I was born on January 31, 1902 in Huntsville, AL; delivered (as was the practice then) at home of a mother whose love I never got to know, for she died shortly thereafter.
My christening took place alongside my mother's coffin; I was named "Tallulah" in honor of my paternal grandmother, who had been named after "Tallulah Gorge, GA," that happy place where my grandmother Tallulah's newly wedded parents (my great-grandparents) had spent their honeymoon.
My distraught father unconsciously blamed me for the loss of his beloved wife and chose my elder sister, Eugenia, over me. Or, so it seemed to me.
My life-long ambition became to win back my father's love (at any cost); though I always hailed my sister as the witty one, I knew I was the pretty one and decided early on to become an actress. Afterall, a career in the theatre had been my Daddy's adolescent ambition; I resolved that I'd win his adulation by making the theater my life's work.
"Sunset, the ancestral home"
We BANKHEADs of Alabama were a very political group, dedicated to public service and the Democratic party. Grandfather and my uncle were both Senators, and daddy worked his way through Congress to become Speaker of the House.
From left to right: "Eugenia (sister), John Bankhead (grandfather) and Tallulah"
Though they were opposed to my wishes, I learned from them the not so gentle art of the filibuster; grandmother was the only one who knew how to stop my tantrums, by dousing me with a bucket of cold water!
Picture Play Magazine was sponsoring a beauty contest that offered a film contract with a major studio as the prize, so I borrowed my aunt's hat and grandmama's foxes and posed for a photo that I sent off to the publishers, forgetting in my haste to include my name and return address.
I was 13; though dressed up, I thought I passed for a very sophisticated twenty-year old.
And, I WON! Unable to locate me, the editors later published my photo with the caption:
"WHO IS SHE?"
My aunt accompanied me (as part of the deal I made with my family, in order for them to allow me to claim the prize). And, upon the advice of a relative, my chaperone and I checked into The Algonquin Hotel.
The Algonquin just happened to be THE hotel of choice for theater folk, such luminaries as the Barrymores and Estelle Winwood (amongst others) kept rooms there.
Also, a group of the top writers of the day met there every afternoon for lunch and banter. I became an honorary member of their group because of my malapropism: "There's less to that than meets the eye!"
I said this to Andrew Woollcott (the critic), in reference to a play; I thought I was saying the line correctly. He loved it! And, quoted me in his review the next day.
My aunt returned home after awhile; but, I stayed on, determined to become an actress, to dodge John Barrymore's overtures and technically remain a virgin. In that order.
I owned one well-worn evening gown, ate off everyone else's plate at mealtimes, and yet maintained appearances by keeping a maid! After my initial debacle with silent film making on Long Island (my prize, from the Picture Play Beauty Contest), it took me two years of additional film-play, walk-ons and bit parts to land a lead in my first stage play, "The Squab Farm."
Sir Gerald du Maurier,by Augustus John
My theatrical career consisted of no more than a couple of lines in not very quotable reviews of not very memorable plays ... and, then, I received a tentative offer by cablegram to appear in a du Maurier play being produced in London!
I borrowed passage and a letter of credit, boarded a ship to make the transatlantic crossing, disregarding a cable canceling the offer, betting on the advice of a psychic and my friend, who also at the very last minute, like a talisman to protect me, removed her own fur coat and draped it over my shoulders,
The instant that Sir Gerald du Maurier and Daphne, his daughter, caught glimpse of my hair, golden tresses cascading luxuriantly over shoulders and down the back of this twenty-one year old American beauty with blue eyes, nacreous skin, and a radiant smile. Well, Darling, if there wasn't a part available to play at that precise moment, they'd soon find one. How'bout?, an Indian Princess, wearing buckskins and a white feathered headdress, dancing the Charleston, yet!
The usually reserved Brits went bananas!! And, curiously, it was the working class girls that saw in me their champion! They took to the streets and waited on line for days at a time, whenever I was to appear in another potboiler; and, brought down the house, every time I made my entrance.
They carried on like this for almost eight years in London, that is, until my return to the States in 1931.
Paramount Studios in Hollywood, CA, offered me a $5,000 a week contract to star in six clinkers opposite several heavyweight male leads of the day!
But, just as a sample of the ineptness of the scripts, can you imagine ME in a movie opposite Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and I'm supposed to play Charles Laughton's wife …not even Elsa knew how to do that?!
Having elected NOT to renew my contract, I returned to Broadway and cranked out several seasons' worth of productions, until 1939, when I finally hit my stride, playing Regina Giddens, the heartless and greedy southern bitch, in Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes."
That same year, I lost my daddy; he had been ailing for some time. And, then, a second heart attack felled him.
Afterwards, I plunged headlong into my work, taking "Foxes" on the road across America; we played it everywhere, except underwater!
Even though I won The New York Critics' Drama Award for this and a subsequent play, Thornton Wilder's, "The Skin of Our Teeth," I lost focus… .
My film role in Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," as the sophisticated and cynical journalist, Constance Porter, brought me yet another award, though I nearly died from pneumonia, just barely completing the film, while running a high temperature.
Acting became a sort of confusion. Divorce followed. I had married and become an actress only to please daddy, after all.
I took Noel Coward's "Private Lives" on the road, starring opposite Donald Cook; I no longer attempted to "get into character."
Instead, I played myself and was handsomely paid for my efforts.
By the time my contract with NBC Network radio (to emcee their Sunday night hour-and-one-half special - "THE BIG SHOW") had run its course, both radio and my career were fast heading for the skids!
Less distinguished roles on stage followed fast on the heels of more vapid performances in Las Vegas and on television, (the then burgeoning new media)!
My physical decline and several bad career calls followed, during the ghastly '60s; by then, I was featured as a mere caricature of myself.
I cast off this mortal coil a very wealthy and beloved woman, dead from complications of pneumonia (aggravated by chronic emphysema), and was buried on December 18, 1968.
The New York Times dedicated a headline and full page to my passing.
(Royalty has had to make do with less, Darling!)
photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum
(40+ years later)
I'm on the Internet!
A dozen books have been written about me.
Several attempts at bringing my life to the stage have come and gone.
If Tallulah were to host yet another dinner party that would include the twelve most fascinating, whether for GOOD or EVIL, samples of humankind in all of history among the guests, who would you suggest that she invite?
And, what should she serve?
(Let me know by return e-mail; leave your suggestions on my guestbook.)