Southern Belles

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In the decades following the War Between the States three girls grew up together in the "Cradle of the Confederacy," Montgomery, Alabama. Their parents and relatives’ lives were still etched with painful memories of the War as well as the stark deprivations experienced during the period of Radical Reconstruction that followed. Although the girls entered a world without automobiles, airplanes, radio or motion pictures, all three would live to experience these modern "miracles."

Each of these young women possessed beauty, brains and ambition. Also, each was lucky enough to be born into families that had the financial wherewithal to provide them with every advantage. They attended the best schools and shared social experiences together, even dating the same boys. By their early teens, each was already part of that unique genus "Southern Belle." It is impossible to briefly define a Southern Belle because of the complexity of these women but they all share one attribute; "the ability to manage men without seeming to do so."

In their adolescence, like most precocious teens, the girls dreamed of living glamorous and exciting lives far beyond the confines of their hometown. But, unlike most adolescent girls, their dreams came true. Two would marry two of the most famous men of their epoch and would publish short stories as well as novels. The third would become an internationally famous stage and screen actress.

The girls parted company in their late teens when each left Montgomery. But there was a kismet quality about their relationship that kept their paths crossing throughout their lives in both the United States and Europe.

Sara Powell Haardt was born in 1899. A "blue baby"; she only survived as a result of the alert physician’s drastic measures that forced her to begin breathing. Her precarious birth presaged a lifetime of frail health. Although she was one of five children, her parents were upper middle class and financially able to send her to the exclusive Margaret Booth School for Girls in Montgomery. Early in her life her gift for writing was evident and it ripened at the Booth School.

Upon graduation from the Booth School, Sara moved to Baltimore to attend Goucher College where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Sara stayed on at Goucher as Professor of English while pursuing her literary career. Her love/hate relationship with the South is evident in her essays, short stories and novels that won critical acclaim during her lifetime. But today Sara Haardt is not as well known as the Southern writers who followed her and flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, although she was certainly their equal.

At the time of Sara’s tenure at Goucher College, Baltimore’s premiere celebrity was the Editor of The Baltimore Sun, Henry Louis Mencken. Today Mencken is usually remembered as a cantankerous journalist who fulminated against mediocrity and big government. But he was also one of the leading literary critics of his time and he used his editorship of The Smart Set and The American Mercury to promote the careers of many promising writers. His power and popularity helped make him one of the most eligible bachelors of his time. Mencken was sought after by Broadway and Hollywood actresses, as well as famous female literati of the day.

In addition to his acerbic attacks on all things bourgeois, Mencken was also noted for his low opinion of marriage, which he described as "the end of hope." The literary and intellectual attainments of the post-Reconstruction South didn’t seem to impress Mencken very much either. And his ambivalent feelings for marriage as well as Southern cultural aspirations might have become permanent if fate had not decided to subject him to the wiles of a Southern Belle.

In 1923 Mencken was invited to speak to the graduating class at Goucher College. Afterwards he had dinner with some of the professors and one of these women, Sara Haardt, caught his eye. As he chatted with this young lady, 18 years his junior, he was struck by her knowledge and her poise. Sara reminded Mencken that she had submitted a story to The Smart Set but it had not been accepted. Mencken encouraged her to submit another story and mark it for his personal attention.

After reading Sara’s story, he suggested they meet for lunch and discuss his ideas. Their lunches became more frequent and when either Mencken or Sara was away from Baltimore, they corresponded regularly; always addressing their letters formally as "Miss Haardt" and "Mr. Mencken." But during one extended trip to Montgomery, Sara received a letter from Mencken that began "Dear Sara." At the end of this letter he wrote; "I miss you terribly."

What was to become a seven-year erratic courtship ensued, during which H. L.Mencken promoted Sara Haardt’s writing career. He even arranged a stint in Hollywood for her to write screenplays. Although each continued to date other partners, Henry and Sara had formed an inseparable bond. But while other women aggressively pursued Mencken, Sara used her Southern Belle conjuring tricks to convince Henry that he was the pursuer and she the pursued. The other women in Henry’s life were always available whenever he called, but Sara was often unable to see him because of a visit from one of her wealthy suitors from Montgomery or Birmingham. On these occasions, Sara was always extremely apologetic; protesting that she wished Henry had called sooner, a suggestion that was extremely vexing to Mencken.

