January 31, 1902 – December 12, 1968
With her brazen larger-than-life attitude and image, deep voice, distinct mannerisms, and fluid sexuality, Tallulah Bankhead was an unpredictable geyser of personality and wit, a daring, decadent diva of epic proportions, and an icon of stage, screen, radio, and television. While most of her contemporaries have long since been forgotten, the untamed and outspoken Tallulah has proven hard to shake.
Fifty-three years ago this week, Tallulah Bankhead was buried at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kent Count on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
A histrionic child of the Deep South, Tallulah ran wild as an overripe teenager in New York City, found fame in London, tread the boards from Broadway to Santa Barbara, starred in about a dozen Hollywood films, and was one of the last big stars on radio. A walking, talking commotion, no party was ever in full swing until Tallulah arrived.
Raised by their paternal grandparents, Alabama Senator John and his wife Tallulah James Brockman Bankhead. Tallulah, a self- proclaimed ugly duckling, was a performer and exhibitionist from the get-go. “My doom was sealed,” she said, “when I saw a girl turn cartwheels at a circus in Birmingham.”
When she was 15 years old, Tallulah submitted a photograph in a movie-casting contest Her grandmother advised that the family “let her go on the stage. She’s not worth a damn for anything but acting.” Her contest win didn’t amount to what she’d hoped but she found a home among the artistic and literary elite who famously gathered at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. Bankrolled by her grandfather, Tallulah caused a scene at every opportunity.
At 21, heeding the advice of a friend and her fortune teller, Tallulah borrowed money from an influential family friend to go to London where she worked her bold charm and “violently beautiful” good looks into the acting gig that first made her famous. It didn’t take her long to develop her attention-craving tendencies into a monumentally outrageous public persona.
Returning to the United States in 1931 to have a go at the movies, studios and producers didn’t quite know what to with Tallulah. Her films mostly fizzled. She went back to the stage but continued to flirt with Hollywood. Tallulah was the first actress to screen test for the role of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939).Later, during World War II, she would have her most famous screen role in Alfred Hitchcock’s, controversial Lifeboat. Her last movie was the 1965 British horror film Fanatic, released in the U.S. as Die! Die! My Darling!
By then, Tallulah’s older sister Eugenia was living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Tallulah would visit as often as possible and when she passed away on December 12, 1968, Eugenia wanted her sister close. She arranged for Tallulah’s Eastern Shore interment.
Eugenia died eleven years later, on March 11, 1979, after complications from a surgery. She was buried next to her sister in a serene corner of the cemetery near a peaceful, dish-calm pond.
Tallulah Bankhead, this “strange electric woman with the languid eyes, the panther’s step, and the siren’s husky voice,” called Broadway’s most original leading lady, leaves an entertainment legacy that includes almost 300 film, stage, television, and radio credits. She was posthumously inducted into the first class of the American Theater Hall of Fame and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A dozen books have been written about her. Both Cruella De Vil from Walt Disney‘s One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Ursula in The Little Mermaid were at least in part influenced by Tallulah’s character and style.
There’s never been another quite like Tallulah.
One of the Eastern Shore’s most notable eternal guests.
Read all of Tallulah Bankhead’s story and more in Stardust by the Bushel: Hollywood on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore.
Available now at Maryland locations: The Gifted Crab gift shop on Kent Island, Vintage Books and Fine Art in Easton, Mystery Loves Company Booksellers in Oxford, and The Greyhound bookstore in Berlin.
You can also purchase online at Amazon, and at
Or come say hi between 11 am and 3 pm. this Saturday, December 18 at Kent Island’s Cult Classic Brewery where I’ll be joining other local artisans and creative types for SANTA’S SECRET HOLIDAY SHOPPING EXTRAVAGANZA! There are very few copies of Stardust’s first printing still available and this will be my last book signing before Christmas. It’s the perfect gift for that Eastern Shore history/movie lover in your life. And as always, BOOKS MAKE GREAT LAST MINUTE GIFTS.
Photos courtesy of author’s collection, Ritz Hotel & 20th Century Fox