A tribute to Elizabeth Taylor
The fascinating life of Hollywood's last superstar
Sunday 27 March 2011
Quote of the week
'I am so sorry to hear that this great legend has passed. I admired and respected her not only as an actress, but for her amazing and inspiring work as an Aids activist. She was one of a kind.'
Stat of the week
69.42 carats The size of the pear-shaped Taylor-Burton Diamond, one of many extravagant gifts from Richard Burton that also included the 33.19-carat Krupp Diamond and the 50-carat La Peregrina Pearl, once owned by Mary Tudor (1496-1533). Who says the best things in life are free?
A star is born...
She was born Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor on 27 February 1932 in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, the daughter of Francis Lenn Taylor, a well-connected American art dealer, and his wife, Sara Sothern, a former theatre actress.
Her mother later wrote of her birth: "As the precious bundle was placed in my arms, my heart stood still. There inside the cashmere shawl was the funniest-looking baby I had ever seen! Her hair was long and black. Her ears were covered with thick black fuzz ... and her tiny face was so tightly closed it looked as if it would never unfold."
Don't call me Liz...
According to her biographer J Randy Taraborrelli, she hated being called "Liz" all her life – ever since her older brother Howard teased her as a little girl by calling her "Lizzie the Lizard"
Much would later be made by studio publicity departments of the ballet lessons taken by four-year-old Elizabeth at the Vacani school in Knightsbridge. Contrary to legend, she never shared a barre with the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Although the regal tots were receiving tuition from the school, they took their lessons at Buckingham Palace.
With the threat of war imminent, the family reluctantly left London in 1939, sailing for New York aboard the SS Manhattan. At the liner's cinema, seven-year-old Elizabeth watched The Little Princess with Shirley Temple, declaring afterwards to her mother: "I think I might want to be a movie star!"
A lovely place...
The family settled in California, where her father opened an art gallery attached to the Beverly Hills Hotel, already a glamorous haunt of the rich and famous – and later to be immortalised on the cover of the Eagles' Hotel California. What better place for a megastar to grow up?
Lights, camera, action...
While Elizabeth took intensive singing, dancing and even riding classes, her mother networked enthusiastically on her behalf – a tactic that paid off when the child was contracted for $100 a week to Universal Studios in April 1941. "But I want to be with MGM!" protested the precocious nine-year-old. She eventually got her way two years later, trebling her wages to join MGM – the home of Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Judy Garland.
The big breakthrough was as the 12-year-old horse botherer Velvet Brown in National Velvet – a box-office smash that established Elizabeth as one of Hollywood's leading child stars. But success came at a price: a fall from her horse led to her lifelong back problems.
For better or worse...
Her first marriage – to the violent, alcoholic hotel heir Nicky Hilton – lasted just seven months. Despite her husband's vast wealth, Elizabeth did not ask for alimony; she is reported to have dismissed the idea, saying, "I don't need a prize for failing."
A friend in need...
Elizabeth would eventually notch up seven husbands and eight marriages (see box, below) but the one who got away was Montgomery Clift, her brooding, handsome but undeniably gay co-star in A Place in the Sun. Clift was horribly disfigured in a car crash in 1956, and Elizabeth was one of the first on the scene, fighting off the paparazzi – "You sons of bitches!" – who were trying to photograph her stricken friend.
Third time unlucky...
Things went tragically wrong again in 1958, when her third husband, Mike Todd, the charismatic producer of Oklahoma!, was killed in his private plane, The Lucky Liz, en route to New York; Elizabeth had been due to accompany him but was unwell.
Eddie and Oscar...
Todd's best friend, the singer Eddie Fisher, became husband number four in 1959. Their affair began while Eddie was still hitched to Debbie Reynolds (the mother of his daughter Carrie, later Princess Leia in Star Wars). It wouldn't be the last time that Taylor would scandalise middle America – but the critical success she craved came in 1961 with her first Academy Award, for her role opposite Fisher in Butterfield 8.
Cleopatra carry on...
Taylor became the highest paid actress in history when she agreed a fee of $1m to star as Cleopatra. Perhaps more importantly, she fell in love with the man she would marry twice: her co-star Richard Burton. Burton's pick-up line was "Has anyone ever told you that you're a very pretty girl?" Taylor recalled, "I said to myself, Oy gevalt, here's the great lover, the great wit, the great intellectual of Wales, and he comes out with a line like that!"
