ethel Merman, Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, Jimmy Durante, Martin & Lewis, George Jessel, Judy Garland, Ethel Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, José Ferrer and Judy Holliday, The Big Show, which earned rave reviews, failed to do more than dent Jack Benny's and Edgar Bergen's ratings.
Bankhead, who proved a masterful comedienne and intriguing personality, however, was not blamed for the failure of The Big Show--television's growth was hurting all radio ratings at the time, so the next season NBC installed her as one of a half dozen rotating hosts of NBC's The All Star Revue on Saturday nights. Although critics, pros and the sophisticated set loved her, and Tallulah's monologues became classics, she was not among the hosts renewed for the following season.
Bankhead's most popular television appearance and the one that is still seen widely today was her December 3 1957 appearance on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Hour. Bankhead played herself in the episode titled "The Celebrity Next Door." The part was originally slated for Bette Davis, but she had to bow out after cracking her vertebra.
Lucille Ball was a fan of Bankhead's and did a good impression of her. By the time the episode was filmed, however, both Ball and Arnaz were at their wit's end over Bankhead's behavior during rehearsal: she refused to listen to the director and she did not like to rehearse. It took her three hours to "wake up" once she arrived on the set and everyone thought she was drunk most of the time. Ball and Arnaz apparently didn't know about Tallulah's antipathy toward rehearsing or her incredible ability to memorize a script. The actual taping of the episode went off without a hitch, and Bankhead impressed everyone with her line readings and professionalism". Lucille Ball later said that she was conned by Bankhead who purposely made her think she would screw up to throw her off kilter. Desi Arnaz said that Bankhead walked all over him and Ball, and they hadn't known this was typical behavior for Tallulah.
Bankhead also appeared as Blanche DuBois in a revival of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1956), but reviews were poor. Fans who saw her late into the six-week run at City Center were graced with a far better, indeed deeply moving, performance. She received a Tony Award nomination for her performance of a bizarre 50-year-old mother in Mary Chase's Midgie Purvis (1961). Her last theatrical appearance was in another Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963). Although she received good notices for her last performances, her career as one of the greats of the American stage was coming to an end.
Her last appearance on screen came in March 1967 as the villainous Black Widow in the Batman TV series.
According to author Brendan Gill, when Bankhead entered the hospital for an illness, an article was headed "Tallulah Hospitalized, Hospital Tallulahized." This headline was a testament to Bankhead's large, charismatic personality (which inspired much of the "personality" of the character Cruella De Vil in Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmatians).
Bankhead had no children, though she had numerous abortions in the 1920s, but was the godmother of Brook and Brockman Seawell, children of her lifelong friend and actress Eugenia Rawls and Rawls's husband, Donald Seawell. She was known for her kindness to animals and children.
Bankhead was also a fan of the soap opera, The Edge of Night. It has been said that after watching a female character agonize over a man, Bankhead contacted the producers of the show and said, "Why doesn't she just shoot the bastard?"
On May 14, 1968, Bankhead was a guest on The Tonight Show with Joe Garagiola as the guest host, along with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They were in New York to announce the formation of their new company Apple Records. Bankhead, reportedly a bit inebriated, told Lennon and McCartney that she would love to learn how to meditate, as they had in India with the Maharishi in February 1968. Around that time, fans were shocked to see Bankhead on the cover of The National Enquirer. The tabloid informed its readers that the actress was aware that she had only months to live. "There's nothing you, or I, or anybody can do about it," she was quoted.
The documents compiled by the British Aliens and Immigration Department allege that the investigation was scuttled by a determined cover-up by Eton's headmaster, Dr. Cyril Argentine Alington. The allegations were based purely on gossip and word of mouth, and lacked credible evidence. It appears that they were assembled by MI5 at the urgings of a Home Office minister.
The dossier, assembled when she was 32, contains allegations that while in Britain the actress:
The report that a group of Eton boys took part in a sex session with her at an hotel in Berkshire was discreetly investigated by police and the headmaster was interviewed. However, nothing was discovered except that a couple of boys had been dismissed for breaking school rules on riding in a car.
However, the investigator known only as FHM wrote: "The headmaster is obviously not prepared to assist HO (Home Office) by revealing what he knows of her exploits with some of the boys, i.e., he wants to do everything possible to keep Eton out of the scandal."