Friday, October 9, 2009

Blowing Smoke Rings at Tallulah

I don’t know why Tallulah Bankhead is buried in St. Paul’s Churchyard outside the miniscule port town of Rock Hall, Maryland. But there the Alabama-born and New York-cured actress lies.

Rock Hall is in the middle of nowhere, even a spit farther from somewhere than Chestertown, a few miles away. It was in Chestertown that I took my first stab at higher education.

A tiny school of 700 lily-white, corn-fed students, Washington College, the town’s main industry, was about the only one that accepted me and my miserable grades and board scores. But with my crotch length skirts and thigh high boots I suppose I single handedly filled their slot for exotics.

Two hours out of Baltimore in one direction, two hours out of Washington in the other, and then another four or so from Manhattan, my home town, Chestertown was splendidly isolated – from my parents.

More importantly, it was where the enchantingly outrageous Tallulah, with her quick wit, naughty eyes, and smoky voice had chosen to face eternity. “Divinely impossible,” she was called, and how I wished people would say that of me. Unfortunately, I was only successful at the impossible part.

This was (more or less) why I was booted from the school by Christmas, without ever having had a graveside commune.

Fast forward 30-some years and the husband and I are off for a Sunday drive from our Washington home, he for crab cakes and me for a visit with Tallulah; a fascination rekindled by my good friend Diana McLellan's book, "The Girls," in which she deliciously dissects the violet passions of some of the most celebrated female stars of the 1930s stage and screen--Garbo, Dietrich, and Bankhead among them.

St Paul’s is a country churchyard off a quiet road that’s a mile off another quiet road and set beside a pond that would be pretty if it didn’t appear to be in the process of being smothered by creeping kudzu.

Tallulah lies beneath a spartan stone slab stone topped with a decaying bouquet of plastic roses, strung here and there with notes from admirers, tightly wrapped in cellophane to protect them from the elements.

I wondered, as I contorted myself to take pictures of the epistles, if these earlier visitors traveled with rolls of wrap in their totes, or if a kindly church person preserves them. And if there’s preserved a cache of older letters to the star. One would think so, judging by the packed mud that surrounds the stone.

At some point I notice I’d stretched myself beside her to get a clear shot and her last words of record whispered themselves to me, codeine…bourbon…

Sorry dahling, I shrugged and blew her a smoke ring. Fresh out.

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