Birth: 31st January 1902
Place of Birth: Alabama, USA
Nationality: American
Job Title: Stage and Screen Actress, Broadcaster, Icon
Partners: Glen Andrews, Napier Aington, Anthony De Bosdar, John Emery (Husband), Patsy Kelly, James Kirkwood, Hattie McDonald, William Langford, Billie Holiday, Marlena Dietrich, Hope Williams, Katherine Cornell, Sybil Thorndike Many more unknown.
Died: 12th December, 1968

Having a talent can be a real bonus if the rest of your life is a mess. Throughout this series, we have seen people who have thrown themselves into their work and achieved great success while behind their fame lay a personal life in tatters. It is not that any of our Gay Greats have hidden behind the bravado of their public life; it is that they could only find some sense of peace in their work. When the ideal life you want is not an option, finding another direction and achieving a personal sense of happiness is hard. In a world where being gay was still considered deplorable, most of our Gay Greats found their work offered a place of sanctuary, where they had clear goals, acceptable desires and somewhere in which their personality could be built on aspects of their work and not their personal life.

This month’s Gay Great was far from coy about what she wanted from life. Outrageous, outspoken, uninhibited and controversial, she went about life exactly the way she wanted. Being bisexual was no bar to her fulfilment. Living a far from wholesome life, she not only ignored all the rules but she burnt the rule book, mixed it into a cocktail and drank it back all in one go. Tallulah Bankhead knew full well what she wanted from life….she wanted it all!

During the latter part of the 1800’s, a betrothed Adelaide Bankhead travelled to Huntsville in Alabama on a mission to buy the best wedding dress she could afford. She came back with more than a new outfit – she also picked up a new fiancé, William Brockman. The couple married soon after they met, returning to Huntsville to settle down. The Bankheads were a very political family; Adelaide’s father was a Confederate veteran of the Civil War and a US Senator and his son was a US Speaker in the House of Representatives. This suited Brockman well as he was also politically ambitious.

The couple’s first daughter, Ada Eugenia, was born soon after the marriage in 1901. The very next year, Tallulah entered the world on the anniversary of the couple’s marriage. Sadly, the promise of a strong and perfect family life faded away when, as a result of a difficult birth, Adelaide developed blood poisoning and died only three weeks after the birth. Although she knew her new daughter for just a matter of days, she had the measure of the child. On her death bed Adelaide made her husband promise to take care of Eugenia, adding that ‘Tallulah will always be able to take care of herself.’

William, devastated over the death of his beloved wife, sent the two girls to live with their grandmother some miles away in a small town called Jasper. It was there that the podgy Bankhead started to show her true colours. She had uncontrollable energy and was on a constant mission to steal the limelight from her slimmer, more attractive, older sister. At school, she would entertain the class with her impressions of the teachers. At home, she would run through the house and practice gymnastics in the most inappropriate places. Her energy and attention seeking drove her grandmother mad but in contrast, her father, on his frequent visits, would place her on a table to dance and sing for everybody, proud of her cheeky character.

But this was the Deep South and her grandmother was of the Gone With the Wind generation. Determined to make the girls into proper southern ladies, she persuaded their father to send them off to a convent school to ‘tame them’. Both sisters hated the school with its strict rules and social moulding. It was here that the young Bankhead had her first sexual experiences, beginning with the odd kiss from a classmate and later moving on to more adult antics in the dormitories after lights out.

At fifteen, after passing through several convent and finishing schools, Bankhead suddenly blossomed into an attractive young lady. Her puppy fat melted away and her strong facial features become more pronounced. She was so happy with her new looks that she decided to submit her photo to a magazine beauty competition but in her haste she forgot to include any contact details. Months later, she was surprised to find that the photo had been declared the winner of the competition, under the title ‘Who Is She?’

