Taylor, Elizabeth (1932—)
Taylor, Elizabeth (1932—)
Academy Award-winning American actress who remains a respected and much-loved celebrity around the world, particularly after raising millions of dollars for AIDS research by lending her name and presence to fundraising events. Born on February 27, 1932, in London to American parents; daughter of Francis Taylor (an art dealer) and Sara (Warmbrodt) Taylor (who officially changed her name to Sara Sothern when she began acting in stock companies); married Conrad "Nicky" Hilton, Jr. (a hotelier), in 1950 (divorced 1951); married Michael Wilding (an actor), in 1952 (divorced 1957); married Michael Todd (a producer), in 1957 (died 1958); married Eddie Fisher (a singer), in 1959 (divorced 1964); married Richard Burton (an actor), in 1964 and 1975 (divorced 1973 and 1976); married John Warner (a senator), in 1976 (divorced 1982); married Larry Fortensky (a construction worker), in 1991 (divorced 1996); children: (second marriage) Michael Wilding, Jr. (b. 1953); Christopher Wilding (b. 1955); (third marriage) Elizabeth Frances Todd (b. 1957); (fifth marriage) adopted, Maria Burton .
At outbreak of World War II (1939), moved with her parents to Los Angeles; made her screen debut (1942); while under contract to MGM, became as famous for her off-screen life as for her filmed work (1942–62); won her first Academy Award for her performance in Butterfield 8 (1960); won second Academy Award for her work in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966); although later career has been less spectacular and marked by numerous health problems, remains a respected and much-loved celebrity around the world, particularly after raising millions of dollars for AIDS research by lending her name and presence to fundraising events; was the third recipient of the Marian Anderson Award for her work on behalf of AIDS awareness, research, and patient care (2000); was named a Dame of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II (2000).
There's One Born Every Minute (1942); Lassie Come Home (1943); Jane Eyre (1944); The White Cliffs of Dover (1944); National Velvet (1944); Courage of Lassie (1946); Cynthia (1947); Life with Father (1947); A Date with Judy (1948); Julia Misbehaves (1948); Little Women (1949); Conspirator (1950); The Big Hangover (1950); Father of the Bride (1950); (unbilled cameo) Quo Vadis (1951); Father's Little Dividend (1951); A Place in the Sun (1951); Callaway Went Thataway (1951); Love Is Better Than Ever (1952); Ivanhoe (1952); The Girl Who Had Everything (1953); Rhapsody (1954); Elephant Walk (1954); Beau Brummel (1954); The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954); Giant (1956); Raintree County (1957); Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958); Suddenly, Last Summer (1959); (unbilled cameo) Scent of Mystery (1960); Butterfield 8 (1960); Cleopatra (1963); The VIPs (1963); The Sandpiper (1965); Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966); The Taming of the Shrew (1967); Doctor Faustus (1967); Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967); The Comedians(1967); Boom! (1968); Secret Ceremony (1968); The Only Game in Town (1970); Under Milkwood (1971); Zee Zee & Co. (1972); Hammersmith Is Out (1972); Night Watch (1974); Ash Wednesday (1974); That's Entertainment (1974); The Driver's Seat (Identikit, 1974); The Blue Bird (1976); A Little Night Music (1977); Winter Kills (1979); The Mirror Crack'd (1980); (documentary, as narrator) Genocide (1981); Young Toscanini (1988); The Flintstones (1994); The Visit (1999). Television: "These Old Broads," starring Taylor, Joan Collins, Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds , written by Carrie Fisher and Elaine Pope , first aired on ABC in October 2000.
Elizabeth Taylor once ventured the opinion that her extraordinary career as a screen icon and public institution had been born from conflict. "Probably if there hadn't been a World War II," she told an interviewer, "I would have been a debutante … and married someone very secure and staid. I never would have become an actress." But it was the more personal turmoil of her private life that was responsible for her rise to fame as one of the world's most glamorous actresses.
Born in London to comfortably situated American parents on February 27, 1932, Taylor could very well have grown up as the proper young English woman she envisioned, although the luxuriant dark hair and the violet eyes that would become internationally famous were distinctly at odds with the usual pale beauty of English maidens. Neither her father Francis Taylor—an aristocratic art dealer with an equally aristocratic clientele drawn from the upper reaches of British society—nor her mother Sara Taylor envisioned anything but a normal, upper-class childhood for their daughter and their older son Howard, born three years earlier. Taylor grew up in the family's ivy-strewn brick house, Heathwood, in London's genteel Hamp-stead or, later, at their country cottage, Little Swallows, deep in the Kent countryside, where a patient pony named Betty provided Elizabeth with her first riding lessons. Dukes and duchesses, earls and countesses were family friends and provided an atmosphere of calm self-assurance that would serve Taylor well in years to come.
