The daughter of an Alabama Senator, Bankhead won a beauty contest at the age of 16, and headed to New York City to start an acting career around 1918. She starred in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat and had a "calamitous" stage run in "Antony and Cleopatra" in 1937, around the time when she tried "reefer." She achieved stage success two years later with her "commanding performance" in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes.” (She lost the film role to Bette Davis, who later imitated Tallulah in All About Eve).
In addition to her acting, Tallulah was a member of the Algonquin Roundtable and known for her wit. One witticism was, "Only good girls keep diaries. Bad girls don't have the time." She also said, “I'm the foe of moderation, the champion of excess. If I may lift a line from a die-hard whose identity is lost in the shuffle, 'I'd rather be strongly wrong than weakly right'."
After she repeated the line at one party, the host offered her some "glistening crystals" of coke, and she felt compelled to try it, feeling "no sensation save that born of another achievement." Months later she was given heroin instead of cocaine and, "The effects were pleasant and dreamy. The world seemed uncommonly rosy, but not for long." She soon became "actively ill." "I've never touched either since, except medicinally," she declared.
She then wrote of a physician in London who sprayed cocaine in her throat to help with laryngitis. Filling his prescription for pills labeled "Cocaine and Menthol" at a London pharmacy, and "obsessed with a desire to shock people, I whipped the vial out at every opportunity." When asked, "Isn't it habit-forming?" she'd reply, "Cocaine habit-forming? Of course not. I ought to know. I've been using it for years." She continues:
"They may have been ambrosia to him, but my first one only brought on a fit of giggles and an overpowering hunger. Hunger is something I can't afford to create artificially, since I'm always either dieting or about to start. At the time I was deep in theosophy, and Madame Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled and Secret Doctrine. My giggles over, unreliable witnesses report I started to spout poetry of my own coinage. Very good it was, swore those perjurers.
"What with Cleopatra, back income taxes, a lost love and other considerations too gruesome to set down here, I was depressed, not to say broke. The reefer consumed, I felt that I had the key to the universe. Never more need I fret and worry. The complexities of my life became crystal clear. For a few moments so vivid seemed my comprehension of the things that conventionally haunt me I felt kinship with God."
Quite the experience! However she then goes on to say, "In retrospect I distrust my emotions. Perhaps it was the spell of Madame Blavatsky. Perhaps I'd fused Poe and his laudanum with me and my reefer. Thus exalted, shortly I repeated the experiment. It didn't come off. I was closer to the pawnbroker than to God." She says those two experiences were "the sum of my trifling," and concludes, "Fortunately my skirmished with forbidden fumes and philters never created in me any craving, physical or mental, any desire to promote an experience to practice."
On drinking, she wrote, "Tippling? That's something else again. I enjoy drinking with friends, even though I know it occasionally leads me to conduct not easy to condone....I'm not a compulsive drinker. I'll drink what and when I damn well please." Later in her life, she mixed alcohol with prescription drugs, reportedly to her detriment.
In 1948, Bankhead and other cast members were accused of using marijuana during the New York City production of Noel Coward's play "Private Lives." She contacted the FBI and requested an FBIHQ tour for John Emory, her husband, and Director Robert Sinclair. She also corresponded with Director Hoover.
In late 1951, Bankhead fired her personal secretary, Evyleen Cronin, for stealing money from her. In a public trial over the incident, Cronin's lawyers alleged that Cronin's job included "paying for marijuana, cigarettes, cocaine, booze and sex." Cronin also testified that Bankhead taught her to roll marijuana cigarettes. Because of this, Bankhead may have been the inspiration for the Alexandra de Lago character in Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), whose young male companion (played by Paul Newman) tries to blackmail her over her use of hashish. She is also said to be the inspiration for Cruella de Vil in Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmations.
Rumored to have had an affair with Billie Holiday, Bankhead once said to a stranger at a party, “I’m a lesbian. What do you do?” She was friendly with Eleanor Roosevelt, campaigned for Truman and Kennedy, and in the early fifties, during McCarthysim, she said, “I think Senator McCarthy of Wisconsin is a disgrace to the nation.” Her final public appearance was on the “Tonight Show” (where she chatted with Paul McCartney and John Lennon).
Tallulah Bankhead died in 1968 when a bout of Asian flu was more than her emphysema could tolerate. Before slipping into a coma after being hooked to a ventilator in a New York City hospital, her only discernible words were barely audible requests for codeine and bourbon.