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The Religious Affiliation of
great American actress
Tallulah Bankhead appears to have been rebellious against traditional societal norms and ethical and moral standards from an early age. Tallulah Bankhead identified herself as a "high Episcopalian agnostic." Despite the fact that she identified herself as an Episcopalian, there is no indication that Tallulah Bankhead was a churchgoer in any denomination as an adult.
Tallulah Bankhead absolutely adored her Episcopalian mother, who died when Tallulah was three weeks old, which may explain why Tallulah identified with Episcopalianism rather than Methodism (her father's denomination). In a practical sense, the "agnostic" part of her self-described religious affiliation probably best describes her. Her "Episcopalian" affiliation was probably merely nominal. Although it is likely that Tallulah Bankhead sincerely thought of herself as an Episcopalian, and she was a frequent reciter of Bible passages, there is no indication that she had any deep feelings or understanding about Christianity or Episcopalianism, or that she ever attempted to modify her behavior to conform to religious teachings.
There is little indication Tallulah Bankhead's father, a Methodist, was active in his faith. He did, however, instill in Tallulah a life-long interest in reciting and performing Bible passages. Regardless of whether he was or not, Tallulah grew up to a large degree in Catholic boarding schools, which she rebelled against as well.
From: Denis Brian, Tallulah, Darling: A Biography of Tallulah Bankhead, MacMillan Publishing: New York (1980), pages 24-25:
As Tallulah grew, so did her temper, and [William] Bankhead [Tallulah's father] looked around for a school that might contain it. Although he was a Methodist and his wife [Tallulah's late mother] had been Episcopalian, he decided that the best bet would be the well-disciplined nuns. He took Tallulah and her sister to the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Apart from the mistaken trip to Tennessee, it was the first time Tallulah had been out of Alabama.
Toward the end of her life, Tallulah Bankhead spoke with biographer Brian Denis about her religious beliefs. From: Brian, page 267:
Walking from the school, [William] Bankhead heard ten-year-old Tallulah screaming, "Daddy, don't leave me! Don't leave me Daddy!" But he kept moving, convinced he was doing the right thing. Tallulah had to be tamed, and the nuns were the ladies to do the job. He faced his mistake a year later, in 1913, when he and his sister Louise attended the end-of-term exercises.
They stared at a long procession of girls walking through the chapel as an organ played ethereal music. The girls all wore white veils and clutched lilies, a testimony to their virtue. Among them, like a smudge, was one girl in a black veil, without a lily. It was Tallulah. She had bitten someone in a temper and thrown an inkwell against a well. Now she was being purged. "I felt like an untouchable," she said later. And when she glanced up and saw her father and Aunt Louise, she broke down and bawled.
From New York the sisters [Tallulah Bankhead and her older sister] went to Mary Baldwin Academy in Staunton, Virginia, spending weekends riding Shetland ponies on Cordell Hull's estate. At least her father was within calling distance if Tallulah bit someone again. But no school could hold Tallulah for long, and she finally ended up at Fairmont Seminary in Washington.
...Tallulah was completely in agreement with [her father's] other advice. "If you know your Bible and your Shakespeare and can shoot craps, you have a liberal education."
...Tallulah bounded out of school for good in 1917, when she was fifteen.
"I'm a high Episcopalian agnostic. I'm not an atheist. I do now KNOW. What am I wto know? Unless you're a saint and have some ecstatic thing. Or unless you take LSD. And I'm not comparing the two, now don't get me in trouble with the saints. I'm in trouble enough as it is."
From the final chapter of Denis Brian's biography of Tallulah Bankhead, a chapter titled "The Summing Up", from: Brian, pages 280-281:
Tallulah Bankhead brutalized her body, broke her bones, deprived herself of sleep, smoked marijuana, sniffed cocaine, took uppers and downers, boozed bourbon, gave the coast off her back, cherished her friends, infuriated her rivals, pained puritans, and was a joy to fellow nonconformists--and if she had worked at it, could have been the greatest actress of her time.
Some of the many seemingly random observations made by Tallulah Bankhead while being interviewed, by her biographer, from: Brian, pages 267-269:
Tallulah was one of the greatest personalities, with a mystical, probing, sensitive side to her that only a few ever knew about.
