It’s not that she was rude …
Mr. wOw suffered the agonies of a Christian martyr recently, when news broke that Elizabeth Taylor, age 78, was “engaged” to be married to her 49-year-old manager Jason Winters – a man who already has personal, intimate, longtime obligations. It would be La Liz’s ninth trip down the aisle, as news outlets trumpeted.
Miss Taylor allowed rumor and speculation to fester for three days. Then she tweeted that it was all so silly, they were just “good friends.” I have no doubt she enjoyed the attention. (And believe me, they are just good friends.)
Still, Mr. W. had sweated it out. He did not wish his goddess to go down the old Martha Raye path – lady in a wheelchair, pushed along by a younger man who is looking to score a big payday, eventually. The Dame has always been a smart, tough cookie, but life plays naughty tricks even on the most levelheaded.
Once Miss Taylor had dispensed with this tall tale, Mr. wOw was reminded of the last time ET had reduced him to a puddle. It was back in 1993, and Elizabeth was launching her first jewelry line. The product was kind of iffy, except for gold Egyptian-style cuffs and a fantastic reproduction of Elizabeth’s own Taj Mahal jewel, a gift from Richard Burton.
Elizabeth didn’t necessarily want to sit with Mr. wOw, but her first choice was unavailable, and at least she knew I was a devoted fan. Taylor’s wonderful and daunting press rep, Chen Sam, negotiated the details. I’d met and spoken to Elizabeth many times – and knew more about her than she knew herself – but she always seemed to address the middle of my forehead, not recall my name and generally fuzz out in my presence. Chen would say, “Don’t take it personally; she knows you were a fan before you got in the business. She just has certain relationships with certain members of the press.” That wasn’t much of a balm. (In revenge, I enjoyed frightening Chen with all I knew from my various sources. “You’re not going to print that?” she would scream.)
Still, Elizabeth agreed. Mr. wOw flew to L.A. He viewed the jewelry the night before the interview. It was not inspiring. Even more distressing, the people connected to the product were under the impression Mr. wOw and Miss T. were old friends. “Oh, it’ll be great, because you two know each other so well!” I rang up Chen: “Uh, these gals seem to think I’m Dominick Dunne or something. Do they realize she manages never to remember my name?” Chen said, “Darling, don’t worry, it will be fine.”
The next day, Mr. wOw arrived at a small studio somewhere in the midst of Hollywood. He was early. Miss Taylor was not. As the hours dragged on, Mr. wOw began to feel faint. Suddenly, she was on the premises. Glancing down a long dark hallway, Elizabeth, in a plush, bulky purple sweater and tight pants, didn’t look very impressive, despite her entourage (and her little dog, too). The top to toe of her never was impressive – way too short and bosomy. She was also wearing flats, rather than the usual stiletto heels. Although she was slender, she looked a bit dumpy. But Mr. wOw knew what was coming. She arrived on the little set-up, a tiny settee and coffee table; she glanced up toward the lights and it was all there – That Face. Once you were close to her, you also realized she was slimmer than she appeared in “long-shot.”
Elizabeth and her friends immediately settled in on the settee. Her hair was mauled, her makeup freshened, her mood kept up with a nonstop stream of campy jokes. Mr. wOw lingered just outside the lights, nervous and beginning to sweat. Finally, she was alone. Chen took my hand and brought me over. “Elizabeth, you remember Mr. wOw?” Elizabeth looked dramatically blank for a moment and then said, “Oh, of course.” I sat down.
As often as I’d seen her over the years, I’d never had the opportunity to be so close to her for an extended period of time. By this point, she’d had a good deal of plastic surgery – there was stuff happening in her face that hadn’t been there when she was 20. (Never had she had such a firm jawline!) But the basics remained – the perfect nose, the riveting sapphire eyes, that incredible rounded brow, a still-beautiful complexion. Sometimes, she would turn her head or the light would hit her in such a way that the face of her childhood was still there; that strange, dark beauty.