But there was show business in the family blood, for Sara (under the name Sara Sothern) had enjoyed in her younger days a brief reputation as an actress, particularly for her signature portrayal of a paralyzed young girl in a popular melodrama of the 1920s which had played to full houses on both Broadway and in London's West End. She had ended her stage career upon meeting Francis Taylor in New York and marrying him in 1926, but Sara still took a particular interest in the arts and saw to it that her daughter was enrolled in dancing classes at an early age. Thus it was that the duchess of York (now Queen Mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon ) looked on in amusement at a dance recital while four-year-old Elizabeth Taylor flitted around the stage as a butterfly long past the end of her number, obliging her mother to run out from the wings to retrieve her. "It was a marvelous feeling on that stage," Taylor recalled years later. "The isolation, the hugeness, the feeling of space and no end to space—and then the applause bringing you back into focus, and noise rattling against your face."
Her parents chose a discreet private girls' school for the beginning of her formal education, unexpectedly cut short in her second year. Such were Francis Taylor's connections that a highly placed aide to Winston Churchill advised Francis early in 1939 to send his wife and children back to the United States, for war was sure to break out by that summer. While Francis supervised the closing of his London gallery, Sara and the children traveled the 6,000 miles to Pasadena, where Sara's father had settled. The Taylor children were forced to adapt to public grammar schools and quickly lost their British accents (although Taylor was always able to switch back and forth with ease). It was Francis' idea to open a gallery in Hollywood, where the closest thing America had to royalty might be willing to spend their money on fine art. Arriving in Los Angeles six months later, Francis soon found space in the lobby of Hollywood's elegant Chateau Elysee, and a home for his family in Beverly Hills.
During the Atlantic crossing with her mother, Elizabeth had seen her first film, The Little Princess, the film that convinced millions of American mothers that their own daughters could do just as well in the movies as Shirley Temple (Black) . Hollywood was overrun with such hopefuls when the Taylors arrived in town. Sara, with the stage actress' innate suspicion of the film business, carefully kept her daughter away. But with her husband's clients, including actors like Edward G. Robinson and directors like Billy Wilder and George Cukor, it was only a matter of time before the roving eyes of film studios looking for a rival to Shirley Temple settled on the dark-haired little girl with the startling violet eyes. Even gossip queen Hedda Hopper , who mentioned Francis Taylor's gallery and its sparkling clientele in her daily column, couldn't resist also mentioning the Taylors' beautiful little girl. Two years after leaving England, Elizabeth was signed to a standard seven-year contract by Universal in April 1941 and appeared briefly in a non-speaking role in a juvenile comedy called There's One Born Every Minute "firing elastic bands at fat ladies' bottoms," as Taylor remembered it years later. Her budding film career, however, was short-lived. Universal, deciding that she looked too serious and had none of Shirley's natural ebullience on screen, exercised its option to cancel the contract after the first year. "The kid has nothing," one studio director commented. It apparently did not occur to anyone that perhaps it was the material being offered that was to blame. Rival studio MGM, which Universal had beaten to the punch in signing Elizabeth, quickly stepped in with a film that suited her perfectly.
Production had already begun during the summer of 1942 on Lassie Come Home, adapted from Eric Knight's juvenile melodrama about a boy and his collie, when the child actress playing opposite Roddy McDowell developed an unforeseen problem. The intense lighting required to shoot color film in those days made the girl's eyes water terribly and filming had been shut down until a new, dry-eyed Priscilla could be found. Exactly how Taylor was given the role is the stuff of many Hollywood legends. Some say the film's producer, a friend of Francis Taylor's, happened to mention during an evening stroll that he needed a little girl who could handle a British accent; some say it was Francis who had been extolling his daughter's talents since the casting process had begun; some say it was because the wife of the film's director was the sister of Broadway's Edgar Selwyn, who had produced Sara's most famous play 20 years before and remembered his former star well. However it happened, Elizabeth was signed to a "test option"—essentially a freelance contract—at $100 a week for ten weeks, which was $150 less than was being paid to Lassie's trainer.
Although the film's real star (besides Lassie, of course) was 12-year-old Roddy McDowell, like Elizabeth a British expatriate sent to the safety of America during the war, Elizabeth's few scenes did not go unnoticed. The Hollywood Reporter noted that "Elizabeth Taylor looks like a comer," while the ever-watchful Hedda Hopper cooed that "Little Elizabeth Taylor is lovely." More important, Taylor's British-bred self-confidence and unexpected professionalism on the set were much remarked upon by her co-workers. McDowell later remembered that Elizabeth seemed "totally unaware of her beauty." Her mother, as impressed as anyone else, settled on a test of her daughter's talent by having her read the part she herself had played so many years earlier on Broadway. "There sat my daughter playing perfectly the part of the child as I, a grown woman, had tried to do it," she later remembered. "It seemed she must have been in my head all those years I was acting." On the strength of her performance in Lassie Come Home, MGM offered a permanent contract, signed in January 1943, and again cast Taylor in a small part opposite McDowell in the wartime weeper The White Cliffs of Dover. But it was their next film together that would make Elizabeth Taylor a bona fide star.
