03.24.11

Elizabeth Taylor's Greatest Gift

Harry Benson photographed Elizabeth Taylor throughout her career, from the ‘60s on the set of Cleopatra, to her brain surgery in 1997. The celebrity photographer recalls her humor and grace. Plus, full coverage of Elizabeth Taylor.

The first time I photographed Elizabeth Taylor was at Pinewood Studios in London on the set of Cleopatra in 1960. How could the producers have thought of making a Roman epic in London in February? Elizabeth caught pneumonia and was rushed to London Clinic. She was in and out of the Clinic and it was serious.

Photos: Elizabeth Taylor’s Life

They finally moved the production to Rome where basically all hell broke loose. Rumors began that Elizabeth was having an affair with her co-star Richard Burton. Then the Pope got involved, saying how disgraceful it was to flaunt their affair in the Holy City. When the Pope got involved it became a major news story. Did Elizabeth and Richard care? Not one bit.

One night they even went out photographer hunting, going to the cafes on the Via Veneto. It was fun. Since then I have photographed Elizabeth many times over the years and it was always fun. Her lively personality was a surprising contrast to her angelic beauty.

Flash forward to 1997. I got a call from an editor at Life magazine to say Elizabeth was going into hospital in literally three or four days for an operation to remove a brain tumor. Thinking what the hell it's worth a try, I called her publicist at the time to ask if I could photograph Elizabeth before and after her surgery. The reply was a shocked, "How could you ask such a thing." I said, "Do yourself a favor and ask Elizabeth because I know she marches to her own drummer."

Within an hour word came back that I could photograph her before, during and after the operation. I declined the middle offer and flew to Los Angeles. She was a good sport when we met in hospital the day before the operation. Then I went to my hotel to wait. It wasn't more than a day after surgery that I got a call to come to Cedars Sinai Hospital. When I walked into her room, a nurse was sitting in the corner and Elizabeth was propped up in bed with her dog in her arms.

Her head was completely shaved. There was a scar that stretched across the top of her head that looked quite like the stitching on the top of a football. Elizabeth asked me what she looked like and I said she looked fine. She said, "Come on, Harry, what do I look like." And I answered, "Sinead O'Connor." She let out a howl and roared with laughter. She told me to come closer as she wanted to show me something and asked if I could see any scars behind her ears. When I couldn't she told me it proved she hadn't had a face lift. She was pleased as she said people had been accusing her of having had a face lift for years, but no scars proved she had not.

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Elizabeth Taylor in the hospital in 1997. (Photo: Harry Benson)

Elizabeth was probably the greatest gift a photographer could ask for. You always left smiling with a good photograph after being with her. She enjoyed life and it showed. A star before Jackie and before Princess Di, there was no one like her. No one comes close. And that to me is a pretty good legacy.