Hearts at Work

—A Column by Jim Tipton

“Dahlings, I was wonderful!”

 

Some decades ago I was romantically involved with a beautiful but mercurial actress and director in Denver, Colorado. We often attended post-performance parties, where I would soon (and happily I might add) find myself alone.

At one such gathering, I saw an interesting old lady sitting by herself on a sofa. Always a pushover for interesting old ladies, I sat down beside her and introduced myself. She with a droll charm and southern drawl, with clear eyes that were laughing at me, announced: “I am Tallulah Bankhead’s daughter”.

I had always been fascinated by Tallulah Bankhead, the glamorous, outrageous, sultry, unpredictable, and enormously popular “toast of everyone”. Her public loved her, for her talents, her loose life, her stunts, her beauty…her witticisms:

“If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”

“There’s less to this man than meets the eye.”

“I’ll come and make love to you at five o’clock. If I’m late, start without me.”

“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breaths away.”

As it turns out, that evening I was in the home of a gracious and cultured man, Donald Seawell, who was currently Director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. In the past, for fifteen years, Seawell had been publisher of the Denver Post. He had also had been attorney to theatrical celebrities including Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine…and Tallulah Bankhead.

Seawall’s wife, a highly regarded Broadway actress named Eugenia Rawls, had played Tallulah Bankhead’s daughter in Lillian Hellman’s, The Little Foxes. That “daughter” was the woman beside me. Eugenia and Tallulah had been lifelong friends. Tallulah had been Eugenia’s Matron of Honor at her wedding to Seawell; and she was godmother to their two children.

Born in 1902 in Alabama to a prominent southern family, Tallulah Bankhead made her acting debut in London in 1923, where she quickly established a reputation for stage talents as well as offstage talents of a more notorious variety. In 1931 she returned to the US and went to Hollywood where she had little patience for the process of making movies and little enthusiasm for Hollywood. Irving Thalberg (Hollywood’s Boy Wonder who died so very young) remembers Tallulah asking him: “How do you get laid in this dreadful place?” She later claimed, “The only reason I went to Hollywood was to f--- that divine Gary Cooper.”

Soon, though, she was making $50,000 a film, a lot of money in the Depression, and she was linked romantically to stars like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich. She had been David O. Selznick’s initial choice for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Tallulah looked superb in black and white, but in the screen tests she photographed poorly in Technicolor. The role was given to Vivien Leigh.

In 1939 Tallulah won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for her portrayal of Regina Giddens in Lilian Hellman’s The Little Foxes; and in 1942 she won the same for her portrayal of Sabina, domestic temptress in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. In 1944 Alfred Hitchcock cast her in Lifeboat, written by John Steinbeck. As Tallulah accepted the New York Film Critics’ Circle Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Connie Porter, she enthusiastically declared: “Dahlings, I was wonderful!”

Following the war Tallulah was in a very successful revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which she took on tour and then to Broadway. Tallulah was always a party favorite, and no wonder, entering a soirée stark naked, or doing cartwheels wearing a skirt with no panties beneath. She loved gestures. One evening leaving a theatre Tallulah tossed a $20 bill into the tambourine of a Salvation Army Band and left them with her blessing: “There dahlings, I know it’s been a rough winter for you Spanish dancers.”

She was well into her fifties when (1956) she played Blanche DuBois, Tennessee William’s troubled southern lady, in A Streetcar Named Desire. (Vivien Leigh played Blanche in the screen version.) Tallulah’s final stage appearance (1963) was in another Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. And still another Williams’ play, Sweet Bird of Youth, was written with Tallulah in mind.

Robert Temple, author of “Tallulah the Lonely,” London Daily Telegraph, March 18, 2000, met Tallulah when he was 17 and she was 65, while they were doing summer stock together at the Papermill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey. Temple calls Tallulah a “human hurricane.” She was hard to work with because “she wore everybody out, and they collapsed around her like rag dolls.” Temple adds that “her daemonic psyche cranked out more energy than a Nikola Tesla generator.” Temple discovered, listening to her talk, that throughout her life Tallulah “devoured books, she devoured penises…she devoured vaginas and breasts, she devoured chicken salad at the rate of several chickens a day, she practically ate her cigarettes, she devoured life, life, life…. She had the energy of one hundred people and there was no way to turn it off. ” But because of this she was lonely.

Temple concludes: “Apart from being the most overwhelmingly powerful personality I have ever met, Tallulah was genuinely someone to be adored for her kindness, her generosity of spirit, and her capacity for disinterested friendship. She was intellectually brilliant, as witty as Oscar Wilde, and a tribute to the vibrancy and radiance of the human spirit.”

Tallulah, Dahling, we miss you.

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