Bankhead’s scandalous career began at her seminary when, aged twelve, she fell in love with Sister Ignatius. As she grew to adulthood she developed her romantic and sexual interests in a way which can really only be called trisexual: she would bed heterosexual men, preferably well hung, women and homosexual men, again preferably well-hung. She stumbled across this life unprepared, but took to it with enthusiasm and a breathtaking lack of concern for the proprieties. She once said: ‘My father always warned me about men, but he never said anything about women! And I don’t give a fuck what people say about me so long as they say something!’ She managed to keep them talking for the rest of her life, but her most admirable trick was always to pre-empt the insidious leakage of malicious gossip with reflexive innuendos so frank as to seem hardly believable. Personal eccentricities, such as the refusal ever to wash her hair in anything other than Energine dry-cleaning fluid, probably helped to create the conditions in which she then felt able to defy more serious conventions in riskier ways.
When she was eighteen Bankhead began her life’s most durable and important relationship: she fell in love with Napier George Henry Sturt, the third baron Alington, to who she had been introduced in New York by his lover, Geoffrey Amherst. Notwithstanding his general preference for his own sex, Napier Alington proved to be a more than satisfactory lover, his vigour augmented by a very large cock; if his erection ever showed signs of infirmity it could always be invigorated with a judicious bout of pain- Tallulah used her fingernails. He proposed to her—a standard way, in those days, of ensuring more sexual contact—but after a short while he went off to England without saying goodbye. (Bankhead did not even realise he was going until he had gone.) In 1923, Bankhead went to London, where C.B. Cochran got her a role in Gerald du Maurier’s play The Dancers. While there, she got together with Alington again. (He was now the lover of Lord Edward Latham, a theatre designer.)
For a while in this period, Bankhead took dancing lessons from Léonide Massine. She was among a group who went to Venice to stay with Cole Porter and his wife; Porter was involved in an affair with the man Bankhead called ‘my old fuck-buddy’, the actor Monty Woolley. She began reading Rupert Brooke’s poems and letters and avidly collected whatever information she could about his affairs with other men, such as Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes. According to her biographer, ‘One of the great Bankhead philosophies was that any man capable of getting it together with one of her own sex had to be admired and set upon a pedestal’. And indeed, from the early 1920s onward, her career was positively bejewelled with queens. It was not that, like so many women, she felt sexually safe from them: for, of course, they were never necessarily safe from her. Of course, the world she moved in, that of the theatre and more generally of show business, had an abundance of homosexual men, and she was bound to come into contact with some of these as her career progressed: she appeared in Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels in April 1925, and was turned down by Somerset Maugham for a role in Rain, a play adapted from one of his short stories. (When Maugham later paid her a compliment about Fallen Angels, she replied: ‘Mr Maugham, I have only two words left to say to you, and the second one is “off”’.)
Bankhead claimed to have had an affair with Big Bill Tilden, the tennis ace; she certainly had one with his doubles partner Frank hunter, with whom he won Wimbledon in 1928. In Paris in 1929, she met Jean Cocteau; he introduced her to the pleasures of opium. She bought The Well of Loneliness while she was there and, unmoved by its wounded solemnity, pronounced it ‘ridiculous crap’. When T.E. Lawrence called on her, she turned his down and sent him off on his motorbike to buy her a pack of cigarettes. In March 1930, she co-starred in The Lady of the Camellias with Glen Byam Shaw, ex-lover of Siegfred Sassoon and now the husband of Angela Baddeley. (He and Bankhead are said to have had sex together on a number of occasions.) She laid siege to the promiscuously gay actor Rod la Rocque until he finally gave in and went to bed with her, confirming her hunch that ‘Big things really do come in big packages’ but disappointing her in the performance. Cecil Beaton photographed her, of course.
She moved back to the United States, at the beginning of 1931 arriving in New York on 13 January. At some time thereafter she had an affair with the torch singer Libby Holmen, whose other lovers included Josephine Baker and Montgomery Clift. She worked with George Cukor. She went on cocaine-fuelled jaunts into Harlem with Noel Coward. She shared accommodation with the interior decorator and ex-movie star William Haines. For a while she lived with, and had an affair with, the bisexual actor Anderson Lawlor. Whether all of her claims of sexual conquests were true is doubtful, but their cumulative weight was impressive. She claimed an affair with Barbara Stanwyck, and she famously said to Joan Crawford: ‘I’ve already fucked with your husband, darling. Soon it’ll be your turn!’ given the sheer weight of evidence supporting Tallulah’s reputation, this must have come as a convincing threat. (The husband in question was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)
There was a heavy price to pay for the life she had been leading. In 1933, she was found to be riddled with gonorrhoea, and on 4 November she was given a hysterectomy, at the age of only thirty. It was around this time that the trajectory of her career began to flatten off. There were various disappointments, chief among them her failure to land the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind in 1937. At the same time, when George Cukor was replaced as the film’s director—when Clark Gable, to cover up his own sexual involvement with William Haines, one of Cukor’s ex-lovers, reported Cukor’s indiscretions to David O. Selznick—Bankhead attempted to intercede with Selznick on Cukor’s behalf, but to no avail. She believed that Gable’s duplicity extended even to having set Haines up for arrest in Los Angeles YMCA after seeing him pick up a marine.
