“Okay, but where’s the red Halston from the 1976 Oscars?”
That was but one of Mr. wOw’s many questions when he attended the final night of the Christie’s exhibition of Elizabeth Taylor’s gew-gaws and get-ups.
This was quite a different experience than the Monroe exhibit/auction back in 2000. Marilyn — Mr. wOw’s most cherished star — had but one piece of real jewelry — her diamond wedding band from Joe DiMaggio. The clothes, with the exception of the infamous Jean Louis “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” gown, one beautiful green sequined Norell, and her pristine Pucci slacks, blouses and dresses, were in tatters. she had no great art. The most interesting and impressive part of the Monroe collection was her extensive, well-used library.
Miss Taylor’s auctioned estate did not include books. Well, when the hell she did have time to read?! (Even in her final years, Elizabeth would be more inclined to watch a “Law & Order” marathon than read e.e. cummings.)
Miss Taylor’s haul at Christie’s was as zaftig as the lady herself. Mr. wOw attended the event with several pals, two of whom — Bill and Diane — have been fans of Madame for decades and decades … and decades.
The three of us were whisked back to the good old days of Miss Taylor sweeping in and out limos, striding across ballrooms, battling her way regally through mobs of fans, wiggling her fingers through the glass of her car windows. (This was a characteristic gesture. She didn’t wave, she wiggled.) And we — not one us under fifty-eight — had to admit to some emotion at seeing our girl’s public life laid out be to purchased.
My friend Diane was a little depressed. But she had grown up truly believing in the magic and fantasy of the movies — that the stars were really as beautiful as they appeared on-screen and that movie-making was fun, rather than the sometimes grueling, almost always tedious work it really is. She’s had a hard time maturing. The inevitable mortality of Miss Taylor — who once represented the epitome of excitement, the ultimate escape for an unhappy child — has been difficult for Diane to accept.
But of course, as monumental as the auction was, we were more interested in what wasn’t included. Yeah, I know — no mere mortal could have saved every single thing she ever wore. But until Taylor finally died, none of us was sure she was a “mere mortal.” Her health issues and physical decline were one thing. Dying? We were from Missouri on that.
But we weren’t really, truly sad. How could you be sad looking at a neck to floor feather coat? Or a yellow mico-mini? Or that crazy outfit she wore in “Boom!” Minus, alas, the giant head-piece. All those wacky, inappropriate late 1960’s ensembles we were treated to every month in Modern Screen and Motion Picture and Photoplay.
And yet, all that largesse didn’t soothe the rabid fan. As I opened above, where was that strapless red Halston, the first gown he designed for Elizabeth? In the bicentennial year of ’76, ET appeared onstage on Oscar night, bosoms bouncing, bare arms jiggling just a bit, and in that posh pseudo-Brit accent she acquired after Burton, led the audience in singing “America the Beautiful.” It was clear Miss T. was unfamiliar with the lyrics.
Halston then became her favorite designer, creating dozens upon dozens of gowns, evening pajamas, and but of course, as she plumped up, those caftans in red, yellow, blue, purple, green and a zebra-striped number. (She wore that one to the opening night of Liza Minnelli’s “The Act” in 1978. The crush around her was so frenzied that intermission stretched from 15 to 35 minutes. La Liz’s ovation was greater than that for Liza.)
Yet I can’t recall many Halstons at Christie’s. (One red number, from “Night of a Hundred Stars.”) There were plenty from his successor, Michael Vollbrecht, whose work for her was not flattering. But if certain clothes were meant for a tall slim woman to wear, you can be sure Miss T. ignored good taste and her own rather odd proportions. That’s why we loved her! (A great pal of Elizabeth’s once said, “She has taste up her ass. If she was low-key she’d leave Grace Kelly in the dust!”)
I missed her hot-pants, too. Oh, those hot-pants. I recall she had a pair in white lace, and several more in various shades of blue denim. As nothing was ever low enough or short enough, Miss Taylor would roll up the short-shorts, giving the paparazzi and fans a better look at her shapely, if not exactly willowy gams.
I was also kind of hoping they’d saved her innumerable bikinis. Miss Taylor loved her teeny swimsuits. It rarely mattered what size she happened to be. The smaller the bikini, the happier she was. There was also an amazing one-piece she wore in 1966, during the filming of “Taming of the Shrew” in Italy. This was no simple tank suit. It was boldly striped, cut to her waist and open on both sides down to her hip. A transparent black net kept everything from falling out. A photo of Elizabeth strolling the beach with Richard ran on the cover of Modern Screen. The headline read: “Is Liz Eating and Eating and EATING her Heart Out for Burton?” I practically fainted at the newsstand when I saw it. (A few years later, friends had to sedate me with vodka after Liz appeared on the cover of Look magazine, wearing the world’s most expensive fur coat, thrown over a hot pink bikini. I kept saying — in between gulps — “She did this just for me, just for me!” I was a kid. Her craziness mattered a lot. )
Of course, Elizabeth’s auction has been a classy thing. Bathing suits might have seemed too intimate. Monroe’s auction was scattered with such items as her lingerie — bras, panties, waist-cinchers. It was pretty sad. (Though there was nothing sad about the millions that auction pulled in — not that it could compare to Elizabeth’s bounty, which by this writing might exceed $200 million!)
