What is so rare as a Willie Mays?

By Tallulah Bankhead

Animated gif file, else REFRESH (F5)

Do you want to know why the Giants are going to win the pennant? Well, darlings, I can tell you in two words: Willie Mays.

Not since John McGraw snatched Frank Frisch off the Fordham University campus to play second base have the Giants boasted so dazzling a star, such box-office dynamite. I don't want to put the whammy on Willie, but it's my guess that before he shucks his Giant uniform in 1970 he'll be rated with Babe Ruth. But what am I talking about? Willie's right up there with the Babe now in my book. Let's not have any filibustering by Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider fans. They're both crack center fielders and a credit to their parents. But they're not in Willie's class. When Willie's been around as long as those two laddybucks, he will have established a mass of new batting and fielding records -unless I miss my guess.

You think I'm getting too hysterical about Willie? Rubbish! We Giant fans haven't had a chance to gloat since Bobby Thomson sank the Dodgers with that home run in the play-off series in 1951. Last year, they straggled in a wretched fifth, 35 games behind the Dodgers. All season long, they wallowed around in second division with such as the Cubs, the Reds and the Pirates. If the guilt-by-association charge were generally accepted, they could have been jugged on suspicion.

The reason for their collapse? They lacked something. Out with it, woman, what did they lack? Again, I can tell you in two words: Willie Mays. Thirty-five games off the lead last October and out in front in '54. That gives you an idea of the difference. Willie hasn't done all this, but he certainly has helped. He has that priceless light touch and gay spirit that make people like to have him around. He makes them all feel good. He's done oodles for the team morale. True, John Antonelli has probably bagged ten or fifteen games we would have lost if he had stayed in Milwaukee.

I keep a radio going in my dressing room whenever possible so I can hear the Giant games. I have always been a rabid Giant fan. The name Giants is right for my team. Who could stand in awe of a team named the Cubs? Cubs are cute. Or the Dodgers? I never dodged anything in my life. Cincinnati? Too many Republicans. Pittsburgh always depresses me. They beat the Giants too often, and the elevators in the William Penn Hotel are too confusing for words. What I like best about St. Louis is the zoo. And the beer is fine in Milwaukee. But the Giants are a name to look up to. And I simply must know how they are doing every day. Last summer during the Giants' six straight over Brooklyn, I was on stage each day for most of the third act. So one of the cast wrote the inning score on a card and stuck it in his shirt where I could see it when he walked on stage.

Leo Durocher says Willie makes the pitching staff stronger because he can catch anything, if it stays in the air long enough. He can throw'em out at home plate from deep center field, and he covers ground like a jack rabbit. When he has a good day, the Giants usually win.

Don't think Willie is just a long-ball hitter. He might well lead all National League outfielders in put-outs this season. The right-center, center and left-center stands in the Polo Grounds are the most distant of any park in the league. Willie has a lot of territory to roam. It's 480 feet to the center-field bleachers. And Willie has taken long drives against the center-field fence. His belt-buckle catches are the talk of baseball. I guess he must play center field by ear!

Willie does everything with a flourish. He has the spectacular touch. Everything he does on a ball field has a theatrical quality. Even when he strikes out, he can put on a show. In the terms of my trade, Willie lifts the mortgage five minutes before the curtain falls. He rescues the heroine from the railroad tracks just as she's about to be sliced up by the midnight express. He routs the villain when all seems lost. Willie has that indefinable thing called color. Color blended with talent brings the highest prices in the amusement market. Those blessed with both have what it takes at the box office.

But I do have one qualm about Willie Mays. Can he stand the long and uproarious cheering without getting dizzy? The applause of thousands is pretty intoxicating stuff for a 23-year-old. But I think Willie can take it. I think he is the thoroughbred he looks. He will come through the wringer of publicity and acclaim unscathed. I'm convinced of this because I think he'd rather play ball than do anything else in the world. The joy and enthusiasm he puts into every play mark him as one dedicated. He goes all out on every swing of his bat, every racing catch. Not all players approach the game with such zest. A good many of them would rather be fishing or hunting. Ask any baseball manager. Willie is one of the fortunates of the world. He is paid for doing the thing he enjoys doing most. I wish I could say as much for Tallulah.

