BOOK REVIEW / Diamonds are a girl's best friend

ELIZABETH TAYLOR Donald Spoto Little, Brown £17.50

A book of numbers, this: nine marriages, four children, nearly 50 films, two Academy Awards, two spells at Betty Ford, one suicide attempt, 30 operations, and between 1947 and 1994 no fewer than 73 injuries, illnesses or accidents. Don't bother trying to count the diamonds, or the drugs, or the Jack Daniels. At 63 Elizabeth Taylor has, it's fair to say, lived a little. Donald Spoto tots up the damage and comes out fighting for "Elizabeth" ("nobody", apart from the rest of the word, calls her Liz), a great screen actress, a loyal friend, a tireless campaigner for Aids awareness, A Good Person - and, quite clearly, her own worst enemy.

Growing up, writes Spoto, has been her life's work. Having made her stage debut at four and signed with MGM at 11, Taylor's childhood vanished before she had a chance to live it. Constricted by a relentlessly ambitious mother and a studio that neglected anything like a proper education, Taylor had no experience or ordinary companionship or peer interest. "The fact is that I stopped being a child the moment I started working in pictures", she said, a sure recipe for loneliness which Spoto regards as a clue to her rapport with Michael Jackson, another star who missed out - calamitously, as it now seems - on childhood. Taylor has said of Jackson, "he's the least weird man I've ever known", a remark which reflects a great deal more on her than it does on him. Whisked through a sequence of teen pictures, during which she co-starred with a dog (Lassie Come Home) and a horse (National Velvet), Taylor made her mark at 18 in Minnelli's Father of the Bride (1950) and then with Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951). Her friendship with Clift, and later with James Dean and Rock Hudson, testified to her sympathy with the industry's troubled outsiders, troubled because they were gay in a virulently homophobic town (then, as now, Taylor had no fear of associating with, or employing, homosexual men).

Indeed, it was her taste in heterosexual men that created problems. Her first husband, Nicky Hilton, was a gambler, a drinker and, it later emerged, a wife-beater. "He'll make a very nice first husband", said one canny studio executive, with more foresight than he could have known. Marriage to the actor Michael Wilding also failed, though two children came of it. Her third husband, the bullish producer Mike Todd, died in a plane crash, to be swiftly - and disastrously - replaced by Todd's protg and shadow, Eddie Fisher. As the Fifties wore on she was continuously wasted in limp genre pictures, but in 1960 she triumphed with her first Oscar, for Butterfield 8. The Sixties was definitively Taylor's decade, the era when she was established as one of America's "royals". Nowhere was the excess and melodrama of the time more perfectly caught than in Cleopatra - prior to filming she almost died from viral pneumonia while staying at the Dorchester in 1961, and a variety of other delays meant that the film was a financial catastrophe before the cameras had even rolled. It was a sartorial catastrophe for Taylor once they did - as a friend of mine unimprovably put it, "The hats she barged in, like refurbished thrones/ Bumped on the doorways".

The film was significant, however, for uniting Taylor with Richard Burton. His first reaction to her was unexpected, not to say ungallant: "She's a pretty girl, of course . . . but she has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest and she's rather short in the leg". By the end of Cleopatra he had graciously overlooked these flaws, and one of the great double-acts of the decade was off and running. Whatever it produced on screen - and she won another Oscar in 1966 for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - was more or less eclipsed by the breathtaking parade of vulgarity and ostentation the Burtons enjoyed off it. Taylor had long indulged a taste for trinkets - Cartier, Tiffany, Piaget - but it didn't compare with the spending she and Burton did in the Sixties. They bought yachts, jets, a fleet of Rolls-Royces, their nouvelle richesse eventually provoking the New York Times to run a sniffy editorial. "I know I'm vulgar", Taylor responded, "but would you have me any other way?" Spoto reckons the couple earned more than $88 million over the decade, and spent over $65 million. In between they made some terrible films.

By the end of the next decade Taylor was pictured, dumpy and frumpy, on the cover of Hollywood Babylon. What happened? Oh, booze, drugs, divorce, over-eating, frequent illness - the usual suspects. Spoto details the decline with something between candour and compassion. Yet even he can't gloss the terrifying nose-dive her acting took in the Seventies and Eighties. The wonder is she survived at all. Burton, whom she seemed to match drink for drink, died in 1984, at the age of 58. Taylor was luckier, and, despite her fragile health, has managed to come back more than once from the ravages of addiction. Nowadays, she spends her time on charity work for Aids and million-dollar perfume deals. From the evidence of the jacket photograph, the regal glitter is restored, though no longer on screen: who would have thought we'd end up missing it?

Anthony Quinn

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London