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03.23.11

Where I Found Elizabeth Taylor's Diamond Earring

As Hollywood mourns Elizabeth Taylor, Sandra McElwaine remembers the star on the campaign trail for husband John Warner in Virginia—and the day a diamond and sapphire chandelier earring needed to be retrieved from her amazing decolletage.

As Hollywood mourns Elizabeth Taylor, Sandra McElwaine remembers the star on the campaign trail for husband John Warner in Virginia—and the day a diamond and sapphire chandelier earring needed to be retrieved from her amazing decolletage. Plus, full coverage of Elizabeth Taylor.

Elizabeth Taylor was earthy, bawdy, obstinate, flirtatious, potty-mouthed, irreverent, capricious, witty, wily, cunning, sophisticated yet kittenish, and sometimes melodramatic, but most of all she was wildly entertaining and a lot of fun.

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I can testify to all of the above because I spent quite a bit of time with her when she crisscrossed Virginia to campaign with husband No. 7, John Warner, on his quest for a U.S. Senate seat in 1976. I was along as an observer to write a cover story on the iconic actress and her gentleman farmer spouse for Ladies’ Home Journal, but with Elizabeth— no one ever called her Liz—you were quickly drawn into her life, and my journey turned out to be a unique experience.

We first met at her Georgetown mansion, filled with stunning Impressionist art: Renoir, Picasso, Degas. Some, she explained, she had inherited from her art dealer father, others she had carefully collected over the years.

She was surprisingly open, honest, and hopeful about the future, telling me she was tired of ricocheting around the globe, ready to play the happy hausfrau, to settle down with a handsome, solid man with a seemingly uncomplicated, bucolic lifestyle. (She kept talking about his “gorgeous” farm near Warrenton, Virginia.)

Our next encounter was a campaign stop in the back woods of Virginia, where Elizabeth’s political savvy and star power mesmerized the throngs who stood for hours waiting to meet her. There was no doubt it was her fame that brought out these crowds and elected her husband to the Senate.

There were many “I can’t believe this” moments on that trip, but one stands out. It was late at night in a tiny rural airport. The dazzling duo had wowed an assortment of donors at few fundraisers and were waiting for a private plane to ferry us back to Washington. Taylor, who was pretty zaftig at that point, was dressed in flowing chiffon. Her plunging neckline was festooned with ropes of diamonds, and on her ears were a pair of mammoth diamond and sapphire chandelier earrings. Suddenly one of them disappeared into her amazing decolletage. She shifted around and tried to retrieve it, and then thrust out her ample bosom and said to her spouse, “John, you try.”

He declined, saying, “Go to the ladies’ room with Sandra and let her do it.”

Elizabeth grabbed my arm. “C’mon,” she said, steering me toward the loo.

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Once there, she started to giggle. I wasn’t quite sure where to look or thrust my hand. “You’ve got to do this,” she ordered as she leaned forward and I began fishing around in her world famous cleavage. Finally I located and extracted the missing bauble, and with a triumphant whoop Elizabeth led me back into the waiting room.

“Sandra did it!” she announced, patting me on the back. It was an unparalleled and unforgettable achievement.

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Sandra McElwaine is a Washington Correspondent for The Daily Beast. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She has also written for The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.