Sara’s Southern Belle strategy finally brought Mencken to the altar. The marriage of Henry Louis Mencken and Sara Haardt was a complete surprise to almost everyone, except their closest friends. Even more shocking was the fact that the groom abandoned his rigid agnosticism and married Sara in Baltimore’s Episcopal Church of St. Stephen the Martyr. No doubt the church’s name seemed appropriate to Henry’s bachelor friends.

Zelda Sayre, the youngest daughter of a Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was born in 1900. Although a healthy baby, she entered the world with a retina missing in one eye, a defect she never knew about. As a result of this visual infirmity, Zelda had an odd way of squinting at people. Later in life, as she developed mental problems, this peculiar way of staring at people became more pronounced and profoundly altered peoples’ perception of her. Zelda’s unusual name came from a gypsy queen in a romance novel her mother admired. Indeed, from early childhood on, Zelda behaved like a gypsy and was described as having "a sort of insolence toward life and a total lack of caution." In her senior year at Montgomery’s Sidney Lanier High School, Zelda Sayre was voted the Prettiest and The Most Attractive girl in her class and beneath her graduation picture are these prophetic lines: "Let’s only think of today and not worry about tomorrow."

In 1918, World War I was drawing to a close, but there was still a large contingent of American soldiers being trained at Camp Sheridan near Montgomery. Some of the luckier soldiers, especially officers, were able to obtain special passes to social functions at the exclusive Montgomery Country Club. It was at one of these moonlit parties on a steamy Saturday night of that year that Lieutenant F. Scott Fitzgerald spotted Zelda Sayre on the dance floor and insisted that he be introduced. There was an immediate attraction between the two and they became involved.

On one occasion, Zelda took Scott to the State Capitol to show him the star that marked the spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as the President of the Confederacy. There the couple encountered Sara Haardt who was also visiting the Capitol that day and Zelda proudly introduced Lieutenant Fitzgerald explaining that he was the great-grandson of Francis Scott Key, who had written "The Star Spangled Banner." Scott reacted to the attractive Sara by turning on the charm and launching into a recounting of his family connections as well as describing the story he was working on. Unimpressed, Sara remarked dryly, "How interesting!" Her off-putting comment put a chill on further conversation and the parties went their separate ways.

Scott proposed marriage to Zelda, but at the peak of her youthful popularity, she wasn’t ready to stop dating other men. Among her most fervent admirers were Auburn University’s star quarterback and a famous Atlanta golfer. On one occasion, she sent photographs of herself to Scott and her Atlanta friend. Unfortunately, she put the photographs in the wrong envelopes and Scott was miffed to receive a picture of Zelda tenderly inscribed to the other man. Although Zelda claimed she had simply made a mistake, the mix up sounds suspiciously like a typical Southern Belle ruse.

Finally, after the success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, provided Scott with a respectable source of income and a heightened social profile, Zelda accepted his proposal. Early in their marriage, Scott and Zelda lived in Baltimore where they became frequent guests of Henry and Sara. Mencken not only thought highly of Scott’s writing but he was also delighted with the vivacious and unpredictable Zelda.

Eventually, however, the Menckens became troubled over Zelda’s increasingly bizarre behavior along with Scott’s excessive drinking. Zelda’s condition ultimately worsened to the point that Scott had to commit her to the psychiatric unit at Johns Hopkins. During Zelda’s hospitalization, Scott began showing up at the Mencken’s apartment, uninvited, frequently inebriated, and often, to Henry’s annoyance, overly flirtatious with Sara.

Over the years, Scott and Zelda became the stuff of legends, the golden couple that epitomized the Roaring Twenties. Most accounts of their lives focus on Scott’s talent and Zelda’s mental problems. Not only are Zelda’s literary talents usually given short shrift, but she is also accused of hindering Scott’s attempts to write. To the contrary, Zelda proofread and critiqued her husband’s drafts and also made invaluable suggestions for scene development. She served as the model for most of his female characters and Scott frequently incorporated Zelda’s unique way of expressing herself into the language of his novels.

