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Tallulah Bankhead: The real-life bad girl who inspired Cruella de Vil

Tallulah Bankhead (1902 – 1968) the American theatrical leading lady of stage and screen who worked in London and on Broadway during the 20s. Pictured during a scene from ‘Let Us Be Gay’ at the Lyric Theatre. (Photo by Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Tallulah Bankhead: The real-life bad girl who inspired Cruella de Vil

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When it came to creating the character of Cruella de Vil for the big screen adaptation of Dodie Smith’s novel “The Hundred and One Dalmatians,” Walt Disney studio faced a challenge.

How do they create a villain that is equal parts cruel and evil, but also mean, rude, loud, greedy, selfish, hysterical, and domineering?

Disney animator Marc Davis found inspiration in real-life “bad” women, and in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he revealed that he had “several partial models in mind when I drew Cruella,” but one earned a printed name-drop: “including Tallulah.”

This was the legendary Tallulah Bankhead, whose name sat atop Will Hays’s famous Doom Book, a bound volume for studios listing performers “unsuitable for the public.”

Davis’s satirical animation cleverly capitalized on Bankhead’s big persona, and bigger reputation as the baddest, boldest, wildest woman of the acting world.

Once you see it, you will never unsee Tallulah Bankhead as Cruella, and vice versa: They’re both skeletally thin and constantly chain-smoking, the culprit for their deep, raspy voices.

Cruella recklessly speeds around town in her loud, monstrous car, just as Bankhead catapulted her Bentley around London.

Even indoors, both stumble about breaking glasses and knocking pictures off walls. Each has a signature over-the-top cackle.

Tallulah Bankhead was not born bad, but she was pretty close.

The daughter of a prominent political family in turn-of-the-century Alabama, Tallulah was a bad-tempered baby turned defiant child.

A series of throat and chest infections—whooping cough, measles, pneumonia, the mumps—left her with the famous voice that would become her trademark.

In childhood, as she became increasingly tough-sounding, she “took to bullying her sister and most of the rest of her class,” wrote biographer David Bret.

Though her family wasn’t even Catholic, the uncontrollable Bankhead was sent away to convents, where she was twice expelled: Once for throwing ink at the Mother Superior and again, at age 12, for making romantic advances towards a nun.

At 15, perhaps due to what Bret calls her “manic narcissism,” Bankhead submitted her photo to Picture Play magazine and won a small part in a movie, as well as a trip to New York.

With her lax Aunt Louise as chaperone, Bankhead took a room at the then unremarkable Algonquin Hotel.

For permission to pursue acting in the city, she promised her father—or “Daddy” as she called him well into adulthood, and all through her own 1952 tell-all autobiography—she’d abstain from men and alcohol.

Luckily there was a loophole: “He didn’t say anything about women and cocaine.”

By fluke, around the same time Bankhead moved in, the now famous faces of the Algonquin Round Table chose the hotel for their daily meetings.

Bankhead soon met John and Ethel Barrymore, Dorothy Parker, and Zelda Fitzgerald.

She kept her promise to her father, mostly, remaining a self-described “technical virgin” until 20. The ruse lasted until 1923, when Bankhead left New York for the London stage.

The play was Gerald du Maurier’s The Dancers, and the 50-year-old philanderer’s pass at Bankhead was swiftly rebuffed. (Bret hints she was more interested in his daughter, Daphne.)

Really she rejected his advances for the same reason she had John Barrymore’s: Bankhead much preferred to be the seducer rather than the seduced.

And in London, free from the watchful eye of “Daddy,” Bankhead’s ample seductions secured a reputation she used to her advantage.

To explain the weight she’d gained from “chocolate cake and big bananas,” notes Bret, Bankhead quipped, “I’m not fat, I’m just big-boned and muscular.”

Back in America, Bankhead’s antics continued, and her reputation as a wild woman only grew.

She was a regular at the speakeasies of New York, and became known for her love of drugs and alcohol.

Her private life was just as scandalous, with rumors of affairs with both men and women. Bankhead was also known for her wit and sharp tongue, once famously quipping “I’m as pure as the driven slush.”

It was this reputation that likely caught the attention of Disney animator Marc Davis, and led to her being cited as one of the inspirations for the character of Cruella de Vil. Bankhead’s image and personality, with her thin frame and chain-smoking habit, as well as her reputation for being wild and reckless, all contributed to the creation of the iconic villain.

It’s fascinating to see how the real-life personality of Tallulah Bankhead was used to bring the iconic villain Cruella de Vil to life on screen.

Though Bankhead’s antics and wild lifestyle may have been considered scandalous in her time, they now serve as a source of inspiration for one of Disney’s most iconic and enduring characters.

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