The highly pitched emotionalism of her portrayal of Velvet Brown in 1944's National Velvet caught everyone unawares, and it was generally credited with keeping Enid Bagnold 's story of a young girl who rides her horse to victory in Britain's Grand National Steeplechase from sinking into tearful melodrama. "Whenever she speaks or thinks of horses," reported the London Daily Telegraph, "her strange azure eyes gleam and her whole frame trembles with the intensity of her passion." Equally intense was Taylor's preparation for the role. Production on the film was delayed for four months while she gained weight to make herself look older and more believable as a girl who disguises herself as a male jockey for the film's climactic race; and the spinal injuries she received in two falls during riding lessons before production began would plague her for the rest of her life. But when the film opened on Christmas Day, 1944, a normally reserved James Agee wrote that he had been "choked with a peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade at primary school." MGM was quick to pick up on the connection the film encouraged in the public's mind between Elizabeth, horses, and animals in general. The collection of 22 chipmunks she tended during the shooting of a Lassie sequel, Courage of Lassie, was widely reported; and the studio publicity department quickly adapted a school essay Taylor had written about her favorite chipmunk into a children's book called Nibbles and Me.
By 1948, however, the nature-girl image was wearing thin. Taylor was now a strikingly beautiful 16 and was widely rumored to be Hollywood's next megastar, about to take her place with the likes of Joan Fontaine , Barbara Stanwyck , and Joan Crawford . On loanout to Warner Bros., Taylor had left her adolescence behind for good by playing the love interest in Life with Father, and had kissed a boy on the cheek for the first time on screen in MGM's own Cynthia. "She was beginning to be conscious in a very normal, teenage way of her own beauty,"Mary Astor , who played Elizabeth's mother in Cynthia, wrote in her memoirs. Both films had been released back to back in August and September 1947, prompting Life magazine to note: "Elizabeth Taylor has suddenly become Hollywood's most accomplished junior actress." MGM now began to promote the Junior Miss image, carefully arranging dates for their developing star and staging parties at which respectful young men squired her around the dance floor. One of them was her former co-star Roddy McDowell, photographed bowing to her, as if in recognition of her exalted new status.
MGM became anxious, however, when Taylor actually fell in love with one of her studio beaux, Glenn Davis, a West Point football hero of some national repute whom she dated while playing Amy in 1948's Little Women, the second screen version of the Louisa May Alcott favorite. Amid rumors that the couple intended to announce their engagement, Taylor was packed off to England to shoot a political thriller, Conspirator, in which she was badly miscast as a housewife, even though she was still young enough to require a tutor on the set. But there was no doubt she was becoming a restless young
woman. "Elizabeth gave me the feeling that she was tired of being watched [by her mother]," Victor Saville, the film's director, later said, although Sara wasn't the only one watching. Such was Taylor's fame that the end of her affair with Davis, and the announcement in June 1949 of her engagement to William Pawley, Jr., the son of a wealthy industrialist, were breathlessly reported in tabloids and fan magazines. Only three months later, the engagement was called off. Pawley would only say it was because of "circumstances beyond our control," but the annoyed public which took to calling her "Liz the Jilt" in print put the blame squarely on her shoulders for abandoning two men in less than six months. "Someone should administer a series of resounding smacks behind the bustle of her latest Paris creation," complained the Sunday Pictorial in London. "She is a living argument against employment of children in studios." It would not be the last time her romantic entanglements would overshadow her accomplishments on screen.
But all was temporarily forgiven with Taylor's radiant performance as the wealthy socialite Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun, MGM's 1951 adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. She played opposite Montgomery Clift, an actor who would become almost a brother to her during his short, tragic life, and was directed by George Stevens. Both men were advocates of the emotional research and psychological analysis that were the hallmarks of so-called Method acting, and Elizabeth would later say that A Place in the Sun was the first film in which she had learned a craft, rather than exploited a talent. Stevens cast her, he said, because she was "the girl on the candybox cover, the beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy thinks at one time or another he can marry," which is precisely what happens to Clift's George Eastman, with tragic results. "Miss Taylor reveals an understanding of passion and suffering that is electrifying," Life reported in its review of the film, while The New Yorker thought the film's "passionate and genuine romance avoids the bathos common to young love." So convincing was the on-screen relationship between Taylor and Clift that marriage rumors again began circulating, helped once again by MGM's publicity, which assiduously hid Clift's homosexuality from the public. "I never saw a girl more ripe for love and marriage than Elizabeth," burbled Hedda Hopper early in 1950. Hopper did not speculate who the intended husband might be even though her sources had given her a fair idea.
