Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1971)

Tallulah Bankhead
Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead was an American stage and movie actress whose uninhibited personal life often received more attention than her professional one. She began her career on stage and in silent movies, and successfully made the transition to Talkies, then radio and television.

She made only 18 movies, the best known being the Hitchcock-directed 'Lifeboat' in 1944 and her movie career was mixed and included several box office flops. Her greatest acing successes were on stage in particular 'The Little Foxes' in 1939, 'The Skin of our Teeth' in 1942 and 'Private Lives' in 1948.


She was born Tallulah Brockman Bankhead on January 31, 1902, in Huntsville, Alabama, into a wealthy and politically prominent family. Her father, William Brockman Bankhead, served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1936 to 1940 and his father, Tallulah's grandfather, was United States Senator John Hollis Bankhead. Her uncle, also called John Hollis Bankhed, also became a United States Senator. Tallulah was named after her paternal grandmother, who in turn was named after Tallulah Falls, Georgia.

Early Life

Tallulah's mother died of sepsis just three weeks after Tallulah's birth and the baby Tallulah was baptized next to her mother's coffin.

Tallulah had one elder sister, Eugenia and the two girls were brought up by their father's mother, at the family estate called "Sunset" in Jasper, Alabama. The young Tallulah was described as an attention seeker, often throwing tantrums to get her own way. She had a gift for mimicry and at school became well known for entertaining her classmates with imitations of their teachers. She also had a natural gift for memorizing poems and plays and reciting them in a dramatic manner.

In 1912 when Talullah was 10, both sisters were enrolled by their father in the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville, New York. The following year they were enrolled at the Mary Baldwin Seminary in Staunton, Virginia and the following years found them at the Convent of the Visitation in Washington, the Holy Cross at Dunbar and the Fairmont Seminary.

Talullah matured into a young beauty and developed an early interest in acting. She started her stage career in the local theater troupes around Huntsville and after winning a beauty contest when she was 16 she relocated to New York City to live with her aunt and to try her luck at starting an acting career on Broadway.

Young Actress 1917

She found her social niche much quicker than her acting niche. After arriving in New York, Tallulah worked for three weeks on the silent movie, 'Who Loved Him Best' in 1918 but she really found her feet when she moved into the Algonquin Hotel, a hotspot for the artistic and literary elite of the era. She was introduced to cocaine and marijuana and had many friendships and affairs with both sexes.

She met the legendary Ethel Barrymore, who attempted to persuade her to change her Christian name to Barbara. Fortunately Talullah declined and so became one of the very few actresses to be recognized by her first name only.

She continued her introduction to moviemaking with three more silent films, 'When Men Betray' and 'Thirty a Week', both in 1918, and 'A Woman's Law' in 1919.

Tallulah had yet to make her stage debut. She did so in 'The Squab Farm' at the Bijou Theatre in New York in 1919. She realised very quickly that her preference would always be for the stage rather than the screen. She appeared in a number of productions over the next few years including 'Footloose' in 1919, 'Everyday' in 1921, and 'Her Temporary Husband' and 'The Exciters' in 1922. She was making a name for herself, but none of these early plays were commercially successful. Dissatisfied and restless, Tallulah moved to London to continue her acting career. She was also in love with a rich Englishman, Captain Napier Sturt, 3rd Baron Alington.

London 1923

Tallulah's stay in London was an undoubted success. She made her West End debut in 1923 at Wyndham’s Theatre in 'The Dancers', opposite the current West End matinée idol, Gerald du Maurier. She certainly made more of an impression on English audiences than American. In all, she appeared in twenty-four plays in London between 1923 and 1927 and she became internationally famous for her performance in 1926 in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play 'They Knew What They Wanted' by Sidney Howard.

Her London successes finally attracted the attention of Hollywood and in 1927 she returned to the United States to try her hand again in the world of cinema with Paramount Pictures. For the next few years she made a number of movies which got a mixed reception from both the critics and the public, including 'Woman's Law' in 1927 and 'His House in Order' the following year. After a short break for more stage work she appeared in 'Tarnished Lady' and 'My Sin' in 1931 and 'Thunder Below', 'Faithless' , 'Make Me a Star' and 'Devil and the Deep' in 1932.

She had become a famous Hollywood name, but the films she was making were not of high calibre and did not do her talent justice. Tallulah was discouraged and returned to her first love, the stage, resuming in New York in 1933 with 'Forsaking All Others', and she continued to perform regularly on stage until 1961 with 'Midgie Purvis' . During this time she became a fixture on Broadway and had three huge hits, 'The Little Foxes' in 1939, 'The Skin of our Teeth' in 1942 and 'Private Lives' in 1948.

Her final theatrical performance was in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore in 1964.

Her next film appearance was in 1943 when she had a short appearance in the WWII themed movie 'Stage Door Canteen'. It was for her next movie appearance that she is best remembered today.

Lifeboat 1944

Following her success in 'The Skin of our Teeth' Tallulah was summoned to Hollywood by Alfred Hitchcock to appear in his movie 'Lifeboat'. It became her greatest Hollywood success, playing a highly dramatic society lady who finds herself in a lifeboat after a shipwreck and who slowly gets humanized over the course of the film. She was surprisingly overlooked for an Oscar nomination but earned a New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress for her exceptional performance.

Postwar Career

In 1948 Tallulah appeared in a revival of Noël Coward's 'Private Lives', taking it on tour and then to Broadway for two years. She altered the role so that eventually she ended up effectively playing herself The play was a sell out success and made Tallulah very rich.

Tallulah had a successful career on radio and television. In 1950 she worked as host on a new NBC radio show called 'The Big Show' which included top guest stars such as Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Judy Holiday, Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman and Clifton Webb. It was a great success and the following year she was installed as one of several rotating hosts of NBC's 'The All Star Revue'. During the heyday of radio Tallulah made numerous guest appearances on shows such as 'The Fred Allen Show' and 'Duffy's Tavern'.

As radio began to be superceded by television, Tallulah appeared many timed on the new medium in variety shows such as 'The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour ', and 'The United States Steel Hour'.


Talullah was very unconventional. She married once, to actor John Emery for four years from 1937, but it was likely that the marriage took place mainly to placate Tallulah's father who had recently been made Speaker of the House.

Her love life can only be described as active and determined. She had many lovers, both male and female, including such diverse figures as tennis champion Jean Borotra, actors such as Donald Cook and Gary Cooper, singer Billie Holiday, the artist Rex Whistler and politicians such as Churchill’s great friend, Lord Birkenhead.

She was a heavy smoker and drank large quantities of alcohol, favouring gin and bourbon. She also freely and ruinously took drugs to either get high or to help her sleep. Her indiscretions were many and varied and were followed avidly by the movie magazines and the public.

Inevitably, her lifestyle took its toll. She developed chronic emphysema and had to drag round heavy oxygen cylinders. In 1968 she caught Asian Flu and was taken to St Luke's hospital in Manhattan. She did not respond to antibiotics and developed pneumonia.

Tallulah Bankhead died on December 12, 1968, from pleural double pneumonia and malnutrition. It is reported that her last words were "Codeine...bourbon." It was a sad end for a talented and charismatic actress.

Tallulah Bankhead Academy Awards

No Nominations:

Tallulah Bankhead Filmography

Who Loved Him Best?
When Men Betray
Thirty a Week
A Woman's Law (aka The Trap)
His House in Order
Her Cardboard Lover (Short)
Tarnished Lady
My Sin
The Cheat
Thunder Below
Make Me a Star (uncredited)
Devil and the Deep