Scandal rarely touches Kent County on Maryland Eastern Shore, but when it comes to STARDUST celebrity, two of the most famous personalities associated with this agriculturally-based area on the Chesapeake Bay were most renowned for the controversy they tended to stir up.
A walking, talking commotion, no party was ever in full swing until Tallulah arrived. With her brazen larger-than-life attitude and image, deep voice, distinct mannerisms, and fluid sexuality, Tallulah Bankhead was an icon of stage, screen, radio, and television, an unpredictable geyser of personality and wit, and a daring, decadent diva of epic proportions. While most of her contemporaries have long since been forgotten, the untamed and outspoken Tallulah has proven hard to shake.
Tallulah Bankhead, this “strange electric woman with the languid eyes, the panther’s step, and the siren’s husky voice,” called Broadway’s most original leading lady, leaves an entertainment legacy that includes almost 300 film, stage, television, and radio credits. She was posthumously inducted into the first class of the American Theater Hall of Fame and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A dozen books have been written about her. Both Cruella De Vil from Walt Disney‘s One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Ursula in The Little Mermaid were at least in part influenced by Tallulah’s character and style.
In her bestselling 1952 autobiography, Tallulah acknowledged her own culpability in having been branded “a harridan, a hussy, a rebel, a calculated troublemaker,” and called herself the foe of moderation and the champion of excess. Throughout her career, she was as open as any public figure could be when discussing her outrageous reputation and swashbuckling celebrity lifestyle. She was emotional and impulsive and with her “hair on fire,” charged headfirst into fights, fracases, and feuds.
By 1968, Tallulah’s older sister Eugenia was living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Tallulah would visit as often as possible. When Tallulah passed away that December, Eugenia wanted her sister close. She arranged for Tallulah’s interment at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kent County. Eugenia died eleven years later, on March 11, 1979. She was buried next to her sister in a serene corner of the cemetery near a peaceful, dish-calm pond.
One of the Eastern Shore’s most notable eternal guests.
There’s never been another one quite like her.
James M. Cain
When James M. Cain, Annapolis-born and best known as the novelist who wrote Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, was eleven years old, his father was named president of Washington College, located in the Kent County seat of Chestertown. Founded in 1782, this was the first college named for George Washington and the only one done so with his blessing. The 11th oldest campus in the United States, the first after we declared independence, it was founded with the goal to mold future leaders of the republic.
Included among the greats of hard-boiled fiction, despite his resistance to the ‘lust and murder’ label, Cain’s stories are famous for their boundary-pushing sexual content, cinematic pacing, and dialogue. His infatuation with exploring the way people talk and his talent for recreating it on paper helped him become known as one of the primary creators of a distinctly American literary genre.
And it was in Chestertown where Cain, through an Eastern Shore mason named Ike Newton, first picked up his love of the vernacular, the language spoken by ordinary people.
Dressed in dungarees and boots, squatting on the ground laying brick for hours on end, Ike wasn’t of the type of athletic build the Cains admired, but he was solid, strong in the way of a laborer. He wasn’t an educated man but he was skilled. He was also friendly, and he very much liked to talk.
Bored and lonely, young Jamie Cain listened.
Years later, Cain told the Paris Review that “The first man I ever sat at the feet of who enchanted me not only by what he told me but by how he talked was Ike Newton…I would sit out there while he worked, listening to him…” For the first time, Cain heard how people who were uncultured but not inarticulate spoke. The rhythms, the tempo, the cadence of the language fascinated him, and he took them home with him to share.
In a 1970 Baltimore Sun profile Cain said “I was fascinated by the colorful way he talked…it opened up a whole new world for me. My style didn’t come from Ike Newton, but it came from all the Ike Newtons I listened to after that, and I have him to thank for the fact that I started listening.”
Listening. Listening to that rolling, relaxed storytelling simplicity of the language, the depth of thought and imagination, and above all, the way the Eastern Shore bricklayer said what was on his mind without ornamentation.
“If a writer owes a debt to what his ears pick up,” Cain wrote, “…mine would be to Ike.”
Read all of Tallulah Bankhead’s and James M. Cain’s stories and more in Stardust by the Bushel: Hollywood on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore.
STARDUST BY THE BUSHEL is available at various regional retailers. You can also purchase online at Amazon and at secantpublishing.com
Come hang out with me in Kent County at Selkie Books of Rock Hall https://selkiebooksrockhallllc.com/ on Friday the 13th from 5:30-7:30 p.m. and discuss STARDUST BY THE BUSHEL: HOLLYWOOD ON THE CHESAPEAKE BAY’S EASTERN SHORE! Our gracious hosts will provide complimentary “Appetizers & Mocktails, Nibbles ‘n Bubbles” for this free “Open Cottage” soirée, but books will be available for sale and signing!