A Visit With Tallulah

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A Visit With Tallulah

By Dex Nilsson

Published in Old Huntsville magazine, No. 146, April 2005
Republished with the permission of the author


Some call Tallulah Bankhead "Alabama's greatest actress." Her biographies tell that she was born here in Huntsville, and they tell that she left town as an infant. They don't mention that she ever returned. But she did -- for one night.

Here's the story of that visit.

Tallulah Bankhead’s father was William Brockman Bankhead, a Huntsville lawyer. He would become a U.S. Congressman, the Democratic Majority Leader and eventually Speaker of the House. Her mother was the former Adalaide Sledge. Will and Ada, as they were known, had a daughter, Eugenia, in 1901. Tallulah was born almost exactly a year later, in 1902. She was born in the family’s apartment on the second floor of what is now the I. Schiffman Building on the southeast side of Courthouse Square. Ada, just past 21 years old, got an abdominal infection and died within the month. Infant Tallulah was bundled off to relatives in Fayette.

Tallulah went on to have a fabulous career on stage, screen, radio, and television. She also led a life of sexual liaisons, drugs, and alcohol that pushed the boundaries of the social and moral conventions of the time. By the 1960s the career was ending. In 1962 Tallulah toured with Estelle Winwood in Here Today. Late in 1963 she would be offered the starring role in Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore that would mark her last on-stage appearance. In between these two plays, she was invited to Redstone Arsenal to dedicate a building.

The building would be part of the Ordnance Guided Missile School (OGMS). It was to be named both for her father and for her uncle, Sen. John H. Bankhead. So it was that Tallulah returned to Huntsville on May 17, 1963.

My wife, Nancy, was founder of the Huntsville Little Theater and served several times as its president. On behalf of the local theater, she got two dozen roses and went to greet Tallulah at the airport.

There was a small greeting party at the airport, headed by Col. W.J. Macpherson, commandant of OGMS, and mayor R. B. “Spec” Searcy. Mayor Searcy had one dozen roses for Tallulah. The mayor diplomatically suggested that maybe Nancy wait and give her larger bouquet to the actress in the lobby of the Russel Erskine Hotel, where the actress would stay.

Nancy, along with the Huntsville Times theater critic, Alan Moore, left quickly to get to the hotel before Tallulah. Tallulah soon arrived, with escort, best described as a very pretty young man named Skip. He was actually Mobile-born dancer and choreographer, William Skipper. Tallulah had surrounded herself with such men, called her "caddies." She had met Skip in 1939, when he was just starting as a dancer and worked part time for a New York photographer who had him deliver her pictures.

In the lobby Nancy and Alan greeted her. She said, “Oh dahlings, I’m so tired. Come on up.”

In one of the hotel’s best suites on its highest floor, they all settled into comfortable chairs. The hotel had arranged for champagne. Tallulah said, “You people drink that. Do you suppose they have any bourbon?” Huntsville wasn’t completely dry, but the lone ABC store had apparently closed. Nancy, however, was a teacher at Lee High School, and one of her students was a bell boy at the hotel. Nancy called him, handed him some money, and whispered to go find some bourbon. The enterprising young lad returned in just a few minutes with a fifth of Old Grandad, no questions asked. Tallulah was pleased. And this is how Nancy and Alan were able to spend much of the afternoon with one of the world’s greatest actresses.

What interested Tallulah most was that she could see the old courthouse and the edge of the Schiffman Building from one of the windows, and thus Nancy was able to point out to her where she was born. When another visitor came to the door, Tallulah said, “Come in, dahling. Nancy has just been showing me where I was born - behind that capital dome.”

That evening there was a big dinner - actually the Armed Forces Day banquet - at one of the Holiday Inns on South Parkway. Tallulah asked if Nancy and Alan would be there, but they hadn’t been invited. Tallulah said, “Dahlings, you are now. You must come. I know no one else in this city.”

Word soon got around the city about Tallulah’s presence, and at the motel, lots of folks were on hand to see the famous actress arrive. Ropes cordoned off a walkway into the hotel, and people were standing six deep. Nancy and Alan ungraciously fought their way to the front. As Tallulah entered, she waved to them and said, “Come, follow me.”

Inside Tallulah, of course, had to sit at a special speaker’s table, and Nancy, Alan, and Skip sat below. After the meal, Maj. Gen. Frank Britton was the featured speaker. Everyone hoped Tallulah would make a speech too. But lots of bourbon had taken its effect, and Tallulah was barely able to stand, wave her arm, and say, “Dahlings, I love you all.” She plopped back into her chair. Skip whispered, “I think I’d better go rescue her.”

Alan Moore wrote a fine article (“Tallulah Hits Town With Bang”) about Tallulah for the Times. The next day, the Arsenal dedication went off without a problem. Immediately after, Tallulah returned to New York.

Tallulah died five years later, in 1968.

The Bankhead building at the Arsenal still stands. It's in the school area on the street that runs directly behind what is now OMEMS headquarters.

There’s a footnote to this story: In 1968, Nancy and I were living in Maryland. Tallulah had been an occasional visitor to her sister Eugenia’s home on the Maryland Eastern Shore, and she was buried there. The cemetery was in Rock Hall, a town on Chesapeake Bay that even today totals only 1500 people. Nancy wanted to visit. We found the town, the cemetery aside a little church and fishing pier, and finally Tallulah’s grave. She had long said that all she wanted on her grave stone was “Press On,” one of her favorite expressions. Her sister, however, failed to carry out her wish. Nancy had nothing with which to write except her lipstick and attempted to write “Press On” on the marker. But there were other people in the cemetery, and I wouldn’t let her do it for fear someone would think we were vandalizing the site. We haven’t been back, but we feel we somehow still owe it to Tallulah. If some day you hear that “Press On” has suddenly appeared on Tallulah’s grave stone, you might want to check to see whether the Nilssons had left Huntsville on a trip to Maryland about that same time.

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