Tallulah hailed from the Brockman Bankheads, a prominent Alabama political family — her grandfather and uncle were U.S. Senators and her father served as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Tallulah's support of liberal causes such as civil rights broke with the tendency of the Southern Democrats to support a more typically aligned agenda and she often opposed her own family publicly.
Primarily an actress of the stage, Bankhead did have one hit on film (Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat), as well as a brief but successful career on radio. She later made appearances on television, some of which have become classics.
In her personal life, Bankhead struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction, and was infamous for her uninhibited sex life. Bankhead was capable of great kindness and generosity to those in need, supporting disadvantaged foster children and helping several families escape the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Bankhead was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1972, and the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 1981. Upon her death, Bankhead was credited with nearly 300 film, stage, television, and radio roles. She is regarded as one of the 20th-century theatre's great Leading Ladies.
Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born on January 31, 1902, in Huntsville, Alabama to William Brockman Bankhead and Adelaide Eugenia "Ada" Bankhead (née Sledge); her great-great-grandfather, James Bankhead (1738–1799) was born in Ulster and settled in South Carolina. "Tallu" was named after her paternal grandmother, who in turn was named after Tallulah Falls, Georgia. Her father hailed from the Bankhead-and-Brockman political family, active in the Democratic Party in the South in general and Alabama in particular. Her father was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1936 to 1940. She was the niece of Senator John H. Bankhead II and granddaughter of Senator John H. Bankhead. Her mother, Adelaide "Ada" Eugenia, was a native of Como, Mississippi, and was engaged to another man when she met William Bankhead on a trip to Huntsville, Alabama to buy her wedding dress. The two fell in love at first sight and were married on January 31, 1900 in Memphis, Tennessee. Their first child, Ada Eugenia, was born on January 24, 1901. She was born prematurely and suffered from vision difficulties.
The following year, Bankhead was born on her parents' wedding anniversary, on the second floor of what is now known as the Isaac Schiffman Building. A marker was erected to commemorate the site, and in 1980 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Three weeks after Bankhead's birth, her mother died of blood poisoning (septicemia) on February 23, 1902. Coincidentally, her maternal grandmother had died giving birth to her mother. On her deathbed, Ada told her sister-in-law to "take care of Eugenia, Tallulah will always be able to take care of herself". Bankhead was baptized next to her mother's coffin.
William B. Bankhead was devastated by his wife's death, which sent him into a bout of depression and alcoholism. Consequently, Tallulah and her sister Eugenia were mostly reared by their paternal grandmother, Tallulah James Brockman Bankhead, at the family estate called "Sunset" in Jasper, Alabama. As a child, Bankhead was described as "extremely homely" and overweight, while her sister was slim and prettier. As a result, she did everything in her efforts to gain attention, and constantly sought her father's approval. After watching a performance at a circus, she taught herself how to cartwheel, and frequently cartwheeled about the house, sang, and recited literature that she had memorized. She was prone to throwing tantrums, rolling around the floor, and holding her breath until she was visibly blue in the face. Her grandmother often threw a bucket of water on her to halt these outbursts.
Bankhead's famously husky voice (which she described as "mezzo-basso") was the result of chronic bronchitis due to childhood illness. She was described as a performer and an exhibitionist from the beginning, discovering at an early age that theatrics gained her the attention she desired. Finding she had a gift for mimicry, she entertained her classmates by imitating the schoolteachers. Bankhead claimed that her "first performance" was witnessed by none other than the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Her Aunt Marie gave the famous brothers a party at her home near Montgomery, Alabama, in which the guests were asked to entertain. "I won the prize for the top performance, with an imitation of my kindergarten teacher", Bankhead wrote. "The judges? Orville and Wilbur Wright." Bankhead also found she had a prodigious memory for literature, memorizing poems and plays and reciting them dramatically.
Tallulah and Eugenia's grandmother and aunt were beginning to find the girls difficult to handle. Their father William, who was working from their Huntsville home as a lawyer, proposed enrolling the girls in a convent school (although he was a Methodist and her mother an Episcopalian). In 1912, both girls were enrolled in the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville, New York when Tallulah was 10. As William's political career brought him to Washington, the girls were enrolled in a series of different schools, each one a step closer to Washington, DC. When Bankhead was 15, her aunt encouraged her to take more pride in her appearance, suggesting that she go on a diet to improve her confidence. Bankhead quickly matured into a southern belle. Her sister married at 16, but Tallulah sought a career in acting.
