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The Times (13/Dec/1968) - Obituary: Miss Tallulah Bankhead

(c) The Times (13/Dec/1968)



The darling of the twenties with a devastating wit

Miss Tallulah Bankhead the actress died in New York yesterday at the age of 65. With long, lank hair, a husky voice and a devastating wit, she was unique in her field — a personality as much as an actress.

Miss Bankhead, who was outspoken in her likes and dislikes, was most noted for her stage performances in The Little Foxes, Private Lives and The Skin of our Teeth. Her comedy timing, haunted face with its drooping eyelids and her particular way of saying "dahling", provided impersonators with rich material and she was one of their favourite subjects.

She made her first stage appearance at the age of 16 and from that time her career was a mixed bag of hits and misses. Among the latter was a flop production on Broadway of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in which she appeared as the Egyptian queen. Years later, she delighted audiences of her popular radio and television shows by quoting reviews of her as Cleopatra.

Her films included Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, Tarnished Lady, Devil and the Deep and Royal Scandal in which she played Catherine the Great of Russia. Miss Bankhead, who came to Britain in the 20s and quickly became the "darling" of London society, started making cabaret appearances in the 1950s with her own brand of humour and glamour.

Her outspokenness in her autobiography, published in 1952. led to at least one law suit The British publishers agreed in court to pay compensation to actress Olga Lindo because of Miss Bankhead's comments on that actress's performance as Sadie Thompson in Somerset Maugham's Rain. Maugham had turned down Miss Bankhead for the role of the slut Sadie. In her autobiography Tallulah said she went home, put on Sadie's costume "gulped down 20 aspirins" and lay down after scribbling "It ain't gonna rain no more". The next day her friend Noel Coward telephoned to offer her a role in his play Fallen Angels, which was a big hit for her.

Tallulah Bankhead was a Southerner: her father, William Brockman Bankhead was from Alabama, and her mother was a Viginian. Tallulah was born at Huntsville, Alabama, on January 31, 1903: her father was Democratic City Attorney for Huntsville and later Solicitor General for the judicial district, and in 1917 he was elected to Congress. That same year she won a beauty prize offered by a film magazine and in 1918 she played her first parts on the New York stage and in films.

In 1922 she was recommended by Charles B. Cochran to Gerald du Maurier as a possible leading lady of a play due for production at Wyndham's in London. Du Maurier sent for her, then put her off, but she decided none the less to go to England: "You'll be offered a part because your hair is so beautiful", said her friend the British-born actress, Miss Estelle Winwood. Her hair was "tawny". Sure enough, when du Maurier saw her without a hat, he again changed his mind and she was engaged for The Dancers.

In London she at once attracted a following of "gallery girls" which grew within two years into a feminine legion of Tallulah-fans. This was hard on her as an actress, for they did not support her when she gave her best performance in Sydney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted. They preferred her in The Gold Diggers, doing the Charleston and turning a cartwheel, or in The Garden of Eden and Her Cardboard Lover, semi-undressed. To prove there was more to her than all this, she appeared in The Lady of the Camellias in 1930, but her monotonous delivery of the lines betrayed her inexperience, and, having accepted a long-term offer from Paramount, she prepared to go home at the beginning of 1931. "Tallulah is always skating on thin ice; everyone wants to be there when it breaks", Mrs. Patrick Campbell had said of her, but the British ice had not broken.

Anti-climax followed. She did not establish herself as a film star in Hollywood, and on returning to the theatre in New York had no luck till 1939, when Miss Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes gave her the finest dramatic opportunity of her career. After this no one could again dismiss her as a lightweight or an exhibitionist. She earned a second award from the New York critics for her comedy work in 1942 in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, the play described by Alexander Woolcott as the nearest thing to a great one the American theatre had yet evolved.

She married in 1937 John Emery, the actor; the marriage was dissolved in 1940. Augustus John's portrait of her as a young woman was exhibited at the R.A. and is referred to in her autobiography. Tallulah, as her most valued possession.