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Tallulah!The Life and Times of a Leading Lady
By Joel Lobenthal
ReganBooksCopyright © 2007 Joel Lobenthal
All right reserved.
"When I was twelve years old I used to think it was the best sport in the world to give impressions of my step-mother. At that time dad said severely: 'The place for people to give impersonations is on the stage!' and so the seed was planted."
The opening years of the twentieth century were a time of intense reaction in the American South, the inauguration of the Jim Crow doctrine of "separate but equal." Amid an attempted restoration of the prewar civil order, whites who possessed any degree of power could live as if they were antebellum plantation owners. Statues of Confederate heroes appeared in courthouse squares. There was a new sense of identification with the settlers of the Old South, a nostalgic, recidivist affinity with the lost cause. Integral to this mood was a renewed investment in the prewar vision of the elite white Southern woman and her consecrated purity, passivity, and dependency. Yet bright women chained into the rigid and puritanical society of the upper-class South found ways to express themselves and to make waves. The words that came out of Tallulah Bankhead's mouth would register shock to new extremes, but her dialogue had been primed by women talking outlong before she was born in 1902. "All the Bankhead women were outspoken," said Kay Crow, who married Charles Crow, son of Tallulah's cousin Marion Bankhead. But it was the men who stepped up to public platforms. Tallulah was the first woman in her family to bestow her performances not just on friends and family, but to exhibit herself for pay -- to seize a public pulpit.
She was named for her grandmother, Tallulah Brockman Bankhead, whose parents believed they had conceived her during a stopover at Tallulah Falls in northern Georgia. Tallulah Brockman married John Hollis Bankhead in 1866. He had served as captain in the Confederate Army, and to the end of his days he was called "Captain John" by the family. After the surrender he ran a cotton mill and was warden of a prison in Wetumpka, Alabama. Mrs. Bankhead had given birth to Marie, John Jr., and Louise before Tallulah's father, William Brockman Bankhead, was born in 1874. In 1887, Captain John was elected to the House of Representatives, beginning a thirty-three-year career in Congress.
Both John and Tallulah Bankhead were formidable, but their styles were different. Mrs. Bankhead was driven around Washington by a liveried chauffeur. Captain John, however, devoutly took the streetcar every day to the Capitol. "Grandaddy would say 'Ain't,' " Tallulah recalled to author Richard Lamparski in 1966. "And my grandmother used to be furious. She'd say, 'Honey, Captain John, you know better than to say 'ain't'!' He said, 'Tallulah -- first of all, it's an old Elizabethan word, perfectly legitimate; second, if I didn't say "Ain't" I wouldn't get a farmer's vote in the whole state!' "
Their son Will Bankhead was moody, high-strung, and nurtured theatrical ambitions that could not be achieved. Will followed his older brother, John, to the University of Alabama, where he was president of the class of 1892 and won a Phi Beta Kappa key, and then followed John to the law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
In 1897, he went to New York with two friends to set up a brokerage office, which limped along perilously. "My life in New York has been more of a struggle than I have heretofore known," he wrote in his diary in January 1898. But he managed to attend the theater frequently, filling his diary with jottings on what he had seen, and he brewed with the desire to take his love of oratory to the theatrical stage. He happened upon an advertisement in a trade paper announcing openings in a Boston theatrical stock company, and coining a fictitious resume, he was hired. He sent word to his mother and left for Boston.
As a teenager, Mrs. Bankhead herself had enjoyed performing in private theatricals to raise money for the Confederacy, and as a young man, Captain John loved to recite Shakespeare with his neighbors on his farmhouse porch in west Alabama. But a career in the theater was not what they envisioned for Will. Sitting on the Boston Commons, buffeted by the winter chill, he read his mother's letter demanding that he return. "And so I decided this little country boy had better go home," he told Tallulah many years later.
Tallulah's mother, Adelaide Eugenia Sledge, was "Ada" to her friends and family, but "Gene" to her husband. She was just as high strung as Will and just as keen on the stage. The younger of two daughters, Adelaide grew up in Como, a small town in northern Mississippi. She never knew her mother, who succumbed to infection soon after delivering her in 1880; her father subsequently remarried. Her grandfather had amassed a small fortune and he doted on his lovely young granddaughter. As a teenager, she was sent to Paris, returning with trunks full of couture clothes that rustic Como offered few opportunities to display. But Adelaide thought nothing of donning a Paris gown to trundle off down the dirt roads of the town.
Her education was slightly more ambitious than one would have expected of a woman of her time and class. At fifteen, she spent one year at the Salem Female Academy in North Carolina, which had been founded by Moravians in the eighteenth century. She took all the required courses: Latin, math -- arithmetic, algebra, and geometry -- French history, physical geography, and "miscellaneous," which that year meant grammar, composition and dictation, natural history, penmanship.
Her father paid extra every quarter so that Adelaide could also avail herself of vocal lessons and a class in elocution, and Adelaide performed in several school performances. In the early 1940s, a classmate of Adelaide's came backstage to see Tallulah and told her that she had inherited her talent from her mother, citing as evidence Adelaide's ability to faint on cue whenever a certain young Moravian doctor appeared in her vicinity ...
Excerpted from Tallulah! by Joel Lobenthal Copyright © 2007 by Joel Lobenthal. Excerpted by permission.
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