She was born in Alabama to a very powerful political family. Her father was Speaker of the House from 1936 to 1940 and her uncle and grandfather were both Senators. But Politics was not in her cards for Tallulah. At fifteen she moved to New York to pursue and acting career and began developing her reputation as a party girl early on.
She did succeed as an actress, appearing on stage and screen. Her deep voice and overt sexuality made her a stand-out and favorite with directors.
In 1933 Tallulah nearly died after having an emergency hysterectomy due to complications from a venereal disease. She told the doctor, “don’t think this has taught me a lesson.” She was well known for her quick, passionate affairs with men and women including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Billie Holiday. Although she never publicly announced herself as a lesbian- she did say she was “ambisextrous.”
As she grew older, Bankhead was a heavy smoker, drinker and pill-popper, but she still performed. In 1951 she was cast on the Lucille Ball show to play herself in an episode titled “The Celebrity Next Door.” The part was originally written for Bette Davis, but she was out with an injury. This did not go well- it took hours to wake her up each day, she appeared drunk, and refused to listen to the Director or even rehearse. Surprisingly, the episode aired without any incident.
In 2000, declassified government documents showed that Bankhead had been investigated by MI5 (British counter-intelligence and security) for corrupting at least 6 schoolboys at Eton (a boarding school in Windsor, England) by seducing them and having them take part in “indecent and unnatural acts.” But this was all rumor and reportedly a cover up by the school’s headmaster.
She died in 1968 due to complications from pneumonia and Hong Kong Flu. Her last words were “Codeine… Bourbon.”
Some of her more famous quotes (which are brilliant):
“Cocaine isn’t habit-forming, and I know, I’ve been taking it for years”
“There have been only two geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare. But darling, I think you’d better put Shakespeare first.”
“Only good girls keep diaries, bad girls don’t have time.”
“I’ll come make love to you at five o’clock, if I’m late start without me.”
“I’m as pure as the driven slush.”
and my favorite… (on seeing a former lover for the first time in years) “I thought I told you to wait in the car.”