Tallulah Bankhead was perhaps more famous for her eccentric personality and stormy personal life than her acting career. She had lots of affairs with both men and women, one of the women being jazz singer Billie Holiday. Tallulah and Billie probably first met in Harlem in the early 1930s but didn't get together until the late 1940s when they were both performing on Broadway (Billie at the Strand Theatre while Tallulah was doing a play at a theatre nearby). The two women became close and had an intense relationship for a few years.
|The only photo I could find of Tallulah Bankhead and Billie Holiday together. December 1951, here the two women are photographed with jazz trombonist Dickie Wells.|
In early 1949, Billie was charged with possession of opium. Tallulah tried to help her and got in touch with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who was a close friend of her father's (wealthy politician Will Bankhead). In a telephone call with Hoover, Tallulah begged him to exonerate Billie of the charges, but Hoover told her that the case had been handed over to the state authorities, that it was out of his hands. Following their telephone conversation, Tallulah contacted Hoover again on 9 February 1949. Pleading Billie's case once more, this time she wrote him a letter.
Source: Groove Notes
60 East 54th Street
New York, N.Y.
February 9, 1949
J. Edgar Hoover
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Dear Mr. Hoover:
I am ashamed of my unpardonable delay in writing to thank you a thousand times for the kindness, consideration and courtesy, in fact all the nicest adjectives in the book, for the trouble you took re our telephone conversation in connection with Billie Holiday.
I tremble when I think of my audacity in approaching you at all with so little to recommend me, except the esteem, admiration and high regard my father held for you. I would never have dared to ask him or you a favor for myself but knowing your true humanitarian spirit it seemed quite natural at the time to go to the top man. As my Negro mammy used to say - "When you pray you pray to God don't you?".
I have met Billie Holiday but twice in my life but admire her immensely as an artist and feel the most profound compassion for her knowing as I do the unfortunate circumstances of her background. Although my intention is not to condone her weaknesses I certainly understand the eccentricities of her behaviour because she is essentially a child at heart whose troubles has made her psychologically unable to cope with the world in which she finds herself. Her vital need is more medical than the confinement of four walls.
However guilty she may be, whatever penalty she may be required to pay for her frailties, poor thing, you I know did everything within the law to lighten her burden. Bless you for this,
Sometime between 1949 and 1952, Tallulah began to distance herself from Billie. Afraid that her career would be destroyed if people knew about their relationship, Tallulah didn't mention Billie once in her 1952 autobiography. A few years later when Billie was working on her own autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, a copy of the manuscript was sent to Tallulah who threatened to file a lawsuit if she wasn't kept out of the book. On 12 January 1955, Billie responded with an embittered letter (shown below in transcript). Billie never received a reply to her letter, and in the end Tallulah was only mentioned as "just a friend who sometimes came around to the house to eat spaghetti."
Dear Miss Bankhead:
I thought I was a friend of yours. That's why there's nothing in my book that was unfriendly to you, unkind or libelous. Because I didn't want to drag you, I tried six times last month to talk to you on the damn phone, and tell you about the book just as a matter of courtesy. That bitch you have who impersonates you kept telling me to call back and when I did, it was the same deal until I gave up. But while I was working out of town, you didn't mind talking to Doubleday and suggesting behind my damned back that I had flipped and/or made up those little mentions of you in my book. Baby, Cliff Allen and Billy Heywood are still around. My maid who was with me at the Strand isn't dead either. There are plenty of others around who remember how you carried on so you almost got me fired out of the place. And if you want to get shitty, we can make it a big shitty party. We can all get funky together!
I don't know whether you've got one of those damn lawyers telling you what to do or not. But I'm writing this to give you a chance to answer back quick and apologize to me and to Doubleday. Read my book over again. I understand they sent you a duplicate manuscript. There's nothing in it to hurt you. If you think so, let's talk about it like I wanted to last month. It's going to press right now so there is no time for monkeying around. Straighten up and fly right, Banky. Nobody's trying to drag you.