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A Tribute to Elizabeth Taylor

Burton and Taylor filming Sandpiper
Burton and Taylor filming Sandpiper.




The most beautiful woman in the world was born with a pelt of black hair covering her skin, the result of a condition called hypertrichosis. Her mother remembered that even her "ears were covered with thick black fuzz." She looked like a monkey. From this unlikely beginning, Elizabeth Taylor grew into a child of such loveliness that she was signed by a Hollywood studio at the age of nine. Orson Welles remembers feeling like a dirty old man, lusting after her in the MGM cafeteria, but we don't have to imagine it --  there she is, glowing in National Velvet, radiant (and holding her own against Spencer Tracy) in Father of the Bride, bare-shouldered in her favorite role in A Place in the Sun, ravishing in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.


She squandered her beauty carelessly, defiantly -- "If I want to be fat, I'll bloody well be fat!" She married for the first time, a virginal 18, but after a quick divorce she hurtled into a series of affairs and marriages and brawls that caused international scandal, and earned her a condemnation from the Vatican; she squandered her reputation with the same careless defiance. At a time when feminists were looking for role models of powerful women who paid their own way, as she did, she was purring about how she loved to be dominated. She put that same contrariness to work raising money for AIDS victims in the mid-eighties, when the disease and those who had it were outcasts. Health? Her whole life was a series of medical crises, brain tumor, emergency tracheotomy, three hip replacements, multiple back breaks, a shard of flying steel caught in her eye, bronchitis, pneumonia -- she was pronounced dead more than once. Yet for decades, she smoked, drank, and popped pills in staggering quantities. "I've got a hollow leg," she shrugged. Money? She could spend as lavishly as anyone, sporting diamonds and emeralds worth millions of dollars. Her retinue, of empress proportions, included two guards armed with machine guns whose sole job was to protect her jewels, but guests would find them later littering the sink.


She swore with lusty pleasure and ate with abandon and thumbed her nose at anyone who found her vulgar. "Let's face it -- my life seems to have lacked dignity." She said that decades before she boozily recited the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial in her nightgown and a mink coat in front of a clutch of homeless people, before she went into the Betty Ford Clinic and came out with a construction worker twenty years younger whom she married with a straight face, before the food fights with her dear friend, Michael Jackson, "the least weird man I've ever known." The hell with all of us who thought we had a right to say anything about any of it. "Nobody tells me who to love or not love, who to be seen with and not seen with," she'd spit out, and "I don't subscribe to that 'You owe it to your public' jazz. What do I owe to my public? Do I owe my life to them? No, I owe exactly what they see on the screen, and if they don't like it, they don't have to pay to watch me act."


It was hers to use or waste, every bit of it, talent, money, beauty, love. "I want my tombstone to say, 'She lived,'" she said, and why should death prevent Elizabeth Taylor from getting what she wants?




She was born February 27, 1932, in England to American parents, and "I stopped being a child the minute I started working in pictures." Her father Francis, an art dealer, had affairs with men, and beat her on occasion. Her mother Sara had had a taste of fame as a stage actress, but her ultimate role turned out to be as a stage mother. When World War II drove the family west, to Hollywood, Sara succeeded in signing up her daughter, first at Universal, then at MGM. (Elizabeth's older brother Howard avoided that fate by showing up for his screen test with a shaved head.) Coworkers recall Sara standing at Elizabeth's shoots, giving her hand signals to direct her facial expressions. "A finger to the forehead meant she wanted a frown," one said.


MGM tutored its child actors between takes. "You'd cram in ten minutes, twenty minutes of study -- going out to act, then being led by the ear back to school," Taylor remembered, so she had no real education, and seemed averse most of her life to taking any kind of instruction. She did learn one thing: when Louis B. Mayer, the tyrant of MGM, yelled at her mother, and Taylor yelled back, "Don't you dare speak to my mother like that. You and your studio can both go to hell," nothing happened. The world didn't collapse, Elizabeth wasn't fired or destroyed. It was an early lesson in the scope of her power.


