Bankhead’s father had warned her to avoid alcohol and men when she got to New York

Thursday, July 20th, 2023

In Aliens, loudmouth Colonial Marine Private Hudson asks his butch female squad mate, “Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”

“No, have you?”

All the Right Movies recently noted that Cameron took this from a story about the husky-voiced 1930s icon Tallulah Bankhead. A columnist said to her “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” and she replied, “No, darling. Have you?”

This got me to track down a few more stories about Tallulah Bankhead:

Her father hailed from the Bankhead-and-Brockman political family, active in the Democratic Party of the South in general and of 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.


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 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 soon moved into the Algonquin Hotel, 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. Three of the four were non-heterosexual: Bankhead and Daly were bisexuals, and Le Gallienne was a lesbian. Bankhead’s father had warned her to avoid alcohol and men when she got to New York; Bankhead later quipped “He didn’t say anything about women and cocaine.” 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.”


After over eight years of living in Great Britain and touring on their theatrical stages, she did not like living in Hollywood; 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.”


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 although they share no scenes together. She later said “Dahling, the main reason I accepted [the part] was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper!”


In 1933, while performing in Jezebel, Bankhead nearly died following a five-hour emergency hysterectomy due to gonorrhea, which she claimed she had contracted from either Gary Cooper or George Raft. Weighing only 70 lb (32 kg) when she left the hospital, she vowed to continue her lifestyle, stoically saying to her doctor “Don’t think this has taught me a lesson!”


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 had no children, but she had four abortions before she had a hysterectomy in 1933, when she was 31.


An interview that Bankhead gave to Motion Picture magazine in 1932 generated controversy. In the interview, Bankhead ranted 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!


For these and other offhand remarks, Bankhead was cited in the Hays Commission’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”.


In addition to her many affairs with men, she was also linked romantically with female personalities of the day, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Hattie McDaniel, Beatrice Lillie, Alla Nazimova, Blyth Daly, writers Mercedes de Acosta and Eva Le Gallienne, and singer Billie Holiday.


Bankhead never publicly used the term “bisexual” to describe herself, preferring to use the term “ambisextrous” instead.


Her last coherent words reportedly were a garbled request for “codeine … bourbon”.


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”.


  1. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    >The matter with me is, I WANT A MAN!

    But no man could take ownership of her. Because it was 1932, not 1632, and by this time the sovereign whigs in chief had already long resolved that asexual androgyny was the highest social good – much as their spiritual anticipators in Carthage and ancient Babylon once so did also.

    And so from the earliest moments of her life, to the very last, one unbroken string of destructive and self-destructive outburst, in instinctive hopes that somehow, some way, a Man would be smoked out of the woodwork that would come and take ownership, finally putting her unconscionable and unexpressable terror over the absence of this ontological lodestone to bed; just as every other girl in the occident for the past 200 years as well.

    Which is also the one thing that could never happen, the final solution also precluded at the outset by state church and official faith shared by all Good Thinkers. Such is our very Modern tragedy.

  2. Jim says:

    Pseudo-Chrysostom, you are my favorite lunatic.

  3. Southerner says:

    Jim, yes, but harmless AFAIK.

  4. Bob Sykes says:

    In other words, she was a debauched degenerate.

  5. Longarch says:

    “from the earliest moments of her life, to the very last, one unbroken string of destructive and self-destructive outburst, in instinctive hopes that somehow, some way, a Man would be smoked out of the woodwork that would come and take ownership”

    She was a tragic victim of the false idols of “progress” … much like Dorothy Parker and many others.

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