There's another reason I think Willie will become great without being spoiled. He has a tradition to live up to. It's the Alabama tradition. The Bankheads are long on Alabama tradition. I was brought up in Jasper, 30 miles from Birmingham. Willie was born in Fairfield, just a little south and west of Birmingham. Daddy's name was William Brockman Bankhead. But to family and friends (and voters, God bless them) he was Willie. My Grandmother Tallulah used to say when Daddy did something that pleased her, "Willie gets under my ribs." My Grandmother wouldn't have known a baseball from a beaten biscuit, but Willie Mays would have gotten under her ribs too.

The stars sort of fell on Alabama when it comes to Negro athletes. The great and ageless Satchel Paige was born in Mobile. Monty Irvin, Willie's roommate, is from Columbia. Joe Louis was from Lexington. And Jesse Owens, the great runner who upset Hitler so much in the 1936 Olympics, was from Danville. Along with their other attributes, Negroes are natural athletes, dancers and musicians. They have grace, speed and superb reflexes.

When Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers, he was the first player of his race ever to play in the big leagues. Jackie showed his appreciation and perhaps his sense of responsibility by belting a home run in the opening games at the Polo Grounds. I was among the thousands who rose to cheer him as he crossed the plate. Once Robinson hurdled the color taboo, democracy started to function in the major leagues. The Negro stars certainly have done something for baseball. There are Negroes on seven of the eight National League clubs. Not long ago, Brooklyn had five in the line-up in one day-five of the nine players on the field. The three top teams in the National League-Giants, Dodgers and Braves-have a total of thirteen, more in each case than any of the other clubs.

And baseball has done something for the Negroes too. If nothing else, it's unbigoted some bigots.

If the Giants win, it will of course be a team victory. They have good pitching, a good infield, good outfield and good hitting. It ought to be enough. But it takes more than just a platoon of players and Durocher to win a pennant. I believe Willie is the big difference. No one can improve on Willie's script, whether it's into the stands for a homer or three strikes and out. At least when it's the latter, you won't be seeing him do it with his bat on his shoulder.

There should be but one requisite for major-league ballplayers, just as there should be but one requisite for an actor or actress-quality of performance.

Quality is what Willie has in abundance.

Come on, you Giants. Come on, you Willie Mays!

Article originally published in Look, September 21, 1954, pp 52, 54.


Sound of a Bell

At midnight on Wednesday last week, we called, by appointment, at Miss Tallulah Bankhead's apartment to inquire into her million-dollar lawsuit against Procter & Gamble, N.B.C., C.B.S., and Benton & Bowles, all of whom were concerned, one way or another, with the launching of the following singing commercial:

It is Miss Bankhead's contention that in the public mind the name Tallulah means only Tallulah Bankhead and that the use of it in the jingle is offensive and humiliating, because - but Miss Bankhead, like the jingle, can speak for herself. Suffice it to say that she greeted us wearing gray gabardine slacks, a gray silk shirt, gray suede shoes, and a zebra parakeet named Gaylord balanced on her shoulder, and that she saluted us with the double-barrelled admonition "Call me Tallulah, baby, and listen." The two of us sat down on a couch, and Gaylord jumped down and sat between us. "Gaylord, baby, come back," Miss Bankhead said in her deepest organ tones, and Gaylord returned to her shoulder.

"This is not a publicity stunt," Miss Bankhead said. "For two months, I tried to settle this thing out of court. I have never in my life endorsed anything, baby. I have never allowed my name to be attached to soap or spinach. Suddenly I find it attached to this damn shampoo. I don't know a damn thing about shampoos. I wash my hair with Energine, the cleaning fluid. Non-inflammable. When I can't get that, I wash it with gasoline." She drew a deep breath and continued, "Everybody in the world knows that Tallulah is me. Max Beaverbrook once said that I'm one of the few people in the world whose first name instantly means them. The only other person I can think of who is that identifiable by first name is Steve, the famous Derby jockey. By God, I have a clipping from Tasmania that reads, 'Tallulah Beats Dewey.' They did not say 'Miss Bankhead.'"

