In life, a love of 'excess' in death, a lasting allure

December 12, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

ST. PAUL'S -- Tallulah Bankhead, dahlings, was a world-class actress who lived fast, slept around, drank hard and made herself sick fooling with marijuana and cocaine.

As the Alabama-born movie and Broadway star wrote in her memoirs: "I was a hedonist long before I knew what a hedonist was."

Today, 25 years after her death, fans still come to her grave in an out-of-the-way Episcopal churchyard in Kent County and remember the raspy-voiced actress with flowers and bourbon.

Bankhead was born into a wealthy and politically powerful family -- her father was speaker of the House of Representatives -- and died in New York City Dec. 12, 1968, at age 66 of pneumonia complicated by emphysema. Two days later, during a private ceremony attended only by a few intimates, she was buried in this Kent County locale at the edge of a woods about 100 yards from St. Paul's church.

Although Bankhead never set foot inside the 300-year-old church, she was buried in the adjacent graveyard at the insistence of her sister, Eugenia Bankhead, who had lived near Rock Hall, a few miles from the church, since 1954.

Eugenia Bankhead, a year older than her famous sister, died in 1979 and is buried next to Tallulah.

The Episcopal vestry is the oldest in continuous use in Maryland, but many of the visitors who come here care less about the historic red-brick church than about the whereabouts of a simple, full-length, flat gravestone shaded by tall oaks.

"The doorbell will ring, and it's not someone to see the church," said the Rev. Roger Butts, rector of St. Paul's. "It's someone to see Tallulah."

At the peak of her stage and movie career in the 1930s and 1940s, the diminutive Bankhead -- who seemed never to be without a cigarette and who called everyone "Dahling" -- was one of the most talked-about actresses in the United States and England.

Her brazen and often boozy carousing shocked even the most libertine in Hollywood's glamour set and once prompted her to remark, "I'm pure as the driven slush."

Bankhead admitted using marijuana and cocaine but wrote in her 1952 autobiography, that both drugs made her ill. As for the pleasures of alcohol and the flesh, she was unabashed in her enthusiasm.

'Champion of excess'

"I'm the foe of moderation, the champion of excess," she wrote.

Bankhead, whose best-known movie role was in Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 "Lifeboat," gained attention as a stage actress and debauchee in 1923 in London. Much later, she appeared on television and had a cameo role in the TV series "Batman."

The summer before she died, Bankhead came to Kent County for one of her many visits. Her health was failing, but it was widely rumored that she was looking for land to buy so that she could be near her sister; a nephew, William Bankhead II, and his wife, Cindy; and longtime friend Louisa d'A. Carpenter.

"She was a fascinating and charming woman," said Cindy

Bankhead. "History will probably prove that she was a lot better actress than some people gave her credit for. In the end, she was sort of forced into becoming a parody of herself."

'She was a hoot'

Mrs. Bankhead said the actress spent her last summer on the Eastern Shore playing cards and quibbling with Eugenia.

"She was a hoot," Mrs. Bankhead recalled. "She was pretty much larger than life in private, too."

Local legend has it that when the actress came to visit her sister on the Shore, the flamboyant Bankheads turned heads wherever they went. Once, when the pair traveled to a women's apparel shop in Easton, clerks saw for themselves what Hollywood already knew about Tallulah: She didn't wear underwear.

Miss Bankhead said her unorthodox behavior was intended to shock. She scoffed at those who advised her to yield to convention.

"All our follies, our brutalities, the outrage perpetuated on humanity have a common root: ignorance," she wrote in her memoirs. "As we denounce the rebellious, the nonconformist, so we reward mediocrity so long as it mirrors herd standards."

Several visitors a month

The Rev. David LaMotte, rector at St. Paul's for 11 years before he retired in January, said the number of Bankhead fans $H requesting directions to the grave site has declined over the years. But there are still several visitors every month, he said, particularly in the warmer months, who leave gifts the actress was known to enjoy during her whirlwind life.

"Some people put miniatures of whiskey on her grave as a remembrance," he said. "I've also seen a single rose or some mums there, too."

Of the tributes, Cindy Bankhead said, "She'd love it, especially if it was bourbon."

Puberty rite

For a while, Rock Hall teen-agers were said to make a pilgrimage to Bankhead's grave for a local puberty rite, which entailed lying on her grave at midnight.

Despite Bankhead's continued celebrity status, apparently not everyone associated with St. Paul's has her in mind.

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