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Silver Screen Star on Our Shore

Feb 15, 2013 12:48AM ● By Anonymous

Founded in 1692 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the church sits on the ancient road to Philadelphia from Rock Hall, the landing site for the ferry from western shore Annapolis. George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson passed by here often during Revolutionary War times and may have stopped for a visit. Tench Tilghman galloped by, carrying the message of Cornwallis’ surrender in 1781. Descended from a long family line of Democratic Congressional leaders, Tallulah might have appreciated this final resting place.

Tallulah’s grave site and that of her sister, Eugenia, looks over a mill pond surrounded by 40 different species of trees, including an historic 400-year-old swamp chestnut. It is a quiet and serene setting for the flamboyant, naughty, extravagant, and ever exhibitionist woman.

Tallulah claimed three phobias that kept her life lively. “I hate to go to bed, I hate to get up, and I hate to be alone.” Death did not stop her restless nature. When singing from a husky voice could be heard coming from her burial site, students from Washington College in nearby Chestertown claimed the grave to be haunted. Kent County, the least populated of Maryland’s counties, is a peninsula along the Chesapeake Bay described as “quintessentially rural.” It is doted with 40 National Historic Properties that venerate the early days of the Colonies. Rural but upper class, residents enjoy a peaceful lifestyle unlike the gregarious, outrageous, and unpredictable star of the New York City and London stages.

Several hours from the bustling high energy city of New York, Kent County offered a peaceful refuge for Tallulah from the turmoil of theater life. Eugenia, Tallulah’s older sister who was married seven times (four times to the same man) lived here. It was Eugenia who brought Tallulah from New York City—two days after her death from pneumonia and emphysema—to be buried in a ceremony as quiet as the surrounding countryside at St. Paul’s on December 14 th, 1968.

Tallulah was 66 years old when she died, the same age when death claimed her adored father. William Bankhead was reared in a politically active and powerful family. A member of the University of Alabama’s first football team in 1892, the popular William married Adelaide Eugenia Sledge, reported to be the most beautiful woman in the south. Adelaide died three weeks after Tallulah was born, leaving her two daughters to be raised by William’s mother, Tallulah James Brockman Bankhead, while he and his brother pursued careers in politics as had their father and grandfathers had done.

Tallulah was named for her paternal grandmother who was named for Tallulah Falls, Georgia, considered one of the scenic wonders of the South. It was a name to infl ame and to inspire adventures above and beyond the call of duty. “Had I been christened Jane…it is unlikely I would ever have gotten out of Huntsville, Alabama, the place of my birth,” she once said of herself.

The Bankheads and the Brockmans were politically powerful Southern Democrats who supported the New Deal and labor unions. Her Uncle John was a U.S. Senator. Her father, William, became Speaker of the House in 1936 until his unexpected death in 1940. During his tenure, opponents of the President and the New Deal attacked the Works Progress Administration, zeroing in on the Federal Theatre and Writers Project as being infiltrated with Communists. A politically active supporter of liberal causes, Tallulah, herself an ardent anti-communist, lobbied her father and her uncle to save the Theatre and Writers Project. However, on December 23rd, 1938, an act of Congress described by President Roosevelt as “discrimination of the worst type” killed the project. Despite this defeat, Tallulah Bankhead remained politically active. She campaigned vigorously for Harry Truman in 1948.

Some credited his victory over Thomas E. Dewey, dubbed by Tallulah as “the little man on the wedding cake,” to her popularity and influence. Earlier in her life, Tallulah had arrived in New York City at the age of 15 after winning a movie magazine contest. How she persuaded this southern family to allow her at such a young age to move to the city is a mystery. Her father loved the theater and though law and politics became his vocation, he once said he longed for a career in theater himself. Tallulah’s energy, excessive vitality, and intensity must have been nerve-wracking for those around her. And in 1917, a chaperoned Tallulah was off to New York.

She made her home at the Algonguin Hotel, which is New York City’s oldest operating hotel today. At a later time another teenager, England’s Angela Lansbury, would follow in Tallulah’s footprints and call the Algonguin home. The ghosts of theater past reverberate through its walls. It was there that Lerner and Lowe wrote My Fair Lady and where William Faulkner wrote his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The annual Thurber Prize for the best book of American Humor is hosted here. The hotel, from its beginning as it is today, is a landmark place for theater.

Intent on becoming an actress, Tallulah soon became a peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table’s gathering of writers, critics, actors, and wits who lunched daily at the hotel. Outrageous and unpredictable, the budding teenage actress gained a reputation for being an outspoken hard-partying- girl-about-town. She landed her stage debut in 1918 at the Bijou Theatre. Within five years her fame was assured when she played a lead role on the London Stage in a Sidney Howard Pulitzer Prize production.

Tallulah spent eight years, which she described as the best years of her life, electrifying audiences with an intensity that radiated life into every production. In London, she met the first and great love of her life (other than her father), Lord Alington, a reckless-natured, unconventional man of great charm and wit. When she left England in 1931 she was the best known and most notorious celebrity of London’s West End. Back on the stage in New York, she won the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Actress in 1939, and again in She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1961.

The now famous actress agreed to her first movie in 1932 to play opposite the “divine Gary Cooper...the handsomest man on the screen.” An extravagant spender, she probably also needed the money. David Selznick considered her a first choice to play Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, though he eventually decided that at age 36, she was too old to play a 16- year-old and instead, offered her the role of Belle, the Madame. She turned him down. “I seem sentenced for life to playing tarts, reformed tarts, or novice tarts,” she opined.

Her most successful fi lm was Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat in 1942. But films were boring to her. Intoxicated by applause, stage was her life. Not a fan of Hollywood, she returned to New York City and was back on the stage, starring in Noel Cowards very successful Private Lives. She played Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire and even the villainous Black Widow in the Batman TV series. Tallulah also hosted a radio show and launched, for NBC TV, The Big Show, which received rave reviews.

The glamorous, sultry, unpredictable, outrageous, quick-witted woman of abundant energy attracted the adulation of a nation. Her memory still lingers on. Yet on December 14th, 1968, she was buried in a lonesome corner of a lonesome cemetery in a quiet county not far from a National Wildlife Refuge populated by swans, and near an ancient historic town called Rock Hall, population 1,300. Once a colonial port, crossroads, and refuge for watermen, “the Pearl of the Chesapeake” is now a Mecca for leisure boating enthusiasts. On its Main Street is a 100-year-old pharmacy that offers the best root beer fl oats, and an Inn named Tallulah.

The serene world of Kent County and the outrageous Bankhead world clash. Tallulah sings in her grave. If you walk close to her final resting place you may hear her calling “Hello Dahlins. I was wonderful.”