Nobody Called Her Liz

Margo Howard fondly remembers Elizabeth Taylor — role model, idol, and unlikely babysitter

I knew it before I knew it. My routine when I wake up is to go to personal e-mail, then to Twitter. (Embarrassing, I know, but there you are.) Different tweeters had links to unpublished pictures of Elizabeth Taylor, and I knew from those posts that she had died. Then I went to a news site to confirm it. My first thought was: Good. She’s been released from all the pain. She had about everything wrong with her that one can have. The last years had her wheelchair-bound and I suspected, if given a choice, she would’ve chosen to exit.

My second thought was: OMG, I actually had different experiences with her over the years, starting when I was 11. She was then 19 … and her eyes really were lavender with a double row of lashes. She was probably one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. This was in 1951 (winter in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but perpetual summer in California) and my parents and I were at the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Springs. That was so long ago, my friends, that there were only two good hotels! The Biltmore and the Racquet Club. To give you another idea of how long ago that was, my father would chat with Howard Hughes at the Racquet Club bar before he (Hughes, not my father) became so deaf he stopped interacting with people.

Taylor and my mother became poolside buddies. In those days, everyone was baking in the sun, with no thought of ending up with a face like an alligator handbag. Taylor saw that my mother was mixing up that ancient tanning potion, baby oil and iodine, so she told her to switch to what she was using: Jergen’s lotion. I was beside myself with joy to be on a first name basis with this fabulous movie star. She was very kind to me. Translated: she would talk to me. She even shared her comic books with me. (My mother forbade me to buy them. It only dawned on me, some years later, that it was a little odd that anyone nearly 20 years old would be reading comic books, but I digress.)

I shall never forget her kindness in signing 30 pictures of herself for my class back in Eau Claire. She was just … nice. Her beau then was Stanley Donen, who was not then the A-list director he would become. He was very sweet to me, as well. Mother, Father and I would see them out at dinner. Like the hotel situation, there were only two good restaurants: The Doll House and the Chi-Chi. There was dancing at one of these places, and I was mesmerized to see Taylor dancing, sans shoes. And I learned from the poolside chats that she had a bad back, even then, and that she had always had to watch her weight.

One day at the pool my mother was saying she and Father had a party that night, but no maids were available to babysit. At which point – be still, my heart – Taylor said she and Stanley would look after me. I could not believe my luck. How many kids, after all, could say that Elizabeth Taylor babysat for them?! We three ordered room service dinner at our casita. I have no idea what the conversation was between an 11-year-old and two Hollywood personages. My hunch is I just let them talk to each other unless I was asked a question.

After dinner, Taylor said I should do my homework (with which I traveled), go to bed when I was tired, and that she and Stanley would be outside at the pool. Well, homework that night consisted of me peering out the window at the two of them … and I was rewarded. After a while they went skinny dipping. Then I went to bed – the kid version of dying happy.

I saw her again in my late teens in Chicago. We had moved there when I was 14, and one of my high school chums, Cookie Kupcinet, was the daughter of THE gossip columnist, “Kup.” Everyone who came through Chicago was entertained by Kup. (And in those days, everyone did come through Chicago, because the 20th Century Limited, a wonderful train, was the favored mode of transportation from New York to California. Many of the movie people laid over to have dinner at the Pump Room and apprise Kup of their latest news.) At a cocktail party before one dinner, Cookie invited her good girlfriends, and Taylor remembered the Palm Springs meeting. The next time I saw her, again at the Kupcinet’s, I was in my late 20s And she remembered Palm Springs!

The final time I saw her I was in my late 30s and it was in New York at a large venue (Radio City Music Hall?) Alex Cohen was taping the first “Night of 100 Stars.” I was then married to the actor, Ken Howard, and somehow I was one of the few spouses to be allowed in the green room – in this case an extremely large space one might more properly call the green ballroom. It was a remarkable gathering. I mean, even Princess Grace was there, and all the stars were signing each other’s posters. Cohen, knowing the taping would take a long time — given the nature of the show – mandated there be no bar, thereby forestalling the possibility of a bunch of drunk movie stars.

