Remembering Tallulah

By Greg Stone

My first recollection of Tallulah, I was twelve years old and she had just died. It was Christmas Day, 1969, and we were at Grandma’s house. After dinner, I was with the cousins in the living room, the adults were at the kitchen table with coffee, and I overheard my modish, sexy aunt say that Tallulah had sometimes used to answer the door in the nude.

The door, not the phone.

That stopped me, the image of a lady answering the door sans clothing, and I remember how my aunt said it, slyly, as if it were something she wouldn’t have minded trying, 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 religious and staid of the grownups, dismissed Tallulah as a ‘shameless hussy.’ One of my uncles, without sense enough to disguise his admiration, called Tallulah a dame. Everyone else was silent, there was some embarrassment, some titillation, the silence allowing 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 in the nude.

Tallulah Bankhead wasn't interested in making movies. She preferred live theatre, although she was riveting (to this boy) in Lifeboat (1944), which I had seen more than once on the Early Show, back before I knew it was Tallulah, and before I knew how she answered the door. Tallulah played a jaded World War 2 newspaper correspondent, adrift with some other survivors from a torpedoed ship. Also memorable, and on the lifeboat with Tallulah was Walter Slezak as the cunning Nazi U-boat skipper, Willi. (His boat got sunk, too.) The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock,) and Best Original Story (John Steinbeck.) Tallulah’s performance garnered the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.

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

It should have been the perfect vehicle for Tallulah. Catherine was renown, in her lifetime and even more after she died, for her sexual appetites. Her affairs and deviant propensities were legendary, (and mostly fictional, or at least exaggerated.) There was nothing fictional about her lovers. There was a steady stream of them, all younger than her, some much younger. She was cougar to the max, and who better to play her than Tallulah.

A lady who answered the door in the nude plays Catherine the Great, what we should have got was a rollicking madcap of winks and nods, double takes and leering looks into the camera. Uh, not quite. It’s a by-the-numbers comedy. Amusing enough, inoffensive, almost polite, but never laugh-out-loud funny.

Tallulah was 43 when she made the film, but it was a hard forty-three years, drinking and chain-smoking (a staggering seven packs a day); still, she looked great in those 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.

It didn’t happen, so far as I know, but think about it.

Tallulah as the Singing Nun, the Flying Nun, or a sister on the lam, or 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 Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) a lot of problems. They aren’t bad girls, just free spirits; not free in the way Tallulah or Catherine were free, just too rambunctious to be caged in a staid boarding school, except, in the course of her schooling, Hayley gets the calling, and at the end of the movie and in a poignant moment, Hayley’s character dedicates her life to God.

If it had been Talullah instead of Ms. Russell, there’s a very good chance the movie would have taken a different turn. Our little Hayley might have fled the convent, and taken Mother Superior with her.

Before Tallulah died (1968) she did some TV, skits with Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra, and with Lucy and Ricky. (Google Lucy does Tallulah 
for Lucy's brilliant, one-minute impersonation of Tallulah.) In 1966, two years before she died, Tallulah was a foil for Adam West’s Batman, and is that how we’re to remember a talented actress, as the campy Black Widow? Shades of Yvonne De Carlo, an internationally famous Hollywood film star remembered today as Lily Munster.

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

Talullah’s father was, for a short time, 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 went to a house-blessing party for a Catholic friend. The bishop was there in all his ecclesiastical splendor, including his mitre hat. When Tallulah arrived, the bishop was consecrating the house, working an incense-burner, the ones with gold chains that click when they’re shaken, gently. 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.”