Head Shots: Tallulah Bankhead's Sleeve

By Barbara Cohen-Stratyner
December 14, 2015
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Tallulah Bankhead. Photograph by Florence Vandamm. Image ID: 5057002

If you walk west on 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, you will go past the “blades.” These electronic signposts promote current and upcoming events at Lincoln Center. They are 8’ x 4’ and heavily pixelated, as if you were standing too close to a stadium Diamond-vision screen. The Library for the Performing Arts’ designer is expert at selecting which exhibition images are the most eye-catching in the Blades’ zoom.

Head Shots is represented on the blades by this portrait of Tallulah Bankhead by Florence Vandamm. It can be seen in the exhibition’s entrance area and, for the last few months, has been featured on the 65th St. blades. Vandamm photographed her often in costume and plays, frequently providing the images for Playbill covers. In the Vandamm clipping file, there is a wonderful article in the Sunday News (August 28, 1949) that described her directing Bankhead how to fall down a staircase to best effect for press photos of the period piece, The Eagle with Two Heads.

The famous photographs of Bankhead in Rain and The Little Foxes are Vandamms. There are also many portraits in contemporary clothing not associated with specific roles. This one was taken just before her Broadway appearances in Odets’s They Clash By Night (1941) and Saroyan’s Skin of Our Teeth (1942) and her most important film, Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1944). Although unquestionably her work, the photograph is not from the vast Vandamm Collection of Theatrical Photographs. It was found in the Bankhead *T-Pho B file.

There are at least three portraits from this studio session with the same elegant profile, hair, make-up, jewelry, and blouse. The raw silk blouse, with its uniquely draped sleeve, is an unusual choice for a head shot, since the sunburst effect of the sleeve cap commands the eye. It comes from a period in which she was wearing Mainbocher whenever possible and the combination of simplicity of fabric and unique detail draping fits his design aesthetic. Look at the Mainbocher garment details in the Museum of the City of New York’s online exhibition to see why I think he designed the sleeve. This 7/8 position image was used to promote her appearance on the summer theater circuit in 1942; a similar one with the camera pointing straight at the sleeve cap was distributed for autographs.

But why was it my choice for a key image? There is a section of the exhibit on the selection process and how editing, proofing and cropping serve the creation of headshots. We selected this image as an example of one of the steps in selection—an interim step image that is visible only on the blades with its Diamond Vision impact. On the blades, you can see slight airbrushing under the chin. It would have been blended in until imperceptible when it was released by the Vandamm Studio. But somehow, as it appears on the blades, much larger than life, the interim image is even more about vulnerability and self-representation—the key elements that make headshots so memorable.