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Elizabeth Taylor’s ultimate lessonBY: SaraKay Smullens 03.29.2011
In her prime, whatever Elizabeth Taylor wanted, she took. Only later, when the roles and the men no longer came so easily, did this enormous talent channel her passions into saving and changing the lives of others. That’s when she won her deepest respect.
Bedazzled and deprived:
As I read the glowing and deserved tributes to Elizabeth Taylor, who provided part of the backdrop of so many of our lives, it’s not her mesmerizing beauty that strikes me above all but life lessons about her appetites and her impulses— and her enormous longings, and the ways she tried to meet them.
In Elizabeth Taylor’s prime, whatever she wanted she took or found a way to get— men, jewels, food, drink, drugs, you name it. Later in life, when what Freud would call her “genital power” had faded, she channeled her uncommon passion and energy into saving, changing and inspiring the lives of others.
I wish she could have learned to do some of this earlier.
Part of Elizabeth Taylor’s early appeal and fascination is that she appeared to have no limits what so ever. Watching her, the rest of us could fantasize a similar life for ourselves. So tempting: You want something or someone and it (or he) becomes yours, no matter who gets hurt in the process.
For most of us, such fantasies were constrained by our simple lack of Elizabeth Taylor’s unique, mesmerizing, powerful appeal. Few of us thought about the cost of such a mindset to Elizabeth herself.
When I was in college in the early ’60s, a man I dated, newly out of graduate school, must have saved for months to show me the loveliest of New York evenings. He took me to one of those restaurants on top of a huge building, where you looked out at the Manhattan skyline and felt you were in heaven. This particular restaurant had a private elevator to the top, and when we got in, another couple was already in place. Yes, you guessed it: Elizabeth Taylor and her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher.
To my surprise, she was actually tiny. Yet her gorgeous profile, her glorious voluptuousness, her black dress with plunging neckline, the glare of her diamonds galore, her velvet voice and throaty laugh seemed to fill up and light the entire space.
She didn’t look at her husband as she spoke, but instead addressed her comments to the elevator door. She seemed bored, as if her companion were not a famous crooner but her skinny adolescent brother whom she couldn’t wait to exchange for someone more exciting.
(Not long after, she found that someone on the set of Cleopatra. While Richard Burton hesitated to leave his wife of 14 years and their two daughters, Elizabeth showed no such hesitation.)
When the elevator reached the restaurant, our companions exited quickly and were ushered away, as if invited to join the galaxy that seemed to appear from the wall-to-wall windows surrounding us.
During dinner, my date told me that he had no need whatsoever to set the world on fire. What he wanted instead was a little corner that belonged to him and a beloved. But I was much too young to understand and appreciate what he was trying to tell me. We never saw each other again.
Stoking Burton’s jealousy
That wasn’t my last glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor. During my first marriage, I stood with a huge crowd to see her and Richard Burton exit the stage door when Burton played Hamlet. