On a blazing white-hot day, a searing encounter with an unforgettable star
She looks like the prow of a great ship; that’s what I thought mulling my initial glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor.
July 2, 1973. The phone rings. It is my friend Bill, fanatically devoted Elizabeth Taylor fan and junior paparazzo. “Elizabeth is in town. She’s at the Regency. Nobody knows she’s here. Come down and see her.”
Taylor had not much interested me in my formative movie-going years – Marilyn Monroe was a much safer (dead!), and more tender icon. But I was always aware of Taylor: who she was and who she was supposed to be – The World’s Most Beautiful Woman. I thought that moniker inappropriate for a woman with such a soft jawline.
But in her mid-career rococo period – “Boom,” “Secret Ceremony,” “X, Y and Zee,” “Ash Wednesday” – she got under my skin. She was obviously out of her mind (a fur coat thrown over a teeny pink bikini on the cover of Look magazine, for Christ’s sake!), and didn’t care what she ate, drank or wore — but she an remained – no matter what the box office said – The Biggest Star in the World. She was pretty fabulous, I had to admit. (When Barbra Streisand sang “I Am the Greatest Star” in “Funny Girl,” I kept looking around the screen for Miss Taylor.)
I hurried over to the Regency.
It was hot. “A blazing white-hot” day, as Miss T. herself described the weather when cousin Sebastian got eaten by hustlers in “Suddenly Last Summer.” There were only six photographers, myself and friend Bill waiting. It was high noon when Richard Burton made his appearance. He didn’t look good; he didn’t smile and did not acknowledge requests to pose. Burton got into the limo and scrunched himself into a corner. One of the photographers nudged me. “Something wrong with those two. They never come out separately.”
Ten minutes later there is a rumble from inside the hotel. Two big men run out. One stands near the door, the other at the limo. It’s time.
Stepping into the brutal sunshine is Elizabeth Taylor in skintight bell-bottom jeans, a tight yellow T-shirt and a wild collection of faux and real jewels, dangling across the bosom, on the wrists, the fingers, the ears. She is shockingly short, surprisingly slender and much more beautiful than I had expected. The eyes were cobalt. The hair was black, generously flecked with gray. The nose perfect. She had freckles! I had prepared myself for the occasionally blowsy, always over-painted woman of movie magazines and recent screen appearances. But she looked surprisingly fresh.
Taylor moves in cinema slo-mo. The paparazzi is instantly frantic – so much more than they’d been for Richard – but they keep a respectful distance. She turns her head and smiles at each pleading, “Please this way, just one more …” I was mute. Agog. An idiot. She looks right at me. She passes me. How slim her hips are! What a pert, winking ass! What a surprise! Into the car she climbs. From nowhere a man leaps toward the half-open widow of her shiny chariot. He is clutching photos. “Sign just one!” The big men drag him away. From the car comes a familiar, girlish shriek, the voice of a high-school junior. “No, no … I’ll do it. I’ll sign!” Out comes a rather square hand with a hugely square Krupp diamond on it. She scrawls an almost unreadable autograph. Up goes the window. Taylor is now safe within her cocoon and continues to smile and pose; a little of this, a little of that – now give ‘em the profile. Richard Burton does not look at his wife.
July 4, 1973.
Word has come. Elizabeth and Richard have separated. She is back at the Regency. She has issued a note, handwritten on hotel stationery, explaining herself to the world, “Perhaps we have loved each too much … pray for us.” The radio (remember the radio?!) says Taylor flew to Los Angeles at eight o’clock AM. My friend Bill scoffs, “Are you kidding? She’s still there!”
She looked like the prow of a ship on a day the waters were calm. What would she be like in a storm?
I am again standing in front of the Regency. But this time, everybody knows she’s in town. It is, if possible, hotter. There are no forgiving clouds and no relief from the heat radiating off the concrete. Hour after hour we wait. Camera crews arrive by the dozen. Hundreds, then at least a thousand are massed around the hotel. In a misguided effort to control the crowd, the hotel opens the lobby to the media. Now there is a solid wall of humanity from the elevators where Taylor will emerge, to the street outside. A limo pulls up, causing a hysterical reaction: “She’s coming out!” No she is not. The car slides into the garage to load her distinctive floral luggage. A large part of the throng, including newsmen, follows the car and is almost lethally poisoned by the noxious exhaust fumes. The luggage appears. Wouldn’t this be a good time for Miss Taylor to escape, swiftly and semi-privately? In the words of friend Bill, “Are you kidding?” Great stars have great scenes.
Back around the block goes the stretch and once again it stops in front of the hotel, in the middle of Park Avenue because, at this point, it can’t get near the curb. Another hour goes by. Nobody becomes bored and wanders off. Suddenly, just as it had happened the first time, there is noise from inside the building. But this is no low rumble. The lobby is ablaze with lights from the camera crews. Women screaming, men cursing and everybody shouting, “LIZ! LIZ!” It’s time. The crowd surges.
It’s impossible to see anything; to see her despair. That’s why we’re all there, yes? Driven by the moment, and buffeted by the mob, I have now climbed onto the hood of a parked Volkswagen. I must take it in … cinematically. It’s not a long way from the door of the Regency to the waiting car, but this is for sure one of the most torturously slow movie-queen exits in history. Taylor cannot move – she is pinned by her bodyguards, the photographers, the maddening crowd. She seems, from my perfect “Day of the Locust” vantage point, far more heavily made-up this time. Her hair is not teased; it is tortured. She wears white, and a look of misery. And she is clutching her 11-year-old daughter, Maria. She shakes her head side to side, mute to questions – what is there say? They have loved each other too much! Finally, she lifts Maria up, off the ground, and half carries her the last few feet before they are both shoved into the same car in which her husband did not look at her, two days ago.
Another eternity passes as police push the mob back and the car crawls off, careful not to run over everybody eager to glimpse the unhappy woman, the actress playing out her private life publicly, as she had since the age of 12.
I am watching the limo turn the corner when I realize somebody is screaming at me. “What the fuck is the matter with you? You’re standing on somebody’s car!!” I am only 19, and other people’s property doesn’t seem to be a big deal. I jump onto the sidewalk. I have left a small dent in the hood. Eh, an easy repair. And not one I will make. The dent in my heart? That’s another story.
This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Interview magazine.