A serious and diminutive girl who could convincingly turn a British accent, she was best performing with dogs and horses -- animals adored her -- and so naive that her fellow actors pitied her. She was too famous to date quietly, and too carefully watched by mother and studio to have fun; her first kiss was discussed at length in the press. MGM was Big Brother. "The studio would not tolerate unladylike behavior, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no cleavage," remembered her fellow actress, Kathryn Grayson. At 18, having been directed and ordered around her whole life, Taylor married hotel heir Nicky Hilton. "I was no more grown up than a little animal," she said later. After the brief, disastrous marriage, a disillusioned Taylor embarked on a prolonged rebellion, payback for the years of being good.




She had a compelling presence onscreen, and a quality of concentration in her best roles that was mesmerizing. She did her own makeup and always knew her lines, but she was chronically, pathologically late for everything. "I never saw her be unkind, be untruthful, or be on time," said Mike Nichols, who directed her in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She was tough on herself and honest about her work -- there were movies she'd been in that she wouldn't bother to watch, unless she happened upon them on late night television. And then she couldn't bear more than a few minutes. She detested the script of Butterfield 8, the last movie extorted from her before MGM would release her to make a million dollars filming Cleopatra; she gave the role a perfunctory gloss, and her Oscar for playing a sex-ruined party girl was a sentimental one, as she, and everyone, knew. She had been swinging spectacularly in the public eye, winning sympathy when she lost her third husband, Michael Todd, in a plane crash thirteen months after their wedding and six months after the birth of their daughter, and then being reviled for promptly stealing his best friend, Eddie Fisher, from Debbie Reynolds ("What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?" she unfortunately asked gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper.) Then she nearly died of viral pneumonia. She had died, apparently, but an emergency tracheotomy revived her, then she relapsed, then she recovered. She was a one-woman soap opera, finally winning sympathy and the best actress award. As for Cleopatra, which took five years to make, she threw up after the screening.


Andy Warhol, who disco-crawled with Taylor and made one of his famous silkscreens of her image, was also tough on her. "She can act but isn't a first-rate actress. She has energy, and her money shot is the close-up, the camera in her face. Her coloring -- the violet eyes, dark hair, and flawless skin -- is what made her. That's what people pay to see."


They got more than that in her best work, in National Velvet, Giant, Father of the Bride, Raintree County, Suddenly, Last Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Place in the Sun, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but her movies have had to compete with her life, and her life is one of the alluring stories of the last century. "The last in a line of great Hollywood stellars," Warhol concluded, "not in her profession, necessarily, but at playing herself." But Truman Capote was more generous: "She's one of the most misunderstood and underestimated people of our time."




She explained it simply to Richard Burton on one of the many occasions they were mobbed: "Because they're sex maniacs, and we're sinners and freaks."


She married seven men. Nicky Hilton beat her. Michael Wilding was emasculated by her. Michael Todd beat her. Eddie Fisher was emasculated by her. Richard Burton beat her. John Warner used her. Larry Fortensky was emasculated by her. They seemed otherwise to be completely random choices. (For the record, she beat most of the husbands who beat her. Rex Harrison remembers the delays during the filming of Cleopatra because she and Burton kept giving each other black eyes.) The men she dated but didn't marry included Malcolm Forbes, the gay S&M loving publisher; Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi arms dealer; an Iranian ambassador; her dentist; a used-car dealer; a Mexican lawyer; Carl Bernstein; George Hamilton; and Bob Dylan. 


"I genuinely do not believe in divorce," she wrote in her 1964 book, Elizabeth Taylor. "I know that must sound pretty funny, coming from me…" She wrote that at the peak of her career and possibly the peak of her personal happiness. She and Burton had weathered the rough years when they broke up their earlier marriages, and had married each other. Though they drank and fought, they were also together, a family with her two sons by Michael Wilding, Michael and Christopher, and her daughter Liza Todd and adopted daughter Maria, and their menagerie of animals. They had just wrapped Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Taylor didn't need a critic or an audience to tell her she was good. Still a beauty, she had worn padding and thrown herself into disheveled, drunken tantrums, snarling such lines as "I'm loud and I'm vulgar and I wear the pants in the family because somebody has to, but I'm not a monster!" Overlaid on the performance, for which Taylor won a deserved best acting Oscar, was a frisson of titillation. Just as their screen affair in Cleopatra had been played against their affair offscreen, their onscreen fights in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seemed charged by their reputation as real-life sluggers. 


