Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Born Today in 1902: Actress Tallulah Bankhead, Dahling!

Tallulah Bankhead was born today, January 31, in 1902. She was an American actress of the stage and screen. 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.

Tallulah hailed from the Brockman Bankheads, a prominent Alabama political family — her grandfather and uncle were U.S. Senators and her father served 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.

Primarily an actress of the stage, Bankhead did have one big hit on film (Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat), as well as a brief but successful career on radio. She later made appearances on television, some of which have become classics.

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 was credited with nearly 300 film, stage, television, and radio roles. She is regarded as one of the 20th-century theatre's great Leading Ladies.

Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born in Huntsville, Alabama. Three weeks after Bankhead's birth, her mother died of blood poisoning (septicemia) on February 23, 1902. Coincidentally, her maternal grandmother had died giving birth to her mother. On her deathbed, Ada told her sister-in-law to "take care of Eugenia, Tallulah will always be able to take care of herself." Bankhead was baptized next to her mother's coffin.

Bankhead's famously husky voice (which she described as "mezzo-basso") was the result of chronic bronchitis due to childhood illness. She was described as a performer and an exhibitionist from the beginning, discovering at an early age that theatrics gained her the attention she desired. Finding she had a gift for mimicry, she entertained her classmates by imitating the schoolteachers. Bankhead claimed that her "first performance" was witnessed by none other than the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Her Aunt Marie gave the famous brothers a party at her home near Montgomery, Alabama, in which the guests were asked to entertain. "I won the prize for the top performance, with an imitation of my kindergarten teacher," Bankhead wrote. "The judges? Orville and Wilbur Wright." Bankhead also found she had a prodigious memory for literature, memorizing poems and plays and reciting them dramatically.

At 15, Bankhead submitted her photo to Picture Play, which was conducting a contest and awarding a trip to New York plus a movie part to 12 winners based on their photographs. However, she forgot to send in her name or address with the picture. Bankhead learned that she was one of the winners while browsing the magazine at her local drugstore. Her photo in the magazine was captioned "Who is She?", urging the mystery girl to contact the paper at once. Congressman William Bankhead sent in a letter to the magazine with her duplicate photo.

Arriving in New York, Bankhead discovered that her contest win was fleeting: she was paid $75 for 3 weeks' work on Who Loved Him Best and had only a minor part, but she quickly found her niche in New York City. She soon moved into the Algonquin Hotel, incidentally a hotspot for the artistic and literary elite of the era, where she quickly charmed her way into the famed Algonquin Round Table of the hotel bar. She was dubbed one of the "Four Riders of the Algonquin," consisting of Bankhead, Estelle Winwood, Eva Le Gallienne, and Blyth Daly (all lesbians or bisexual). 

The Algonquin's wild parties introduced Bankhead to cocaine and marijuana, of which she later remarked, "Cocaine isn't habit-forming and I know because I've been taking it for years." Bankhead did abstain from drinking, but only because she had promised her father that she would stay away from alcohol. At the Algonquin, Bankhead befriended actress Estelle Winwood. She also met Ethel Barrymore, who attempted to persuade her to change her name to Barbara. Bankhead declined, and Vanity Fair later wrote, "she's the only actress on both sides of the Atlantic to be recognized by her first name only." 

In 1919, after roles in three silent films, When Men Betray (1918), Thirty a Week (1918), and The Trap (1919), Bankhead made her stage debut in The Squab Farm at the Bijou Theatre in New York. She soon realized her place was on stage rather than screen, and had roles in 39 East (1919), Footloose (1919), Nice People (1921), Everyday(1921), Danger (1922), Her Temporary Husband (1922), and The Exciters (1922). Though her acting was praised, the plays were commercially and critically unsuccessful. Bankhead had been in New York for 5 years, but had yet to score a significant hit. Restless, Bankhead moved to London.

In 1923 she made her debut on the London stage at Wyndham's Theatre. She appeared in over a dozen plays in London over the next 8 years, most famously The Dancers. Her fame as an actress was ensured in 1924 when she played Amy in Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted. The show won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize.

While in London, Bankhead bought herself a Bentley, which she loved to drive. She was not very competent with directions 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. During her 8 years on the London stage, Bankhead earned a reputation for making the most out of inferior material.