Her father, now a notable Congressman, wrote to the magazine explaining the girl was his daughter. Taking the word of an honourable man, they agreed to meet her and found out that she was indeed the girl that they were looking for. Bankhead had won a prize that was to pave the way for her future career; three weeks work as an actress in a film called Who Loved Him Best. The part was small and she only received a few dollars, but her family put her and her aunt, who was chaperoning the lively fifteen year old, up in a top hotel for the duration. The elite of the acting world often lived in the Algonquin Hotel and Bankhead used this golden opportunity as best she could and hung around the lobby and bar for hours, meeting the top brass of Broadway.

She soon got her first stage role, a part in a short running play called The Squab Farm. During those first days on Broadway she was to meet the first woman to steal her heart, a fellow actress called Hope Williams. Their affair was relatively short lived and was arguably Bankhead’s first ever adult relationship. Details of their time together are extremely scarce, hidden from the public by secrecy. It is not known when they were together, when they split, why they split or any other details. As with most of Bankhead’s relationships with women, there is only speculation to go on, leaving a lot to guess work.

As soon as she could, Bankhead would escape the watchful gaze of her aunt to sneak off and join in any Broadway shindig she could find. She became known as the ‘must have’ person at any party. When she hit 18, her long suffering aunt decided she had had enough of trying to control her spirited niece and she joined the Red Cross and set off for a posting in Paris. Bankhead hit the ground running and moved in with Bijou Martin, a fellow actress and one of the biggest social hosts on the whole of Broadway. The parties at their apartment were never ending and illegal drugs featured highly in the festivities.

Five years after first arriving in New York, Bankhead’s social life hit an all time high but while she took the starring role at every party, the same success did not apply to the stage. Frustrated, she headed to an astrologer for guidance, who told her that her future lie ‘across the water’. Only a few days later, a cable arrived from a London theatre director asking her to try out for a part in one of his plays. There was also another significant draw to London. A young student, Napier Alington, had studied in New York some time ago and Bankhead had fallen hopelessly in love with him. Alington had since returned to London and Bankhead jumped at the chance to be close to him again. She left that instant.

London took to her right away. The minute she stepped onto the stage in The Dancers, a long dress hugging her perfect figure, her golden hair tumbling from an exotic headdress, the public knew that she was something special. Young women of her own age but who came from less well-off backgrounds adopted her as their icon. Up and down the UK, Bankhead’s photo stood on many dressing tables, ready for enthusiastic fans to try and replicate her image. Bankhead was everything they were not, rich, glamorous, witty and talented. She was also the complete embodiment of everything they wanted to be. Her fans were named the ‘Gallery Girls’ and they worshipped Bankhead like a goddess, seeing every play she performed in, sometimes more than once a week. They waited for her outside the stage door, hankering after a single look from their goddess. Despite her position, Bankhead could empathise with them. She would always take time to meet these women outside the stage door, inviting a few fans backstage and she would always thank them all immensely at the end of a performance.

Outside of the theatre, Bankhead enjoyed the new found freedom of being an adult. The romance had died between her and Napier, but they still adored each other’s company. Both were self-confessed bisexuals, both loved to party, both loved to take drugs. It was the ideal friendship. At this time, Olga Lynn, an opera singer, also entered Bankhead’s life. She too enjoyed much the same lifestyle and Bankhead eventually moved in with her. There was a party in their apartment every night, even if it only involved the three of them with a line of coke and a bottle of gin. Often the rooms were teeming with notable performers, writers and directors from theatre land. It was a world Bankhead thrived in, rarely in bed before three, hardly ever falling asleep sober. Sexually, Bankhead became more and more available. She had many short-lived affairs with men and would also indulge in the odd one night stand with women. It may not have been the lifestyle everybody approved of, but it was her life just the way she wanted it.

After a few years she moved into her own Mayfair apartment, employing staff to do everything from cleaning her windows to selecting and laying out her underwear. Adopting the English way of life, she decided to go and buy a Bentley, a car she adored. However, her sense of direction was terrible and she would often order a London taxi simply to drive in front and lead her to her destination.