Taylor had been dating Conrad "Nicky" Hilton, Jr., the eldest son of the hotelier, for more than six months before the gossip columns got wind of the relationship. They had met through a mutual friend at Paramount as shooting was wrapping on A Place in the Sun in November 1949, but it wasn't until the spring of 1950, after Elizabeth had graduated from high school, that the 23-year-old Hilton told a reporter they would marry. At 18, Taylor naively felt prepared to settle down and raise a family, while Nick Hilton, then the manager of his father's Bel Air Hotel, was more interested in the fact he was marrying a movie star. Hilton did not count on the power MGM wielded over Taylor's life. The studio timed the wedding, on May 6, 1950, to coincide with the release of Father of the Bride, a domestic comedy in which Taylor played the role she was about to perform in real life. The marriage, close friends later said, was over before the couple left on a two-week European honeymoon. Frightened by her husband's sexual aggressiveness and his older, worldly circle of friends, Taylor looked tired and in ill health on her return. By the time she began work on a sequel to Father of the Bride, called Father's Little Dividend, in the late summer of 1950, she and Hilton had decided to separate. Formal divorce papers were filed late in the year as Taylor checked herself into a hospital under the name "Rebecca Jones," suffering from a nervous breakdown. "I was certainly a mixed up eighteen," Taylor confided to Hopper in an interview early in 1951, as she turned 19. When the columnist asked if she were happy, Elizabeth answered that she was, "but I am not nineteen happy."
Her six-month marriage to Nick Hilton, however, was merely the first of seven in Taylor's search for emotional security. Next in the line of succession was British actor Michael Wilding, whom Elizabeth met while shooting MGM's lavish adaptation of Ivanhoe in England. They were married in a civil ceremony in London on February 21, 1952, just a week shy of Taylor's 20th birthday. Once again, Elizabeth envisioned domestic bliss. "I just want to be with Michael and be his wife," she said. "He enjoys sitting home smoking his pipe, reading, painting. And that's what I intend doing—except smoking a pipe." And again, MGM intruded when it appeared it might lose its most popular female star to conjugal happiness. The studio offered Wilding a contract as a way to entice Taylor to remain in Hollywood and among its roster of talent. For a time, everyone was happy. Elizabeth had two sons—Michael, Jr. (b. 1953) and Christopher (b. 1955), both by Caesarean section; Wilding worked in several MGM pictures; and Taylor turned in another of her signature roles on loanout to Warner's in that studio's Giant, adapted from the Edna Ferber novel and featuring the hottest male star of the time, James Dean. It was her second film for George Stevens, who drove her much harder than he had four years earlier in A Place in the Sun to make her transformation over the course of the film from an innocent Kentucky girl to a formidable Texas matron believable. After going on a crash diet before production began, Taylor developed severe headaches, stomach cramps, and thrombosis of the legs during the arduous shoot in the Texas countryside, although she and co-star Rock Hudson compensated by a good deal of drinking and carousing that formed the basis of a lifelong friendship. The tragedy of Dean's death in a motorcycle accident after completing his portions of the film affected Taylor so severely that she suffered another breakdown. It was her most difficult film to date, but is considered her finest work of the period.
Wilding's career, however, had not prospered in Hollywood. MGM declined to renew his contract when it expired in 1956, although Wilding seemed his usual debonair self during a weekend cruise with Taylor on the private yacht of Broadway impresario Michael Todd, then breaking into films with his extravagantly expensive adventure picture, Around the World in Eighty Days. Events moved swiftly after that weekend. Only weeks later, Taylor announced her separation from Wilding, and Todd proposed marriage and arranged for a Mexican divorce for Elizabeth in January 1957 that required no waiting period. Then Todd and Taylor married in Acapulco the following month, on February 2, 1957. Born Avrom Hirsh Goldbogen in Chicago, Todd was known for his brash, back-slapping business style, a fondness for private jets and opulent parties, and his lackadaisical financing. "I may be broke," he once said, "but I'm not poor." By all accounts, he and his new bride were deliriously happy. Taylor settled into what one observer thought was a "rich, contented opulence," traveling in elegant surroundings with her new husband and conspicuously displaying the new baubles he continually showered on her. In August 1957, Elizabeth presented Todd with a daughter, Elizabeth Frances, again delivered by Caesarean section. Todd, meanwhile, acted as her business manager with MGM, exploiting the studio's eagerness for Elizabeth to play Maggie in their production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by announcing that his lawyers would cancel her contract if she were not allowed to also appear in any film planned by his own film company. Taylor's only public appearance during 1957 was at the raucous party Todd threw for 18,000 at Madison Square Garden in October to mark the first anniversary of the release of Around the World in Eighty Days, which had been so wildly popular with the public that it was still showing in theaters across the country. As Taylor cut a huge birthday cake in front of a national television audience, the throngs below her on the floor of the arena degenerated into a free-for-all as gifts were tossed from bandwagons circling the floor and the champagne flowed. MGM was not amused.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof began shooting during the winter of 1958, with Taylor playing opposite Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Paul Newman as his troubled son. The film's schedule did not allow Taylor to travel with Todd to New York in March for a weekend party being given in his honor; so a reluctant Todd departed on his private plane, Lucky Liz, on March 22 after telling his wife, "Without you, honey, I'd feel like half a pair of scissors." Hours later, word came that the plane had crashed in an ice storm over New Mexico and all on board had been killed. Production on the film was immediately shut down as Taylor was put under a doctor's care and heavily sedated. She had to be carried from the airplane that brought her to Todd's funeral in Chicago three days later, and seemed barely aware of her surroundings. But after several weeks, she returned to work on Cat because, she said, "Mike would have wanted me to." Somehow, she got through it. "When I was Maggie," she later said, "I could function. The rest of the time, I was a robot." Ironically, the first scene Taylor was required to play on her return to the set was one in which Maggie comforts Big Mama, who has just learned her husband will die of cancer. "I know what it's like to lose someone you love," Maggie says.