Of course ET was there. When I saw her sitting on a sofa with Zev Braun, an Israeli movie producer, I casually said to my husband, “Would you like to meet Elizabeth Taylor?” He was thrilled. I brought him to the sofa. What I didn’t know was that she had brought her own bar with her, and was three sheets to the wind. I sort of bent my knees to be somewhat at eye level with her and picked a most unfortunate opening salvo. “I will never forget your babysitting me in Palm Springs.” Only later did I realize that an aging movie star might not appreciate a grown woman pointing out the age difference. She did not remember Palm Springs. And she did not respond to me. She just sat there looking at me with raised eyebrows. Now a normal person would feel the chill and immediately retreat. I, however, am afflicted with the truly self-defeating, if not masochistic habit of becoming nervous and continuing to talk. So I yammered on, and at no time did she say word one. When it became painful to watch, the former Mr. Howard took my elbow and led me away. He took me to Betty Bacall to recover. She liked him very much and so was quite sweet to me. (Not her usual mode, as I was later told.) I obsessed over my faux pas, but did finally pull through.

One thing you can safely say about Elizabeth Taylor’s life is that she missed nothing. She had it all – and “all” includes a lot of difficulty. She was not educated, but she was smart. She used her stardom to get behind AMFAR, and it is said that she was one of the people who took AIDS out of the closet. I suspect she would be on anyone’s Top Ten List of fabled movie people. I loved that I had met her, I am sorry that I annoyed her, and I hope she catches up with Richard Burton. RIP, beautiful girl. No one will forget you.

 

35 comments so far.

  1. avatar Maizie James says:

    Margo,

    Thank you for your heartwarming personal memorial to Elizabeth Taylor. It’s strange. My very first memory of her was when her torrid affair with Richard Burton was exposed when she was filming Cleopatra. Their romance was blasted in headlines in the many editions of our daily newspaper. In Philadelphia, we had the Inquire, The Evening Bulletin, and the Philadelphia Daily News. In my family, we were not allowed to go to the movies, but I was old enough to be affected by the scandal and how it affected her relationship with Eddie Fisher.

    She was an icon in the movie industry. She will be miss.

  2. avatar flyonthewall says:

    I echo your sentiments, Margo. I am glad that Elizabeth Taylor is now out of pain. What a life she led! What a life you’ve led actually having met her as a young girl and then later on in life. Thank you for sharing. I enjoy reading your work. I am thankful for Ms. Taylor and the work she has done for others. Yes, she will be missed but I rejoice that her suffering is over.

  3. avatar Count Snarkula says:

    Don’t weep. Learn. Pay Attention. Elizabeth Taylor did everything she ever wanted to do. We should ALL live our lives more balls to the wall as La Taylor did. I, for one, am going to gather friends and have a drinking binge in her honor. My favorite Taylor quote? “Look, Sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddam table you want, so don’t you worry about me.”

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      She really could drink anyone under the table. Including Burton.  She loved it.  But paid the price with the congestive heart failure. Just as I am paying the price for smoking. 

      But at the time, well, she enjoyed life. All we have is today. And she certainly had lots of todays despite the prognosis years ago. 

      I rarely drink any more. But tonight, a sipping drink. Jack Daniels. A toast to her and wonderful memories of her.  When Chen Sam died, I commented that a bright new star had appeared in the heavens. No doubt another bright new star has now appeared as well. 

  4. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Margo .  .  . what a fascinating story you have written. . . and you are so right:  no one will forget her.  I remember her life with Mike Todd — who we were told she loved so much.  And then his plane crash.  . and, as I lived in Chicago, actually remember the day of his graveside service at the Waldheim Cemeterycin 1958 – as it was not only my birthday but I was attending another service nearby.  It was bedlam, with Liz – always accompanied by her doctor it seemed back then – being held up by many arms but in a state of collapse.

