“All the world’s a stage and I have a good part,” Speaker of the House William Brockman Bankhead of Alabama declared near the end of his career. “I hope that I shall play it satisfactorily, and the critics will not be too harsh with me.”
Paraphrasing William Shakespeare, Bankhead demonstrated his love for theater, especially the Bard’s plays. In his youth, Bankhead briefly pursued an acting career, but he ultimately joined the family business: politics. He followed in the footsteps of his father, John, (a U.S. Representative and Senator) and his elder brother, John II, (a U.S. Senator). Bankhead’s daughter Tallulah, however, inherited his thespian gene and would eventually command center stage in Hollywood during its heyday.
Tallulah was born on January 31, 1902, in Huntsville, Alabama, to Bankhead and Adelaide Eugenia Sledge. At the age of 16, she won her first onscreen opportunity during her father's freshman term in the 65th Congress (1917–1919). Although Tallulah was the spitting image of her father, their personalities—like their chosen professions—were quite different. If grace and charisma made the father a natural politician, a tart tongue and a legendary independent streak made the daughter a darling of Hollywood tabloids. Nevertheless, acting provided a lifelong bond between them. While William’s burgeoning political career in Washington, D.C., kept him away from home, whenever he visited his family back in Alabama he would take Tallulah to the theaters for entertainment.
Over the years, Bankhead rose to prominence in the House, becoming chairman of the Committee on Rules in the 73rd Congress (1933–1935). In the 74th Congress (1935–1937), he was elected Majority Leader and, after the sudden death of Speaker Joseph Byrns of Tennessee in June 1936, became Speaker of the House. At a time when many southern Members of Congress grew disenchanted with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, Bankhead remained FDR’s loyal legislative lieutenant. Meanwhile, Tallulah starred in many Broadway plays and Hollywood films. Her signature raspy voice was well-known in films such as Faithless in 1932 and A Royal Scandal in 1945. Stardom transformed the once-genteel Southern belle into a headline-grabbing, flamboyant Hollywood rebel. Although she surrounded herself with many friends, she missed her father’s visits. Tallulah once lamented, “Daddy saw only a half-a-dozen of my plays . . . [and] only once did I see him wax enthusiastic about me [when], back in 1937, I told him I was going to marry [fellow actor] John Emery.”
In 1940, Tallulah took a hiatus from Hollywood to help her ailing father on his speaking tour to support President Roosevelt’s re-election campaign. Later that year, Speaker Bankhead died of a hemorrhage in Bethesda, Maryland.
In the years after World War II, Tallulah found continued success on Broadway but over time her acting career slowed as movie producers sought new and younger talent. But her fame never fully faded and she eventually earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. Tallulah made a final appearance on The Tonight Show in May 1968, and died that same year in New York City. Like her father, she passed away at age 66.
On the world’s stage, Bankhead and his daughter played different roles—one in politics and the other in theater. Yet, they reached the pinnacle of their professions and left behind unique legacies.
Sources: David Bret, Tallulah Bankhead: A Scandalous Life (New York: Robson Books/ Parkwest, 1996); Evans C. Johnson, “Bankhead, William Brockman,” American National Biography, 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 111–112; New York Times, February 14, 1937.