The public's sympathy for her, however, was short-lived when it was reported that Taylor had begun an affair with nightclub singer-turned-actor Eddie Fisher, whose friendship with Mike Todd had made him the go-between during Todd's whirlwind courtship of Elizabeth. Fisher was married to actress Debbie Reynolds —a marriage portrayed in print as a Hollywood dream come true. Privately, however, Fisher admitted, "We were married to the fan magazines, not to each other." The "Eddie-Debbie-Liz Biz," as the tabloid press dubbed it, became public just as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was being released, making the film one of the highest-grossing pictures of 1958 and bringing Taylor her first Academy Award nomination. Fisher's Nevada divorce from Reynolds became final on May 12, 1959. The same day, he applied for a marriage license in Las Vegas and became Taylor's fourth husband in nine years.
Elizabeth's second Academy Award nomination quickly followed the first, for her work in another adaptation of a Tennessee Williams' play, Suddenly, Last Summer, shot in London during the summer of 1959 and released late that year. The film co-starred Montgomery Clift, then in the midst of his ultimately fatal struggle with drugs and alcohol, and was directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz, impressed at the emotional range Taylor could summon without any formal training, thought she had a "tremendous primitive talent on which very few demands had been made." During the shoot, 20th Century-Fox producer Walter Wanger approached her about taking the title role in his next film, an overwrought, epic romantic adventure about those lovers of legend and myth, Marc Antony and Cleopatra (VII) . Elizabeth disliked the idea of playing a highly eroticized queen of the Nile almost as much as she did playing a high-priced call girl in the film MGM wanted as her next project, Butterfield 8, based on the John O'Hara novel. Both roles, Elizabeth thought, only seemed to reinforce the public's perception of her as a sexual adventurer. Almost jokingly, Taylor told Fox she'd accept Cleopatra for a million dollars, plus ten percent of the box office. In a sign of her growing power as a box-office draw, Fox agreed. It was the highest offer ever made to an American actress up to that time and the first element in a film project that would careen wildly out of control before its completion. Even Taylor would later call Cleopatra "the most bizarre piece of entertainment ever perpetrated."
She's probably the closest thing we have in America to royalty.
—Carole Bayer Sager
Meanwhile, MGM, to which Taylor was still under contract, had its own demands. Elizabeth would not be allowed to do Cleopatra and receive her million-dollar fee, it said, unless she first took on the role of the prostitute Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8, also to be directed by Mankiewicz. By now, however, Elizabeth had hit her stride as her own negotiator and demanded that the film be shot in New York and that Fisher be given the role of Gloria's sympathetic friend. Like Fox, MGM bowed to her demands and shooting began in January 1960 on the film Taylor later said she hated doing, but the one that brought her her first Academy Award. Rumor had it that Elizabeth so disliked the completed film at its cast screening that she scrawled an obscenity across the screen in lipstick when it was over, much as Gloria writes the phrase "No Sale" across a bathroom mirror after a night of paid sex. Adding to Taylor's unhappiness was the fact that her marriage to Fisher was in trouble after less than a year. She admitted to Mankiewicz that she had only married Fisher as a way to "keep Mike alive"; Fisher, for his part, felt his career disappearing into the shadow of Taylor's, reducing him to chaperon of the growing collection of pets and luggage that made the move from Hollywood to London for Cleopatra a sort of royal progress.