At 15, Bankhead submitted her photo to Picture Play, which was conducting a contest and awarding a trip to New York plus a movie part to 12 winners based on their photographs. However, she forgot to send in her name or address with the picture. Bankhead learned that she was one of the winners while browsing the magazine at her local drugstore. Her photo in the magazine was captioned "Who is She?", urging the mystery girl to contact the paper at once. Congressman William Bankhead sent in a letter to the magazine with her duplicate photo.
Arriving in New York, Bankhead discovered that her contest win was fleeting: she was paid $75 for three weeks' work on Who Loved Him Best and had only a minor part, but she quickly found her niche in New York City. She soon moved into the Algonquin Hotel, incidentally a hotspot for the artistic and literary elite of the era, where she quickly charmed her way into the famed Algonquin Round Table of the hotel bar. She was dubbed one of the "Four Riders of the Algonquin", consisting of Bankhead, Estelle Winwood, Eva Le Gallienne, and Blyth Daly (all lesbians or bisexual). The Algonquin's wild parties introduced Bankhead to cocaine and marijuana, of which she later remarked, "Cocaine isn't habit-forming and I know because I've been taking it for years." Bankhead did abstain from drinking, but only because she had promised her father that she would stay away from alcohol. At the Algonquin, Bankhead befriended actress Estelle Winwood. She also met Ethel Barrymore, who attempted to persuade her to change her name to Barbara. Bankhead declined, and Vanity Fair later wrote, "she's the only actress on both sides of the Atlantic to be recognized by her first name only." In 1919, after roles in three other silent films, When Men Betray (1918), Thirty a Week (1918), and The Trap (1919), Bankhead made her stage debut in The Squab Farm at the Bijou Theatre in New York. She soon realized her place was on stage rather than screen, and had roles in 39 East (1919), Footloose (1919), Nice People (1921), Everyday (1921), Danger (1922), Her Temporary Husband (1922), and The Exciters (1922). Though her acting was praised, the plays were commercially and critically unsuccessful. Bankhead had been in New York for five years, but had yet to score a significant hit. Restless, Bankhead moved to London.
In 1923 she made her debut on the London stage at Wyndham's Theatre. She appeared in over a dozen plays in London over the next eight years, most famously The Dancers. Her fame as an actress was ensured in 1924 when she played Amy in Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted. The show won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize.
While in London, Bankhead bought herself a Bentley, which she loved to drive. She was not very competent with directions and constantly found herself lost in the London streets. She would telephone a taxi-cab and pay the driver to drive to her destination while she followed behind in her car. During her eight years on the London stage, Bankhead earned a reputation for making the most out of inferior material. For example, in her autobiography, Bankhead described the opening night of a play called Conchita:
"In the second act ... I came on carrying a monkey ... On opening night, the monkey went berserk ... (he) snatched my black wig from my head, leaped from my arms and scampered down to the footlights. There he paused, peered out at the audience, then waved my wig over his head ... The audience had been giggling at the absurd plot even before this simian had at me. Now it became hysterical. What did Tallulah do in this crisis? I turned a cartwheel! The audience roared ... After the monkey business I was afraid they might boo me. Instead I received an ovation."
Bankhead returned to the United States in 1931, but Hollywood success eluded her in her first four films of the 1930s. She rented a home at 1712 Stanley Street, in Hollywood, and began hosting parties that were said to "have no boundaries". Bankhead's first film was Tarnished Lady (1931), directed by George Cukor and the pair became fast friends. Bankhead behaved herself on the set and filming went smoothly, but she found film-making to be very boring and did not have the patience for it. She did not like Hollywood, either; when she met producer Irving Thalberg, she asked him, "How do you get laid in this dreadful place?" Thalberg retorted, "I'm sure you'll have no problem. Ask anyone." Although Bankhead was not very interested in making films, the opportunity to make $50,000 per film was too good to pass up. Her 1932 movie Devil and the Deep is notable for the presence of three major co-stars, with Bankhead receiving top billing over Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, and Cary Grant; it is the only film with Cooper and Grant as the film's leading men. She later said, "Dahling, the main reason I accepted [the part] was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper!" Later in 1932, Bankhead starred opposite Robert Montgomery in Faithless.
