Elizabeth Taylor, Hollywood's First Superstar
Long before Paris discovered purse dogs and Angelina knew how to break up a celebrity marriage, Liz had done it all—and then some. Jacob Bernstein looks at her larger-than-life appetites, and why we loved her for them. Plus, full coverage of Elizabeth Taylor.
If Elizabeth Taylor’s death Wednesday resonated in a way that the passing of most 79 year olds does not, that is partly because she was, in a certain way, the first superstar of the modern era.
She had paparazzi trailing her around the world before they were even called paparazzi. She did endorsement deals with perfume companies long before people began referring to themselves as brands. She was a proud gay icon when being gay was still the love that dared not speak its name. She even battled alcoholism and drug addiction with a flair that puts Lindsay Lohan to shame.
Paris Hilton and her ill-mannered purse dogs? She’s got nothing on La Liz, whose horribly behaved Malteses went everywhere with their mistress, including all over $20,000 rugs. During a film shoot in London, Taylor even rented a yacht for the pooches and parked it on the Thames when the British government declined to allow the dogs to come into the country because of quarantine laws.
J Lo and her love of bling? She’s positively tame compared to Taylor, who shopped all day long, including right through interviews with reporters, snapping up goodies like $2,500 lighters and a $29,000 shell purse, back in the early ‘60s. Think about the mark-up today!
I actually met Elizabeth Taylor when I was a kid in the early ‘80s because she was a friend of my father’s. The introduction to ET: the Supra-terrestrial took place in a hotel room, probably the Plaza, and all that I really remember (I was 5 or 6) was that she spent virtually the entire time in front of a mirror having her hair and makeup done. Also, she had longer nails than any woman I’d ever met. And there was definitely at least one frouffy dog in attendance. Afterward, my father took me home to my mother; when she asked me what we’d done, I said that Dad had taken us to meet a woman who looked like a white Tina Turner.
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Which she did.
She was also completely fabulous.
“The shock of Elizabeth was not only her beauty; it was her generosity,” Mike Nichols says in an email. “Her giant laugh, her vitality, whether tackling a complex scene on film or where we would all have dinner until dawn. She is singular and indelible on film and in our hearts.”
“I think she actually married anybody she slept with,” says Sandy Gallin, Michael Jackson’s former manager and a friend of Taylor’s for many years. “If she went all the way then she married them.”
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• Full coverage of ELizabeth Taylor Liz Smith, who spent the ‘60s and ‘70s chronicling Taylor, and became a fairly good friend, says, “Since Katherine Hepburn died, I can’t think of anybody comparable. She also was a person whose private life was more interesting than her career. You can’t get married all those times and not have it make an impact.”
Indeed, at a certain point, Taylor’s characters on screen came to mimic what the public knew about her personally, much like Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston’s do today. (Though it is hard to imagine Aniston winning an Oscar, as Taylor did twice.)
In 1966, Taylor and Burton starred in Nichols’ film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, playing a larger-than life, married couple whose bickering turns to warfare. “ Virginia Woolf was sort of a reflection of their life.” Smith says. “They did nothing but fight and quarrel in order to make up. And had Burton lived longer I think she would have married him again.” (As it is, they made it down the aisle twice. In the ‘80s, after their second divorce, the ex-couple reunited on Broadway playing another sparring couple.)
Thankfully, Taylor had a pretty good sense of humor about it all. Asked at one point why she got married so many times, she smiled and said, “Beats the hell out of me.”
Her friends have some ideas of what may have been going on. “I think she actually married anybody she slept with,” says Sandy Gallin, the former manager of Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton, and a friend of Taylor’s for many years. “If she went all the way then she married them. Way before I ever met her, she could have slept with anybody she wanted to, and I never heard when she was in her teens and twenties that she was sleeping around. She was always married. She got divorced, she got married. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out she slept with 10 people in her entire life.”
“She was conventional,” seconds Smith—who goes on to note that in other areas of her life, Taylor was much more self-aware. For example, Smith says, Princess Margaret once told Taylor that her Krupp diamond ring (purchased for $305,000, a record at the time) was beyond vulgar. “And Liz made her try it on and said ‘See, not so vulgar now is it?’ One night we went to Maxim’s in Paris for a promotion she was doing, and she arrived in all these white feathers. I said ‘You look great.’ She said, ‘No, I look like a chicken.’ She knew how to make fun of herself.”