Bankhead returned to the United States in 1931, but Hollywood success eluded her in her first four films of the 1930s. She began hosting parties that were said to "have no boundaries." Bankhead's first film was Tarnished Lady (1931), directed by George Cukor and the pair became fast friends. Bankhead behaved herself on the set and filming went smoothly, but she found film-making to be very boring and did not have the patience for it. She did not like Hollywood, either; when she met producer Irving Thalberg, she asked him, "How do you get laid in this dreadful place?" Thalberg retorted, "I'm sure you'll have no problem. Ask anyone." 

Gary Cooper and Tallulah Bankhead
Although Bankhead was not very interested in making films, the opportunity to make $50,000 per film was too good to pass up. Her 1932 movie Devil and the Deep is notable for the presence of three major co-stars, with Bankhead receiving top billing over Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, and Cary Grant; it is the only film with Cooper and Grant as the film's leading men. She later said, "Dahling, the main reason I accepted [the part] was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper!"

In 1933, Bankhead nearly died following a 5-hour emergency hysterectomy due to venereal disease, which she claimed she had contracted from George Raft. Only 70 lbs. when she left the hospital, she stoically said to her doctor, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson!" In 1934, after recuperating in Alabama, she returned to England. After only a short stay, she was called back to New York to play in The Little Foxes. Although Bette Davis played the leading character in the 1941 film version, she openly admitted in later years that she had emulated Bankhead in the role. Bankhead continued to play in various performances over the next few years, gaining excellent notices for her portrayal of Elizabeth in a revival of Somerset Maugham's The Circle.

Returning to Broadway, Bankhead's career stalled at first in unmemorable plays. When she appeared in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra with her then-husband, John Emery, the New York Evening Post critic John Mason Brown wrote, "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra - and sank."

David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind (1939) called her the "first choice among established stars" to play Scarlett O'Hara. Although her screen test for the role in black-and-white was superb, she photographed poorly in Technicolor. Selznick also reportedly believed that at age 36, she was too old to play Scarlett, who is 16 at the beginning of the film (the role eventually went to Vivien Leigh). Selznick sent Kay Brown to Bankhead to discuss the possibility of Bankhead playing prostitute Belle Watling in the film, which she turned down.

Her brilliant portrayal of the cold and ruthless, yet fiery Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939) won her the Variety magazine's award for Best Actress of the Year. Bankhead as Regina was lauded as "one of the most electrifying performances in American theater history." During the run, she was featured on the cover of Life.  Bankhead called it "the best role I ever had in the theater."

Bankhead earned another Variety award and the New York Drama Critics' Award for Best Performance by an Actress followed her role 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). About her work in Wilder's classic, the New York Sun wrote: "Her portrayal of Sabina has comedy and passion. How she contrives both, almost at the same time, is a mystery to mere man."

In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock cast her as cynical journalist Constance Porter in her most successful film, both critically and commercially, Lifeboat. Her superbly multifaceted performance was acknowledged as her best on film and won her the New York Film Critics Circle award. A beaming Bankhead accepted her New York trophy and exclaimed, "Dahlings, I was wonderful!"

Bankhead appeared in a revival of Noël Coward's Private Lives, taking it on tour and then to Broadway for the better part of 2 years. The play's run made Bankhead a fortune. From that time, Bankhead could command 10 percent 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 close friend from the 1920s until Bankhead's death in 1968.

Though Bankhead's career slowed in the mid-1950s, she never faded from the public eye. Her highly public and often scandalous personal life began to undermine her reputation as a terrific actress, leading to criticism she had become a caricature of herself. Although a heavy smoker (reportedly 150 cigarettes/day), heavy drinker, and consumer of sleeping pills (she was a lifelong insomniac), Bankhead continued to perform in the 1950s and 1960s on Broadway, radio, television, and in the occasional film.

Around this time, Bankhead began to attract a passionate and highly loyal following of gay men, some of whom she employed as help when her lifestyle began to take a toll on her, affectionately calling them her "caddies." Though she had long struggled with addiction, her condition now worsened - she began taking dangerous cocktails of drugs to fall asleep, and her maid had to tape her arms down to prevent her from consuming pills during her periods of intermittent wakefulness. In her later years, Bankhead had serious accidents and several psychotic episodes from sleep deprivation and hypnotic drug abuse. Though she always hated being alone, her struggle with loneliness began to lapse into a depression. In 1956, playing the truth game with Tennessee Williams, she confessed, "I’m 54, and I wish always, always, for death. I’ve always wanted death. Nothing else do I want more."