In 1933, Bankhead nearly died following a five-hour emergency hysterectomy due to venereal disease, which she claimed she had contracted from George Raft. Only 70 lb (32 kg) when she left the hospital, she stoically said to her doctor, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson!" In 1934, after recuperating in Alabama, she returned to England. After only a short stay, she was called back to New York to play in The Little Foxes. Although Bette Davis played the leading character in the 1941 film version, she openly admitted in later years that she had emulated Bankhead in the role. Bankhead continued to play in various performances over the next few years, gaining excellent notices for her portrayal of Elizabeth in a revival of Somerset Maugham's The Circle.
Returning to Broadway, Bankhead's career stalled at first in unmemorable plays. When she appeared in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra with her then-husband, John Emery, the New York Evening Post critic John Mason Brown wrote, "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra – and sank."
David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind (1939) called her the "first choice among established stars" to play Scarlett O'Hara. Although her screen test for the role in black-and-white was superb, she photographed poorly in Technicolor. Selznick also reportedly believed that at age 36, she was too old to play Scarlett, who is 16 at the beginning of the film (the role eventually went to Vivien Leigh). Selznick sent Kay Brown to Bankhead to discuss the possibility of Bankhead playing prostitute Belle Watling in the film, which she turned down. The search for Scarlett O'Hara was documented in "The Scarlet O'Hara Wars" episode of the miniseries Moviola, where the very similar Carrie Nye played Bankhead, being nominated for an Emmy Award.
Her brilliant portrayal of the cold and ruthless, yet fiery Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939) won her the Variety magazine's award for Best Actress of the Year. Bankhead as Regina was lauded as "one of the most electrifying performances in American theater history". During the run, she was featured on the cover of Life. Bankhead and playwright Hellman, both formidable women, feuded over the Soviet Union's invasion of Finland. Bankhead (a staunch anti-Communist) was said to want a portion of one performance's proceeds to go to Finnish relief, while Hellman (who had defended the Moscow Trials of 1936, and was a member of the Communist Party USA in 1938–40) objected strenuously, and the two women did not speak for the next quarter of a century. Bankhead called it "the best role I ever had in the theater".
Bankhead earned another Variety award and the New York Drama Critics' Award for Best Performance by an Actress followed her role in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, in which Bankhead played Sabina, the housekeeper and temptress, opposite Fredric March and Florence Eldridge (Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, and also husband and wife offstage). About her work in Wilder's classic, the New York Sun wrote: "Her portrayal of Sabina has comedy and passion. How she contrives both, almost at the same time, is a mystery to mere man."
In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock cast her as cynical journalist Constance Porter in her most successful film, both critically and commercially, Lifeboat. Her superbly multifaceted performance was acknowledged as her best on film and won her the New York Film Critics Circle award. A beaming Bankhead accepted her New York trophy and exclaimed, "Dahlings, I was wonderful!"
Bankhead appeared in a revival of Noël Coward's Private Lives, taking it on tour and then to Broadway for the better part of two years. The play's run made Bankhead a fortune. From that time, Bankhead could command 10% of the gross and was billed larger than any other actor in the cast, although she usually granted equal billing to Estelle Winwood, a frequent co-star and close friend from the 1920s until Bankhead's death in 1968.
In 1950, in an effort to cut into the rating leads of The Jack Benny Program and The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show, which had jumped from NBC radio to CBS radio the previous season, NBC spent millions over the two seasons of The Big Show starring "the glamorous, unpredictable" Tallulah Bankhead as its host, in which she acted not only as mistress of ceremonies, but also performed monologues (often written by Dorothy Parker) and songs. Despite Meredith Willson's Orchestra and Chorus and top guest stars from Broadway, Hollywood, and radio, The Big Show, which earned rave reviews, failed to do more than dent Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen's ratings. The next season, NBC installed her as one of a half-dozen rotating hosts of NBC's The All Star Revue on Saturday nights.
