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Mon May 23, 2005
Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady
A look at Alabama's own notorious Tallulah Bankhead--her fast-paced acting career, sex scandals and drug abuse.
By Don Noble
Alabama is rightly famous for its production of flamboyant females with unforgettable names.
One may think first of Zelda, who played on a world stage, but Tallulah comes in a close second. Tallulah was named for her grandmother, who was named for Tallulah Falls in northern Georgia, where her parents believed she had been conceived.
The Bankheads were, as all Southerners know full well, a very powerful political family. Tallulah?s father, Will, rose to be Speaker of the House of Representatives, and her uncle was a U.S. senator.
Tallulah herself never seemed to care much for politics. Sometimes, she tempered her speech and behavior in order not to embarrass her father, but usually she didn?t.
Tallulah?s mother died of complications from giving birth to Tallulah in Huntsville in 1902. Her father couldn?t cope with Tallulah and her older sister Eugenia, and the girls were raised by Will?s sister in Montgomery and her grandparents in Jasper.
But Tallulah was not destined to remain in Alabama. At the age of 15 she won a beauty contest conducted by Picture Play magazine and left for New York and a career on the stage.
She had no further formal education or formal training in acting. She just began.
Tallulah started out small. With her Aunt Louise as chaperone at her side, she landed a few non-speaking parts on the stage and a couple of movies.
She was special?beautiful, graceful, inexperienced but sexual, she made her way receiving attention and good notices. In January of 1923, still not 20 years old, Tallulah moved alone to London, and there she was a sensation.
The British, even more than the New Yorkers, had never seen anything like her. Tallulah increased her attention-getting antics.
Having decided she didn?t like underpants, Tallulah would sometimes flash her colleagues at rehearsals, and there were even complaints from theatre patrons in the first few rows.
In relative private, such as at cocktail parties or playing bridge, she would sometimes be entirely naked. She took up drinking, increased her smoking, and began a lifetime of abuse of cocaine, marijuana, barbiturates, and amphetamines. Before she was 30 years old, she would have four abortions, which is remarkable considering that most of her sexual partners were women.
One evening in the early 1940s, Tallulah and friends were trying to remember everyone Tallulah had been in bed with. The number had reached 185 when the doorbell rang and they stopped counting.
The wonder of it is, Tallulah was, for many many years, a superb actress. She had triumphs on stage in New York City and London, The Little Foxes and Private Lives, for example, and in Hollywood, with Lifeboat, written by John Steinbeck and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
She had a natural talent and, alas, abused it, injured it, wasted it, finally destroyed it to the point that she became a caricature of herself.
?To Tallulah? became a verb and her fans, especially her gay fans, went to her performances expecting and demanding it.
This biography is rich in sensational anecdote, as any biography of Tallulah must be. But it is mostly too long and filled with plot summaries of every play she was in, lists of cast members, and synopses of opening night reviews.
Like many contemporary biographers, Lobenthal cannot bear to leave anything out. He does go a little light, however, on why Tallulah was this way.
She felt irrational guilt over the death of her mother in delivering her? She never had a secure, loving childhood? She moved into an ultra-sophisticated world much too young to handle it? All of that, surely, and more.
Her one marriage failed, her health was destroyed, and Tallulah, finally alone, died of emphysema, exacerbated by malnutrition, on December 12, 1968, in New York, where it had all begun.
It is thought that her dying words were, ?codeine-bourbon,? presumably a last request. They don?t make them like that anymore, I hope.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.