Chestertown soul back on Broadway

BACK STORY

February 28, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Tallulah's back, and she's as bawdy as ever.

Well, sort of.

For the past 42 years, the real Tallulah Bankhead, who will forever be remembered for her baritone-laced husky pronunciation of the word "Daaaaaahling," has been sleeping away the ages in a quiet corner of a Chestertown churchyard, perhaps sipping celestial bourbons and smoking cigarettes while dressed in her trademark full-length fur coat.

Last week, she stepped back onto Broadway, courtesy of actress Valerie Harper in "Looped."

"Looped" is the most recent incarnation of the screen and stage actress' colorful life and career that spanned more than 40 years. She was also known for her hilariously vulgar, sultry and throaty one-liners and general outspokenness.

"Bankhead's infamy offstage and off-screen is one reason for her staying power," wrote David Belcher in The New York Times last Sunday. "Even in a business used to excess, she could be considered a true theater rebel: uninterested in a movie career, she was a hodgepodge of thrilling talent, ego, drunkenness, bisexuality and drug use. And she spoke openly about her life at a time when every misstep or extra pound wasn't emblazoned on television and the Internet as it was happening."

Bankhead, daughter of a speaker of the House of Representatives, niece of a senator and granddaughter of another senator, was born in 1902 into a wealthy family in Huntsville, Ala.

She spent much of her childhood in Washington, where she attended the Convent of the Visitation, which once occupied the site of the present-day Mayflower Hotel.

As a child, she was known for her tantrums, mischief and resentment of any authority, which caused her to bounce from one fancy finishing school to another. She also suffered from bouts of chronic laryngitis throughout her life.

When she was 15 and got a bit part in a Broadway show, her father initially balked at the notion of his daughter pursing a stage career.

Her grandfather changed his mind when he said, "Let her go on the stage. She's not worth a damn for anything but acting."

Bankhead, who conceded that she was not an ace student and had particular "trouble with algebra," told The New York Times in a 1951 interview: "My father said if you know your Shakespeare and Bible and can shoot craps, you've got a liberal education."

Bankhead joined the repertoire company at the Lyceum Theater in Baltimore in 1922, and the next year left for England, where she became a national sensation in a number of plays such as "The Green Hat," "Fallen Angels," "The Gold Diggers," and "They Knew What They Wanted" before heading to Hollywood to make pictures in 1931.

Bankhead, whose film career was less than stellar until 1944, when she appeared as a foreign correspondent in Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," returned to the stage, gaining fame playing the prostitute Sabrina in Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," Regina in Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" and appearing in the 1948 revival on Broadway of Noel Coward's "Private Lives."

In 1939, Bankhead brought her character of Regina in "The Little Foxes" to Baltimore's Ford's Theater and frequently performed here as late as 1963 (in Tennessee Williams' play "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," her last Broadway show).

In the 1950s, she moved into radio and television, and had a brief role in the 1960s TV series "Batman."

Bankhead, whose legendary capacity for drinking included the story that she drank planter's punches for breakfast, wrote in her 1952 autobiography, "Tallulah": "In all my years in the theater, I've never missed a performance because of alcoholic wounds."

She did admit to cocaine and marijuana use, which she said made her ill, and to having thousands of lovers - male and female - which led her to describe herself as being "pure as the driven slush."

"I'd rather go on like I do than be like a lot of women I know who only look clean," she said. "I'm the foe of moderation, the champion of excess."

Bankhead described Baltimore as "the most American of our cities" to a reporter in 1934. "Baltimoreans have the happy knack of carrying on their business for the fun of it - and that is the only way to achieve real fullness of life," she said.

She later said, "I have friends here, people I've met, but Baltimore to me is the place where my two great successes, 'The Skin of Our Teeth' and 'The Little Foxes,' opened and were panned, so maybe that's a happy omen. Not that I read reviews; I don't believe in it."

Bankhead also was a frequent visitor to her sister Eugenia Bankhead's farm near Rock Hall.

The two sisters, who shared a capacity for outrageous behavior, enjoyed shopping together and "turned heads wherever they went," reported The Baltimore Sun in a 1993 article.

"Once 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," the newspaper observed.

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