Bankhead was director Irving Rapper's first choice for the role of Amanda in the film version of Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie. Laurette Taylor, who originated the role of Amanda, was an idol of Bankhead's and also an alcoholic, whose brilliant performance in the original Broadway production reversed years of career decline. Rapper called Bankhead's screen test the greatest performance he had ever seen: "I thought she was going to be difficult, but she was like a child, so sweet and lovely. I was absolutely floored by her performance. It's the greatest test I've ever made or seen in my life. I couldn't believe I was seeing such reality. Bankhead was absolutely natural, so moving, so touching without even trying. The crew was stunned, too." But studio head Jack Warner rejected the idea because of his fear of Tallulah's drinking; though she promised not to drink during shooting, he refused to give her the part. The role was given to Gertrude Lawrence instead, whose acting was panned by most critics.
Though Bankhead's career slowed in the mid-1950s, she never faded from the public eye. Her highly public and often scandalous personal life began to undermine her reputation as a terrific actress, leading to criticism she had become a caricature of herself. Although a heavy smoker (reportedly 150 cigarettes/day), heavy drinker, and consumer of sleeping pills (she was a lifelong insomniac), Bankhead continued to perform in the 1950s and 1960s on Broadway, radio, television, and in the occasional film.
Around this time, Bankhead began to attract a passionate and highly loyal following of gay men, some of whom she employed as help when her lifestyle began to take a toll on her, affectionately calling them her "caddies". Though she had long struggled with addiction, her condition now worsened – she began taking dangerous cocktails of drugs to fall asleep, and her maid had to tape her arms down to prevent her from consuming pills during her periods of intermittent wakefulness. In her later years, Bankhead had serious accidents and several psychotic episodes from sleep deprivation and hypnotic drug abuse. Though she always hated being alone, her struggle with loneliness began to lapse into a depression. In 1956, playing the truth game with Tennessee Williams, she confessed, "I’m fifty-four, and I wish always, always, for death. I’ve always wanted death. Nothing else do I want more."
Bankhead's most popular and perhaps best remembered television appearance was the December 3, 1957 The Ford Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show. Bankhead played herself in the classic episode titled "The Celebrity Next Door". The part was originally slated for Bette Davis, but Davis had to bow out after cracking a vertebra. Lucille Ball was reportedly a fan of Bankhead and did a good impression of her. By the time the episode was filmed, however, both Ball and Desi Arnaz were deeply frustrated by Bankhead's behavior during rehearsals. It took her three hours to "wake up" once she arrived on the set and she often seemed drunk. She also refused to listen to the director and she did not like rehearsing. Ball and Arnaz apparently did not know about Bankhead's antipathy to rehearsals or her ability to memorize a script quickly. After rehearsals, the filming of the episode proceeded without a hitch and Ball congratulated Bankhead on her performance.
In 1956, Bankhead appeared as Blanche DuBois (a character inspired by her) in a revival of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1956). Williams had wanted Bankhead for the original production, but she turned it down. Tennessee Williams himself (they were close friends) called her Blanche "the worst I have seen", accusing her of ruining the role to appease her fans who wanted camp. She agreed with this verdict, and made an effort to conquer the audience which her own legend had drawn about her, giving a performance two weeks later of which he remarked: "I'm not ashamed to say that I shed tears almost all the way through and that when the play was finished I rushed up to her and fell to my knees at her feet. The human drama, the play of a woman's great valor and an artist's truth, her own, far superseded, and even eclipsed, to my eye, the performance of my own play." The director remarked that her performance exceeded Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh's in the role. However, the initial reviews had decided the production's fate, and the producer pulled the plug after 15 performances.
Bankhead received a Tony Award nomination for her performance of a bizarre 50-year-old mother in the short-lived Mary Coyle Chase play, Midgie Purvis (1961). It was a physically demanding role and Bankhead insisted on doing the stunts herself, including sliding down a staircase bannister. She received glowing reviews, but the play itself suffered from numerous rewrites and failed to last beyond a month. Her last theatrical appearance was in a revival of another Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963), directed by Tony Richardson. She had suffered a severe burn on her right hand from a match exploding while she lit a cigarette, and it was aggravated by the importance of jewelery props in the play. She took heavy painkillers, but these dried her mouth, and most critics thought that Tallulah's line readings were unintelligible. Like Antony and Cleopatra, the nadir of her career, she only made five performances, and in the same unhappy theater.
