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03.24.11

I Sat on Elizabeth Taylor's Knee

How did Elizabeth Taylor interact with kids? John Barry recounts his youthful interactions with the famed actress—from her transfixing blue eyes to her questions about homework. Plus, Elizabeth Taylor on growing up in the spotlight and more coverage of her death.

I knew Liz Taylor. Well, that’s pitching it a tad high. But I did once sit on her knee. OK, I was twelve-or-so at the time—and a couple of hundred pounds slighter than I am now. But how many late-middle-aged males can claim that?

We lived at the time in London, in the winding garret apartment of a red-brick Edwardian block in Mayfair. A motley crew occupied the apartments below ours: an Irish peer of no clear occupation; an emigre Russian impresario who was the first to bring the Red Army Choir and other Soviet ensembles to the West; and Ernie’s family.

Ernie was a longtime Hollywood fixer. He knew everybody. Homework over, I used to sneak down to his family’s apartment most evenings. I was madly in love with one of his two beautiful daughters. Besides, you never knew who was going to turn up. Burl Ives one night. Three or four of The Platters another night.

Ernie’s biggest job was as publicist and general factotum for Mike Todd, the larger-than-life showman of that era, who—after multiple bankruptcies—struck gold with Cinerama and Todd-AO, Hollywood’s early ventures into wide-screen projection. (Remember Oklamoma and Around the World in 80 Days?) Through Todd, Ernie had become acquainted with Elizabeth Taylor. Official records say that Taylor married Todd in 1957. All I know is that Ernie spoke of them as a couple for some years before that. The relationship was close enough that Ms Taylor had become a sort-of-godmother to Ernie’s two daughters.

I suppose Hollywood stars must consent to be godparents to a lot of the children of their staffs. Most, I imagine, think no more of it. But Liz Taylor didn’t forget Ernie’s daughters. Whenever she was in London—staying always at the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane—she would make time to see them.

Photos: Elizabeth Taylor’s Life

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Elizabeth Taylor died in Los Angeles Wednesday at 79. (Terry O'Neill / Getty Images)

We were on the floor, playing Scrabble, when she arrived that evening, bearing a giant panda doll as a present for the girls. Hugs and kisses over, she turned to me. “So tell me about yourself,” she said, patting the sofa. I sat down gingerly some way away. “Oh, we can’t get to know each other like that,” she said, and patted her knee. So I sat on it.

I have not the least recollection what we talked about. Nor had I then seen any of her movies. All I recall is that she was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Those who talk of her magical eyes are right. I saw them close-up. No, they weren’t violet; they were a deep transfixing blue.

Ernie’s wife Margery came in to announce food. Margery, with unruffled New Orleans charm, took it as a matter of course that everyone who turned up would need feeding. So we sat around the big table in their kitchen. I’d hoped for stories from Hollywood. But Liz Taylor wanted to know how the girls were doing. What were they studying ? How were their latest exam results ? What subjects did they like ? And she remembered what they’d said on her previous visit a year or so before. For that evening, she wasn’t the Hollywood star. She was the sort-of-godmother concerned to catch up with her kids, and clearly genuinely interested in them.

Liz Taylor came around once more, perhaps twice, on that visit. Memory blurs. Each time, the two girls—their news, their hopes—were her focus. As I watched her, she didn’t become any less stupefying beautiful. But she did become human.

Ernie, the father, was away through this. He was away a lot. When he returned—bearing, I recall, uncut emeralds for the girls from some location shoot he’d been on in Mexico—I told him how nice Elizabeth Taylor had been. “Yeah, she loves the girls,” he said. “She’s always wanted a real family. Shame she’s always been too busy to have one.”

John Barry joined Newsweek's Washington bureau as national security correspondent in July 1985. He has reported extensively on American intervention in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Somalia and efforts for peace in the Middle East. In 2002, he co-wrote "The War Crimes of Afghanistan" (8/26/02 cover) which won a National Headliner Award and was a finalist in the ASME National Magazine Awards for public service and a finalist in the SPJ Deadline Club Award for investigative reporting.