Tallulah Bankhead and Billie Holiday: Relationship explored in new biopic

Bruno Cooke February 26, 2021

Billie Holiday biopic The United States Vs. Billie Holiday premiered on 26 February (to mixed reviews), revealing her romantic involvement with actress Tallulah Bankhead. But the relationship remains somewhat mysterious. So, what’s the story behind Tallulah Bankhead and Billie Holiday?

Who was Tallulah Bankhead?

American actress Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was a member of the Brockman Bankhead family, a prominent Alabama political family. 

However, she often opposed her own family publicly, favouring more liberal causes.

Primarily a stage actress, Bankhead starred in numerous Broadway productions. Her biggest film hit was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), although she did have roles in several other films – both before and after the “talkie” revolution.

Photo by Eugene Robert Richee/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

In spite of her many successes – Bankhead amassed almost 300 film, stage, television and radio roles in her 66 years – Bankhead struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction.

She was famous for her personality and wit, and also her promiscuousness – she once boasted of having slept with 5,000 people. 

Bankhead’s many romantic partners included, allegedly, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and the singer Billie Holiday.

Tallulah Bankhead and Billie Holiday

The exact nature of Tallulah’s relationship with Billie Holiday remains somewhat mysterious. 

In 1948, Bankhead used to watch Holiday’s closing set every night of her run performing with Count Basie. She also accompanied Holiday on her own tours whenever she could.

Tallulah stuck by Billie Holiday when she was arrested and charged with possession of opium, and wrote a letter to the head of the FBI in support of her, after she threatened suicide.

Yet, something appears to have changed along the line. 

In 1951, she published a memoir, Tallulah: My Autiobiography. It didn’t mention Holiday’s name once. 

Five years later, when Holiday was due to release a memoir of her own, Lady Sings The Blues, Bankhead received a copy of the manuscript.

But Bankhead’s lawyer sent a letter to Holiday’s editor, the effect of which was that Bankhead was effectively written out of Holiday’s book.

The only remaining mention described Bankhead as “just a friend who sometimes came around to the house to eat spaghetti”.

Tallulah Bankhead with Billie Holiday and jazz trombonist Dickie Wells | Stars and Letters: Letters from Hollywood’s Golden Age

Who plays Bankhead in The United States vs. Billie Holiday?

Natasha Lyonne portrays Bankhead in the new Billie Holiday biopic. 

Lyonne’s previous roles include Nicky Nichols in Orange Is The New Black and Ad Astra’s Tanya Pincus. She has also voiced characters for The Simpsons and Uncut Gems. But The United States vs. Billie Holiday may be her biggest film role to date.

The casting decision seems to have been a good one. Fans on Twitter have reported “hyperventilating” after discovering that Natasha plays Tallulah.