Miss Bankhead spread a sheaf of legal papers over her knees, "Even in the file in my lawyer's office, I'm simply Tallulah. And listen to this: 'The name Tallulah was not generally known to the public not associated in the public mind as the name of a woman until after the name Tallulah gained widespread fame and publicity because of its unique identification with plaintiff.' (But, I was not the) first or only Tallulah. As a matter of fact, I was named after my paternal grandmother, who worshipped me and spoiled me but taught me good manners and never allowed me to abbreviate my name. My great-grandfather was a plantation owner in Greenville, South Carolina, and he went down to Alabama one time to look over some property. On his way through Georgia, he saw a beautiful falls called Tallulah Falls. He wrote back to his wife, who was about to have a child, and told her that if she had a girl, he wanted her called Tallulah. He died without ever getting back to Greenville, and when my grandmother-to-be was born, she was named Tallulah."

Miss Bankhead told us that as a child she did not enjoy her odd name. "Everybody else in school was always named Virginia," she said. "I was brought up believing that Tallulah means 'love maiden.' Hah!" "Hah!" said Gaylord hoarsely. "Later," Miss Bankhead went on, "a man in Georgia tells me it's an Indian word for 'terrible.' Then, still later, an Irishman writes me and says that Tallulah is the name of an Irish saint of the sixth century, baby. So, finally, I call my Aunt Marie on the phone, down in Montgomery, Alabama. She's the state archivist, is seventy-nine years old, and knows everything. She informs me Tallulah is Indian for 'sound of a bell.'"

Soon after coming to New York, Miss Bankhead met Ethel Barrymore, who urged her to change her name to something easy to remember, like Barbara or Mary. "By then, I didn't want to change it at all," Miss Bankhead said, "though I thought of shortening it, so it wouldn't be too long for electric lights." Miss Bankhead has read the objectionable commercial several times but has never heard it on the air. "Donald Cook's valet told me about it," she said. "Then my hairdresser. Then I phoned my lawyer. I was shocked and horrified. So was my Aunt Marie. Sit still, baby, while I get Aunt Marie on the phone." She got up and put through a call to Montgomery, (from) her shoulder, Gaylord cast a (quizzical) glance at the phone. "Hello, Marie, baby!" she shouted into the phone. "What do you mean you were asleep? You know damn well you can't sleep... . All right, baby, listen! (...)"

This article appeared in The New Yorker, April 2, 1949, pp 25-26.

Indian Legend of Tallulah,
(quoted from an old 19th century postcard)

This country was the home of the Indians.
Just above Lovers Leap Lookout are Council Rocks,
the tribal court room. A white hunter was held prisoner here.
The Indian maiden Tallulah fell in love with him.
Tallulah’s father then sentenced him
to be thrown from the cliff
into the gorge below;
when they threw him over,
Tallulah leaped after him,
hence the name
Lovers Leap.


Naturally, the individual who has the strongest conviction about a life after death is the one who has seen and talked to the ghost of a deceased relative or friend, or who has experienced some other psychic event which personally involved him. Often such people are reluctant to discuss their experiences, but sometimes they'll come right out with them... .

Psychical impressions manifest themselves in many different ways. The dynamic actress Tallulah Bankhead once had an auditory experience which was so real to her that she was sure her famous deceased father, Speaker of the House of Representatives William Bankhead of Alabama, was making his presence known to her. The day after Pearl Harbor Tallulah was driving from Philadelphia to Atlantic City for a rest near the beach. As her mind dwelt upon the Japanese perfidy of the day before, she said to herself that her father could have been of great help to his country at such a time. "I wish Daddy was alive," she thought, as she turned on her automobile radio to listen to the Washington ceremonies which were taking place while President Roosevelt's request for declaration of war was awaited. In Miss Bankhead's own words: "as the radio announcer kept describing the scenes it came to me that my father was there ... he was there now stronger than he had ever been before. He was all over that place and I knew it."

