Decades after her heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, self-described “ambisextrous” stage and screen star Tallulah Bankhead is as famous for her bad-girl antics as for her acting talent. Bankhead was born to a prominent political family in Huntsville, Alabama, probably in 1903 (the year is subject to debate). Her father, a US Congressman, sent her to convent schools, where she had her first sexual experiences with other girls.
At age 15, Bankhead won a movie magazine beauty contest with a prize of a small film role. Chaperoned by an aunt, she took up residence at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, a favored haunt of the Broadway elite.
There, Bankhead was seduced by renowned actress Eva Le Gallienne, and met Estelle Winwood, an older English actress who would become a lifelong friend and sometime lover. Bankhead also counted among her liaisons jazz great Billie Holiday.
Breakthrough acting success eluded Bankhead in New York, so, in 1923, she moved to London. She appeared in two-dozen popular West End plays, and achieved huge fame. She earned considerable income, but spent profligately. By the end of the decade, she was broke, and accepted a contract offer from Paramount Studios.
In Hollywood, Bankhead hosted parties at her mansion. An emergency hysterectomy because of advanced gonorrhea did little to curb her omnivorous sexual appetite.
“My daddy warned me about men and booze,” Bankhead famously quipped, “but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.”
Bankhead had flings with Gary Cooper and—allegedly—with Marlene Dieterich, but Greta Garbo apparently spurned her advances. Though Bankhead often bragged about her sexual conquests, many believed she exaggerated for the sake of publicity. She married once, to actor John Emery in 1937, but they divorced four years later with no children.
Subsequently, Bankhead lived for extended period with Winwood and with Patsy Kelly, one of the first actresses to come out as a lesbian. Bankhead also surrounded herself with numerous pets and her “caddies”—young men who mixed her drinks, lit her constant cigarettes, and sometimes provided sexual services.
After making several unsuccessful Hollywood films, Bankhead returned to live acting, receiving critical acclaim for her Broadway performance in The Little Foxes (1939).
But as she aged, Bankhead became a caricature of her former self. Before her death in 1968, her final roles were intentionally absurd, including a turn as the Black Widow on the Batman television series.
When producer William Dozier explained his vision for the role, Bankhead reportedly replied, “Don’t talk to me about camp, dahling. I invented it!”
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication, or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.