A side profile photograph of Tallulah Bankhead circa 1930. Image courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Excerpt: Deep South Dynasty by Kari Frederickson

The critical questions of war facing the nation coincided with more personal dilemmas facing the Bankhead grandchildren Eugenia and Tallulah, who were enrolled at Fairmont Seminary as the nation girded itself for war. Because the school was located in Washington, DC, the girls could live with family—Eugenia with Will and Florence, and Tallulah with her grandparents. They could partake of Washington’s active social scene. Although not as cosmopolitan as New York City, Washington, DC, was worlds away from tiny Jasper, Alabama. Like many teenage girls of the era, Tallulah was enamored of the movies and the stage, and the options for escape to the grand movie halls and theaters were at her doorstep. Father Will had taken his daughters to the theater a number of times. One particularly exhilarating performance got both girls so wound up that they wet their pants. The play was “a tremendous emotional dose” for Tallulah; she recalled, “I didn’t sleep for two nights running.”47

By 1916, the motion picture industry had moved beyond its infancy. Directors like D. W. Griffith were pioneering new techniques, and plotlines evolved as well. Tried-and-true stories of men and women upholding Victorian virtues gave way to tales that glorified “pleasure, excitement, physical comedy, athleticism, and luxury—that is, to the consumer ethos that was coming by and by to dominate American culture.”48 By 1920, the country had over twenty thousand movie theaters. If she wanted to, Tallulah could see a different movie every day of the week. Popular screen idol Mary Pickford alone made fifty-two films in 1916. Young women and teens like Tallulah lost themselves at the movies. Captivated by the on-screen drama of lovely Mary Pickford and handsome Douglas Fairbanks, teens and young women could likewise immerse themselves in the behind-the-scenes stories of the Pickford Fairbanks romance and their glamorous lifestyle as covered by the industry’s many magazines.

Like her father, Tallulah dreamed of a life on the stage and screen. With stepmother Florence’s help, she entered her photograph in a beauty contest sponsored by Picture Play magazine in June 1917. The winner would be given a role in an upcoming film produced by Frank Powell. Now fifteen years old, Tallulah had shed much of her baby fat. Her wavy, dark blonde hair tumbled down her back, a style no doubt influenced by the enormous popularity of Pickford. The photographs of the twelve winners were announced in the September issue. Among them: Tallulah Bankhead. But Tallulah had neglected to write her name on the back of her photo. Underneath her picture ran the caption: “WHO IS SHE?” Tallulah and her father quickly confirmed her identity.49 This origin story would become a key element of Tallulah’s later celebrity. The “discovery” of Tallulah became part of her appeal. If this teenager from small-town Alabama could rise to stardom, surely anyone could make it. What the myth conveniently ignored, though, was the role her family’s influence and wealth played in her ability to leverage this once-in-a- lifetime contest win into a successful career.

 The entire family weighed in on what to do. Should young Tallulah be allowed to travel to New York and pursue an acting career, an opportunity that had been denied her father? She was, after all, only fifteen years old. Her grandmother, who had threatened to disown Will were he to pursue a career on the stage, was surprisingly supportive, as was her grandfather. Years later, Tallulah’s Aunt Marie recalled that John Hollis—not Tallulah’s father, Will—cast the deciding vote in favor of allowing Tallulah to travel to New York to seek her fortune, dramatically declaring, “Tallulah shall have her chance.” Grandfather John Hollis provided the financial backing for the venture. It was decided that Aunt Louise, already living in New York, would serve as her chaperone, later to be replaced by Marie.50 And with that, fifteen-year-old Tallulah was off to New York, never again to live in Alabama.

Tallulah and Louise rented a small apartment in the theater district. Joining them was Ola, the fiancée of Louise’s late son, William. Eighteen-year-old William had died of typhoid fever in 1915; Louise believed she could contact him through one of the many spiritualists who operated in the city. Perhaps ready to move on with her life, Ola returned to Alabama after a few months. Louise and Tallulah next took up residence in the Algonquin Hotel, long favored by actors and writers. As promised, Tallulah received a small part in Who Loved Him Best? Produced by the Mutual Film Corporation, the film was released in February 1918. For her labors, Tallulah received twenty dollars per day. Tallulah reveled in her residence at the Algonquin, where she was able to rub elbows with theatrical celebrities. Older actors were slightly bemused by the antics of the brash young woman from Alabama. Although her first film had been forgettable, she had made an impression on at least one young man in the wartime trenches in Europe. A sergeant with the American Expeditionary Forces wrote to Tallulah shortly before the Armistice to let her know that he had found a picture of her “in a captured German dugout.”51

Following her film debut, Tallulah struggled to find work, finally landing a nonspeaking role in The Squab Farm, a new play that opened in March 1918 but closed after a four-week run. Her stage debut was followed by roles in two forgettable films, When Men Betray and Thirty a Week. This was not the career launch she had hoped for. In the closing months of World War I, Louise traveled to Europe to serve as a nurse’s aide in the Red Cross. Marie Bankhead Owen stepped in as Tallulah’s chaperone but soon returned to Alabama. By early 1919, seventeen-year-old Tallulah was on her own in New York City.52


47. Tallulah Bankhead, Tallulah: My Autobiography (New York: Harper, 1952), 39–40.
48. Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006), 228.
49. JHB to J. P. Tumulty, December 7, 1915, folder 1, box 22, JHBP; Joel Lobenthal, Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 12–15.
50. Lobenthal, Tallulah!, 16; TB to JHB, November 22, 1919, folder 5, box 1, TBP.
51. 1st Sgt. T. A. MacDonald to TB, October 30, 1918, folder 2, box 1, TBP.
52. Lobenthal, Tallulah!, 17–28; San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 1918.

Featured Image, Tallulah Bankhead, 1930. Courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Kari Frederickson is professor of history at the University of Alabama. She is author of Cold War Dixie: Militarization and Modernization in the American South and The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932–1968.

Deep South Dynasty: The Bankheads of Alabama is a deeply researched epic family biography that reflects the complicated and evolving world inhabited by three generations of the extremely accomplished—if problematic—Bankhead family of northwest Alabama. Kari Frederickson’s expertly crafted account traces the careers of five members of the family—John Hollis Bankhead; his sons, John Hollis Bankhead Jr. and William Brockman Bankhead; his daughter, Marie Bankhead Owen; and his granddaughter, Tallulah Brockman Bankhead.

Deep South Dynasty is a winner of the Gulf South Historical Association’s Michael V. R. Thomason Book Award.

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