Tallulah Bankhead remains one of my Southern heroes. Alabama-born and bourbon-infused, she conquered the London stage in the 1920s, made a dozen bad movies and one great film (Hitchcock's Lifeboat), and in general did as she damn well pleased, which, toward the end of her life, included emerging from an oxygen tent whenever she felt like smoking.
In the early 1920s, she was cast in a costume drama in London, Conchita. It was her first starring role. On opening night, Tallulah, improbably playing a Cuban heroine in a black wig, entered dramatically carrying a monkey. The monkey, apparently not a Tallulah fan, promptly snatched off her wig (exposing Tallulah's blonde bob), ran down to the footlights, and waved the wig about. The audience tittered. Tallulah's response? Despite the fact that this was supposed to be a serious drama, she turned a cartwheel. The audience roared, and the legend of Tallulah kicked into high gear.
I see several valuable life lessons in this story.
1. Never appear on stage with a monkey unless you're prepared to upstage your simian co-star.
2. Never take yourself too seriously.
3. When the unexpected occurs, go with it; don't fight it.
4. When it looks like the joke's on you, turn the tables and do whatever you can to turn it into your joke.
For instance, an old friend of mine once tripped on a staircase in a fancy Atlanta restaurant and tumbled down six or seven steps. The restaurant went silent. He got up, dusted himself off, and said to the restaurant's patrons, "I hope you enjoyed my impersonation of a slinky." They did; he received a round of applause.
I've experienced my share of highly public gaffes as well.
One of worst faux pas occurred on the morning of my first day at a new job in Atlanta. I went to the office building's elegant cafeteria for breakfast. Back then I rarely ate before noon and didn't know what to order. A hefty, friendly African-American woman behind the counter guided me through the choices, with the patience of a mother teaching her child how to walk. Overwhelmed, I went with a bottle of Coke and a hardboiled egg. (I was in my mid 20s, what can I say?)
I didn't want to eat the egg cold, so I microwaved it for 30 seconds. Still cold, I gave it another 30 seconds, and then another, and by now you probably can guess where this is heading but I had no clue. Confounded that my egg stubbornly refused to warm, I decided to test it with a fork.
The explosion shocked the crowded cafeteria into stunned silence.
All eyes were upon me. There were bits of egg in my hair, on my face, on my clothes. I glanced around to survey the damage. I saw bits of egg floating in a woman's coffee cup. The face of then-President Reagan, in a front page newspaper photo, was covered in egg.
"Talk about having egg on your face," I said to the crowd, and laughed. I thought the whole scene was hilarious and still do, but the only other person who laughed was the woman who had served me the egg. As I left the cafeteria to do some grooming in the bathroom, she caught my eye and put her hands together in silent applause.
I'll close where I stared: with Tallulah. A friend of mine and a fellow Southerner living in San Francisco, David, whom we've nicknamed The Sorcerer, is another Tallulah admirer. He and I have coined a phrase to describe the actress's bravado, wit, deep Southern style and wacky lifestyle: Tallunacy. So the next time you find yourself in a potentially embarrassing situation, whether it's on stage or in the shopping mall or in a crowded Chick-fil-A, turn the situation to your favor with a little Tallunacy. Instead of slinking away red-faced, you might receive a round of applause.