She came from a prominent Alabama political family her grandfather and uncle were U.S. senators; her father, William Brockman Bankhead, served as Speaker of the House. After winning a beauty contest at age 15, Tallulah Bankhead moved to New York City, where she became an actress as well as an attractive side dish at the Algonquin Round Table. She created some legendary stage roles Regina in "The Little Foxes," Sabina in "The Skin of Our Teeth" though Hollywood never really took to her (her best part was in Hitchcock's "Lifeboat").
Most people today remember her, if they remember her at all, for that husky, bourbon-soaked voice and her outsize personality ("Dahhhling"), emblems of a kind of theatrical glamour that was even then going out of style. Drinking and chain-smoking eventually wore her down, and the actress, who died in 1968, spent her last years parodying herself in TV guest spots (the celebrity who moves next door to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo) and polishing her own fading image. To a fan who asked if she was really Tallulah Bankhead, she reportedly answered, "What's left of her."
There's quite a bit left of her, actually. After at least seven books about her life, an off-Broadway musical in the '80s (starring Helen Gallagher) and dozens of female impersonators, the deep-voiced diva is back in no fewer than three plays. Tovah Feldshuh is the star and co-author of "Tallulah Hallelujah!," an off-Broadway play in the form of a fictional USO show with Bankhead as host. Nan Schmid, formerly of the Second City improv troupe, wrote and stars in "Dahling," in which eight actors portray more than 40 characters in Bankhead's life. And Kathleen Turner, last seen as Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate" in London, is touring the country in a Broadway-bound, one-woman show called (three guesses) "Tallulah."
Granting that the stage bio is among the most debased of theatrical forms (a decent impersonation, a little library research and presto! you've got a play), Bankhead offers unusually rich material. The masochistic anecdotes just keep on coming. In "Tallulah" we learn that the star once fired a young Marlon Brando from her play "The Eagle Has Two Heads" because she couldn't stand him "yawning and pawing his privates during my speeches." In "Tallulah Hallelujah!" we find out that she had gonorrhea, wanted the Bette Davis part in "Jezebel" and turned down the role of Blanche in the original production of "A Streetcar Named Desire." In "Dahling" we watch her throw wild '20s parties, experiment with cocaine and bisexuality, and toss off one of her more famous quips from the bathroom. Asking for toilet paper, she's told there is none. A tissue? Sorry, no. "Well," says Tallulah, "do you have two fives for a ten?"
"Dahling" is the most information-packed but also the loopiest of this Bankhead bonanza; it opens with Tallulah as a squalling baby at her mother's funeral and trots her famous friends Ethel Barrymore, Noël Coward, Eleanor Roosevelt on and off the stage so fast it looks like the lightning round on "Hollywood Squares." "Tallulah Hallelujah!" is as much cabaret act as play; Feldshuh, camping it up before a USO crowd in 1956, gives a dead-on, vibrantly self-aware performance, spiced with some lovely, low-register renditions of standards like "I'll Be Seeing You." Turner's "Tallulah" is the most traditional star vehicle; it is set in Bankhead's lush, lavender-colored bedroom on a day in 1948 when she is about to play host at a political fund-raiser. The profanity-laden script by Sandra Ryan Heyward is being reworked for Broadway, but Turner (maybe the only actress who doesn't need voice exercises to do Tallulah) flounces about the stage with panache and, occasionally, the poignance of a woman who confesses that it's "exhausting, this business of being more than you are."
Why, all of a sudden, so much Tallulah? "There are not many characters to play for a woman my age," says Turner, 46, with refreshing pragmatism. "And this is a great character. You just get to pull out all the stops." Feldshuh decided to write her own Tallulah play after starring in an off-Broadway musical about her (another one!) two years ago, "Tallulah's Party." "She was a groundbreaker for women," says Feldshuh. "She was a self-created woman. She didn't take no for an answer. And she would not give up her youth." She's also a reminder of an age when larger-than-life stars could soar high and crash hard, and we didn't have to watch them cry about it on TV talk shows. Unless Oprah too is planning a Tallulah retrospective.