Among her last radio appearances was in an episode of the BBC's Desert Island Discs with Roy Plomley. Bankhead, at 62 and audibly suffering from breathing difficulties from emphysema in the interview show, frankly spoke of how hopeless she would be on a desert island, admitting that she "couldn’t put a key in the door, dahling. I can't do a thing for myself." In the interview, host Plomley spoke of Bankhead's glory days as the most celebrated actress of 1920s London. Later he recalled of their interview, "She was a very frail and ailing old lady, and I was shocked to see how old and ill she looked as I helped her out of a taxi. She had come from her hotel wearing a mink coat slung over a pair of lounging pyjamas, and she leaned heavily on my arm as I supported her to the lift. Her eyes were still fine, and there was still beauty in the bone structure of her face beneath the wrinkles and ravages of hard living. Her hands shook, and when she wished to go to the loo she had to ask Monica Chapman to accompany her to help her with her clothing."
Her last motion picture was in a British horror film, Fanatic (1965). She chose this role over the lead in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which she had turned down. Fanatic was released in the U.S. as Die! Die! My Darling!, which she protested, thinking it was exploiting her characteristic catchphrase, but did not succeed in getting it changed. During the screening she held privately for her friends, she apologized for "looking older than God's wet nurse" (in the film she wore no makeup and dyed her hair grey, and the film used very claustrophobic close-ups to accentuate her age and frailness). She called the B-movie horror flick "a piece of shit", though her performance in it was praised by critics and remains popular as a cult film and with her fans. Her last appearances on television came in March 1967 as the villainous Black Widow in the Batman TV series, and on the December 17, 1967, episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour comedy-variety TV series, in the "Mahta Harry" skit. She also appeared on NBC's famous lost Tonight Show Beatles interview that aired on May 14, 1968. Sitting behind the interview desk and beside Joe Garagiola, who was substituting for an absent Johnny Carson, she took an active role during the interview, questioning Paul McCartney and John Lennon. George Harrison and Ringo Starr were not present and were in England at the time, as noted during the interview.
Tallulah Bankhead moved into 230 East 62nd Street in the late 50s. On December 12, 1968, Bankhead died in St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan at 7:45 am, aged 66. The cause of death was pleural double pneumonia, complicated by emphysema due to cigarette smoking, malnutrition, and possibly a strain of the flu which was endemic at that time. Her last coherent words reportedly were a garbled request for "Codeine ... bourbon."
A private funeral was held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Kent County, Maryland, on December 14. A memorial service was held at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York City on December 16. She was buried in Saint Paul's Churchyard, near Chestertown, Maryland, where her sister lived.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Bankhead has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6141 Hollywood Blvd.
Bankhead was famous not only as an actress, but also for her many affairs, compelling personality, and witticisms such as, "There is less to this than meets the eye." and "I'm as pure as the driven slush." Bankhead was an avid baseball fan whose favorite team was the New York Giants. This was evident in one of her famous quotes, through which she gave a nod to the arts: "There have been only two geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare. But, darling, I think you'd better put Shakespeare first."
Like her family, Bankhead was a Democrat, but broke with many Southerners by campaigning for Harry Truman's reelection in 1948. She is credited with having helped Truman immeasurably by belittling his rival, New York's Governor Thomas E. Dewey. After Truman was elected, Bankhead was invited to sit with the President during his inauguration. While viewing the inauguration parade, she booed the South Carolina float which carried then-Governor and segregationist Strom Thurmond, who had recently run against Truman on the Dixiecrat ticket, splitting the Democratic vote.
Bankhead married actor John Emery, the son of stage actors Edward Emery (circa 1861–1938) and Isabel Waldron (1871–1950), on August 31, 1937, at her father's home in Jasper, Alabama. Bankhead filed for divorce in Reno, Nevada, in May 1941. It was finalized on June 13, 1941. The day her divorce became final, Bankhead told a reporter, "You can definitely quote me as saying there will be no plans for a remarriage."
Bankhead had no children, but she had four abortions before she was 30. She was the godmother of Brook and Brockman Seawell, children of her lifelong friend, actress Eugenia Rawls, and Rawls's husband, Donald Seawell.
An interview that Bankhead gave to Motion Picture magazine in 1932 generated controversy. In the interview, Bankhead ranted wildly about the state of her life and her views on love, marriage, and children:
I'm serious about love. I'm damned serious about it now ... I haven't had an affair for six months. Six months! Too long ... If there's anything the matter with me now, it's not Hollywood or Hollywood's state of mind ... The matter with me is, I WANT A MAN! ... Six months is a long, long while. I WANT A MAN!