As she listened the voice coming over the radio announced, "Here comes Speaker Bankhead."

"Surely it was a mistake," she thought. "Surely the announcer referred to Speaker Rayburn! Yet... yes... again the name was spoken." Tallulah never thought of this as an auditory hallucination. She was positive that the spirit of her father manifested itself to her in that way, and she did not hesitate to say so to a New York World Telegram reporter."

This article appeared in Susy Smith, "Do we live after Death?," Chapter XI: Personal Experiences of the Stars, pgs. 135-146 (condensed excerpt).


Hi, Toots!!

My Life with Father,

by Tallulah Bankhead

The incomparable Tallulah reminisces about the stage-struck dad who cheered her on.

Daddy, to me, was a blend of Aladdin, D'Artagnan, Galahad, and Santa Claus. Was, did I say? He still is, although it's been years since he died in Washington with a quip on his lips.

If a psychiatrist could prowl through my childhood, he would probably arrive at the conclusion that, since my mother survived my birth by but three weeks, it was inevitable that I should focus all my attention and affection on my father. His guess would be as false as a quizmaster's laugh. The truth is that I was over-coddled.

Daddy's sisters, Aunt Marie and Aunt Louise, and his father and mother drenched me with affection, and I, in turn, worshiped all of them. To further confute that phantom psychiatrist, I never lived under the same roof with my father for two uninterrupted years in my whole life.

Shortly after Mother's death, Daddy and I and my sister Eugenia, a year my elder, moved into my grandfather's house in Jasper, Alabama, a small town some 30 miles from Birmingham. Every year, grandfather went off to Washington to take his seat in Congress. Then Eugenia and I would be packed off to Aunt Marie in Montgomery. Daddy, then a struggling young lawyer, knew better than to try and cope with the two of us alone. I suspect that he quailed at the prospect of trying to cope with me alone.

Between the ages of five and fourteen, Eugenia and I wore out a lot of schools, frayed the nerves of a lot of teachers. At nine I was in the Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York - and thereafter, always flanked by sister, I attended two convents and the Fairmont Seminary in Washington, and the Mary Baldwin Seminary in Virginia.

We resented these enforced absences from Daddy, from our aunts, from grandmother and grandfather. One thing redeemed our stays in these schools for me - Daddy's occasional visits. He would pop in on us unannounced and we would go berserk with excitement.

In his early thirties, Daddy was distinguished looking, lean and handsome, with a profile like Edwin Booth's. Although I was too young to know it then, he was a frustrated actor who sought compensation by dramatizing his visits to us in spectacular fashion. He was a fabulous storyteller, and would lift my scalp with tales of his exploits, real or invented.

I can still recall my fevers when he brought to our home in Jasper a man with but one hand. My curiosity almost strangled me. "How did he lose his hand, Daddy?"

"Why, he was run over by a steamboat on the Mississippi, Sugar," he replied, an explanation which I accepted as gospel.

Visiting us at one of our boarding schools, he would come in with his umbrella folded, query us sternly as to our conduct, and suddenly raise his umbrella. From it would shower crackerjacks, packages of gum, candied nuts.

It's always been my notion that through some bit of magical hocus-pocus, Daddy transferred his love of the theatrical to me. I was 13 when he first told me what had happened to him at 14.

Unbeknownst to any of the family, he made his first trip to Washington to see the inauguration of Benjamin Harrison. He went in a day coach, in blue jeans, a straw hat on the back of his blond head. Grandmother was shocked at his entrance to her apartment in Washington, and at once shut him up in a clothes closet.

On grandfather's return from the Senate, she dragged Daddy out and said: "Captain John! You take your son out of here and buy him some store clothes."

But it wasn't watching the Harrison inauguration that set Daddy's hair on fire. It was a performance of The Count of Monte Cristo, the swashbuckling Dumas melodrama in which Eugene O'Neill's father starred for so long. Watching Edmond Dantes work vengeance on his enemies aroused in him such an emotional storm that he swore that he would one day make his mark in the theater. He had to wait a good ten years for his chance.

