Tallulah Bankhead

Born: January 31, 1902

Died: December 12, 1968

 

Tallulah Bankhead was one of last century's first show business personalities. The daughter of an Alabama Senator, Bankhead's mother died three weeks after her birth. After winning a beauty contest at the age of 16, she headed to New York City to start an acting career. Bypassing the casting couch to earn a role in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," at eighteen she left for Paris to volunteer for the Red Cross.

 

Around 1918, she moved into an apartment with actress Bijou Martin, whose wild parties introduced Bankhead to cocaine and marijuana. She did abstain from drinking, only because she had promised her father that she would stay away from alcohol. (Later she drank, to the detriment of her health.)

 

Bankhead made a name for herself on the London stage and was chosen one of the most remarkable women in England before coming to Hollywood to start a film career. Her most famous movie role was in Alfred Hitchcock's film, "Lifeboat." Returning to Broadway, her starring role in "The Little Foxes" won her the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and she won a second award for "The Skin of Our Teeth."

 

Bankhead made many guest appearances on radio, on the Fred Allen Show, Duffy's Tavern, and as the MC of NBC's Radio's The Big Show, a ninety minute parade of stars with the likes of Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Judy Holiday, Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman, and Clifton Webb. She loved jazz music and was the first white woman to appear on the cover of "Ebony" magazine. She reportedly had a long-term relationship with Billie Holiday and also was close to Hattie McDaniels.

 

In addition to her wild personality and her indulgences, Tallulah was a member of the Algonquin Roundtable and known for her wit. One witticism was, "Only good girls keep diaries. Bad girls don't have the time." She also said, ŅI'm the foe of moderation, the champion of excess. If I may lift a line from a die-hard whose identity is lost in the shuffle, 'I'd rather be strongly wrong than weakly right'." (Or as William Blake said, "The road of excess leads to palace of wisdom.")

 

In 1948, Bankhead and other cast members were accused of using marijuana during the New York City production of Noel Coward's play "Private Lives." She contacted the FBI and requested an FBIHQ tour for John Emory, her husband, and Director Robert Sinclair. She also corresponded with Director Hoover. (Source: http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/bankhead.htm)

 

In late 1951, Bankhead fired her personal secretary, Evyleen Cronin, for stealing money from her. In a public trial over the incident, Cronin's lawyers alleged that Cronin's job included "paying for marijuana, cigarettes, cocaine, booze and sex." Cronin also testified that Bankhead taught her to roll marijuana cigarettes. Because of this, Bankhead may have been the inspiration for the Alexandra de Lago character in Tennessee Williams's "Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)," whose young male companion (played by Paul Newman) tries to blackmail her over her use of hashish. She is also said to be the inspiration for Cruella de Vil in Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmations. In a reversal, she was the real-life inspiration for Bette Davis's role in "All About Eve," and Davis may have been model for the young interloper (the two despised each other).

 

Bankhead died in 1968 when a bout of Asian flu was more than her emphysema could tolerate. Before slipping into a coma after being hooked to a ventilator in a New York City hospital, her only discernible words were barely audible requests for codeine and bourbon. Her estate was valued at $2 million.

Copyright 2006

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