    And then in 1983, Elizabeth Taylor returned to the city to perform with Richard Burton in a revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.  The alley siding the Shubert Theater was not fit for royalty — or anyone, to be honest.  So they arrived by limo to the front of the theater.  I was there, tickets in hand, and was fortunate enough to have a friend snap a photo of me and this famous couple (now divorced if I remember right).  Was the play memorable?  Perhaps not Liz at her best – nor Burton either — but who cared?  All our eyes were captured by seeing the couple together at last. 

    The “Star System” was in its final stages then — but the memories from that era were beyond anything seen in this world today.  Elizabeth took life and did it her way — and that is the way it should be.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      I suspect she and Burton “wondered” each night as they stood on stage together but I suspect he, and possibly she as well, realized the third time might not be the charm.

      I hope that Sally Burton will allow her to be buried in Celigny beside him.  Not as the widow. Simply as the great love of Burton’s life.  And he hers. 

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        I am guessing that the last resting place is mapped out — as those things usually are long before when there has been a long period of going downhill.  It would be lovely if she were beside Burton, of course, as I too have more than a touch of the romantic within me.

        Isn’t it interesting how little we heard of her children in all these years — and yet seemed to know much about them in their childhoods?

      • avatar cleogirl says:

        Do you mean Elizabeth’s children or Richard’s with Sally? He and Sally were only married 18 months before his death and had no children.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I suspect it may not have been mapped out simply because there has been nothing released in terms of the final arrangements.  I don’t anyone expected her to die.  Including her.

        She and Burton had side-by-side plots in Wales. I remember wondering about that when he died and was buried in Switzerland.  The problem with Celigny is she was not the widow.

        Then there is Mike Todd. I believe there was a space for her in Chicago as well.  We forget she had two great loves.  The problem with Chicago is apart from Mike Todd being buried there she has no ties to Chicago.

        They may decide on a space just for her or perhaps with her parents.  I suspect the latter may be what is being considered. In the end as I recall she and her mother “healed the wounds” and were quite close. And the wounds with her father probably were healed as well. 

        It’s a shame they can’t bury her in the backyard.  Looking out over the city she loved and she did love it. I think I read somewhere when she bought the house it was a matter of simply going home finally. To her mother, her sons, her friends. And the memories of a truly fabulous life which was always intertwined with Los Angeles no matter where in the world she was at any given moment.  As I recall she also took an apartment in New York so she could be close to her daughters as well. But Los Angeles was home.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I suspect you were right and it was all mapped out right down to her being late to her own funeral!   Mapped out by her apparently so even though eveyrone else assumed she would live forever, she knew she wouldn’t. 

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Snooks . . . for months, years now, I realize that you know far too much, are far more on “the inside” of definitely the movie world than most.  . as well as other worlds, but I would say that you have stories to tell that may remain ontold or not — but you are teasing me — and you have to give me hints on you and these connections and your connections with the era when stars where STARS in big lights.  You fascinate me — and I would like to know you, talk, as you are a storehouse of memories, names, and depth.  All I will say is that I don’t miss much – — and it is about time I said it!!!! Joan

  5. avatar Jane H says:

    How is Mr. Wow?

  6. avatar Linda Myers says:

    My first thought when I heard of her death this morning was “Oh NO, Mr. Wow!” Beautiful writing Margo and memories of Liz Taylor. You were fortunate enough in life to know the side of her probably other people just wondered about.

