The late actress’ godchild, Brook Ashley, on growing up in the glorious tumult of the star’s household.
Recently, on Broadway there was a short-lived play titled “Looped,” starring Valerie Harper as a fading Tallulah Bankhead. Some people liked it; some people didn’t.
Among the offended was Tallulah Bankhead’s real-life godchild, Brook Ashley. Ms. Ashley starred on Broadway at age seven and played dimpled moppets through the golden era of TV. Her mother, Eugenia Rawls, had portrayed Tallulah’s daughter on stage in “The Little Foxes.” Her father, Donald Seawell, was Tallulah’s confidant and lawyer.
Brook is now writing a bio of her “other” famous godmother, Dare Wright, the author of The Lonely Doll children’s books. As heir to Wright’s estate, she is sifting through photos and art created by the enchantingly fey Wright.
In the meantime, here is Brook’s alternative vision of someone famous who she also knew and loved well. This is an unusual tribute to a larger-than-life woman, and wOw is grateful for this exclusive other look at the phenomenon that was Tallulah Bankhead, an international legend in theater who died in 1968. — Liz Smith
Thoughts of Home: Tallulah’s House, By Brook Ashley
My godmother was the actress Tallulah Bankhead. To the public and press she was a wild and unpredictable force of nature. Outspoken and outrageous, she had never settled down in conventional fashion. In fact, the apocryphal tales of her lovers and escapades were often outmatched by the truth, but by the 1950′s, Tallulah was ready for a change.
Tallulah’s familiar world had begun to shift. Always a renowned beauty, she would no longer be hired for her looks alone. Many of her great loves had died or otherwise departed. Some had been reclaimed by their wives. Politically, it was the era of post-war conservatism and reprisals from Senator McCarthy. Liberal opinions were best left unvoiced. Married couples slept in twin beds. Television was the new entertainment medium, but no one was certain where it would lead. It was time to retrench and examine priorities. It was time to bring family together.
For three decades, she had camped in hotel rooms and rented lodgings — a townhouse off Berkeley Square in London, The Garden of Allah in Hollywood, New York’s Algonquin and Elysee Hotels. She was already in her forties when she bought her first home an hour from New York City in the charming town of Bedford Village.
Tallulah was born at the beginning of the 20th century, and I in the middle. Her mother died at her birth, so she had no maternal figure after whom she could pattern herself. Why at mid-life did she decide that she wanted a child and a permanent address? It cannot have been regrets over a lifetime of excesses — not in a woman who proclaimed, “If I had my life to live over, I would have made the same mistakes, only sooner!”
I arrived at Tallulah’s as a four year old from a tiny Manhattan apartment. Although her home was sunk deep into Westchester County bedrock, in my young eyes it appeared to be an ocean liner riding on a sea of daffodils. I had never seen a home of that scale, and my only frame of reference was that of a ship’s illustration in a picture book. The building stretched out long and white, and countless chimneys punctuated the spring sky like smokestacks.
My mother had played Tallulah’s daughter in “The Little Foxes” long before my arrival, and my father was Tallulah’s attorney. They were quite willing to lend me to her for extensive periods of surrogate mothering. Knowing that she was absolved from the ultimate responsibilities of child-rearing must have taken the burden off our time together. This freed her to introduce me to games such as “Let’s Kill Senator McCarthy”.
If I filled a maternal void for Tallulah, then she in turn provided emotional spackle for my own hollow spaces. Tallulah and I joined at exactly the right time for both of us, and photographs show my gazing at her with a fierce intensity of adoration.
Tallulah and I were family. I knew this at four, although it was not the kind of family that I had in my dollhouse — a mother, father, little girl, and baby brother. They didn’t make the appropriate dolls to fill the Bankhead home. A Tallulah doll would have needed batteries to move around as much as she did. She could talk, smoke, drink, and hug me all at the same time. The plastic mother doll in the dollhouse stood at the kitchen sink in a yellow dress and her hair was hard, sculpted curls. Tallulah’s hair poured onto her shoulders like honey from a jar. I couldn’t imagine her in the kitchen. Most of the time she wore pants or, in the summer, shorts and a halter top. She would go to bed around the time that I woke up in the morning, so I could kiss her goodnight before my breakfast. She only wore a tiny cashmere baby sweater, and nothing on the bottom. No one made a fuss in Tallulah’s house if people didn’t feel like wearing clothes.
The dollhouse family had their clothing stuck on to them. I had to give the father a bath in his business suit. Tallulah’s house made more sense.
Her home was called “Windows” for its generous fenestration. Made of brick, like the strongest of the little pigs’ houses, it must have seemed a solid base in the roiling word of the theatre. Tallulah had collected fine furnishings since her 1920′s stardom in Britain when Syrie Maugham decorated much of Tallulah’s London home with her signature white painted furniture. Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia had been frequent dinner guests there, sitting on Maugham’s sinuously carved chairs with a scallop shell motif. To furnish “Windows”, these pieces were pulled out of storage along with the Louis XV slipper chairs, Italian consoles, and paintings by Renoir, Grandma Moses, Augustus John, and Tallulah herself. There were seventeen acres of wilderness where I could roam with the butler and search for Tallulah’s missing pets. Befuddled by their new freedom, they were always wandering away towards the limitless horizon.
