By trade, Tullulah Bankhead (1902-1968) was an actress of the stage, and an exceptional one. Her prodigious memory allowed her to memorize vast tomes of classic literature and poetry. Hailing from a well-connected, upper-class background, she was as as graceful and as commanding a presence in the Senate Green Room or a gallery opening as she was in a cocktail lounge. Combined with her eloquent diction, aggressive and husky mezzo basso, piercing gaze, and razor-sharp wit, it is easy to she how she charmed the cosmopolitan circles of London, and later New York and Hollywood. A legend in the West End, capable of great theatrical range, she was considered by many in her lifetime to be the greatest actress that America ever produced.
Between 1918 and 1964, Bankhead was a constant fixture on Broadway, being as much a critical success as a commercial one. She shone even in her failures, such as Midgie Purvis, for which she was nominated for a Tony. She took home the New York Drama Critics Award, two Variety Awards for Best Actress of the Year, and was nominated for a Tony. In her prolific career, she made over 300 radio, television, screen, and stage appearances.
Today she is perhaps best remembered by the public at-large (aside from her trademark “dah-ling”) for her some of her work on the silver screen, often playing tarnished leads and the femme fatale. Her most commercial success came when she starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944.) But, it was the stage — and her oversized public persona — that made her a cult hero, and perhaps America’s first gay cultural icon.
In 1972, just four years after her passing, she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.
Everything Tallulah did was big; she was not a dilettante in anything for which she had a passion.
Not content to just dabble in politics, she was instrumental in Truman’s reelection campaign of 1948. Not content to give money to war relief, she personally helped abscond victims of fascism in the Spanish Civil War.
Not content to be the source of pillow talk rumors, she lived an open, brash life of sexual license, unapologetically bedding as many of Hollywood’s leading ladies as she did its men.
Her boudoir was rumored to be a who’s-who of high society’s Golden Age — poets, playwrights, actresses, conductors: Gary Cooper, Alla Nazimova, Jane Bowles, Marlene Dietrich, Gian Carlo Mentotti, Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Hattie McDaniel, Samuel Barber and many many more.
Said Bankhead, “It’s only the good girls that keep diaries; the bad girls never have the time.” When asked whether she was bisexual, for instance, Tallulah did not run from the question. She instead coined a neologism, saying “No, I’m ambisextrous.” As quotable as she was charming, to the end.
Talented, witty, dangerous — Tallulah Bankhead was a woman at least half a century ahead of her time. Many consider the beginning of the sexual revolution to be formally dated to 1964, with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. But, Tallulah was in that daring class of women in the 20s and 30s who are the spiritual forerunners of the movement. And Bankhead did it all with her customary fearless, funny wit.
Of course, living such a life did come with its own demons: a drinking habit-turned-addiction picked up as a teenage society maven at the Algonquin Round Table, frequent battles with drug addiction, venereal disease (and multiple abortions) that were rumored to have left her barren, a nomadic lifestyle without many long-term romantic relationships — she flitted from the stage to the bedroom to the tabloid broadsheets. And, worst of all, the hard-carousing that ended her time on this lonely planet after just 66 years.
They say that your time on this earth can be measured by the life in your years, not just the years in your life. And, Tallulah Bankhead got her money’s worth. She lived her life uncompromisingly, vocally, and with the certain belief that she only said and did what others wished they had the courage or opportunity to do. That unflinching approach to life, to the epicurean palate of the libertine, takes exceptional bravery even now; it took unbelievable sang froid to do so 80 years ago.
If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.
Rest well, Tallulah...and save us a spot at the bar.
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