    • avatar SMALL TOWN GIRL says:

      oh yes my first thought just about was of Mr WOW also, My older sister says that she always thought I lookedl like Liz……….. I wish
       
        Liz said she did’nt much care for Butterfield  8 , I always watch it everytime its oni

  7. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I suspect being “three sheets to the wind” as you put it she probably wouldn’t have remembered you had just met her five minutes before. It was, well, just part of her. I encountered her along the way from time to time when she was “four sheets to the wind.” Which, well, made us kindred spirits. Anyone who ever met her will always remember her. Some stories. I will never tell. Not openly. I’m a notorious gossip. But some things, well, not even at the dinner table.

    I really didn’t believe it at first. I always said when it  happened I probably wouldn’t because of all the other times word spread she was dying or had died. I got a call. Then I read the media release. And read that it came from Sally Morrison. My heart stopped. As did others. You could have issues with her issues, so to speak, but in the end she had a heart of gold and that is all that mattered. Or ever will.

    Ironic that her heart is what took her from us. The same heart that gave so much to us. 

  8. avatar Rho says:

    I adored her.  My heart sank when I woke up to this news.  Rest in peace, dear lady.

  9. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    And she really didn’t like being referred to as Liz.  But everyone did.  The press tagged her Liz and so everyone called her Liz. Including her husbands from time to time. But not her friends. Her friends always called her Elizabeth.  Because that was the way she always introduced herself.  As Elizabeth.  She had a wonderful life despite all the maelstroms. Including several of the husbands. No doubt often caused by their referring to her as Liz.

  10. avatar Richard Bassett says:

    Her quality of life was so poor in the last few years of living. A degenerating heart, more immobility and her spastic twisted neck (due to advanced scoliosis). When one has cancer and you watch them waste away in pain, you almost ask that they be ‘taken’. This is how I felt with Elizabeth Taylor near the end. I, for one, would never want to live under such severe circumstances. I met her back in her 1985/1986 fundraising days in Los Angeles. I worked with Dr. Michael Gottlieb, co-founder of amfAR. Elizabeth was extremely accessible then and encountering her at a charity event was a frequent occurrence. She was at the top of her game…beautiful…in recovery…working with AIDS, and developing a perfume. She was so vibrant and full of life. This is the Elizabeth Taylor that I remember, and always will.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      I really don’t think she thought of it that way. She was limited as the years went by. But I don’t think she felt the quality of her life had diminished.  Perhaps in the last year.  But even then, well, when she wanted to “let loose” she hit Twitter. 

      We all have special memories of her. And I susepct she had special memories of all of us. She just loved people. She was, again, this Earth Mother.

      Maggie the Cat had ten lives. The last one given her by the angels who also adored her.
      She did so much. She gave Marianne Williamson and Louise Hay and I forget the man’s name the seed money for Project Angel Food.  That also one of her legacies.

      But the real legacy is her foundation. As she intended it. 

      • avatar Richard Bassett says:

        I think that she knew her fate as early as November 2009; with the heart valve procedure. They only last a year, and there are no other treatments. Congestive Heart Failure is never cured…just managed, and everything that could be done had been done. It was just a matter of time (within just a year or two). Funny, she chose the hospital to pass away in, opposed to her home with hospice. I do not know (or may never) the extent of life saving measures that she consented to, but, this time, she knew it was the end.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        She was diagnosed with it in 2004 as I recall although I suspect she was actually dignosed with it earlier. Just not as a condition that would eventually become terminal. My father had it.  He took a pill each day. But had he not died of cancer, eventually the pill a day wouldn’t have worked. And so he would have had his “2004.”  So she had to deal with that and then with the scoliosis. But she kept on. I think she defied the odds. As she had before.

        She probably remained at Cedars-Sinai “just in case.”  She beat death so many times before. And maybe it was easier for her in the hospital. With just her family and close friends.