There was much more of the child than the woman in her, despite her justified reputation for indulging in almost everything that is frowned on by the righteous and condemned by the cautious. But she paid for all her excesses with a nervous system that was its own instrument of torture. Having led a life that some might call depraved, she still retained a childlike, inocent quality. And one of her greatest fears was that she would disgrace her beloved father, a man she loved uncritically and whom no other man replaced in her affection.
"People have a picture of Tallulah being sexual or vicious," says Tom Ellis, "and they decide to take any story you tell them and take those parts out and reprint them to support it. It doesn't matter that the story may have some of those qualities in it when you're trying to tell them something wonderful about Tallulah...
"She was a prototype. Nobody's that frightened or that wonderful at the same time... People are puzzled why she couldn't stand to be touched. Taking barbiturates makes you very sensitive and she was taking lots of them every day...
"And she always made everybody tell the truth. That was the greatest thing about her. She took the party game into reality, and that was what her life was about."
She was a weird mixture of the Southern lady, who would forgive a murderer if he took his hate off in an elevator and had clean fingernails--but who, herself, at times behaved like an unhousebroken cat and was as subtle as a sledgehammer. She couldn't stand cruelty, especially to animals, yet she sometimes got her dogs drunk. For a woman who lived a completely unrestricted sex life, she was amazingly prudish, becoming almost a Mrs. Grundy hen sex and religion were mentioned in the same breath--although she was an agnostic..."
"I read Madame Blavatsky and found it fascinating although I didn't understand half of it...
Brian, pages 1-2:
"My father never touched me, never spanked me. But I knew if I'd done something wrong because then he called me Tallulah. Otherwise it was honey, sugar, baby or darling or something...
"I get nervous when I hear Billy Graham saying 'Jesus' when I think of all the Jews in the world and the other religions."
... "I think dolphins are the most divine people in the world, and I call them people because they've bigger brains. They say that if they had digits they'd rule the world. They came first before the dinosaurs, looked around and--'oh, no, this is too depressing!'--and went back to the sea again."
"Codeine-bourbon!" were Tallulah Bankhead's last coherent words before she died in the winter of 1968... She took off her clothes in public so often to reveal the real Tallulah that it prompted her lifelong friend Estelle Winwood to ask: "Why do you do that, Tallulah? You have such pretty frocks."
Brian, pages 3-4:
Tallulah's reply, if there was one, is lost to posterity. But at the same time this flutter of conversations was scandalized when she heard someone whispering in church...
She [Tallulah Bankhead] conquered the hearts of droves of men and women and a few children, took a lion for companion, and shocked the squares and even the tolerant with her taboo-breaking, bacchanal behavior.
She explained that the lesbian encounters of her youth were the result of her father warningher to beware of men but failing to mention women. Which sounds more like a Tallulah wisecrack than an attemt to tell the truth. But it just may be what happened. And although she was frequently surrounded by homosexuals and was broadminded about all sexuality except the sadistic, according to a friend "Tallulah hadn't a homosexual bone in her body."
...Ideally, she would have brought the audience home with her to give them a different show every night--words, music, direction by Tallulah; readings from Shakespeare, the Bible, and Tennessee Williams.
When she couldn't help herself and her wild escapades did make headlines, she tried to cover her tracks by giving the affairs the most innocent if entirely implausible Tallulah explanations. Her cocaine sniffing became menthol snuff she took for a chronically sore throat. "Anyway, cocaine isn't habit-forming, darling, and I ought to know. I've been taking it all my life." And she probably explained her efforts to tempt [Pentecostal] evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson [founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel] into admitting some indiscretion as religious research, "in case I have to play a saint like you someday, darling."
Brian, page 15:
...[during an interview with the author] Out came the higlights of her career, her phobias, childhood memories... a new twist in the soap operas she watched religiously, appropriate quotes from the Bible, her latest plans, her latest malapropism--"I call people anti-semantic when I mean anti-Semitic"... her beautiful mother... died shortly after Tallulah was born...
Tallulah... hated a liar, strangely, even more than a murderer--which is some indication of her love for the truth... Tallulah didn't tell how she lay weeping on a movie studio floor, harassed beyond endurance by Ernst Lubitsch. She never mentioned [during interviews with the writer] how she helped save Jews from Hitler's Europe, nor the ghost she saw in Hollywood--in bright light. She hid the truth about her drug taking.