During her eight years in London she performed in 24 different plays and became a household name across the UK. Her early years on the stage led to a lifestyle that was opulent in the extreme. Her body was strong and coped well with the nightly toxic cocktail she poured into it. In 1930, at the age of 28, her figure was still that of an 18 year old and her skin shone with good health. Excess had not ravaged her at all but debt certainly had. Bankhead was broke. When an offer from Paramount studios came, she had to take it. Films never held much interest for her, but hard times and the promise of huge riches helped change her mind. And so, in 1931, she packed up her home and boarded a ship back to the USA.

In the new realm of the ‘talkies’, actresses with foreign accents and exotic charm were highly profitable. Big studios in Hollywood had already catapulted Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich to fame and although Bankhead was actually an American through and through, her eight years in England qualified her as a ‘mysterious and exotic foreign girl’. The wheels of the Paramount publicity machine went into overdrive. Bankhead’s face was everywhere and the papers were filled with hype about ‘the next big thing’ in movies. Her first film, Tainted Lady, rolled out in 1931. Critics hated it. Audiences dwindled after the first week of showing. The hype had not worked and the unknown Bankhead, although putting in a shining performance, did not have the strong script to back-up her talent. Reluctantly, Paramount admitted that they had produced a flop.

While in Hollywood, Bankhead continued her regime of drink and drugs. She began to explore her lesbian feelings and her name was linked with several leading actresses and writers of the time, even the great Marlene Dietrich. The one woman who did manage to steal her heart was Greta Garbo. Bankhead was captivated by her beauty and she took on the role of one of her own Gallery Girls, adoring Greta’s work and rushing to see every new film and read every new interview. She was desperate to meet her and pulled in all the contacts she could to try and arrange it. Garbo was notoriously reclusive and it proved difficult to get an audience with her.

Finally, one of Bankhead’s contacts came through for her. Salka Viertel invited Bankhead to a house party one evening, mentioning that Garbo would be there. At last, Bankhead met her idol. Details of their meeting are scarce and the only anecdote which survives is of Bankhead pulling Garbo’s eyelashes to see if they were real. Whether they met again or if they had a relationship remains uncertain. Garbo had her own bisexual past, as had Bankhead and it is hard to imagine that they were not attracted to each other. However, the tight mutual secrecy of the Hollywood gay and bisexual community means that there is no clear evidence and we can only speculate about their relationship.

Bankhead definitely had a relationship was with the comedienne Patsy Kelly and the two even lived together at one point. Later in life, Kelly was the first big lesbian star to come out, although the details of her relationship with Bankhead were kept a secret. There is little doubt that the two were very much in love, first passionately and later as the closest of friends.

Meanwhile, Paramount was getting desperate. The studio needed a Bankhead film that was a hit (or at least broke even!) They tried a few more films with Bankhead and even teamed her up with a leading man, Gary Cooper. It was all to no avail. After yet another flop, it was clear the studio would never crack the code to a successful Bankhead movie. On Bankhead’s part, she did not know how to judge a good script from a bad one and she lacked enthusiasm on set. Paramount had signed a top stage actress too fast and when it came to the crunch, the studio had no idea what to do with her. Bankhead headed back to Broadway where she felt she belonged, her film career consigned to small references in the footnotes of the history of film.

Broadway was hardly desperate for her return. Despite her films, the public did not really know her. America was struggling under the weight of the great depression and people were cutting out every non-essential expense. There simply were not the audiences to fund most productions. Bigger setbacks were ahead for Bankhead. During rehearsals for one of her less notable plays, she keeled over in pain and was rushed to the hospital. Most of her colleagues suspected liver problems or maybe a burst appendix but it transpired that her lavish and carefree life had caught up with her. Bankhead had an advanced case of gonorrhoea and a hysterectomy was performed immediately. These proved to be the darkest days of her life. Her career was over, the world was heading towards war and her body was beginning to feel the strain of a life dedicated to pleasure.