Everyone smoked. Scorch marks cratered the carpets from dropped cigarettes. When I ran to her, Tallulah would drop to her knees, stretch one arm out to welcome me, and lift the other holding the cigarette protectively towards the sky.
Tallulah was my constant in her shifting household. Stage actors are used to forming strong, cohesive ties that naturally dissolve when the production closes.
Bill lasted longer than most. He had nice shiny black hair and wore a blazer to dinner. He often slept in Tallulah’s bedroom, so he could have been the father doll in my dollhouse. He was continually laughing at Tallulah’s jokes and making certain the grownups’ glasses were refilled. He would come in to read me a bedtime story without my asking him.
There were always slim, handsome young men in the household. Most were dancers or singers — “chorus boys” — so they arrived and departed according to their show schedules. The chorus boys were especially attentive to me, and had endless patience playing games or dolls.
The house was large enough to dilute the gloom dispensed by Dola. Dumpy, lugubrious, and infatuated with Tallulah, she lived at “Windows” as a semi-permanent houseguest. Dola’s days were spent wandering through the rooms sipping from a tall glass of gin. She arranged flowers very, very slowly and never said a word to me.
Long hallways, like ship’s corridors, connected the many rooms. Tallulah’s bedroom suite was on the ground floor, off the living room and away from any houseguests. Much of the partying took place downstairs, but a large upstairs den welcomed spillover crowds with the Dumont televsion set and a full bar. The room was haunted by a former owner. I saw him once, hovering over the sofa, when no one else was in the room. Tallulah was envious of my spectral experience and brought in a medium to contact the spirit, but he never materialized for her.
My bedroom was down the hall from the den, and was decorated, not with the floral paintings I would have chosen, but a fierce self-portrait by Augustus John. Sometimes it was hard to sleep when Tallulah and her guests were laughing too loudly, but after a while the clinking of glasses and the cadence of voices would lull me to sleep as surely as the rhythm of the ocean.
Gaylord, the resident uncaged parakeet, loved a party and adored champagne. As soon as I woke up, I would check the den to see if he was still lingering around the detritus from the previous evening’s revelry.
If Gaylord wasn’t upstairs, I tugged on my wool knit cap with the pompom on top. Gaylord loved to ride the pompom, and I would wear it for him even in summer. In footed pajamas and the cap, I would run down the red-carpeted staircase into the living room. Whenever he spied the cap, Gaylord would fly down from the top of the bookcase or wherever else he was perching, and attach himself to it. As we raced into the kitchen, Lillian, the cook, would pause from her chopping, swoop me up in a hug, and knock Gaylord off my head. She said she didn’t approve of birds at the table that weren’t roasted or fried. Lillian’s husband Sylvester, who served as butler, chauffeur, and discreet witness to nocturnal partner switching, had a more sanguine view of parakeets and life in general. Gaylord once made an ill-advised dive off my hat into the dinner curry. Sylvester calmly bundled the bird into a napkin and removed him to the kitchen for a cleanup.
Tallulah had found more appropriate habitations for her lion cub and monkey before her move to the country. Still, there were enough dogs around to keep the antiques gnawed and carpets continually dampened.
On long summer evenings, the luminous poppies in the rock garden held their notes of color in the pink twilight. They glowed like tiny Chinese lanterns. Tallulah and I set off on a mission to catch fireflies. Accompanying us were Gabby, the asthmatic Pekinese and Doloras, a mop of Maltese. Sylvester had provided jars with perforated lids for me and a fine pour of bourbon for Tallulah. Carrying our glasses high, we marched into the gathering darkness.
“My God, there’s one! Catch it darling … there … over there. Ouch, damn … where did that rock come from? Here, hold my drink Brook, I think I can get it. I got it! Quick, the jar. Oh, it’s fabulous! Look what we did! Let’s go back inside and show it off.”
It was a less conventional living arrangement than that of my peers. The nursery school teacher sent a note of concern; Brook has spent the morning running around the schoolroom shouting “champagne and cigarettes!”
Nevertheless, Tallulah tried, in her own fashion, to shelter me. A dinner guest was growled at, “God damn it, that is not appropriate language for the child to hear!”
One gray afternoon, I sat in bed with Tallulah who had just woken up. Sylvester brought her breakfast of Planter’s Punch with extra fruit, and I dipped an orange slice into the alcohol and chewed on it. Tallulah was busy ripping off “frownies” from her forehead — little paper wings she stuck on her face to prevent wrinkles.