Brian, pages 18-19:
After her last film, Die, Die, My Darling, which she made in England in the summer of 1964, Tallulah left gifts of St. Christopher medals for her coworkers and she gave the director, Silvio Narizzano, a medal inscribed with a devil and the words: "It takes one to know one. Love Tallulah."
Brian, pages 20-21:
...Adelaide Eugenia Sledge... went to Huntsville, Alabama, to buy a wedding dress. Three months later she married--another man. Their daughter, also Eugenia, was born the following year, and Tallulah was born on the second anniversary of their surprise wedding--January 31, 1902.
Brian, page 23:
Three weeks after Tallulah was born her mother died of complications resulting from childbirth.
Tallulah's father, William Bankhead... [was] a laywer and politician [who] knew the valu eof understatement and timing... From before the Civil War the Bankheads had been prosperous Albama planters. After the war they were, without exception, anti-Ku Klux Klan.
Bankhead the frustrated actor [Tallulah Bankheads's father] seized every opportunity to share his passion for Shakespeare with his daughters. And he dramatized stories from the Bible, with additional dialogue by Bankhead. Inevitably they were sad, and Tallulah and sister Eugenia would drown his last words in sobs. He'd quickly console them by promising a happy ending, then had the devil's own job finding an upbeat ending in either testament for next Sunday's Bible story.
Brian, page 56:
One otherwise empty afternoon in October, 1928, Tallulah went with Beatrice Lillie to watch Aimee Semple McPherson [founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel] hold a revival meeting at Albert Hall. Tallulah viewed her as a fellow-actress and although she considered Aimee's eyes to be beautiful and her skin lovely, criticized her badly dyed hair and said she had the body of a peasant. A few nights later, after playing Her Cardboard Lover, Tallulah invited Aimee home to meet her chums. Cellist Gwen Farrar was there with Leslie Howard and Audry and her brother Kenneth Carten. They tried to ge the evangelist to admit she was human by confessing their own sins, some invented. She didn't fall for their trap, and said that as long as they didn't hurt others, she didn't mind what they did.
Brian, page 73:
When frantic, Tallulah always looked at the photograph of her mother for comfort. Now she looked and found it missing. "Quick," she told her maid, Rose Riley, "go back to the hotel and tell Eddie to bring mother's picture." But Tallulah's secretary, Edie Smith, had already left for the theatre. It was raining hard. There wasn't enough time for a messenger to get through the theatre traffic and bring the picture back.
Brian, pages 90-91:
And then there was a knock at Tallulah's dressing-room door and the stage doorman brought in a package. There was a letter with it: "Dear Miss Bankhead: I knew your mother well. Noting that you are opening ina new play it occurred to me that you might like to have this picture. It's possible you may not have it." The note was signed by a stranger to Tallulah.
Sentimental, superstitious Tallulah, who adored the mother she had never known, now felt completely calm and protected. It was as if the stranger was divinely inspired, or at least a messenger from another world.
Tallulah the ball breaker had moments when she'd have driven a bishop to blasphemy, and it isn't surprising that [her husband] Emery sometimes let rip. Nothing Tallulah did was every half-hearted: a punch and an embrace were equally ferocious... Vincent Price remembered the bruise still, when she spotted him in a New York bar one night and suddenly tackled him and threw him to the floor. That was just a Tallulah "hello!"
A description of antics at a typically chaotic Tallulah night at home with freinds, from: Brian, page 129:
But strangely, although she often came on like a football team, she hated to be touched, even by her friends and especially by surprise. And the echo of her scream, "Don't touch me!" rings in many a head. This almost terror of contact is one of the extreme contradictions in her personality, because, on the other hand, she was sexually amoral, both sensuous and sensual... It may have reflected another imperious facet of her personality that, like a tyrannical ruler, she could touch but no one was allowed to touch her. But unquestionably this dread of being touched was genuine.
...The newspaper headlines were becoming more arresting than even the most provocative Broadway dialogue... Hitler had occupied Austria and was shaping up for a try at surpassing Napoleon and Genghis Khan. He was threatening the lives of Jews in Nazi-occupied territory and among them were relatives of stage director Otto Preminger.
