Bankhead was born in Huntsville, Alabama to speaker of the United States House of Representatives William Brockman Bankhead and Adelaide Eugenia Sledge. She was the niece of Senator John H. Bankhead II, and granddaughter of Senator John H. Bankhead, all Democrats. Bankhead was also a Democrat.
Her family sent her to various schools in an attempt to keep her out of trouble, which included a year at a Catholic convent school (although her father was a Methodist and her mother [who died at her birth], was an Episcopalian).
At 15, Bankhead won a movie-magazine beauty contest and convinced her family to let her move to New York. She quickly won bit parts, first appearing in a non-speaking role in The Squab Farm. During these early New York years, she became a peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table and known as a hard-partying girl-about-town. During this time she experimented with cocaine and marijuana, but did not consume alcohol to any great degree. She became known for her wit, although as screenwriter Anita Loos, another minor Roundtable member, said: "She was so pretty that we thought she must be stupid." She became known for saying almost anything, whether true or not. Once, while in attendance at a party, a guest made a comment about rape, and Bankhead replied "I was raped in our driveway when I was eleven. You know darling, it was a terrible experience because we had all that gravel". 
In 1923, she made her debut on the London stage, where she was to appear in over a dozen plays in the next eight years, most famously, The Dancers. Soon her fame was ensured by 1924 after playing on Broadway the waitress Amy, wearing a simple cotton dress, in "They Knew What They Wanted" by Sidney Howard, which won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize. Famous as an actress, she was famous, too, for her many affairs, her infectious personality and witticisms like "There is less to this than meets the eye" and "I'm as pure as the driven slush." She was brash, brazen, and apt to say anything. This trait made her widely popular. She was known for her promiscuous behavior, and had the reputation of being obtainable sexually to anyone she found attractive, whether famous or not. Her longest known affair during this period in her life was with an Italian businessman named Anthony de Bosdari, which lasted just over one year.  By the end of the decade, she was one of the West End's — and England's — best-known and most notorious celebrities. 
She returned to the US in 1931 to be Paramount Pictures' "next Marlene Dietrich", but Hollywood success eluded her in her first four films of the 30s. Critics agree that her acting was flat, that she was unable to dominate the camera, and that she was generally outclassed by Dietrich, Carole Lombard, and others. She rented a home at 1712 Stanley Street, in Hollywood, and began hosting parties that were said to "have no boundaries".  On September 9, 1932, she was featured on the cover of Film Weekly. 
She was outspoken, uninhibited, and it's said that any who met her never forgot her. By the standards of the interwar years, Tallulah was quite openly bisexual,  but she successfully avoided scandal related to her affairs, regardless of the gender of her lovers. She was known to have stripped off her clothes on several occasions while attending parties, which shocked people in attendance, but nonetheless she remained magnetic to those who knew her well.
Rumors about her sex life have lingered for years, and she has been linked romantically with many notable female personalities of the day, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Eva Le Gallienne, Hattie McDaniel, and Alla Nazimova, as well as writer Mercedes de Acosta, and Billie Holiday. However, later reports show that Bankhead disliked de Acosta greatly, finding her unattractive, and was most likely never involved with her sexually, on one occasion telling friends that de Acosta looked like "a mouse in a topcoat". She was reportedly extremely excited when she was first able to meet the elusive Garbo, but whether they were sexually involved has never been determined beyond a doubt. The two women played tennis together often, and were said to have enjoyed one another's company, but even though Garbo has since been publicly identified as having been a lesbian, she was extremely protective of her private life and secretive about her lovers (who also included such actors as Yul Brynner and John Barrymore).
It was in 1933 that Bankhead nearly died following a 5-hour emergency hysterectomy for an advanced case of gonorrhea, contracted - she said - from either actor George Raft or Gary Cooper.  Only 70 pounds when she was able to leave 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 Dark Victory. She continued to play in various performances over the next few years, mostly mediocre. Nevertheless, David O. Selznick called her the "first choice among established stars" to play Scarlett O'Hara; polled, moviegoers thought otherwise. 
Her screen test for Gone with the Wind put her out of the running for good; Selznick decided that she was too old (at 34) for Scarlett's antebellum scenes. Unable to capture Hollywood, Bankhead returned to her most-loved acting medium, the stage.
Returning to Broadway, Bankhead's career stalled in unmemorable plays until she played the cold and ruthless Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939). Her portrayal won her the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Performance, but Bankhead and Hellman 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; Hellman (an equally staunch Stalinist) objected strenuously, and the two women didn't speak for the next quarter of a century. 
More success and the same award followed her 1942 performance 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). During the run of the play, some media accused Bankhead of a running feud with the play's director, Elia Kazan, but both denied it.
In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock cast her as the cynical journalist, Constance Porter, in Lifeboat. The performance is widely acknowledged as her best on film, and won her the New York Screen Critics Award. Almost childlike in her immodesty, a beaming Tallulah accepted her trophy and exclaimed, "Dahlings, I was wonderful!"
After World War II, Bankhead appeared in a revival of Noel 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 Bankhead's "best friend" from the 1920s until Bankhead's death in 1968. 
Bankhead circulated widely in the celebrity crowd of her day, and was a party favorite for outlandish stunts like performing underwearless cartwheels in a skirt or entering a soirée stark naked. She is also said to have been so engrossed in conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt that she dropped drawers and used the toilet while the first lady was still talking. 
