The publicist was adamant-- no looking at Ms. Taylor. No talking to Ms. Taylor. No getting in Ms. Taylor's sight line. But most important, no calling Ms. Taylor "Liz". "She absolutely hates that," the publicist whispered. I wondered how I might call Ms. Taylor anything, what with the staying away and the averting of eyes.
I had been sent to LA by the original DETAILS magazine to do a story on Nic Roeg, the brilliant director of Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing. Roeg was shooting Sweet Bird of Youth with Elizabeth Taylor and Mark Harmon for NBC. That publicist wanted to make sure that I kept my focus on Roeg, and not on his legendary star.
But Roeg had other ideas. He likes the people he enjoys to like each other too. He was married to Theresa Russell, and every night he would insist that I have dinner with them and their 2 young sons. He wanted me and Taylor to become pals.
But the star was elusive. She came out when she was in a scene, but hurried back to her trailer as soon as Roeg yelled "Cut". It was blindingly sunny, and she had a man who walked behind her, carrying an umbrella. He didn't seem to have any other job. Taylor was short and overweight, not at all the movie star I had expected. The publicist watched me like a hawk. For three days, I had absolutely no contact with Taylor.
On the fourth morning, I went to get a cup of coffee at the crafts service table at the same moment Taylor arrived. She was surrounded by the gaggle of women who were her constant companions. Stopping at the table she ran her hand precariously close to the muffins and pastries. "Have some fruit," one of the women urged. A grip said, "She's a big girl, she can have whatever she wants." Everyone froze, unclear where to look.
"Big, and getting bigger every day," Taylor said, reaching for a piece of cantaloupe. She winked at the grip. Everyone laughed. I was so nervous that I laughed loudest.
Taylor turned to me. "So who are you?" she asked, sounding like a Brit with a Yiddish accent. I was momentarily confused. Before I could answer, that wicked publicist came and whisked her away.
Later that day I was standing in what passed as the hotel lobby on the Sweet Bird set. I picked up a Life Magazine that had on its cover the story about the homewrecking Elizabeth Taylor stealing Eddie Fisher from America's sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds. I felt someone looking over my shoulder and turned. There she was. She pointed to the magazine. "What a bitch," she said. My eyes got huge. "Me," she continued, "not Debbie." I said nothing. "Ok, who are you, and are you a mute?" Taylor asked.
I started talking, fast, afraid it would be my last chance. I told her about what the publicist had told me. Taylor grabbed my arm and pulled me into a dark corner. "Don't worry about her. That's her job. Tell me about you."
And so I did. I told her about my boyfriend and the problems we were having. I told her about my family, my writing, everything. She kept nodding and making a soothing clucking sound. Roeg joined us and we gossiped about everyone on the set. With each passing minute, she got taller. And prettier.
When she was called to the set, she said, "I'm having the wrap party at my house this Saturday. You should come."
"Damn it. My plane leaves Friday night," I whined.
Taylor arched her eyebrows. "I'm sure if you tell your editor that I invited you to my house, she'll let you stay longer."
Of course she was right. My editor shrieked with delight when I told her.
When I walked into Taylor's Beverly Hills house, I was surprised that it looked so ordinary. There were the same kinds of paintings that you see at every motel in America. There was a man grilling hot dogs and hamburgers. There were rocks on the coffee tables.
Ho hum. And then it hit me. That was the real Monet's "Water Lilies" on the walls. The man behind the grill was Larry Fortensky, Taylor's husband. And the rocks were amethysts, the same violet as Taylor's eyes.
Taylor saw me and came over. "I want to show you something," she said and led me into a small bathroom. There were tons of pictures of Taylor and Richard Burton, with another couple and a lot of dogs. "The Duke and The Duchess of Windsor," she told me. "Those pugs could be such a pain in the ass."
She led me around and pointed out pictures of Rock Hudson. "He was my best friend, and what this town did, making him hide and lie, was inexcusable," she said.
She had her butler go fetch the Oscar she won for Butterfield 8. "Go ahead," she urged, obviously enjoying herself. "Give me your best Oscar speech." I held the Oscar up high above my head and said, "I did this all myself. I have no one to thank!" Taylor laughed deeply. "If I ever win another one, I'm going to say exactly that."
The party was wonderful and when I went to say goodbye to Roeg at 10PM, he whispered, "Don't leave. Stay around."
When the room had emptied, Taylor reclined on the couch while Roeg and Russell and I sat at her feet. For three hours she regaled us with stories of her life; the insanity of her marriage to Burton, the drinking, the paparazzi, the fun. Mostly the fun.
When my story came out I had the magazine messngered to her house, with a note gushing about how much I had enjoyed meeting her. A few days later a box arrived. It had no return address. In it were a tiny white ceramic bird and a small amethyst.
Rest in peace, Elizabeth Taylor. There will never be another one like you.
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