Time ran a story about it, and, back home, Bankhead's father and family were perturbed. Bankhead immediately telegraphed her father, vowing never to speak with a magazine reporter again. For these and other offhand remarks, Bankhead was cited in the Hays Committee's "Doom Book", a list of 150 actors and actresses considered "unsuitable for the public" which was presented to the studios. Bankhead was at the top of the list with the heading: "Verbal Moral Turpitude". She publicly called Hays "a little prick".
Following the release of the Kinsey reports, she was once quoted as stating, "I found no surprises in the Kinsey report. The good doctor's clinical notes were old hat to me ... I've had many momentary love affairs. A lot of these impromptu romances have been climaxed in a fashion not generally condoned. I go into them impulsively. I scorn any notion of their permanence. I forget the fever associated with them when a new interest presents itself."
In 1933, Bankhead nearly died following a five-hour emergency hysterectomy due to venereal disease. Only 70 lb (32 kg) when she left the hospital, she stoically said to her doctor, "Don't think this has taught me a lesson!"
Rumors about Bankhead's sex life have lingered for years, and she was linked romantically with many notable female personalities of the day, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Cornell, Eva Le Gallienne, Hope Williams ("who had a boy's body"), Beatrice Lillie, and Alla Nazimova, as well as writer Mercedes de Acosta and singer Billie Holiday. Actress Patsy Kelly confirmed she had a sexual relationship with Bankhead when she worked for her as a personal assistant. John Gruen's Menotti: A Biography notes an incident in which Jane Bowles chased Bankhead around Capricorn, Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber's Mount Kisco estate, insisting that Bankhead needed to play the lesbian character Inès in Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit (which Paul Bowles had recently translated). Bankhead locked herself in the bathroom and kept insisting, "That lesbian! I wouldn't know a thing about it."
Bankhead never publicly described herself as being bisexual. She did, however, describe herself as "ambisextrous".
Tallulah Bankhead is regarded as one of the greatest stage actresses of the century, acclaimed for her natural eloquence and dynamism. She excelled in both serious and comedic roles, and for over two decades, she was among the most celebrated actresses in Broadway or London's West End, praised in the superlative "perhaps the greatest actress this country has ever produced." For the most part, Bankhead was lauded even in her failed vehicles, and she was considered by critics to be a rare and unique talent. At the height of her career, she was a "living legend", Broadway's most original leading lady. Her eccentric personality was an asset to her career rather than a hindrance, but as years of hard living took their toll, her highly publicized and often scandalous private life began to undermine her reputation of being a terrific actress. Her legend, which had once nourished her, nearly ruined her. The worst facets of her character were encouraged by her fans as virtues, and for the better part of her late career, she played to their caricature of herself. Obituaries on her passing reflected on how far she had fallen from her former grandeur, à la John Barrymore. The critic Brooks Atkinson was more candid: "Since Miss Bankhead lived as she wanted to, there is no point in deploring the loss of a talented actress". However, Bankhead did not go gently into the night — the legend which had ruined her career made her an enormously popular icon in both the theatrical and particularly the gay community. Decades of sustained interest in Bankhead eventually realized itself in a renewed appreciation for her body of work — validating anew the artist behind the famous (or perhaps infamous) woman so far ahead of her time.
Among Bankhead's awards were a New York Drama Critics Award for Best Performance by an actress in The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942, as well as a Variety award in The Little Foxes and Skin. She was nominated for a Tony award for her performance in Midgie Purvis, and won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress in a Film for her work in Lifeboat. Bankhead was the first white woman to be featured on the cover of Ebony magazine, and was one of the very few actresses and the only stage actress to have a cover on both Time and Life. In 1928, she was honored as one of the 10 most remarkable women in London. A resolution honoring her achievements was passed in the Alabama Legislature. Bankhead was (posthumously) one of the original members of the American Theater Hall of Fame inducted upon its establishment in 1972.