Ominously, Cleopatra was shut down by the film's insurers in London when it became clear it was about to consume its entire budget after just two months of shooting. The film's original director was replaced with none other than Joe Mankiewicz, who immediately called for a new Marc Antony after screening the existing footage of Taylor and actor Stephen Boyd and deciding the requisite passion was lacking. The search for another Antony began as the film lurched back into production with scenes in which Antony did not appear, only to be shut down again when Taylor collapsed on the set and had to be rushed to the hospital for an emergency tracheotomy. She had been plagued by the flu since arriving in London and now, it was discovered, she had developed pneumonia. Production was halted from April 1961 until the following autumn, by which time the production had lost its studio space in London, moved to Rome, and had found its Marc Antony in Richard Burton, the fiery Welsh actor with the velvet voice who had just triumphantly appeared on Broadway in Camelot.
Burton had recorded in his diary some years earlier his first sight of Taylor lounging at a Hollywood pool party, noting indignantly that unlike most women, she ignored him. Now, however, the electricity between them was almost palpable. "Has anyone ever told you you're a very pretty girl?" Burton joked as they prepared to play their first scene together in Rome, for which he was terribly hung-over after another all-night drinking binge. Taylor thought he was "sweet and shaky." Mankiewicz and producer Wanger succeeded at first in keeping the budding romance between the two from public view, even though one crew member reported "they were so close you had to practically throw hot water on them to get them apart." "Le scandale," as Burton started calling it, had reached such heights by early 1962 (Cleopatra had now been in production for nearly two years) that his wife Sybil Burton left for New York to consult her lawyers; Eddie Fisher decamped for Los Angeles, never to return; the "chorus girl" from Camelot whom Burton had brought to Rome returned to the United States; and Taylor collapsed from nervous exhaustion and halted production yet again. With news that Fisher had filed for a divorce in April 1962, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons confided to their readers that Taylor had now broken up not only Burton's marriage, but her own as well. By the time Cleopatra finally wrapped in June 1962, destined to become one of Hollywood's most financially disastrous films, Burton and Taylor's lives and careers were inextricably entwined. Both appeared in 1963's The V.I.Ps, and Burton worked on his divorce settlement while living with Taylor in the villa they purchased in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, the location for John Huston's production of Night of the Iguana, in which Richard starred.
They were finally married in Toronto, where Burton was touring in a production of Hamlet, on March 15, 1964. He quoted from the play's third act during his curtain call after the next performance, telling the audience: "We shall have no more marriages." But there would be many more films together, most notably 1965's The Sandpiper, in which Burton played a married minister who falls in love with single-mother Taylor; and 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a stunning adaptation of the Edward Albee play, directed by Mike Nichols. Taylor won her second Academy Award for her work as the foulmouthed harridan Martha, considered the crowning achievement of her screen career. One reviewer called it "the triumph of the shrew," for Taylor had done the impossible in dominating Burton on the screen. "He's not for me, that moon-faced chap beaten down by a woman," Burton felt obliged to tell a journalist who asked how closely he identified with the long-suffering George, but it seemed as if the strains that eventually ended their marriage began at this point. Even the couple's adoption of a little German girl they named Maria couldn't keep the marriage together. Burton's diaries from the late 1960s started to record a long list of arguments and drunken binges as the relationship began to unravel, as if it were unable to bear the pressure of two such formidable personalities. There were financial difficulties, too, for both Burton and Taylor enjoyed spending the millions they made together on their pictures. (Taylor, it was claimed, had earned a total of $7 million from Cleopatra alone.) By the early 1970s, Burton had been fired from Tony Richardson's production of Laughter in the Dark because, Richardson said, the actor was incapable of playing his assigned role and repeatedly arrived late for his calls. Studio backing for the projects they undertook together began to disappear as more and more directors became wary of hiring Burton or Taylor, whose own career was affected by the decline of her husband's. The couple increasingly financed their own projects with backing from wealthy private investors, the two stars often working for a box-office percentage and expenses. Taylor's health remained problematical, including a hysterectomy in 1969; while Burton's drinking began to take its toll and his emotional health deteriorated when a beloved brother died from injuries suffered in an accident in Switzerland, where Burton had long had a home to escape British taxes.
Finally, in June 1973, Taylor released a handwritten note to the press announcing that she and Burton were separating. "Maybe we loved each other too much," she said. A formal divorce followed a year later, Taylor telling the Swiss court that life with Burton had become intolerable for her. It was with some surprise, then, that journalists flocked to South Africa barely a year later for the couple's second wedding. The lavish outdoor ceremony staged at a game preserve in October 1975 was the talk of the international press, Burton having reportedly given up alcohol to save his precarious health and telling Taylor he couldn't live without her. But their reunion lasted only until the following spring, by which time they had separated again and were in relationships with other lovers. After their second divorce, in the fall of 1976, both married their new paramours.
