Ask McGehee: Bankhead Tunnel

Ironically, the tunnel was named for a family that never lived in Mobile. And Tallulah had nothing to do with its construction. Mobile was honoring the actress’s distinguished grandfather, John Hollis Bankhead Sr. (1842 – 1920), an Alabama congressman and senator from Sulligent, Ala. In 1916, Bankhead created the nation’s first federal highway legislation, and a cross-country highway was also named in his honor.

The tunnel was conceived as a way to speed east-west traffic traveling in and out of Mobile and as an alternative to the Cochrane Bridge. Cars traveling the Causeway, built in 1926, would have a more direct route into Mobile over the newly designated Highway 90 — previously the city’s premier residential address, Government Street.

When ground was broken for the tunnel in 1938, Tallulah Bankhead was probably the last person Mobilians would have wanted to honor. Born in Huntsville, she arrived on Broadway in 1918, at the age of 16. Within five years, she hit the London stage where she enjoyed ever-growing notoriety. Tallulah would enter cocktail parties stark naked or perform cartwheels wearing a skirt and nothing else.

By the age of 25, the senator’s granddaughter, actress Tallulah Bankhead, became a star of the New York and London stages. Her offscreen antics raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic. McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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She was known for such witticisms as “It’s the good girls who keep diaries; bad girls never have time, ” and “The less I look like Whistler’s mother the night before, the more I look like her the morning after.” And famously, “Cocaine isn’t habit forming. I should know — I’ve been using it for years.”

She headed to Hollywood in 1932, when she was cast opposite Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. She made a number of films but is best known for her Broadway performances. She later gained popularity on both radio and television. Disney would pattern the vocalization of  Cruella de Vil, the villainess of “101 Dalmations, ” after Tallulah’s distinctively raspy voice.

Tallulah Bankhead died in Manhattan in 1968, 30 years after ground had been broken for Mobile’s first tunnel. Her last words were “codeine … bourbon.” Construction began on the Wallace Tunnel a year later.


Tom McGehee

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