Mencken said of Zelda: "What a girl! Cleverer than Scott, if the truth were known." Zelda had a knack for witty and incisive comments as illustrated by her remark to a famous author who stated that his novel was complete except for the loose ends. "It is the loose ends with which men hang themselves."

Tragically, because of intermittent periods of psychosis that professionals were never able to explain, Zelda was in and out of sanitariums for most of her life and those who came in contact with her sensed that something was terribly wrong. Ernest Hemingway once recalled being seated next to Zelda at a dinner party when she abruptly asked him: "Ernest, don’t you think Al Jolson is greater than Jesus?"

Tallulah Brockman Bankhead was born in 1903 in Huntsville, Alabama. Her mother died as a result of complications from the delivery and the baby was christened alongside her mother’s coffin. Her grief-stricken father sent Tallulah to Montgomery to be raised by her aunt. Throughout her life, Tallulah always felt that her father subconsciously blamed her for her mother’s death. She claimed that her struggle to become a successful actress was an attempt to win back her father’s affection because he too had wanted to become an actor in his youth.

The Bankhead family was one of the most prominent in Alabama. Tallulah’s grandfather and his brother served together in the U.S. Congress. One of her aunts was the first woman to become a department head in the Alabama State government, and her father served in both the Alabama House of Representatives as well as the U.S. House of Representatives. Her unusual first name was passed down from her paternal grandmother who was named after Tallulah Falls; a popular resort town in Georgia from the late 1800s until the 1940s.

Tallulah and Zelda were both accomplished gymnasts as well as dancers and often performed a rigorous song-and-dance routine together that involved turning cartwheels and standing on their heads. Tallulah’s specialty was bending over backwards and picking up a handkerchief from the floor with her teeth. Sara, possibly because of delicate health, preferred intellectual pursuits to athletic ones.

When Tallulah was only sixteen, she had glamour photos made in order to enter a Hollywood movie magazine’s beauty contest. To make herself look older, she artfully applied extra makeup; wore a large hat and draped a feathered boa around her neck. From the hundreds of contestants, Tallulah Bankhead was included among the magazine’s selection of the "twelve most beautiful women in America."

The persuasive Tallulah convinced her father and grandfather to allow her to move to New York to live with relatives and appear in New York plays. A few years on Broadway were quickly followed by several highly successful years in the London theater circuit. Tallulah was not only a talented actress but she also had an enviable grasp of theater. In fact, it was not unusual for critics to invite her to attend opening nights with them in order to hear her keen and usually amusing comments, which they would often use in their own reviews. One evening, while suffering through a particularly uninspiring play, Tallulah whispered to her companion: "There is less here than meets the eye."

H.L. Mencken first encountered Tallulah at a gathering of literary types at the Algonquin Hotel and he was as taken with her as he would later be with Zelda and Sara. After a few drinks, Tallulah insisted on demonstrating her acrobatic skills to the assembled group. She made several faulty attempts at cartwheels during which she smashed a chair and crashed into a table of glasses. Finally, she had to be helped to her room.

While vacationing in the South of France, Tallulah was surprised to discover her girlhood friend Zelda in a small flower shop. Zelda acted strangely. In Tallulah’s words: "Zelda, poor darling, went off her head. She had gone into a flower shop and suddenly for her all the flowers had faces."

In 1931, the now infamous Tallulah was finally lured to Hollywood, arriving in that glittery Shangri-La shortly after Sara Haardt had ended her Hollywood stint and returned to Baltimore. During her years in Hollywood, Tallulah’s biggest disappointment was not getting the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Coincidentally, Scott Fitzgerald was working on the screenplay for the film while Zelda was ensconced in a mental hospital back East.

