Biography, Blog, Blog and News

The Politics of Tallulah Bankhead – Ashley Steenson

American actress Tallulah Bankhead experienced a resurgence in popular culture after the release of Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood (2020) and Lee Daniels’ The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday (2021). Both Paget Brewster’s portrayal of Tallulah in Hollywood and Natasha Lyonne’s portrayal in Daniels’ film revived the question of Bankhead’s alleged affairs with women like actress Hattie McDaniel and singer Billie Holiday. News coverage focused on the legend surrounding Bankhead, rather than placing that legend in the full context of her life and career. Similarly, other recent articles focus on Bankhead as the inspiration for famous villain Cruella de Vil.

In on the joke, Bankhead wrote in her 1952 autobiography that she was a “co-author” of the rumors about herself. On the dissonance between her public persona and interior life, Tallulah wrote that while she appeared self-confident, she sometimes “churned with doubt.” Though she marketed herself as (and often was) a libertine, Bankhead was prolific, appearing in over 20 films and 50 stage productions by playwrights like Noël Coward, Thornton Wilder, and Tennessee Williams.

Bankhead perpetuated the idea of herself as a character, but she had a more substantial side that receives less popular attention. While Bankhead did drink, smoke, and have numerous affairs with both men and women, she was also an original political mind who advocated for causes she supported for over three decades.

Historian Kari Frederickson concludes in Bankhead family biography Deep South Dynasty (2022) that while Tallulah was mostly progressive on race, she did “maintain many of the class pretensions of the southern elite.” Though Bankhead was somewhat of a “conventional liberal anticommunist,” she was also brave enough to denounce “those standing in the way of equality, her own family included.”

Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born in Huntsville, Alabama in 1902. The death of Tallulah’s mother after Bankhead’s birth haunted her throughout her life. Her father, Democratic politician William B. Bankhead, also struggled and often left Tallulah and her sister Eugenia with their grandparents. They grew up in a Jasper, Alabama mansion built in 1910 by her grandfather, Senator John Hollis Bankhead. Eventually, they moved between boarding schools (usually upon Tallulah’s expulsion). After winning a magazine contest as a teenager, Bankhead moved to New York and then became an actress in 1920s London.

Tallulah’s time playing contrarian women on the London stage shaped the person and activist she would become. Actress Viola Tree claimed Bankhead was already “a great conversationalist” on political matters. Decades later, journalist Brendan Gill wrote that when the press interviewed Tallulah, they were deluged with “information about politics, baseball, sexual intercourse, acting, the British Royal Family, mineral deposits in northern Alabama, gambling odds, gardening, breeds of dogs, brands of bourbon, and ballroom dancing.”

Performing in 16 plays, Bankhead called her eight years in England her “most exciting.” Bankhead acquired a following of mostly young women, bought a Bentley, and dabbled in the drug scene. Along with brief affairs, Tallulah became engaged to two men. Neither relationship worked out, as playwright Zoe Akins claimed Bankhead had “neither the patience nor the intention of waiting for opportunity.”

When she returned to the U.S., Tallulah worked for major studios in Los Angeles. She explained that her more risqué characters were “always repentant” in adherence to the 1934 Hays Code, which required filmmakers to self-censor. However, Bankhead claimed to have “no regrets” about her time in California before returning to the stage.

Bankhead first engaged in political activism in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Frederickson explains that in 1936, Bankhead “lent her support to National Sharecroppers Week, something her father found particularly embarrassing.” In 1939, Tallulah advocated for Works Progress Administration (WPA) support for the theater. In addition, she campaigned for the acquittal of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men wrongly convicted in Alabama.

After a failed marriage, Tallulah made her film comeback in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), while continuing to support causes she cared about. In 1948, Bankhead endorsed Democratic presidential contender Harry Truman’s civil rights platform and spoke out against Dixiecrats who bolted from the party. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (I.L.G.W.U.) invited Tallulah to introduce Truman on the radio.

The following year, Bankhead wrote Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) Director J. Edgar Hoover about iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday’s drug arrest. Tallulah strategically reminded Hoover of his relationship with Will Bankhead. Tallulah unfortunately used stereotypes in the letter that implied that her friend and rumored lover was weak and needed psychological help. However, like the reference to her father, this could have been an attempt to persuade the reactionary Hoover. Over the phone, Tallulah claimed Holiday should not “be confined within prison walls.” When Holiday died in 1959, Bankhead sent roses for her casket with a card reading, “God bless you. Love. From Tallulah.”

During the 1950s, Tallulah publicized her connections to Black public figures in order to bring attention and resources to the Civil Rights Movement. Bankhead and jazz legend W.C. Handy endowed funds to support Black musicians, and Tallulah spoke at a dinner for Handy at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1951. In 1952, Bankhead wrote an article for Ebony about jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Four years later, Bankhead spoke at a civil rights rally in New York City, along with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, and Autherine Lucy, the first Black student to enroll at the University of Alabama.

In 1960, journalist Allan Morrison interviewed Bankhead about her politics for Ebony. Bankhead did not discuss the South’s history on race and embraced anachronistic customs from the time period. For example, a photo shows Tallulah in fur beside her maid. In 1949, Bankhead had accused a former maid of stealing from her, forcing the woman to come forward with the truth that the money went to pay for drugs and sex for Tallulah.

On the other hand, Morrison explains that Tallulah consistently spoke out against lynching and disfranchisement. Bankhead also showed foresight on casting aside the myopic understanding of racial inequality as a solely “Southern problem,” calling attention to issues like housing in the urban North.

On screen and off, Bankhead played the villain. Her favorite role was the “murderess” Regina in Alabama-born playwright Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1939), and she gave a high camp final performance in the 1967 horror film Fanatic. On December 12, 1968, Bankhead died from pneumonia at the age of 66. Though she enjoyed playing the careless rebel, Tallulah was a champion of the poor, the outsider, and the underdog. While she sometimes got it wrong, she rarely kept quiet about what she thought was right. As Bankhead told Ebony in 1960, “I say if you believe in something, say so loud enough to be heard.”

Image: Tallulah Bankhead in 1941, wikicommons.

Sources/Further Reading (selected)

Tallulah Bankhead, Tallulah: My Autobiography (1952)

Letter from Tallulah Bankhead to J. Edgar Hoover (1949)

Kari Frederickson, Deep South Dynasty: The Bankheads of Alabama (2022)

Brendan Gill, “Making a Noise in the World—I: Tallulah Bankhead’s rise to fame,” The New Yorker (1972)

Judith Mackrell, Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation (2013)

Allan Morrison, “A Southerner Looks at Race Prejudice,” Ebony (1960)

Murray Schumach, “Tallulah Bankhead Dead at 65; Vibrant Stage and Screen Star,” (1968)