Taylor's sixth spouse not only had nothing to do with show business, but was a departure from his predecessors in that he was a reserved, old-line Virginian just building a career in politics, in which Elizabeth had begun taking an interest through her friendship with Henry Kissinger. She had appeared at the 1976 Democratic National Convention in support of Jimmy Carter, and shortly afterward attended a bicentennial reception at the British Embassy in Washington with John Warner, her assigned escort. Warner had been Richard Nixon's secretary of the navy and was considering a run for the Senate at the time he met Elizabeth, whom he found "exciting and stimulating"—somewhat of an understatement about a woman who had held Hollywood in thrall for 30 years. Taylor was particularly taken with Warner's 2,600-acre horse farm near Middleburg, Virginia, and his easy familiarity with the settled rhythms of a country gentlemen, so different from the upheavals and restless wanderings of her past life. She fell in love with Warner, said one observer, because of "his roots, not his money." They were married in an outdoor ceremony on the grounds of Warner's farm on December 4, 1976. Taylor accepted little film work outside of a cameo or two and allowed her name and face to be used to advance Warner's ultimately successful campaign for the Senate, won by a narrow margin of just 5,000 votes. But a politician's wife was not a role for which Taylor felt suited. "There was no reason for me to get up," she later said. "I had nowhere to go. Later in the day, I'd rise, get dressed, then maybe read or watch television, or look at the walls, or do nothing." There were mounting frictions, too, between Taylor's independent spirit and Warner's aristocratic chauvinism. Taylor complained privately to Warner about his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, and openly contradicted him at a Republican Party forum when Warner spoke against women being eligible for the draft. Warner began to joke uneasily about his wife's "orneriness." By the time she traveled to England in 1979 to appear in the film adaptation of Agatha Christie 's The Mirror Crack'd, her enforced idleness and frustration were evident in her ballooning weight, over 150 pounds by the time the production wrapped.
As another marriage headed for divorce, Elizabeth threw herself into a new challenge. Perhaps inspired by Burton's success in a Broadway revival of Camelot, Taylor announced that she would appear on the stage for the first time in her career. She chose to play Lillian Hellman 's calculating heroine Regina Giddens in a revival of The Little Foxes. There was perhaps a hint of her resentment toward Warner when she told journalists she intended to play Regina as a victim of male domination, rather than as the villainess of more traditional interpretations. By the time the play opened on Broadway in May 1981, Taylor—now down to a slim 125 pounds—got a standing ovation at her first entrance and again when the curtain rang down. Critical reception was mixed, some reviewers complaining that Taylor's personality overshadowed the play itself, but it was precisely her reputation that ensured she played to full houses at every performance. Plans were now made to take the show to London, just as Taylor announced her separation from John Warner, leading to a divorce which became final in December 1982. (The gossip was that the last straw had been Warner's decision to sell his horse farm and move to the Watergate Hotel in Washington which, Taylor discovered to her horror, did not accept pets.) London critics were less restrained in their comments when the show opened in the West End, one of them venturing the opinion that Elizabeth's emotions on stage "are signaled with a machete." Recalling Regina's line "The rich don't have to be subtle," the reviewer was of the opinion that "on this philosophy she has clearly based her entire performance." But by this time, Taylor was so enamored of the stage that she had formed the Elizabeth Taylor Repertory Company and had selected its next production, Noel Coward's Private Lives. Her co-star, she announced, would be none other than Richard Burton. Taylor had once again chosen material that reflected the turmoil of her private life, seeing Coward's bittersweet comedy about two former lovers who try to rekindle their romance as a parable of her own state of affairs with Burton.
Burton, in perilous health and so weak that he could barely lift an arm above shoulder level, had visited her backstage during the West End run of the Hellman play and had attended her 50th birthday party. Elizabeth, in return, had paid a surprise visit to a benefit reading Burton gave of Dylan Thomas' Under Milkwood. But Burton scoffed at reporters' questions about whether he and Taylor would marry for a third time. "We don't need another one," he said. "We love each other with a passion so furious that we burn each other out." As if to prove his point, Burton, having divorced his young wife, took up with a production assistant on a multi-part television series he was then shooting.
Rehearsals in New York during March 1983 did not go well. Taylor had regained much of the weight she had lost for the Hellman play, while the pain medications she was taking for her back problems made it difficult for her to concentrate or remember lines. Burton, too, was weak and pale and had become blind in one eye. The curtain rose half an hour late on opening night, and no explanation was offered for a nearly hour-long intermission. The New York Times' Frank Rich wrote the next morning that Burton looked like "a tired millionaire steeling himself for an obligatory annual visit to an accountant"; the more caustic John Simon, noting that a line in the play describing Taylor's Amanda as "running like a deer" had been cut, thought that "anything faster than a sumo wrestler is inconceivable." Taylor's dependence on alcohol and drugs to get her through the run of the show took its toll, leading to hospitalization before she rallied and took the show on tour in an attempt to recoup its losses. But the strain was too much. While Burton left to marry his production assistant, Taylor checked herself into California's Betty Ford Clinic for substance abuse in December 1983.