Bankhead earned her greatest acclaim for two classic roles she originated: Regina in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes and Sabina in Thorton Wilder's The Skin of our Teeth. At the Algonquin Hotel, Bankhead left prominent impressions upon playwrights such as Zoe Akins and Rachel Crothers. Crothers later wrote the play Everyday for Bankhead, and Akins patterned the character of Eva Lovelace in her play Morning Glory on Bankhead. She became good friends with Tennessee Williams, who was immediately struck upon meeting her, describing her as "result[ing] from the fantastic crossbreeding of a moth and a tiger". Williams wrote four female roles for her, Myra Torrance in Battle of Angels, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Princess Kosmonopolis in Sweet Bird of Youth, and Flora Goforth in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. A song in the 1937 musical I'd Rather Be Right, "Off the Record", contains the line "I'm not so fond of Bankhead, but I'd love to meet Tallulah". The Bankhead Theater (Livermore Performing Arts Center) has her namesake.
A collection of 50 portraits of Bankhead in her London years is housed in the United Kingdom's National Portrait Gallery. Augustus John painted a portrait of Bankhead in 1929 which is considered one of his greatest pieces. Frank Dobson also sculpted a bust of Bankhead during her London period. The Library of Congress houses numerous works of Bankhead.
Ten biographies have been written about Tallulah (as of 2015): A selected list:Bankhead, Tallulah. Tallulah: My Autobiography. Harper & Bros., 1952. (autobiography)
Carrier, Jeffrey. Tallulah Bankhead, A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Press, 1991.
Rawls, Eugenia. Tallulah, A Memory. Univ. of Alabama, 1979.
Lobenthal, Joe. Tallulah!: The Life and times of a Leading Lady, 2004.
The first Tallulah Bankhead Tribute was held by the Walker County Arts Alliance in her hometown of Jasper, Alabama, on June 11–15, 2015. A similar tribute was held for a week at the University of Birmingham in November 1977.
Tallulah Bankhead left a lasting impact on American culture despite modern audiences being unfamiliar with the stage performances for which she was most acclaimed. Bankhead remains far more prominent in the public imagination than contemporary Broadway actresses of her caliber, and due to her unique personality and often self-destructive behavior, she has become a frequently imitated camp icon. Many critics (and Bankhead herself) compared the characterization of Margo Channing in All About Eve to that of Bankhead. The costume designer Edith Head had explicitly admitted to styling Channing's appearance to that of Bankhead. Bankhead's voice and personality inspired voice actress Betty Lou Gerson's work on the character Cruella De Vil in Walt Disney Pictures' One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which the studio calls "a manic take-off on famous actress Tallulah Bankhead." The voice actor of The Little Mermaid's Ursula (Pat Caroll) was also inspired by Bankhead. She was referenced in the 1939 song Give Him the Ooh-La-La by Cole Porter. A space satellite named for her was launched in 1963, and Wernher von Braun invited her to witness the launching. The 1978 film Magic references her with the line by the show business agent Ben Green (Burgess Meredith): "Hey kid, I have lived through Tallulah Bankhead and the death of Vaudeville. I don't scare easy." A cocktail at the Ritz Hotel in London is called "The Tallulah", named for when Bankhead visited the hotel and drank champagne out of her shoe. The first annual Gay Pride Festival in New Orleans, held in 1979, was dedicated to Bankhead.
Rock musician/actor Suzi Quatro portrayed Bankhead in a musical named Tallulah Who? in 1991. The musical was based on a book by Willie Rushton. The show ran from February 14 to March 9 at The Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch, UK, and received favorable reviews. Valerie Harper starred as Bankhead in Looped, which premiered at The Pasadena Playhouse. It opened on Broadway on March 14, 2010 at the Lyceum Theatre, and closed on April 11, 2010. Other actresses to portray Bankhead include Eugenia Rawls (in her one-woman stage show Tallulah, A Memory), Kathleen Turner (in Sandra Ryan Heyward's one-woman touring show Tallulah in the late 1990s), Carrie Nye (on television in The Scarlett O'Hara War), and Helen Gallagher in an off-Broadway musical, Tallulah! In the 1969 film Goodbye, Mr. Chips, actress Siân Phillips portrays Ursula Mossbank, a character clearly inspired by the Bankhead mystique and mannerisms, but no suggestion is made in the film that that character is supposed to be Bankhead herself. Bankhead has also been portrayed by a male actor. Jim Bailey originated the role of Bankhead in the play Tallulah and Tennessee in 1999.