Tallulah knew Preminger slightly and heard that he was desperate. His father, his brother, and his brother's family were trapped in Austria.
[Tallulah talked to her father and uncle, one of whom was a U.S. Senator and the other was in the U.S. House of Representatives, and secured their assistance in passing a special bill that in Congress to get Otto Premger's family out of Europe.]
 A typical Tallulah day lasts thirty-six hours... Tallulah walks to the library and comes back with the Bible. "Hold it! Hold it! Everyone." Tallulah's going to preach. Time stands still as the sun goes down. he piano goes pianissimo and the guests freeze. Tallulah holds them transfixed while she orates her favorite lines for forty-five minutes. Then she opens the Bible at random to tell the guests their fortunes. "Don't movie, darling! Robert will get you another drink." And from the Dietrich imitation and the Bible, Tallulah goes to the time she greeted the stuffy English lord when she was having a bath in a bathroom where every wall was a mirror, and in his confusion he took her soap-sudded hand and apologized for not being dressed.
Stanley Haggart recounts an experience when he and Philip Hall had dinner with Tallulah Bankhead, from: Brian, pages 186-187:
"At the Elysee Hotel when we were having dinner... She told me her daddy had taught her to do recitations from the Bible and Shakespeare. 'Give me a theme and I will do it.' So I suggested something impassioned. She chose a scene from the Bible. Then I chose the theme 'love.' She used these as devices to make advances." [She invited Haggart to have sex with her.]
Brian, page 208:
"Finally, at this point, Hall and I escaped altogether, because it really was not my dish of tea. She did a really Tallulah Bankhead thing then. He got the door open finally and there in the public hall was an artificial fireplace that she had had banished to make room for her radio set. She ran past Philip into the hall, threw herself against this artificial fireplace with her head high and cried: 'You can't leave now!' It was all stage scenery. She was quite serious but I felt it would be so theatricalized and so artificial and such a production. She used those devices as well, I believe, to cover her rejections.
"She shocked me tremendously. I'm a Puritan... [recounts another experience with her] What shocked me most was her ruthlessness and selfishness in conversation and her thoughtlessness of others. She was an expert at destroying the men around her, at putting them down...
"I think 'The Big Show' was the beginning of the end for her. It was like a bizarre funeral, a bizarre natinoal funeral in which she was the goddess and became the caricature of herself and whatever possibilities she had as an actress were buried and gone."
As soon as Mrs. Roosevelt [the First Lady of the United States of America] left, Kirkwood exploded:
Brian, pages 208-209:
"Oh, God, Tallulah, why would you ever do that? Now really! That was so embarrassing."
"What do you mean?"
"Getting up and going to the bathroom in the middle of the conversaion and taking your pants down and sitting there witht he door open."
Tallulah gave him her queenly look: "Mrs. Roosevelt knows we all have bodily functions. That was no news to her."
The governor of Connecticut [Abraham Ribicoff] and his wife came to see Welcome, Darlings and asked Tallulah out to supper afterward. She invited Kirkwood to be her escort. They went to a lovely old inn in Connecticut where Tallulah downed five very quick bourbon and ginger ales.
Normally Tallulah went on chemical reactions, but her reaction to Governor Ribicoff was magnetic. If she'd had her way, she would have sworn him as president that night. She kept saying: "He's a Jew, the only Jew. . . . They've never had a Jewish governor in this rotten state until now."
When some of the cast came by she was getting quite drunk and said: "This is Governor Ribocrop, Robercoff, Roober . . . well you know, he's the governor for godsakes and he's a Jew. Isn't that marvelous?"
She leaned over to Kirkwood and whispered: "You know he's really a very attractive man."
Mrs. Ribicoff was getting a little nervous, and the governor showed signs of strain.
It got to be about one a.m. and there was a noise and Mrs. Ribicoff said to her husband: "Darling, I think it's about time that we . . ."
And Tallulah snapped her head around and said: "WHY DON'T YOU GO HOME!"
The place cleared almost before the glasses stopped shaking.
Webpage created 30 July 2005. Last modified 30 July 2005.
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