I just watched “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” a few days ago and thought it was a great movie. One of the many things that surprised me was the romantic relationship between Billie Holiday and Tallulah Bankhead. I only knew about Bankhead from the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Lifeboat”. I googled about Tallulah Bankhead and was surprised to learn that she was a progressive activist who was a strong supporter of civil rights for African Americans, a brave stance for a Southern white woman in the early twentieth century.
Bankhead was a member of the Brockman Bankhead family, a prominent Alabama political family; her grandfather and uncle were U.S. Senators and her father served as an 11-term member of Congress, the final two as Speaker of the House of Representatives. She often publicly opposed her family’s support of racial segregation.
Tallulah Bankhead campaigned for progressive candidates her entire adult life. In 1924, Bankhead voted for Robert La Follette of the Progressive Party. In the 1948 presidential election, Bankhead supported the re-election of Harry S. Truman. After Truman was elected, Bankhead was invited to his inauguration on January 20, 1949 and she booed the South Carolina float which carried segregationist Strom Thurmond
.In Democratic primaries and campaigns of later years, Bankhead supported Estes Kefauver in 1952, Adlai Stevenson II in 1956, John F. Kennedy in 1960, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Eugene McCarthy in 1968.
Bankhead was also a lifelong supporter of civil rights and opponent of Jim Crow. In 1940, Tallulah Bankhead helped to organize the Fourth Annual National Sharecroppers Awareness Week in New York City in May 1940. Its purpose was to raise awareness and funds for Southern sharecroppers who worked in semi-feudal conditions and faced state and vigilante violence when they attempted organize. Among the featured speakers were A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Walter White and W.E.B. Dubois of the NAACP, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party.
She tried to make sure that the casts of the plays and movies that she performed in were racially integrated. She shared the stage in a Chicago production of The Little Foxes for several weeks with African American actors Abbie Mitchell and John Marriott in the summer of 1940. In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat”, she acted with African American actor Canada Lee. Tallulah Bankhead fought for the racial integration of the audience for the National Theater in Washington, D.C. in the late 1940s.
In the late 1940s, Tallulah Bankhead spoke out for James Hickman, an African American father of nine, who was facing execution for the murder of his slum landlord, David Coleman, also an African American, whom Hickman strongly believed was responsible for the arson/murder of his four youngest children. Decades ahead of her time, Bankhead spoke out against redlining and informal covenants that prevented Blacks from living where they desired in Chicago.
Tallulah Bankhead was a bisexual who was romantically involved with men and women of all races, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Hattie McDaniel, Alla Nazimova, and singer Billie Holiday.