On 31 August 1937, Bankhead married the actor John Emery. Needless to say, she had previously made sure that he was well hung. When a reporter asked her how she envisaged married life, she replied: ‘Long and hard, darling! Very long and very hard!’ These lapses from discretion (or were her lapses from the constant indiscretion that people had come to expect of her) were carefully set up and, even when she was under the influence of drugs or drink, never accidental. At the première of Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears, she behaved well while looking after the playwright’s mother, but on handing her back to him she said: ‘There we are, darling—and I didn’t say “fuck” once!’ On another occasion she gave an interview to a Christian woman reporter who was obviously looking for a good story on ‘the most shameful woman in America’. To disappoint her, Bankhead behaved impeccably throughout—until saying goodbye in front of a small crowd, at which point she said loudly: ‘Thank you for the most marvellous interview darling. You’re quite the politest lesbian I’ve ever met!’ When she was having and affair with the actress Patsy Kelly, veteran of Hal Roach comedies, late in 1952, Bankhead did not deny the nature to the relationship. ‘Some of my best friends are lesbians,’ she said ‘What’s new?’
In April 1940, Bankhead and John Emery separated; their divorce came through on 13 June 1941. She met Montgomery Clift in 1942 when they were cast together in The Skin of Our Teeth; they slept together several times—another homosexual man on her list of conquests. On 5 January 1954 she had a date with James Dean and, in her words, ‘got to play with his bongos’. In the early 1940s she failed to begin a professional relationship with Tennessee Williams. On one occasion he cycled forty miles to ask her to be in his play Battle of Angels, but she declined because- for all reasons- she found it too filthy. Later, when he offered her the incomparable role of Blanch Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire she turned him down, reportedly because the role would have required her to utter the word ‘nigger’. But she did finally appear as Blanche in New York in February 1956. Her biographer David Bret claims that the first night ‘was attended by the largest single gathering of homosexuals New York had ever seen’. Her delivery of the line ‘The girls are out tonight!’ stopped the show, and Bankhead, who had for years been followed from performance to performance by voluble gangs of lesbian fans, said: ‘Now I have Gallery Girls of both sexes, thank God!’ But Tennessee Williams was not amused. He did not want the seriousness of his plays undermined by the camp appreciation of ‘so many goddamn faggots’. However, he was enough of an admirer of Bankhead’s to invite her, in due course, to play Flora Goforth in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More. She accepted when she heard the production would be directed by Tony Richardson, even if in the event the two of them did not get on well together. Other gay men involved in this 1963 production were Ned Rorem, who provided the music, and Tab Hunter.
The relationship between her success and her scandalous behaviour sometimes seems completely inexplicable for their time. Yet there are explanatory factors, perhaps in the very heart of the inexplicable aspect: her relationship with powerful men. Her father Will was elected to the House of Representatives in June 1936. (He died in 1940.) She was a friend of Lord Beaverbrook. When Harry S. Truman gave his inaugural address at Madison Square Garden, he invited Tallulah Bankhead to be on the platform; she gave him a short congratulatory speech and received a standing ovation from an audience of 20,000, including the President. She even had a special understanding of some kind with J. Edgar Hoover; on a number of occasions when Billie Holiday was arrested for narcotics offences, Bankhead got Hoover to intervene. There is a chicken-and-egg issue here. It is difficult to establish whether such men’s friendship preceded her impunity- indeed, her virtual immunity- through decades when it could be extremely dangerous in America not to conform; or whether it was her irreverence that attracted her to them in the first place. She was certainly capable of behaving like a ‘lady’ in powerful company, but she could not be relied on to do so. More often, she could be relied on not to. It may be that she enjoyed the licence of the court jester; it is likely, too, that her role as a powerful opinionated and sexually active woman was accepted, in part, because she was sexually attractive and, as a woman, not all powerful in the world that mattered.
Source: David Bret, Tallulah Bankhead: A Scandalous Life (London: Robson, 1998)