Her account of the beginning of her attraction to Burton is searing in retrospect: "I've never seen a gentleman so hung over in my whole life. He was kind of quivering from head to foot and there were grog blossoms -- you know, from booze -- all over his face. He ordered a cup of coffee to sort of still his trembling fits and I had to help it to his mouth, and that just endeared him so to me." Not long afterward, she and husband Eddie Fisher went out with Burton and his wife Sybil. Fisher disapproved of Taylor's drinking then, and was eager to go home, "So Richard, talking very busily to distract Eddie, kept taking my empty glass and exchanging it with his full one. I thought, I absolutely adore this man."


Six years later, the couple of the century sat for a haunting interview with Sixty Minutes correspondent, Charles Collingwood. Burton, looking bleary, bragged, "We haven't quarreled for 48 hours!" and Taylor turned away with a bitter laugh. "Stick around." When the interviewer asked Taylor, "You think he dominates you?" she looked aghast. "You must be joking! Charles! You've got to be kidding!" She held his gaze and finally bit off, "He sure does." It took three more years for the marriage to dissolve, then remarriage to each other and another divorce, to learn what anyone could have told them.




She was a loyal and loving friend to a number of gay men, Roddy McDowell, Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, Halston, fought for them, saved Clift's life after he crashed his car following a drunken dinner party at her house, used her celebrity to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS research in Hudson's memory, and buried them all. Her costar in Giant, James Dean, died before filming ended. Her costar, Laurence Harvey, died in his forties. Her beloved assistant and friend, Dick Hanley, her beloved press agent and confidante, Chen Sam. Nicky Hilton died, Wilding died, Todd died, Burton died. She survived waves of loss, the great beauty whose face had once been insured for millions of dollars, who welcomed a photographer when she was bald and scarred after brain tumor surgery.


She could stand the awful things that happened to her, but she couldn't stand to relive them in memory. And we run a risk ourselves, looking back, bringing the camera in close to spy the wife of a senator, snorting cocaine in a disco in the eighties while Joan Rivers mocked her on television ("Elizabeth Taylor is so fat, she stands in front of the microwave yelling 'Hurry!'"); or in the nineties, as she sat meekly in a circle at the Betty Ford Clinic, stripped of entourage and privilege, known by her first name for all the wrong reasons; or sitting in the back of a Hollywood movie theater, holding hands with Michael Jackson, both of them, credibly or not, in disguise. Or sitting at home, stroking her little dog, Sugar, waiting for Rod Steiger to pick her up and take her out for hamburger and fries. That's who she was, foolish, wounded, and brave.


And if we pull back just a bit more, we can see the woman maybe none of us should judge. For instance, 1958, lying in bed with a spiking fever, she missed the plane that crashed into a mountain and killed her husband, Mike Todd. In shock, she flew to Chicago for his funeral. "There were, the police estimated, over ten thousand people in the cemetery," she recalled. "Now this was in March -- a howling Chicago March. And they were sitting on tombstones with blankets spread out. I remember seeing bags of potato chips in the wind. And empty Coca-Cola bottles. And children crawling over tombstones. And as the car pulled up, they all broke away from their picnic lunches, came screaming like black-gray birds to the car -- all squawking and screaming and yelling in our ears as if it were some kind of premiere. Fortunately, there was a tent over the actual grave. But all during the ceremony the people outside were yelling, 'Liz, Liz. Come on out, Liz. Let's have a look…' And then the crowd broke loose-- the police couldn't hold them back -- and rushed at me…They started tearing the veil from my hat for souvenirs…."


This was how she was loved. The crowds wouldn't hate her again for months.




© Marilyn Johnson, 2011; photo in the public domain