For 12 years Taylor and Burton held court as Hollywood's golden couple. They appeared in six films together, most successfully in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which Taylor won her second Oscar in 1966. It was said that half the American film industry's income came from their movies. They were as well known for their lifestyle as for their films: the yachts, the parties, the private jets and in particular the jewellery would define an era of excess.
Living on a prayer...
The 1960s took their toll on Taylor and Burton. By the end of the decade both were struggling with alcoholism, and their marriage was falling apart. In a statement to the press in 1973, Taylor made a heartfelt plea: "Pray for us." The next year she and Burton divorced. Chaos and confusion ruled Taylor's life. In 1975, she and Burton remarried, but less than a year later, the couple had separated again.
Taylor found solace in the arms of Republican politician and former soldier John Warner, who became her sixth husband in 1976. But she found herself living alone on his Virginia estate, bored to tears, while her husband was busy in Washington. The film roles were beginning to dry up, and she began to eat and drink to excess, as well as taking heavy doses of painkillers. She and Warner were divorced in 1982. After an intervention by her children, her brother and her doctor, she was admitted to the Betty Ford Clinic in 1983.
Elizabeth walked out of the clinic the next year a different woman. More heartache lay in store, with the death of Richard Burton in 1984. A stream of unsuccessful TV movies did little to revive her career, but she had regained her confidence, and was about to embark on a new mission.
Liz the hero...
For most of the the1980s, HIV/AIDS was a little talked about, little understood illness. But Elizabeth had known many beloved colleagues – including Rock Hudson, her co-star in Giant – succumb to the disease and was determined to break the wall of prejudice that prevented positive action to fight it. In 1985 she began her long-runnning campaign with a charity dinner party that raised a million dollars, and received the support of President Reagan. In 1993 she founded the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation which raised millions in support of Aids sufferers.
Grand old lady...
By now Elizabeth had become a bona fide living legend. She was well known for high-profile friendships with the likes of Michael Jackson, who lent her his Neverland ranch for her eighth and final wedding, to construction worker Larry Fortensky in 1991. She continued to act on the stage and screen, and even appeared in an episode of The Simpsons. Her last movie role was a cameo appearance in the 1994 film The Flintstones.
Nothing like a Dame...
In 2000 Elizabeth flew to London to be dubbed Dame Elizabeth Taylor at Buckingham Palace: Michael Jackson accompanied her to the ceremony. "Today doesn't compare to anything else that's happened in my life," she said. She continued to contribute to charitable causes until her death, with her four children at her side, on Wednesday.
For further reading, see Elizabeth by J Randy Taraborrelli (Pan, £8.99)
Those husbands in full
1. Conrad "Nicky" Hilton, socialite and heir to the Hilton Hotel fortune, 1950-1951 (divorced).
2. Michael Wilding, English actor who was 20 years Elizabeth's senior, 1952-1957 (divorced).
3. Michael Todd, flamboyant theatre and film producer, 1957-1958 (died).
4. Eddie Fisher, singer and entertainer, 1959-1964 (divorced).
5 & 6. Richard Burton, actor and co-star in Cleopatra and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1964-1974, 1975-1976 (divorced twice).
7. John Warner, Republican politician and US Senator, 1976-1982 (divorced).
8. Larry Fortensky, construction worker whom she met at the Betty Ford Clinic, 1991-1996 (divorced).
Liz and Shirley: How they're related...
It could have been so different if Liz hadn't got the role in National Velvet. She almost lost the part to amateur thesp Baroness Williams. After that, their careers diverged...
Actress. Born: 1932. Biggest role: Cleopatra. Politics: Married a Republican Senator, HIV/Aids campaigner, didn't attend 75th Academy Awards due to Iraq war.
Most effective partnership: With Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Likes: Diamonds, Michael Jackson. Dislikes: Gossip. Critics say: "She and the picture are wonderful, and I hardly know or care whether she can act or not." (James Agee, on The Nation)
Politician. Born: 1930.
Biggest role: Cordelia in King Lear for the Oxford Drama Society.
Politics: Former MP and Secretary of State, co-founder of SDP, leader of Lib Dems in the Lords.
Most effective partnership: With Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers, as the Gang of Four. Likes: The NHS. Dislikes: Andrew Lansley.
Critics say: "Her Cordelia had the same uncompromising firmness that she shows as a politician." (Norman Painting)
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