Like her family, Bankhead was a Democrat, but broke with most Southerners by campaigning for Harry Truman's reelection in 1948. While viewing the Inauguration parade, she booed the South Carolina float which carried then-Governor Strom Thurmond, who had recently run against Truman on the Dixiecrat ticket, splitting the Democratic vote.
Though Tallulah Bankhead's career slowed in the mid-1950s, she never faded from the public eye. Although a heavy drinker and consumer of sleeping pills (she was a life-long insomniac), Bankhead continued to perform in the 1950s and 1960s on Broadway, in the occasional film, as a highly-popular radio show host, and in the new medium of television. Her appearance as herself on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Comedy Hour in 1957 as The Celebrity Next Door is a cult favorite, as is her role as the "Black Widow" on the 1960s campy television show Batman, which turned out to be her final screen appearance. In an effort to cut into the rating leads of The Jack Benny Program and The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show which had jumped from NBC radio to CBS radio the previous season, NBC spent millions over the two seasons of 1950-51 and 1951-52 to diminish Benny's and Bergen's high ratings with 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 and songs . Despite Meredith Willson's Orchestra and Chorus and top guest stars from Broadway, Hollywood and radio—including Fred Allen, Fanny Brice, Groucho Marx, Ethel Merman, Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, Jimmy Durante, Martin & Lewis, George Jessel, Judy Garland, Ethel Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, José Ferrer and Judy Holliday, The Big Show, which earned rave reviews, failed to do more than dent Jack Benny's and Edgar Bergen's ratings. Tallulah, who proved a masterful comedienne and intriguing personality, however, was not blamed for the failure of The Big Show—television was hurting all radio ratings, so the next season (1952–53)NBC installed Tallu as one of a half dozen rotating hosts of NBC's The All Star Revue on Saturday nights. Although critics, pros and the sophisticated set loved her, and Tallu's monologues became classics, she was not among the hosts renewed for the following season.
Bankhead also appeared as a strong Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1956), but reviews were poor. She received a Tony Award nomination for her performance of a bizarre 50-year-old mother in Mary Chase's Midgie Purvis (1961). Her last theatrical appearance was in another Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More, in 1963. Though she received good notices for her last performances, her career as one of the greats of the American stage was coming to an end.
Her last appearance on screen came in March 1967 as the villainous Black Widow in the Batman TV series.
According to author Brendan Gill, when Bankhead entered the hospital for an illness, an article was headed "Tallulah Hospitalized, Hospital Tallulahized." This headline was a testament to Bankhead's large, charismatic personality (which inspired much of the "personality" of the character Cruella De Vil in Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmatians). 
Tallulah Bankhead died in New York City of double pneumonia arising from influenza, complicated by emphysema, at the age of 66 on December 12, 1968, and is buried in Saint Paul's Churchyard, Chestertown, Maryland.
Her last words: Codeine . . . bourbon.
- I'll come and make love to you at five o'clock. If I'm late, start without me.
- My father warned me about men and booze... but he never said anything about women and cocaine.
- Nobody can be exactly like me. Sometimes even I have trouble doing it.
MI5 investigation of Eton school scandal
Recently declassified papers thrust Tallulah in the limelight of public scandal posthumously. She had been investigated by MI5 amid rumours she was corrupting pupils at Eton. The documents alleged that she seduced up to half a dozen public schoolboys into taking part in "indecent and unnatural" acts. This rumor had sent shockwaves through the 1920s British establishment.
The documents compiled by the British Aliens and Immigration Department allege that the investigation was scuttled by a determined cover-up by Eton's headmaster, Dr C A Alington. The allegations were based purely on gossip and word of mouth. It appears that they were assembled by MI5 at the urgings of a Home Office minister.
The dossier, assembled when she was 32, contains allegations that while in Britain the actress:
- performed indecent acts with under-age boys from Eton College
- was a lesbian who was also promiscuous with men
- was thrown out of her home by her father because of immoral conduct
- moved in a social circle which was a centre of vice.
In the whole of the file there was no credible evidence that Miss Bankhead had any "abnormal" sexual tendencies, or that any grounds existed to keep her out of Britain.
The report that a group of Eton boys took part in a sex session with her at an hotel in Berkshire was discreetly investigated by police and the headmaster was interviewed. However, nothing was discovered except that a couple of boys had been dismissed for breaking school rules on riding in a car.
However, the investigator known only as FHM wrote: "The headmaster is obviously not prepared to assist HO (Home Office) by revealing what he knows of her exploits with some of the boys, i.e., he wants to do everything possible to keep Eton out of the scandal."
- Lobenthal, Joel (2004). Tallulah! : The Life and Times of a Leading Lady. Regan Books. ISBN 0-06-039435-8.
- McLellan, Diana (2001). The Girls : Sappho Goes to Hollywood. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0-312-28320-2. (review)
- Tallulah Bankhead at the Internet Movie Database
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- Tallulah Bankhead - A Passionate Life
- "Dah-ling: The strange case of Tallulah Bankhead" by Robert Gottlieb, The New Yorker, May 16, 2005
- The Religious Affiliation of Tallulah Bankhead
- Gay Great - Tallulah Bankhead
- Tallulah Bankhead: Give My Regards To Broadway!
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