After his graduation from the University of Alabama, where he played on one of the great Crimson Tide elevens, he got his degree in law at Georgetown in Washington. On his graduation he opened a brokerage office in New York with two classmates. Clients didn't materialize and Daddy envisioned a happy escape when he answered an ad in a theatrical weekly and was told to report for rehearsal with a Boston stock company.

Writing his parents of his fateful decision, he was soon cooled. As he was leaving the theater on a December afternoon, the doorman handed him a letter bearing a familiar postmark - Washington. Grandmother had exercised the veto.

A tender proof that his affection for the theater never lagged is etched in my memory. On my arrival in Washington while touring in Reflected Glory, Daddy, then a veteran member of the House of Representatives, met me at the Union Station and drove me to the stage door of the National Theater. As we parted, he said: "Tallulah, I only wish I had had one whack at it."

I was nine, and attending a convent in New York, when Daddy paid Eugenia and me a Christmas visit. In magical fashion he presented each of us with little gold watches with elastic bands, only to be desolated, as were we, when he discovered that neither of them would run. Chagrined by this, he atoned by taking us to the first play I ever saw in New York - a rip-roaring melodrama called The Whip, crawling with villainy and crime and corruption, with thwarted love and dark despair.

We both got so excited that Daddy had to hold on to our collars to keep us from falling out of the box. I couldn't sleep for two days and, in an attempt to cool me off, he promised to take me to another play. It was The Good Little Devil - Mr. Belasco - and in it were two young women who later created quite a commotion in our theaters and on our screens - Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.

The same midnight I gave impersonations of the entire cast, denied myself food and drink, and had to be threatened with the salt mines before I'd go to bed. Daddy had opened to me a new world of illusion and enchantment, and I was fit to be tied.

It was about this time that I learned that Eugenia and I had been unwitting contributors to another professional setback for Daddy. When he ran for Congress for the first time in 1911, he was defeated. His opponent had charged, among other things, that William Brockman Bankhead was not a suitable person to represent the great Commonwealth of Alabama, since he had seen fit to educate his daughters in schools outside the state. It was broadly hinted that this was a form of treason which should not be condoned by the poll-tax payers.

Rankled by that defeat, I ran amok when Daddy on his second try - running as a candidate from a newly created Congressional district - was elected. All election day I whipped about, whispering Hail Marys. That night, heavily chaperoned, I was permitted to watch the election returns flashed on a screen in front of a newspaper office on Pennsylvania Avenue. When a bulletin announced that Daddy was elected, I bowled over the chaperone and ran screaming up and down the avenue: "Daddy's elected! Daddy's elected!"

Thereafter, thanks to his long stays in Washington, with him I saw many stock performances at Poli's Theater and at Keith's vaudeville, which Woodrow Wilson attended so steadily.

All this tended to fan into flames my desire to act, and correspondingly smothered my interest in formal education. When I complained to Daddy that algebra baffled me, he showed no concern. "If you know your Bible, your Shakespeare, and can shoot craps, you'll have a liberal education," he assured me.

Confused by mathematical equations, I concentrated on reading - everything I could lay my hands on about players of stage and screen. When Picture Play announced a beauty contest for boys and girls, a dark plot boiled in my head. Ten prizes were to be awarded the winners, and the judges were to make the choice from photographs submitted either by candidates or by their parents.

Forthwith I rifled off a picture of myself in a shovel-like hat, a dress with long sleeves and a high neck; but in my enthusiasm I neglected to identify myself. The magazine dragged out the contest for weeks and I was growing haggard with suspense when one afternoon I flipped through the latest Picture Play and saw my picture under this caption: "Who Is She?" There followed the intelligence that, could the original prove her identity satisfactorily, she would be among the anointed.

I scorched out of the drugstore, broke in on Daddy (he and grandfather had apartments on adjoining floors) screaming: "I've won it! I'm going on the stage!"