      • avatar Margo Howard says:

        Richard – I hate to correct you, but valve replacements can last for many years. (My husband is a heart surgeon, and it is they who replace valves.) As for “choosing” to die at Gucci General, she did not make that choice. She was taken in when things got terrible, there was some progress – and she thought she would be released – and then she became very sick, and that was that.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        That reflects what I heard earlier.  She had gotten better. Then suddenly over the weekend she had gotten worse. You don’t send someone home from critical care.  The same thing happened to Lucille Ball.  She was beyond hope. But not stable enough to release.  The doctors, not the patient and not the family, have the final word. And to doctors there is really nothing totally hopeless even when they themselves say it is. There’s always a slight chance. Particularly at Gucci General. Which is one of the best hospitals in the country staffed by some of the best doctors and nurses. 

        No one should dwell on how she died.  But rather on how she lived. Certainly not perfect. But none of us are. Not all of us, however, have the magnificent heart she had. And it is ironic that the heart that gave so much to us took her from us. 

      • avatar Richard Bassett says:

        Lucille Ball was recovering in 1989, but her aorta (the main artery supplying most of the body with oxygenated blood) tore (like tearing a piece of paper) and she bled out in a matter of minutes. There was not any type of intervention that could have addressed THAT much blood loss and she died relatively quickly. I do not know if her original condition was CHF opposed to other dx’s.

      • avatar Richard Bassett says:

        Since no one seems to know the exact specific’s of her condition (unless your husband, of course). I worked in a cardiac catheterization unit for a decade and am well away of the experimental procedure that a clip (mitral) valve replacement once was. Again, due to lack of information…I can only assume that this valve malfunctioned and/or another leak developed elsewhere in the heart. In any case, surgery did not seem to be an option for her. I think that her CHF had advanced to the level that medication alone was insufficient, (certainly not a transplant) so the physicians really hoped for the best. Even your husband will agree that a CHF patient with a hx of seven years of such a diagnoses goes against the odds…unless a major invasive produce is performed. And even with that the prognoses is guarded at best. CHF is never cured, only managed…and only for so long. As for Cedars vs. home, maybe there was a modicum of the chance for recovery…but this is not usually the case in one who is 80 years old.

  11. avatar lulu says:

    In thinking about Elizabeth Taylor, whom I met once, I will remember her wonderful humor, her love of being with people who also enjoyed and appreciated life and most of all her love of her children, grandchildren and now great grandchildren.  No one should suffer when the body gives out so I much as I regret her living us….a thought we can all continue to remember her by having more love of life in our own lives, and we can show a passion for a cause or charity that has meaning to us.  I think Elizabeth Taylor would be laughing with joy if we all did that.

  12. avatar Debrawf says:

    Lovely tribute Margo–thank you for sharing your touching (and funny) memories.

  13. avatar CatA says:

    Thanks for sharing your memories of Elizabeth Taylor, Margo. Your candor is comforting, too, for those of us who’ve also made our own memorable faux-pas (sorry, don’t know the plural form). 
    Ms. Taylor was a very special person and will always be remembered for using her celebrity to help so many.

  14. avatar pris says:

    Lovely tribute and stories, this is the kind of story that brings her closer to becoming humanized. She was such a legend.

  15. avatar chuck suber says:

    Slight correction re Star train travel: 20th Century between NYC and Chicago. Santa Fe Super Chief between LA and Chicago.Between trains in Chicago: the Pump Room, of course.
    — Chuck Suber

    • avatar Margo Howard says:

      Chuck – of course you are right! I loved both those trains, and am such an old bat I’d forgotten you needed both of them to go coast to coast — hence the layover. Thanks for the memory!

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I suspect we give away our ages when we talk about trains and of course trains today ain’t what they used to be.  Life was much simpler back then. And much nicer.

        I do have to ask how you managed not to snitch on the babysitter.  Or did you?

  16. avatar Margo Howard says:

    Baby Snooks – when you say “trains ain’t what they used to be,” I am reminded of what my mother always said whenever I said that: “What is? Are you? Am I?” When you ask if I snitched, I’m pretty sure I told everybody! And, in fact, when she died, several of my friends e-mailed saying they thought of me because of the long-ago babysitting.