Recovery was not easy. She still smoked 100 of her favourite Craven A cigarettes each day, and she led a nocturnal life, getting up at 4 in the afternoon, watching the soaps, drinking, playing bridge till late at night then retiring to bed just before the sun rose. Further career disappointment was ahead. She finally managed to pick a good script. It featured a love story set against the civil war and the Deep South, perfect for an Alabama girl. She screen tested for the part and did everything in her power to make it hers. Sadly she failed and narrowly lost out to Vivian Leigh. The part was Scarlet O’Hara. The film Gone With The Wind. How different the rest of her life would have been had she got the part.

Certain she knew the way to pick herself up, Bankhead married fellow actor, John Emery and tried to settle down. She took another stab at Broadway, but nothing substantial came her way. She trudged on and eventually, just as war broke out across Europe, she had a big hit show. During the war years, more hits came her way, but Bankhead got herself a reputation as a difficult diva. Her tantrums frightened everybody and storming out of rehearsals was a daily event. Her fellow actors would often arrive at the theatre with only minutes to spare as, once on stage, Bankhead was fine. Off of it, she was a cannon with the fuse alight.

Her marriage to Emery finished only 4 years after it began. Bankhead bought a country house in New York State with 75 windows which she naturally named ‘Windows’. She surrounded herself with young gay men who she nicknamed ‘caddies’. They did everything for her, fetching food, mixing gin and tonics, even lighting up her cigarettes for her. She also developed a passion for pets and owned everything from a baby tiger named Winston to a rescued monkey called King Kong.

Careerwise, she moved towards the world of radio, hosting her own variety show on NBC Radio. Apart from a short court case in which her lifelong secretary was found guilty of stealing from her, Bankhead led a dignified life in the eyes of the media. In her personal life, it was clear that her addiction to drink, drugs and cigarettes that she had enjoyed in her younger days was beginning to affect her body. Like many maturing stars, her career began to consist of guest appearances, the most memorable of these, in the hit TV show Batman. By the time she was 50, she had performed in every entertainment medium of the time.

In 1964, Bankhead experienced breathing difficulties and she visited the doctor. She was diagnosed with emphysema, undoubtedly caused by her 100-a-day habit. The doctor advised her to quit smoking, which she tried to do but she had been addicted to nicotine for thirty years. Back on the cigarettes, she carried on her career as best she could with the aid of her young caddies, one of whom had the job of holding her hand every night as she fell asleep. The once young and vibrant Bankhead found herself, as an old woman, keeping up a public façade regarding her social life whilst at the same time being terrified of her own mortality.

Her last film, Fanatic, earned her $50,000, enough to top up her already substantial fortune. She made a rare appearance at Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball. Other guests noticed how the bright socialite was now unable to dance. As a twenty year old she would have been the queen bee at the centre of the room with crowds of guests revolving around her. It was sad to see the same woman sitting in a corner, enjoying the sight of others having fun, a polite smile on her face. After a few more television appearances, she retreated to Maryland to spend the summer with her sister. The two had led separate, yet amazingly similar, lives. Both liked the good times, both were addicted to drugs, drink and sex. During that last summer together in 1968, they no doubt spent many long hours reminiscing about times past; comparing notes about the parties they had been to, the people they had met.

Bankhead headed back to New York for the winter, where she contracted Asian flu. Her weakened body didn’t stand a chance and she died in hospital in early December. Her last request was for her two favourite things in life ‘codeine, bourbon’, drugs and drink. She was later buried in St Paul’s Churchyard in Maryland.

What can be learnt from a star who systematically poisoned her body with toxins whilst she tried desperately to keep her career going? What influence has her self-indulgent lifestyle and her promiscuity had on this generation? Her lifestyle may not be advisable but she should certainly be respected for the fact that she lived her life the way she wanted to. Bankhead must have known that her lifestyle would take its toll, leaving her a frail old woman, her body destroyed by the life she had led, but she didn’t seem to care. Her life was her own and she lived every bit of it the way she wanted to. Bankhead’s life was different from many other Gay Greats in one major way; she was happy till the day she died. Even though her means of achieving that happiness is not for everybody, she inspires fans around the world today to follow what gives them pleasure, whether other people like it or not.

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