There Have Only Been Two Geniuses in the World — Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare

Tallulah Bankhead? Apocryphal?

mays08Dear Quote Investigator: The famous actress Tallulah Bankhead was an ardent baseball fan, and she was particularly impressed by the outstanding skills of the great athlete Willie Mays. Apparently, she stated that there have only been two authentic geniuses in history:

Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare

I am not sure if this ascription is accurate because Bankhead died in 1968, and the earliest citation I have seen is from the 1980s. Would you please examine this quotation?

Quote Investigator: There is substantive evidence that Tallulah Bankhead did make a remark of this type. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in 1962. The detailed citation is given further below.

In 1960 “Ebony” magazine published a profile of Bankhead in which she praised Willie Mays and expressed her allegiance to the San Francisco Giants baseball team: 1

Willie Mays: “A perfectly charming man . . . the greatest all-around ballplayer in the world . . . a master showman with a spectacular touch” says Tallulah . . .

Her well-known devotion to the National League Giants started in 1939 and persisted after that club had abandoned New York’s Polo Ground for San Francisco’s Seals Stadium. The Giants’ failure to win the pennant last year was a disappointment to her, but she is speculating enthusiastically about their chances in 1960. “With the help of those good Alabama men, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, they might do it this time,” she says.

On October 23, 1962 “The Chicago Daily Defender” printed a small set of miscellaneous quotations under the title “They Said It”. The statement under examination was credited to Tallulah Bankhead. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

“There have only been two geniuses in the world — Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare. But dahling, I think you had better put Shakespeare first.”
—Actress Tallulah Bankhead

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Bankhead’s remark was remembered and placed into a compilation authored by the industrious Herbert V. Prochnow called “A Speaker’s Treasury for Educators”. The expression was slightly altered; the positions of the two words “been” and “only” were swapped: 3

Difficult Choice

Tallulah Bankhead, incurable Giant fan: “There have been only two geniuses in the world—Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare. But, dahling, I think you’d better put Shakespeare first.”

In 1986 a syndicated columnist named Gene Collier positively reviewed a book called “Sportswit” which included an instance: 4

You could do worse than to read “Sportswit” and far worse than to have it around to settle arguments, but there is no use making Lee Green out to be a genius because of it. As Tallulah Bankhead said, “There have been only two geniuses in the world — Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”

In 1991 the saying appeared in multiple newspapers as “Today’s Quote” which was part of a syndicated feature called “The World Almanac: Date Book”: 5

TODAY’S QUOTE: “There have been only two geniuses in the world — Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.” — Tallulah Bankhead

A version using the phrase “two authentic geniuses” has also circulated. A newspaper in St. Petersburg, Florida printed the following from columnist Mark Shields in 1998: 6

But the actress and New York Giants fan Tallulah Bankhead had a different take. “There have been only two authentic geniuses in the history of the world, Willie Mays and William Shakespeare.”

In conclusion, QI believes Tallulah Bankhead can be credited with the statement in the 1962 citation. The words were not part of an interview, but the sentiment was consistent with the sentiments she expressed in the 1960 citation.

Image Notes: Promotional photo of Tallulah Bankhead circa 1941. C. Walter Hodges’ imagined reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, act 1, scene 3, being performed in an Elizabethan theatre. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Picture of Willie Mays from the September 1954 issue of “Baseball Digest”. The three images were accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to the anonymous sports buff whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)


  1. 1960 January, Ebony, Volume 15, Number 3, A Southerner Looks At Prejudice By Allan Morrison, Start Page 29, Quote Page 30 and 33, Published by Johnson Publishing Company. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1962 October 23, Chicago Daily Defender, They Said It, Quote Page 11, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  3. 1973, A Speaker’s Treasury for Educators, Convocation Speakers, Baccalaureate Speakers, and Others, Compiled by Herbert V. Prochnow, Quote Page 147, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1986 June 19, The Marietta Journal, Sorting out fact, fiction: Book looks into sports quips, quotes by Gene Collier (Syndicated), (Book review of “Sportswit” by Lee Green), Quote Page 8C, Column 3, Location: Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1991 January 31, Daily Sitka Sentinel, The World Almanac: Date Book, (Syndicated: Newspaper Enterprise Association), Quote Page 7, Column 1, Sitka, Alaska. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1998 April 6, St. Petersburg Times, That relentlessly democratic game by Mark Shields, Quote Page 9A, St. Petersburg, Florida. (NewsBank Access World News)