Cartoons are fun and creative forms of artistic expression. But much like the art you would find in a museum, even the silliest of cartoons come from hard work and, sometimes, from real-life inspiration. This is how actress Tallulah Bankhead, the inspiration behind Cruella de Vil, the 101 Dalmatians supervillain, came to life.
When Dodie Smith’s 1959 novel was released, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, Walt Disney loved the story so much that he snatched the film rights instantly. Naturally, the Hollywood entrepreneur and his studio team found themselves looking to develop a character genuinely rooted in evil. After conducting some research into the real “bad women” of the world, producers found actress Tallulah Bankhead to be all the inspiration they needed.
Tallulah Bankhead is seen as one of the “bad women” of society, primarily because her behavior on a day-to-day basis did not match the societal views of her time. She was a stage actress from Alabama, born into a politically connected family in the early 1900s. Her dramatic childhood turned into a life of chaos.
Her name was at the top of Will Hay’s infamous “Doom Book,” a book for studios detailing which women were okay to work with and which were deemed “unsuitable for the public.” Naturally, this was the type of energy they were looking for; not only did she have a big personality, but she had an even bigger reputation.
Marc Davis, an animator for the Walt Disney studio, told the Los Angeles Times that he “had several partial models in mind when [he] drew Cruella,” but only took the time to mention one name in particular: “Tallulah.” She had already earned a stark reputation as one of the most over-the-top women in entertainment.
When looking for inspiration for the soon-to-be-created cartoon supervillain, Disney, Davis, and their team set out to find someone who, in theory, was so evil that she might even consider killing puppies if it meant getting what she wanted. They were well-connected Hollywood men who heard stories about the other prominent people in entertainment. Tallulah was the primary point of reference.
Tallulah Bankhead came from a theater background, and her personality seemed to be just as dramatic off stage as it was with the spotlight on her. She had no qualms; she was going to live life on her own terms, and she had every intention of being as loud about it as possible.
Marc Davis used her behaviors and satirized her every move. She was so thin she was practically skin and bones, her voice was as raspy as they get, and she whipped her Bentley through the streets of New York, London, and Los Angeles recklessly, as if there were no other people on the road. And this is only the beginning of her similarities to the iconic character.
Bankhead was born on January 31st, 1902, in Huntsville, Alabama. She was the youngest of two daughters. Unfortunately, her sister Evelyn Eugenia was born two months prematurely, and in turn, spent the entirety of her life suffering from visual impairments. Despite this, she would eventually outlive Tallulah.
The two girls almost had a different fate as their mother, Adelaide “Ada” Eugenia Bankhead, was engaged to another man when she met their father, William Brockman Bankhead. She was on a trip to Huntsville, Alabama, to look for her wedding dress, and she met William along the way. It was love at first sight. So, she called off the other engagement, and the two were married on January 31st, 1900.
Bankhead’s parents were very much in love, though their relationship was short-lived. Just three weeks after Tallulah was born, her mother died of sepsis (blood poisoning). While on her deathbed, she reportedly told her sister-in-law that she knew Tallulah could hold her own in the future.
“Take care of Eugenia; Tallulah will always be able to take care of herself,” Ada said. Tallulah was baptized just weeks after her birth, right next to her mother’s casket. After Ada’s untimely passing, William broke down and dealt with a bout of depression which led to alcoholism, and ultimately, his daughters being raised by their grandmother.
Tallulah and her sister Eugenia were raised primarily by their paternal grandmother, also named Tallulah. Their father was not out of their lives but rather too consumed with his devastation to be a full-time father. Even if he were not their primary caretaker, Tallulah would constantly do things to seek his approval.
Tallulah wasn’t born evil, though her earliest days could certainly lead anyone to turn into a monster. As a baby, she had a bad temper and she developed into a rather challenging child. Also, as a child, she dealt with a series of diseases that would give her a lifelong raspy voice.
Her trademark raspy voice, also shown through the characterization of Cruella de Vil in every film, came from a series of throat and chest infections as a child. She suffered through whooping cough, measles, pneumonia, the mumps – anything you could think of. Little did she know, her voice would become a trademark in the world of entertainment.
Her older sister was slim and beautiful, while Tallulah was described as a tubby child. According to biographer David Bret, she channeled her resentment and tough-sounding voice into a persona, with which she used to bully her sister and the rest of her class. She was uncontrollable and sent to convents to curb her behavior.