And then the interview began. To this day I hardly remember what happened. The director had to break in several times because I kept going “um” or “yes.” “Remember,” he said, “This will just be Elizabeth speaking, you’re not in it! And we don’t want to hear you.” OK.
I did my best trying to get her to talk about the jewelry, but she seemed oddly reticent. I spoke to her of movies and she livened up a bit. (“I never wanted the role in ‘Barefoot Contessa,’ that was Ava’s role!” she insisted, even though her pleading telegram to Joe Mankiewicz – printed in several biographies – indicated otherwise. “I. Never. Sent. Any. Telegram to Joe Mankiewicz,” she said, with imperial conviction.)
During a break (more hair-mauling), the jewelry folks dashed over to me, and said, “Make her talk more about the jewelry!” Now remember, she was sitting no more than a foot away from me. I threw my hands up and gestured to Elizabeth, “Tell her!” At that very moment, the star was holding a huge mirror, exquisitely applying lip gloss. Without stopping the hypnotic back and forth on her lips, staring straight into the mirror, Elizabeth said, “I don’t want to talk about the jewelry, it’s boring!” You never saw people vanish as quickly as those poor souls.
Still, even after this, Mr. wOw was no way in the clear. Elizabeth wasn’t unkind, just … distant. She was not happy that more important scribes hadn’t dropped everything to attend to her. Her answers were succinct, without elaboration. Mr. wOw’s attempts at wit seemed to fall flat. And at one point a definite chill descended. Speaking of her own famous collection of baubles, I asked if she intended to leave anything to her daughters, Liza Todd and Maria Burton. “Actually, they don’t care much for jewelry.” Mr. wOw said, “Oh, then will it all be auctioned off for AIDS?”
For the first time, Taylor looked me straight in the eye. “I have no intention of telling you what’s in my will, dear.” Believe me, you haven’t lived (and died) until Elizabeth Taylor lowers the boom.
There was one other truly tense moment. The last time I’d seen Elizabeth was in Venice; she was attending a gala AIDS benefit, accompanied by hubby Larry Fortensky. As usual Elizabeth acted as if we’d never met. But Larry, rather lost amid the glitz, was friendly (and attractive). I chatted with him about a carpentry task he was doing for the Mrs. – a closet. He described the various woods he was using and he was really very sweet. Now, desperate to ingratiate myself, I mentioned my discussion with Larry in Venice.
“You talked to him … about that?!” Elizabeth’s response might have been understandable had I said we’d been talking about their sex life.
“Uh, yeah. It was interesting. He was very nice. He’s nice, nice.” I was stuck.
Silence. Then she turned to give me a bit of the famous profile, still mute. I broke it by gushing over the reproduction of the Taj necklace, and encouraged her to tell the tale behind it. She did. Whew! Obviously, at that point, “nice” wasn’t the adjective she associated with her mate.
Finally, it was over. Mr. wOw was wearing a silk shirt. It was disgustingly wet. Thank God I was not appearing in what would end up as a little infomercial. Not pretty.
I staggered away from the settee. Miss Taylor’s entourage swooped in, petting and complimenting her. Mr. wOw just wanted a drink.
Chen Sam approached, “Darling, wasn’t that fun?!”
“As opposed to what – bamboo shoots under my fingernails? Chen, really …”; just as I was about to unload, Miss Taylor was upon us. “Oh, Mr. wOw, Chen told me you had a terrible flight in from New York?”
“Uh, yes. It was very bumpy.”
“That’s awful. I hate flying myself, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
“But you’re OK now?” (She furrowed her brow.)
“Yes, I didn’t sleep much last night, too nervous.”
“Nervous? What for? Why, we’re old friends.”
Then, with a dazzling smile and puckered air-kiss, she turned and sashayed out, shaking her little backside like the 16-year-old she remains at heart.
And so, she reeled me back in!