And it was a lot of fun looking at the jewelry, reminiscing — “Oh, God, remember when we first saw her in that? …. remember when she wore it with that gorgeous dress … remember when she wore it with that terrible dress … remember when it fell off?!! (This led to recalling the tale of her falling on her ass, while dancing with John Warner at Regine’s nightclub in Manhattan. They were dating. She was stoned. She wore a peach-colored Halston and those fabulous yellow diamond earrings. With Warner’s assistance, she righted herself quickly and danced on. For hours! He was not naive about Miss T’s habits — though he was stunned at her instant weight gain, seconds after they announced their engagement.)
My friend Bill started chasing after Elizabeth back in 1964, during the run of Burton’s “Hamlet” on Broadway. He’d been possessed by her for several years prior. However he did it — sleeping pills in his parents’ coffee? — Bill managed to stay out late in the big city to wait to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth. He would not be denied the opportunity to see his idol, now that she was so nearby. (Though not that nearby. Bill lived in Queens!) Bill was an excellent photographer, too. He snapped and snapped and snapped. And as he said, “Listen, if you had to see Elizabeth Taylor in person, that was the time to see her. She was perfect, then. The face, the body, the clothes. People would literally break into tears when they saw her. She was that beautiful. It was her ‘lady’ period, when she was trying to convince the world she wasn’t really a whore. Little suits and hats and evening gowns that were never too low or too tight. Later, she went back to all the crazy stuff. She didn’t care if they called her a whore. So what? Her movies made so much money…”
Bill took photos for years. One of my favorites is a snap from 1975. Miss T. had arrived in New York for Richard’s performance in “Equus” on Broadway. Burton had met her plane at Kennedy airport. Swathed in fur, she embraced him lustily, and said, “Want to see my bags?” Then she removed her shades to reveal a shockingly un-slept face.
Two nights later, me and Bill and hundreds of others gathered outside the Lombardy Hotel to see ET leave, to greet Richard at the theater. From a distance, as she emerged from the elevators, we all went “Ooooohhhh!” She looked great. But the closer she came, the less great she looked. The hair was gigantic, the dress awful, the amethyst jewels jarring. This was clearly a woman in agony. Bill took one shot, as she sat in the car, staring out at the clamor she’d known since the age of twelve. The window was slightly flecked from an earlier rainshower. Pain, beauty, resignation. She and Burton separated for the second and final time, two days later.
So it was like that, at Christie’s — so many memories, so many years. Leaping in and out taxis … waiting for hours in the extreme heat and cold … with Richard, with Henry Wynberg … with Iranian ambassadors … John Warner … George Hamilton … Dennis Stein … Victor Luna … Malcolm Forbes … Larry Forentsky … from Manhattan to Disneyland to Venice. Always gracious, never condescending (I saw her lose her temper only once, in thirty years) … always enjoying the clamor, relishing her role as The Most Famous Woman On Earth.
But, Mr. wOw had one real verklempt moment. Wandering alone, I came upon a case full of Elizabeth’s various semi-precious bangles. There it was. A weird necklace made out of signal flags representing … every, country in the world. I was stunned. Elizabeth was wearing this thing when I saw her for the very first time, on July 2nd, 1973. It was thrown over a tight yellow tee-shirt. Big ivory earrings, the Krupp diamond and other glitter were also involved. But the flag necklace stood out. It was a quiet visit, and only a few paparazzi were present.
I’d never seen her wear the flag necklace again — a minor bauble, for sure. Yet it was presented in lovely fashion, behind glass, at Christie’s. I was immediately transported back to that day. How impressed and surprised I was that she actually was that beautiful. Much slimmer than I’d expected. And much shorter, too!
I didn’t attempt to speak to her. Not even the typical line — “Oh, you are so beautiful!” (She never took any of that seriously, anyway. Usually, as I observed later, she’d laugh and roll her eyes.) But when she passed right in front of me, I smiled. I guess it was a silly, goofy “I- can’t- believe-I’m- seeing- you” grin. She looked right at me, and gave me back the biggest movie-star smile you ever saw. Relaxed, charming, assured, re-assured. (She needed re-assurance. Two days later she would return to New York, separated from Richard. I would witness for the first time, the terrible cyclone of her fame.)
The charm of that little moment remains. In so many ways that I can’t explain, Elizabeth was responsible for my “career” — whatever the hell that has been. And it was fun. She was fun. I never had something better to do, I was never too tired, I was never depressed when the call came, or the invite arrived – “Elizabeth’s in town. Come see her.”
I won’t say “rest in peace” because that is the opposite of how she lived.
So — girl, party on! Heaven’s hotter for your presence.