After a twenty-year career in Hollywood, Tallulah recreated herself into an all-purpose celebrity on radio and television, always using her trademark greeting, "Hello, Dahling." In addition to being a chain smoker, (her brand of cigarettes, Craven A’s), she was also a daily drinker of Old Grand Dad bourbon whiskey — reportedly a bottle or more a day. On one Christmas Eve, after she had been to entirely too many cocktail parties, a friend foolishly convinced her to attend midnight mass. Seated next to the aisle, Tallulah squinted through bleary eyes at the approaching procession led by a priest in a long robe, carrying the smoking incensure. Leaning into the aisle Tallulah loudly proclaimed: "Darling, your gown is lovely but I’m afraid I have to tell you that your purse is on fire."

Sophistication, witty repartee and marriages are only part of the story of these three Southern Belles. There is so much more — all three were immensely talented. They were lauded for their accomplishments during their lifetimes and their literary and artistic attainments have an appreciative following today.

At age 21, Sara Haardt was the head of the Alabama branch of the National Woman’s Party, and it was Sara who led the campaign to have the Alabama Legislature ratify the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. In 1933, one of her short stories was among the O’Henry Prize Stories. Other winners that year were Erskine Caldwell, Conrad Aiken and Scott Fitzgerald. She also had a story included in the Best Short Stories of 1935. Her novels, especially The Making of a Lady, were also widely acclaimed. Some of her short stories and essays have been collected in a volume called Southern Souvenirs. A collection of her letters and papers is maintained in the Julia Rogers Library at Goucher College.

Zelda Fitzgerald’s unconventional paintings and drawings were exhibited in New York City galleries and most are currently housed in a Montgomery museum. She published several short stories in the leading periodicals of her day and her 1932 novel Save Me the Waltz was republished in 1960. Her unusual use of language seems eccentric but she manages to capture the mood she is rendering. For example, these comments about an adolescent girl’s summer night’s drive with a boyfriend: "A southern moon is a sodden moon, and sultry. When it swamps the fields and the rustling sandy roads and the sticky honeysuckle hedges in its sweet stagnation, your fight to hold on to reality is like a protestation against a first waft of ether."

Tallulah Bankhead was featured in several award-winning films and she herself won numerous awards. Her clever quips, often mistakenly attributed to Groucho Marx, are still being quoted. During World War II, she frequently entertained American soldiers for the United Service Organization (USO). At one of these USO functions, the performer scheduled to follow Tallulah didn’t show so Tallulah had to improvise for 90 minutes. With a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, she kept the soldiers rolling in the aisles with her outrageous, ribald humor. This event has been recreated in the play Tallulah, Hallelujah! In 1952, she published the story of her life, Tallulah: My Autobiography.

At the age of 37, the fragile Sara succumbed to tubercular meningitis. At her request, she was cremated and her ashes were placed in the Mencken family plot at Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore. Henry never married again and throughout his remaining years continued to periodically place a single white flower on Sara’s grave. Mencken died at age 76 and his ashes were buried beside Sara’s.

Scott Fitzgerald, at age 44, died of a heart attack aggravated by chronic alcoholism. Because he had renounced Catholicism, he was buried in Rockville Union Cemetery, a Protestant cemetery in Rockville, Maryland. Zelda’s tragic death occurred at age 48 when she was trapped on the top floor of a burning mental hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Her remains were buried beside Scott in Rockville.

At age 65 Tallulah Bankhead died from complications from emphysema and was buried in St. Paul’s Churchyard in Chestertown, Maryland.

The three Southern Belles had traveled in widely different directions after they left Montgomery, but with their graves clustered around Baltimore, they had come together again to their final resting-places.

Sara, Zelda and Tallulah were the last of the Southern Belles. And, although Tallulah lived on until 1968, her star began to flicker in the 1950s. Around that time, the appreciation of witty, sophisticated types started to wane. Also, people with "background and breeding" were beginning to be looked upon with disfavor as a result of an emerging "egalitarian" philosophy intent on leveling society. Over the years, this leveling campaign has been so successful that it has created a new breed of "celebrities," quite different from those admired in the decades from 1900 to 1950.

Gail Jarvis [send him mail], a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of the voluntary union of states established by the founders.

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