How Tallulah Bankhead became inspiration for Disney's Cruella de Vil

The VERY racy life of the real Cruella de Vil: US film star Tallulah Bankhead inspired Disney with her fur coats, 160 cigarettes a day, and zooming around London in her Bentley (but they left out the lesbian affairs and cocaine habit)

  • Disney’s Cruella de Vil is believed to have been inspired by Tallulah Bankhead
  • American actress had throaty cackle, cigarette holder and donned fur coats
  • Hollywood star also renowned for whizzing around London in beloved Bentley 

One is a twisted Disney villain and the other a promiscuous Hollywood film star, but with both renowned for their husky voices, cigarette holders and elaborate fur coats, it’s easy to see why many believe Disney’s Cruella de Vil was inspired by Tallulah Bankhead. 

In a live-action film set to be released on 28 May, actress Emma Stone, donning the infamous half black and half blonde hair and iconically clad in an enormous black and white fur, will adopt the role of the eccentric villain from Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. 

But it’s long been reported that Disney based its 1961 version of the flamboyant villain who plots to kidnap 99 spotted puppies and make them into fashionable fur coats on American actress Tallulah Bankhead, who was renowned for her husky voice and flamboyant personality. 

The political heiress, who reportedly smoked up to 120 cigarettes a day, was more often than not spotted in fur jackets which epitomised the glamour of the 1940s, and was notorious for zooming around town in her Bentley with her perfectly coiffed hair.

Speaking to Los Angeles Times, Marc Davis, who was one of Disney’s ‘Nine Old Men’ and a senior animator of the hit film, said: ‘I had several partial models in mind when I drew Cruella. 

‘Including Tallulah (Bankhead) and one woman I knew who was just a monster: She was tall and thin and talked constantly – you never knew what she was saying, but you couldn’t get a word in edgewise.’ 

It is widely believed Disney villain Cruella de Vil was based on American actress Tallulah Bankhead (pictured) who was notorious for zooming around town in her Bentley

The political heiress reportedly smoked up to 120 cigarettes a day and was more often than not spotted in an elaborate fur jacket epitomising the glamour of the 1940s. Pictured, on 22 May 1957

The flamboyant villain who plots to kidnap 99 spotted puppies and make them into fashionable fur coats was iconically clad in enormous black and white fur. Pictured, Cruella de Vil in the 1961 animated Disney classic

He added: ‘What I really wanted to do was make the character move like someone you wouldn’t like.’  

Tallulah Bankhead was born on 31 January 1902 to a prominent political family in Alabama. Her grandfather and uncle were U.S. senators and her father was a Congressman for 11 terms.

However, Tallulah had a tragic start to life after her mother passed away from sepsis just a few weeks after her birth.

Following the tragic loss, her father suffered from depression and Tallulah – whose friends included F. Scott’s future wife Zelda Sayre – started to crave an audience and so began performing. 

Shortly after, she developed chronic bronchitis, which was the start of the husky voice that she became famous for – just like Cruella de Vil. 

Two people who played key roles in portraying the wicked depiction of Cruella included Bill Peet, who adapted the story and Betty Lou Gerson, who was responsible for Cruella’s throaty cackle. 

Following her successful career in the UK, the actress decided to set out for Hollywood – before deciding it was too boring for her. Pictured, 7 September, 1951

 The American actress and notorious villain were both renowned for their husky voices and coiffed hair. Pictured, Cruella de Vil in the 1961 animated Disney classic

Gerson recalled how she was told to see what she could come up with the in the first recording session. 

‘The first voice I tried sounded a bit like Tallulah Bankhead; everybody said, “That’s it, don’t change it!!” she explained. ‘I didn’t want Cruella to be totally frightening, like Maleficent (in ‘Sleeping Beauty’), so I played her with a touch of humour in my voice. 

‘Many of the Disney villains are truly terrifying, but I think Cruella is more comical than evil.’ 

Tallulah started out in a series of silent movies, before heading to London where she made a name for herself on the West End.

In 1923, aged 21, she finally gained recognition when she played Maxine in Gerald du Maurier’s play The Dancers, where she was paid 30 pounds per week.   

But it wasn’t just her performance that caught the attention of spectators, it was her unique image including drawn on high brows, defined heart-shaped face and long blonde hair, which she once described as: ‘Unbound, unwrapped it fell to my knees.’ 

After Tallulah had left the room, Daphne, Gerald’s 15-year-old daughter, turned to her father and said: ‘Daddy, that’s the most beautiful girl I ever saw in my life.’  

Tallulah started out in a series of silent movies, before heading to London where she made a name for herself on the West End. Pictured, 7 July 1951

The Hollywood star epitomised 1940s glamour with her monochrome wardrobe and perfectly coiffed hair. Pictured (left and right), at the Ritz, London, 20 August 1964

Cruella de Vil is shown to be reckless when it comes to driving said car in Disney’s 101 Dalmations

In response to whether he based Cruella’s appearance on a specific actress, senior Disney animator spoke to The Independent, reportedly smiled and said: ‘Actually, I put something of all the bad women I’ve known into Cruella.’

Around this time, the Hollywood star, famous for her 1944 role in Alfred Hitchcock’s, Lifeboat, also developed other similarities that drew comparisons to Cruella de Vil – most notably her love of whizzing around London in her Bentley.

In the Disney classic, the notorious villain is portrayed as a reckless driver, where she’s seen flying through the snowy streets and even running other cars off the road.   

But rather than being irresponsible, Tallulah was reportedly known for getting lost, and would allegedly pay cab drivers to show her the way and follow them until she arrived at her destination.  

Following her successful career in the UK, the actress decided to set out for Hollywood – before deciding it was too boring for her.

Instead, the actress, who made her name as a stage actress and won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for her performance in The Little Foxes in 1939, set out to prove she knew how to have a good time. 

She once told a reporter: ‘Daddy warned me about men and alcohol, but he never warned me about women and cocaine.’

Often accused of being vulgar, Tallulah was a rebel during a time when starlets were expected to be soft spoken and demure.   

She smoked around 120 cigarettes a day and was outspoken about her drug and alcohol use as well as her sexual liaisons with both men and women, most famously: Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Hattie McDaniel and John Emery, whom she married. 

During the time she spent in England, she would hang around Eton College on Sundays in her Bentley and pick them up for sex, according to book, ‘Toto & Coco: Spies, Seduction And The Fight For Survival’ by Alan Frame.  

While she never identified as ‘bisexual’, Tallulah described herself as ‘ambisextrous’. Pictured, in the motion pictured: ‘Die, Die, My Darling’ in 1965

Also among her lovers was Catherina Koopman, always known as Toto, who became a secret agent after the war broke out – and even smuggled Nazi secrets to the Resistance in her knickers. 

Tallulah spotted Toto at a party and introduced herself with a blatant: ‘Hello, I’m a lesbian.’

They soon became lovers, though not exclusively, due to Tallulah’s like for boys too. But while she never identified as ‘bisexual’, Tallulah described herself as ‘ambisextrous’.   

Toto thought Tallulah ‘totally mad, that’s what attracted me to her. She loved to shock but I was proud to be seen with her, though it was exhausting trying to keep up.’

Not surprising given that Tallulah was said to have once had a queue of girls lining up outside her hotel suite in Paris and worked her way through 15 in one night. The fiery Toto-Tallulah fling was short-lived, burning itself out in just four months. 

Many believe Tallulah’s carefree attitude may have inspired the Disney creators when they conjured up their portrayal of Cruella, who was determined to success in her dognapping scheme, no matter what the cost.

The actress, who married and divorced once, had no children, and died aged 66 on 12 December 1968. 

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