The Bankhead family wasn’t even Catholic, but felt that their best option for getting her attitude in check was under the supervision and leadership of nuns. Unfortunately, that was far from the reality. She ended up getting expelled from two different convents. Can you guess what she did to get kicked out?
First, she tried to throw ink at the Mother Superior, and then, she made romantic advances toward a nun. She was only 12 years old at the time, but this would allude to controversy and gossip that would follow her into her adult life and career.
Tallulah unfortunately never saw the character that she inspired. The actresses who voiced Cruella de Vil in the original cartoon version of 101 Dalmatians, and those who played her in every subsequent live-action version, all channeled her attitude and used the star as their inspiration.
The late Betty Lou Gerson was the original voice for Cruella, starring as the supervillain in the animated 1961 film. The role would later be reprised in live-action remakes of the film, played by legendary actress Glenn Close, and most recently, by Emma Stone in the Disney film, Cruella.
As Tallulah Bankhead grew into the woman we knew her as, she became more difficult. She received an ego boost as she landed her first acting role after submitting her photo to Picture Play magazine. After that, she took a trip to New York and met some other soon-to-be-famous actors and actresses. Maybe this is where she grew into herself.
Her colleagues would quickly start identifying her under the same terms that the Disney animators would; “She was tall and thin and constantly talked – you never knew what she was saying, but you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. So, what I wanted to do was make the character move like someone you wouldn’t like,” a Disney animator said.
Bankhead’s father came from a long line of politicians and politically connected men in Alabama. After finishing his studies at the University of Alabama and Georgetown University Law Center, he was immediately admitted to the Alabama state bar. He joined other family members before him in practicing law.
His great-grandfather was a former senator for South Carolina, and his father served in the Alabama state legislature and served as a representative for Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives. William’s brother, John H. Bankhead II, served in the senate like their father.
William Bankhead was elected to a position that was nearly as coveted as the presidency itself. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving between multiple congressional districts of Alabama. Those with the ability to vote in the state of Alabama at the time must have loved him – he was re-elected three times!
Bankhead served as the chairman of the House Rules Committee, then took over as House Majority leader by his fellow party men. Then, on June 4th, 1936, he was selected as Speaker of the House when Jo Byrns passed away. This is a highly coveted position in world politics, second in power only to the President of the United States and the Queen of England!
Tallulah was not unlike others who craved the attention and approval of their father. She promised her father, in order for him to endorse her lifestyle and career choice, that she did not quite plan to keep. She promised him she would remain a “technical virgin,” though she gave in after moving to London.
Maybe her father was bankrolling her magnificent lifestyle, which might be why she was always trying to show him how well she was doing. She referred to him as “daddy,” well into adulthood. In her own words, she said, “he’d warned me about men and alcohol; he didn’t say anything about women and cocaine!”
Her first acting job, which she won as a result of a photo contest, only paid her $75. This role transitioned her into silent films. But being as outspoken and vulgar as she was, she wanted more than what she had. She landed later roles in plays, and even those she took into her own hands.
Bankhead was a notable stage presence, and not every project she did had the potential that she had. However, she often redeemed herself while starring in plays that were relatively “boring” to her by improvising lines and creating scenes just by being dramatic. She truly made lemonade from the lemons life gave her.
Bankhead was known for being genuinely over-the-top; outspoken and quite vulgar. She was known as a rebel, which was strange for a time when actresses were expected to act appropriately. But, she wouldn’t have any of that and just did what she wanted.
Bankhead’s career took off when she moved to London. She immersed herself in the theater world, making her London stage debut at Wyndham’s Theatre in 1923. She appeared in several plays afterward, including The Dancers and Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, which won a Pulitzer Prize.
She spent eight years in London’s theater industry, additionally touring across the country. On stage, she shared a fair amount of controversy as well. However, she used her trademark moves to make tense, awkward situations light – even while on stage. She opened up in her autobiography about opening for her show Conchita.
“In the second act… I came on carrying a monkey… On opening night, the monkey went berserk… (he) snatched my black wig from my head, leaped from my arms, and scampered down to the footlights. There he paused, peered out at the audience, then waved my wig over his head…”
“The audience had been giggling at the absurd plot even before this simian had at me. Now it became hysterical. What did Tallulah do in this crisis? I turned a cartwheel! The audience roared… After the monkey business, I was afraid they might boo me. But, instead, I received an ovation!”