“Listen carefully, darling, this is very important. There is a very evil man in the Senate who has destroyed the lives of many dear, dear friends. His name is Joe McCarthy and you must spit if you ever have to say his name.”
She paused to spit on the carpet and light a cigarette.
Fat, soft snowflakes were blowing outside, but Sylvester had all the fireplaces lit and we were warm and secure. If the power lines went down, our generator would take over. Doloras and I burrowed under the comforter as Tallulah tossed off her sleeping sweater and carried her drink to the bathtub. The tub water was always numbingly cold — she sometimes emptied ice trays into her bath to bring the temperature down. Tallulah continued our conversation through the open bathroom door. I never saw her close it no matter what was going on in there or who might be watching.
“If people don’t stand up to that … hmm … bad man, he is going to continue this insane devastation, and I am not going to see it happen!”
Wrapped in a cashmere robe, Tallulah returned to bed with a copy of Time magazine with Senator McCarthy on the cover and a box of straight pins. She was not only going to entertain me, but offer some historical and anthropological lessons as well.
Tucking Doloras under her arm for safety, Tallulah opened the box of pins and began to describe the basics of voodoo.
“Brook, swear to me you will never, ever to use this except in the service of goodness, virtue, and the cause of democracy. Swear it now!”
I promised, and Tallulah instructed me to take a pin and stick it in the Senator’s face.
She punctured the magazine next, and we alternated until the box was used up and McCarthy rendered barely recognizable. Afterwards, I ran off to play with my dolls.
There were always guests at “Windows.” Tallulah hated to be alone, and I was used to company wandering about the house on the weekends. Usually they were fun. Burr Tilstrom brought his puppets from the “Kukla, Fran & Ollie” television show, and we set each of them a place at the table. Ollie passed me a dinner roll in his dragon’s mouth.
Gradually, or perhaps quickly — I could not gauge by children’s time — the partying escalated and people did not seem to leave “Windows” as often as they arrived.
Lillian had once refused to join Sylvester and me in the rowboat, saying it had too many people already, and she would tip it over. The house now felt like that.
Tallulah’s furniture was suffering the effects of careless company. Delicate chair legs that had survived centuries of European wars began snapping in protest, and cane seats gave way as they were used for step stools.
Sometimes I woke up startled because a stranger had wandered mistakenly into my bedroom looking for … I didn’t know what. Once I was carried from my bed by a handsome man as a fire flamed up in the living room.
Bill left. His skin turned yellow, and he went to the hospital and never came back. Then I found Gaylord lying on the carpet. His perfect black jet eyes had already filmed over. One of the chorus boys began staying with Tallulah until she fell asleep. Lillian cried as she lifted me onto her lap. She and Sylvester were leaving as well. I look back now, and wonder how they held on as long as they did. It was their love for Tallulah, of course, but the demands of running a household where guests required 24-hour-a-day tending had become overwhelming.
Without their stewardship, the house drifted farther off course and began to sink. The band faltered, but played on. Tallulah hired another woman to cook on the basis of their mutual affection for bourbon, but Lucille spent most of her evenings drinking with the guests and forgetting to put dinner on the table. One night she stumbled out of the kitchen with a silver platter. On it were rolled up balls of nylon stockings garnished with parsley. The party was officially over.
It was time sell “Windows” and move back to the city. Tallulah bought a Manhattan townhouse near Bloomingdale’s, and finally, when she could no longer manage the stairs, a small apartment close to the East River. Much of the furniture was given away, but Tallulah kept the important pieces she had cherished since her glory days in London. In contrast to the sun-filled rooms at “Windows”, the apartment had little natural light. Emma, Tallulah’s last housekeeper, was close to ninety and almost blind. Under her benign neglect, the residence acquired an oily patina of New York grime. Tallulah died in New York at the age of sixty-six.
Tallulah left me her most treasured furnishings. Across the country and half a century away from “Windows”, I sit on the Syrie Maugham dining chairs and eat from Tallulah’s silver sherbet dishes engraved “T.B.B” for Tallulah Brockman Bankhead. As I read, my wineglass rests on Tallulah’s cigarette-scarred bedside table, and her portrait, impossibly young and beautiful, hangs near the fireplace. We all belonged briefly to “Windows”, and will always be a part of Tallulah.
Editor’s Note: Brook Ashley is Tallulah Bankhead’s goddaughter, and was raised in the glorious tumult of the actress’s household. Brook starred on Broadway at the age of seven, and continued playing dimpled moppets throughout New York’s golden era of television. Her mother, Eugenia Rawls, had played Tallulah’s daughter in “The Little Foxes,” and her father, Donald Seawell, was Tallulah’s confidant and attorney. Brook is writing a biography of her other famous godmother, Dare Wright, author of The The Lonely Doll children’s books. As heir to Dare Wright’s estate, she is sifting through the thousands of photographs and artwork created by the enchantingly fey Wright. Brook has been a realtor in Montecito, CA and Santa Barbara, CA for twenty-one years.