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Christmas Day, 1968. I was thirteen and we were at Grandma’s. After presents and dinner, the cousins were in the living room, the adults at the kitchen table with coffee, and I overheard my modish, sexy aunt, the one I adored, say that Tallulah Bankhead, who had died just a few weeks before, had sometimes used to answer the door in the nude.

The door, not the phone.

Remembering Tallulah, A Young Girl’s Infatuation

My aunt said it as if it were something she wouldn’t have minded doing, if she’d dared, or if her husband would have allowed it, which he surely wouldn’t have. There was murmuring, a general disapproval around the table. My mom, the most staid of the grownups, dismissed Tallulah as a ‘shameless hussy.’ One of my uncles, without brains enough to disguise his admiration, called Tallulah a dame. There was silence, embarrassment, titillation in the kitchen and in the living room too, the silence encouraging my aunt to continue:

“And when she’d go out, she didn’t wear panties.”

“Alright!” my dad, said, conscious of Mom and the ride home. “That’s enough.”

Enough? Not for me. I strained for more but alas, the adults had moved on to safer ground and I was left with the image of Tallulah, whoever Tallulah was, answering the door sans clothing.

Tallulah Bankhead was an actress who preferred live theatre over cinema, although it was the movies where I got to know her. Specifically, Lifeboat (1944,) which I had seen more than once on the Early Show, before I knew it was Tallulah, and before I knew how she sometimes answered the door.

My big brothers and I loved the movie for different reasons.

For them, it was the bevy of strong male characters, including Walter Slezak as a cunning Nazi U-boat skipper, Willi. He torpedoed a cargo ship and with his boat getting sunk, too, he somehow ended up in a lifeboat with men who understandably want to kill him.

For me, it was about Tallulah, a jaded war correspondent.

Tallulah was gorgeous, sassy, and I got what my brothers didn’t – if anybody was going to be relegated to keeping the lifeboat ship-shape tidy while the men made the big decisions, it wasn’t going to be Tallulah.

Tallulah was in another movie that played on The Early Show, A Royal Scandal, in the lead role as Catherine the Great, Tsaritsa of Russia. Charles Coburn played Catherine’s aide, Nicolai. Anne Baxter was Catherine’s lady-in-waiting, her rival for the affections of Lt. Alexi Chernoff (William Eythe.)

It seemed the perfect vehicle for Tallulah. Catherine’s sexual appetite was prodigious, her affairs and deviant propensities legendary, (and probably mostly fictional, or at least grossly exaggerated.) There was nothing fictional about her lovers. There was a steady stream of them, mostly all younger than her, some much younger. She was cougar to the max, and who better to play her than Tallulah?

Groucho in drag, maybe?

A lady who answered the door in the nude plays Catherine the Great, what we could have expected was a rollicking madcap of winks and nods, double-takes and leers into the camera.

Alas, what we got was a by-the-numbers comedy. Amusing enough, but inoffensively polite and not what the material screamed for – madcap bawdiness.

Tallulah was forty-three when she made the film, but it was a hard forty-three, drinking and chain-smoking (an astonishing seven packs a day); still, she was enchanting in her hoop-skirts and frocks, capes and jewels.

If a movie with Tallulah as Catherine sputtered, how about going the other way, with, say, Tallulah as a nun.

The Singing Nun, the Flying Nun, Sister on the lam, or maybe in the Rosalind Russell role, Mother Superior in The Trouble with Angels (1966.) A teenage Hayley Mills is sent off to convent school by her playboy daddy, and Hayley and her best friend cause the nuns a world of grief. Mary and Rachel aren’t bad the way Tallulah or Catherine were, they’re just free-spirited teenagers, too fun-loving and rambunctious to be caged in a staid boarding school. Except, in the course of her stay and under the influence of Mother Superior, Hayley gets a tap on the shoulder from God and in a poignant (and somewhat bewildering) conclusion to the movie, her character dedicates herself to God.

With Talullah as Mother Superior, you’d get a much different movie. Absconders in a cool convertible, pink, of course, and putting distance between themselves and the convent with Mother Superior Tallulah behind the wheel, rockin’ and rollin’, jabbing the radio buttons and tossing cigarette butts and empty beer cans, the wind whipping her headdress.

Footnote to the answering-the-door-in-the-nude thing:

In the late nineteen thirties, Talullah’s father was, briefly, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Think what it would be like today, in our 24-hour scandal-as-headlines world. Call it Nudegate or Doorbellgate or just plain Tallulahgate.

My favorite Tallulah anecdote:

Tallulah was late for a house-blessing party for a Catholic friend. When she arrived, the bishop was there in all his ecclesiastical splendor, including his mitre hat, and was consecrating the house, working his incense-burner, a coffee-pot shaped metal container suspended on a gold chain that, rocked gently, clicked. With the smoke and aroma of the incense permeating the house and with everyone anxious for Tallulah’s take on the proceedings, she didn’t disappoint.

“Dahling,” she said to the bishop, “I love your hat but I think your purse is on fire.”