Taylor was also an expert in the art of playing the press. “She was always pleasant,” says Ron Galella, who today is recognized as the godfather of the paparazzi. “I never saw her angry, although she was always late, late for press conferences, late for everything. She was like a queen.”
Even her friends bore the brunt of her tardiness. “She had an Easter lunch every year,” remembers Gallin. “The last year I went, I was talking with Bob Daly and I said ‘What time is it called for?’ I think he said ‘12 p.m.’ I said, ‘All right. Why don’t we meet there at 4:30 because you know she still won’t be down by then.” And she wasn’t. “I think she showed up around 6:30,” Gallin says. He even thinks he remembers her being fairly late to her own wedding to Larry Fortensky.
If Gallin and others put up with it, it’s partly because Taylor was so warm, so wry, so generous, the kind of person who would do anything, whether it was for AIDS or simply, a friend in need.
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At one point, during the height of Michael Jackson’s fame, Gallin says, Taylor even hatched a successful plot to fly her friend to rehab in London without getting caught by the press. (Taylor had had her own battles with addiction, and was one of the first big-name celebrities to be treated at the Betty Ford Center in the early 1980s). “Michael was on drugs,” Gallin says. “The doctor called me and said ‘either he is going to kill himself by flying out a window or the drugs are going to kill him. He has got to get to rehab.’ I called Elizabeth and she planned and engineered how to get him out of Mexico to London, into a rehab. She did this thing where she would have someone wear her fur coat and some big wig and have someone else wearing his jacket. She was on the phone with me for three or four days coming up with one brilliant idea after the other. She’d been in bed with a bad back, she was in a lot of pain, and she forgot about it, and went to save his life.”
Where Jackson was concerned, there was clearly a major bond, partly forged through the shared experience of having been world-famous practically from the time each crawled out of the womb—and having suffered for it. Taylor rose to fame with her role in National Velvet and Jackson for his work with the Jackson Five. “His death was a devastating loss,” says Carole Bayer Sager, the songwriter and close friend of Taylor’s over the last three decades. “They shared that bond of being stars at such a young age, not having a childhood.”
She also shared with Jackson an unrelenting penchant for spending money, and a childlike ability to manipulate people and get exactly what she wanted from them. Smith recalls finding Taylor with a swanky new piece of jewelry right after the shooting of The Sandpiper. “She was talking about the producer, Marty Ransohoff, and she said ‘I really don’t like him, I just forced him to buy it for me. I said, ‘How much did it cost.’ She said, ‘Only $25,000.’”
“She loved getting presents,” confirms Gallin. “I mean, expensive presents. And she was not shy about asking for them. She was fairly famous for it when she was young, but it continued past that. ‘Oh I love that ring,’ she would say.” She also knew when to return the favor. “She gave me a very expensive watch for my birthday or Christmas. I was shocked,” Gallin says. Bayer Sager remembers Taylor handing over a pair of diamond earrings as if it was nothing.
Taylor’s appetites were larger than life. The wedding to Fortensky at Neverland Ranch. The 60th birthday party at Disneyland. And, of course, her love of anything her doctors told her she should only eat in moderation: chili from Chasen’s restaurant, ice cream sundaes, giant steaks, stacks of pancakes, fried eggs, hamburgers, pound cakes. Taylor made them all and ate them all. “Is Elizabeth Taylor fat?” Joan Rivers once said. “Her favorite food is seconds.”
“I fixed her up once with Neil Simon,” Bayer Sager says. “It was something of a blind date, we went out the four of us, I was married to Burt [Bacharach], she couldn’t decide what to eat, she just kept saying ‘I love everything on the menu.’ Finally, when the waiter came, Neil Simon said, 'Elizabeth Taylor will have the entire right hand side of the menu.' And the sad thing about the last two years was that I watched her lose her appetite. She was very tiny and thin at the end of her life. She just wasn’t Elizabeth in the way I’d experienced Elizabeth.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.