Bankhead was known for doing cartwheels at parties and showing other erratic behaviors; she was known for taking her clothes off and singing at parties and in other public places. She would put on a show, making herself a sensation, even if the plays she starred in weren’t getting great reviews.
Remember those scenes with Cruella de Vil driving her expensive car through the streets of London? Well, Tallulah Bankhead lived it. She would catapult her Bentley through the streets of London, often getting lost because she wasn’t very adept with directions. She had a simple fix for this, though…
Bankhead would call cab drivers to come find her and pay them to take her where she wanted to go, behind them, in her vehicle. That was a simple fix to her. Cruella, like Tallulah, walked around every room as if she were recklessly driving, breaking glasses, and knocking pictures off the wall along the way.
Though she did not openly identify as bisexual, it was apparent to those who knew her. She was known for her wild sexual escapades with men and women and was tied romantically to multiple other stars. Some of those names included Greta Garbo and Billie Holiday.
She never once openly admitted her sexual orientation. Perhaps she did not identify with sexual orientation but identified as fluid and would love whoever gave her their time and attention. Who knows – she didn’t discriminate. She was undoubtedly active in that sense – she once even walked onto a set and asked, “how do you get laid in this dreadful place?”
Defining Bankhead as a chain smoker would be an understatement. Bankhead smoked more than 100 cigarettes a day, with no intentions or plans to change the routine. That’s part of the reason why Cruella was seldom seen without her cigarette holder – she was always smoking something. She drank excessively, as well. She would also drink two full bottles of bourbon a day.
She took pills for everything she could and even spoke candidly about her use of other drugs. While living at the Algonquin, she experienced their wild parties. She was open about her experiences; “Cocaine isn’t habit-forming, and I know because I’ve been taking it for years.” Wow – that is…quite the outlook!
Much like Cruella de Vil, the star lived for shock value. “Nudity was the most effective weapon in her arsenal of shock tactics,” Joel Lobenthal wrote in Tallulah!, about the life and times of the star herself. She also was incredibly open about how much she hated wearing underwear.
She refused to wear it and would often go out of her way to make sure that everyone around her knew what she wasn’t wearing any. Nevertheless, it was a thrill for her, and she did whatever she could to get attention, both on set and in the public eye.
After some time in London, the star briefly moved to Los Angeles and dabbled in the film industry. She had little to no interest in the film world, believe it or not, though she was successful. She made at least $50,000 per film and was willing to put up with what she referred to as a “boring process” of making a movie.
Her adventures in Hollywood surely got wild outside of the workplace. She would throw lavish parties “without any boundaries” at the home she rented at 1712 Stanley Street (now 1712 North Stanley Avenue) in Hollywood. At least if she hated acting for the screen, she loved a good party!
Her relaxed-yet-promiscuous lifestyle finally caught up with her. She caught a bad case of venereal disease, specifically gonorrhea, that left her infertile. She had to undergo an emergency hysterectomy as a result and spent nine weeks in the hospital. Her weight also dropped to around 75 pounds at the time.
In addition to this life-changing surgery, it was speculated that she might have had multiple abortions. During a period of time in which she gained some more weight, she spread a rumor that her body had rounded out because she had aborted a pregnancy – and this wasn’t the first time she shared information like that.
Think of Tallulah Bankhead’s “gallery girls” as her entourage, or even as her groupies. They would chant, “Tallulah, Tallulah!” or “Tallulah, Hallelujah!” whenever she appeared on stage. It must have been nice to have people who followed her loyally like that – something many people aspire to.
These “gallery girls” also accompanied her to all of her festivities, and they had the same penchant for substances as her. If she didn’t have it, she still wanted it – her gallery girls would always pull through for her in the end. This London-based wrecking crew was a force to be reckoned with.
Despite having a series of flops on the silver screen, Tallulah was still desired by many directors and producers – she was someone they saw as unique, and the publicity would likely be over-the-top. Speaking of desire, a character from A Streetcar Named Desire was inspired by her and even written for her.
Despite that, she turned it down. Her reason for turning the role of Blanche DuBois made sense, though. She was angry when Tennessee Williams wouldn’t remove a racial slur from her script. She also felt that it hit far too close to home.
When actress Valerie Harper was preparing to play Tallulah in a play called Looped, she discussed Tallulah’s thought process in turning down the part of Blanche DuBois. “It was a huge mistake not doing it, but she felt it was too close to her own life. I mean, how would it look….”