When I was coherent enough to explain my victory, Daddy wrote to the editors, identifying the unknown as his daughter. Those harassed gentlemen replied that 15 other parents had made a like claim. Could he send a duplicate picture to verify his claim? Daddy did, and I was on my way.

That night, the Bankheads in Washington went into solemn session. The choice they made was to be momentous, since, in 1917, no woman in the South was supposed to work. Though Daddy gave no outward sign then, I soon learned he was thrilled that I was to have the opportunity snatched from him. But he was tortured by knowledge of his comparative poverty.

"On a Congressman's salary, I can't afford to send this child to New York with a chaperone," he said. At this point, my grandfather stepped into the breech. "Stand back, Will," he said. "I'm underwriting this child. Let her go on the stage. If she isn't allowed to, she'll probably go through life brooding that she never had a chance to do the thing she thinks she wants."

I was 15 when I set off for New York with Aunt Marie, and I still remember Daddy's final words:"Too bad I can't go with you."

In all my years in the theater Daddy saw me only in half-a-dozen plays. In his 23 years in Congress, demands on his time precluded many visits to New York. And there was another reason why he rarely saw me on a stage. He couldn't afford the trips. I suspect, too, that seeing me in the theater would have stirred and revived his old regrets. But over the years I sent him all the critical notices, both good and bad, of the plays in which I appeared.

He never, to my knowledge, exulted over any success I achieved. His was an inner satisfaction, the knowledge that his daughter had fulfilled his hopes - and in a degree his own ambition.

Only once did I see him wax enthusiastic about me. When, back in 1937, I told him I was going to marry John Emery, he seemed worried, probably because Eugenia's multiple marriages had curdled so often. "You're not going to get married and change your name - your stage name, I mean?"

John and I were married in Daddy's house in Jasper, and when we arrived he was talking with London on the long-distance telephone. A London newspaper was querying him about the wedding, and I heard him say: "What is my daughter wearing? Why just a little French dress and a little string of pearls... How old is my son-in-law? How old are you, John?"

"Thirty-four, Mr. Squeaker," replied my confused mate.

"How old is my daughter?"

Because I was older than John, Daddy deliberately muttered some gibberish. After the ceremony he took us out into the garden and recited Shakespeare.

Through most of the '20s, I was acting on the London stage, and in eight years saw Daddy but twice. I was rehearsing The Creaking Chair when he came to England as a member of the U.S. Shipping Board. With me, he went to a flossy dinner given by the late C.B. Cochran, attended by such political and theatrical bigwigs as Lord Balfour, Lord Beaverbrook, and Sir Gerald Du Maurier.

Daddy, in white tie and tails for perhaps the tenth time in his life, made a great hit. The ladies all flirted with him, and he was enjoying himself hugely.

Daddy started out by saying that American women were the most beautiful in the world, and enlarged upon this theme in extravagant fashion until I was dying of embarrassment. My blood was chilled that he could so far forget his impeccable manners. Daddy repeated, "American women are the most beautiful in the world," paused, then resumed. "And now I can see why, because they're descended from the English and the Irish."

On a September night in 1940, Eugenia and I were in New York, waiting to hear a radio speech Daddy was to make in Baltimore, his first in Franklin Roosevelt's campaign for a third term. Just before he was scheduled to go on the air, an announcer said that Speaker Bankhead was ill. Then his chauffeur called me to say, "Miss Bankhead, you'd better come."

We sat outside his door all night, since our presence would be sure to alarm him. Next morning, when we stood by his bedside, he jested with us. When the doctor said, "Speaker Bankhead, where is your pain?" he replied, "I don't play favorites. I scatter my pain."

That night he insisted on being taken back to Washington, where he died two nights later while I was acting in Princeton in The Little Foxes. Like the actor he wanted to be, like the actor he was, he wanted to die on stage. He took his last cue in the Capitol where he had served his country for almost a quarter of a century without interruption.

This article appeared in Coronet magazine, November, 1951, pgs. 56 through 60.