By May 1984, her addictions had been cured, she had lost nearly 40 pounds, and she had written an inspirational book about her recovery, Elizabeth Takes Off. That same month, she visited Burton in London, where he was in the midst of production on what would be his last film, an adaptation of George Orwell's 1984. It was their final meeting. In August, Burton suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage at his home near Geneva and died hours later of a stroke. Taylor, in Los Angeles when she received word, collapsed from shock and was not present at Burton's funeral. But about two weeks later, at six o'clock on a rainy morning, she was escorted to the grave by bodyguards who shielded her from the glare of flashbulbs and television lights with their umbrellas. "It was one of the few moments Richard and I were alone," she later said. Such was her passion for him that more than ten years after his death, Taylor told journalist Liz Smith that she and Burton would have reunited a third time, despite Burton's denials. "Oh, I know it," Taylor said. "Absolutely, I was happy with him."
With Burton's death, it seemed, the old days and her old acquaintances were slipping away from her. Montgomery Clift had died of a drug overdose some years earlier; actor Peter Lawford, with whom she had acted in several pictures and who had struggled with her to overcome his own alcoholism at the Ford clinic, died of liver cancer in the same year as Burton. Her friendship with billionaire Malcolm Forbes, whose lavish 1989 party at his Moroccan estate Taylor attended, was cut short when he died just five months after they were photographed together at the affair. And Rock Hudson, with whom she had remained great friends since their days together in Giant, died from complications of AIDS in 1985. His passing led Taylor to call for increased AIDS research, when few were speaking out, and to chair the American Foundation for AIDS Research, raising $14 million by 1990.
Taylor's own health took another turn for the worse during the late 1980s, although she found time for several television mini-series and specials and to embark on a strenuous campaign to launch her perfume, Poison, in its famous amethyst bottle. She still suffered from painful spinal problems and by 1988 found herself back at the Betty Ford Clinic to deal with her dependency on painkillers and the return of her excessive drinking. Also in rehabilitation at the time was a former truck driver and construction worker, Larry Fortensky, in whose company Taylor began appearing in public shortly after both had left the clinic. The courtship was interrupted by a dangerous viral infection in the spring of 1990 that put her in the hospital for weeks breathing with the aid of a ventilator amid rumors of her pending demise. "I have no plan to succumb," Taylor told reporters just before her release from the hospital. "I am a survivor."
She was well enough by early 1991 to have lost 30 pounds, to have stopped smoking, and to have begun a daily exercise regimen. "Oh, God, it's awful, I'm getting so pure," she joked after announcing her engagement to Fortensky, 39 years old and some 20 years her junior. She introduced him to her public during the media campaign for her new perfume, White Diamonds, and married him in a posh, $2 million wedding held at Michael Jackson's Never Land Ranch on October 6, 1991. Jackson served as best man. The 160 guests included everyone from Gregory Peck to Liza Minnelli to Henry Kissinger, all of whom were searched by 300 security guards while the press, barred from the ceremony, whirled overhead in a small army of helicopters. Fortensky remained very much in the background during their four years together, which ended in an amicable separation and divorce in 1996. "Larry and I both need our own space right now," was all Taylor would say, although she admitted that her continuing health problems, including hip replacement surgery, had placed a strain on the marriage. Then, in early 1997, just two days after attending a nationally televised 65th birthday party which raised $1 million for AIDS research, Taylor underwent surgery for a benign brain tumor.
True to form, she emerged triumphant. Her recovery was so complete that she was able to host both a Fourth of July party and a Labor Day celebration at her home, "walking around and entertaining everyone, quite jovial," as her doctor reported. She also found time that summer to fly to Istanbul for a benefit raising money for the children of Chechnya uprooted by ethnic wars and to attend two fundraisers in California for AIDS research. Taylor remains active in a number of charitable causes and still makes frequent public appearances. It is as if, one observer noted, she is constantly rediscovering and renewing herself. "I suppose when you find out what you've always wanted, that's not where the beginning begins," Taylor once told Truman Capote. "That's where the end starts."
Smith, Liz. "Elizabeth Taylor Talks about …," in Good Housekeeping. Vol. 225, no. 1. July 1997.
Walker, Alexander. Elizabeth: The Life of Elizabeth Taylor. NY: Grove Press, 1990.
Heymann, C. David. Liz: An Intimate Biography of Elizabeth Taylor. Birch Lane, 1995.
Spoto, Donald. A Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor. NY: HarperCollins, 1995.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York