“— an aging, promiscuous, Southern woman who drinks too much playing an aging, promiscuous, Southern woman who drinks too much? By the time she did decide to do it, Jessica Tandy had gotten the huzzahs, and it was her play. Tallulah did it in 1955 at Florida’s Coconut Grove Playhouse, and her camp followers lined up around the block to see her.”
She eventually admitted to a vast number of romantic and sexual relationships with both men and women. When all was said and done, she admitted to more than 500 relationships over time; others speculated she had somewhere in the range of 5,000.
This made marriage seem like the last thing that she would ever do, but in August 1937, she married actor John Emery – who she described as only “so-so.” That’s…not what you’d expect for someone to say about their soon-to-be husband. However, it was clear that this holy matrimony was doomed from day one.
“After twenty years of unbridled freedom, of acting on a whim, I couldn’t discipline myself to the degree necessary for a satisfactory union,” she wrote in her memoir. Nevertheless, she partially married to make her father happy. She didn’t really try to make it seem like she enjoyed being married, though.
She was never one for privacy. She invited the press on their honeymoon and did not miss a beat when telling them about every tiny anatomical detail. When her marriage was over after a couple of years, her dad was still alive. She kept it a secret until his death, then headed to Reno for a divorce.
Tallulah was notorious for advertising her lack of undergarments. She loved the discomfort that it caused in those surrounding her and caused a particular stir on the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Lifeboat. She was still banned from many films for her behavior, but it seemed Hitchcock enjoyed her rowdiness.
Her on-set lover and costar, John Hodiak, referenced a scene they filmed in which she ascended from a ladder above him. “She never had any underwear on,” he shared. But, of course, she made sure everyone knew, and Hitchcock truly enjoyed how uncomfortable she made everyone else on set. Also, if you look closely, the new Cruella film with Emma Stone has a Lifeboat Easter egg!
She was at the height of her fame in 1950, when doctors told her that her lifestyle would kill her. Her excessive drinking and smoking were going to be her demise. She experimented with barbiturates and opiates, though she preferred cocaine – she considered it medicinal.
“She added ginger ale to the bourbon and substituted her usual brand of cigarettes for 150 cork-tipped ones,” a biographer wrote. In her autobiography, she claimed to “never practice two vices at once.” Unfortunately, her health was also part of why she turned down roles like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Margo Channing in All About Eve.
Even though she wasn’t well enough to play some of the roles she was offered, she did not hesitate to express when she thought things were “all about [her],” which is also primarily where animator Marc Davis drew inspiration for the evil queen herself. His depiction of her was ruthless, but she didn’t seem to have an issue with it.
He channeled the bitter, hostile, obnoxious, attention-seeking, aggressive, and spotlight-obsessed side of her into the characterization of the famous villain. She epitomized the fashion and style of the 1940s, fancy furs (though not dalmatian) included in the mix of everything!
Tallulah Bankhead died in a New York City hospital when she was 66 years old. Her official cause of death was listed as double pneumonia. Her drug use had spiraled far out of control, and she hadn’t managed to act in a while. She died on December 12th, 1968.
Her last words were reportedly “codeine… bourbon…” which showed us just how dependent she became on substances at the end of her life. However, she will always be remembered for being theatrical on and off stage, and she will always have the legacy of inspiring one of the greatest movie villains of all time.
In the recently released Disney film, Cruella is played by remarkable actress Emma Stone. She was dedicated to playing her version of the character. She felt she had huge shoes to fill, explicitly stating that “the list of actresses who have played that role is insane!”
She is following in the live-action Cruella de Vil footsteps of Glenn Close, who played her in 101 Dalmatians and 102 Dalmatians. Close served as an executive producer on Cruella, giving the film an extra layer of spice, coming from the woman who took a cartoon to life!
Emma Stone did her homework before getting started on her role as Cruella. She learned that Tallulah Bankhead was the inspiration for the character, so Stone studied her films, such as the 1944 film Lifeboat. Stone took the character’s backstory into account when preparing.
Stone specifically studied the actress’s mannerisms and voice, doing whatever she could to have the most authentic voice possible. However, she was disappointed to learn that she would not be able to use the token cigarette holder that both Cruella and Tallulah used because Disney did not want to encourage smoking in 2021. Nevertheless, she crushed the role, and hopefully, Tallulah is watching from somewhere and pleased with the performance too!