Bankhead's most popular and perhaps best remembered television appearance was the December 3, 1957, The Ford Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show. Bankhead played herself in the classic episode titled "The Celebrity Next Door." Lucille Ball was reportedly a fan of Bankhead and did a good impression of her. By the time the episode was filmed, however, both Ball and Desi Arnaz were deeply frustrated by Bankhead's behavior during rehearsals. It took her 3 hours to "wake up" once she arrived on the set and she often seemed drunk. She also refused to listen to the director and she did not like rehearsing. Ball and Arnaz apparently did not know about Bankhead's antipathy to rehearsals or her ability to memorize a script quickly. After rehearsals, the filming of the episode proceeded without a hitch and Ball congratulated Bankhead on her performance.

In 1956, Bankhead appeared as Blanche DuBois (a character inspired by her) in a revival of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1956). Williams had wanted Bankhead for the original production, but she turned it down. Tennessee Williams himself (they were close friends) called her Blanche "the worst I have seen," accusing her of ruining the role to appease her fans who wanted camp. She agreed with this verdict, and made an effort to conquer the audience which her own legend had drawn about her, giving a performance 2 weeks later of which he remarked: "I'm not ashamed to say that I shed tears almost all the way through and that when the play was finished I rushed up to her and fell to my knees at her feet." The director remarked that her performance exceeded Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh's in the role. However, the initial reviews had decided the production's fate, and the producer pulled the plug after 15 performances.

Bankhead received a Tony Award nomination for her performance of a bizarre 50-year-old mother in the short-lived Mary Coyle Chase play, Midgie Purvis (1961). It was a physically demanding role and Bankhead insisted on doing the stunts herself, including sliding down a staircase bannister. She received glowing reviews, but the play itself suffered from numerous rewrites and failed to last beyond a month. Her last theatrical appearance was in a revival of another Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963), directed by Tony Richardson. She had suffered a severe burn on her right hand from a match exploding while she lit a cigarette, and it was aggravated by the importance of jewelery props in the play. She took heavy painkillers, but these dried her mouth, and most critics thought that Tallulah's line readings were unintelligible. Like Antony and Cleopatra, the nadir of her career, she only made five performances, and in the same unhappy theater.

Among her last radio appearances was in an episode of the BBC's Desert Island Discs with Roy Plomley. Bankhead, at 62 and audibly suffering from breathing difficulties from emphysema in the interview show, frankly spoke of how hopeless she would be on a desert island, admitting that she "couldn’t put a key in the door, dahling. I can't do a thing for myself."

Her last motion picture was in a British horror film, Fanatic (1965). She chose this role over the lead in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which she had turned down. Fanatic was released in the U.S. as Die! Die! My Darling!, which she protested, thinking it was exploiting her characteristic catchphrase, but did not succeed in getting it changed. During the screening she held privately for her friends, she apologized for "looking older than God's wet nurse" (in the film she wore no makeup and dyed her hair grey, and the film used very claustrophobic close-ups to accentuate her age and frailness). She called the B-movie horror flick "a piece of shit," though her performance in it was praised by critics and remains popular as a cult film and with her fans. 

Her last appearances on television came in March 1967 as the villainous Black Widow in the Batman TV series, and on the December 17, 1967, episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour comedy-variety TV series, in the "Mahta Harry" skit. She also appeared on NBC's famous lost Tonight Show Beatles interview that aired on May 14, 1968. Sitting behind the interview desk and beside Joe Garagiola, who was substituting for an absent Johnny Carson, she took an active role during the interview.

Bankhead was famous not only as an actress, but also for her many affairs, compelling personality, and witticisms such as, "I'm as pure as the driven slush." Bankhead was an avid baseball fan whose favorite team was the New York Giants.

Like her family, Bankhead was a Democrat, but broke with many Southerners by campaigning for Harry Truman's reelection in 1948. She is credited with having helped Truman immeasurably by belittling his rival, New York's Governor Thomas E. Dewey. After Truman was elected, Bankhead was invited to sit with the President during his inauguration. While viewing the inauguration parade, she booed the South Carolina float which carried then-Governor and segregationist Strom Thurmond, who had recently run against Truman on the Dixiecrat ticket, splitting the Democratic vote.

Bankhead married actor John Emery 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. 

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 lbs. 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, Katherine Cornell, Eva Le Gallienne, Hope Williams, Beatrice Lillie, and Alla Nazimova, as well as writer Mercedes de Acosta 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."

On December 12, 1968, Bankhead died in Manhattan at  age 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."

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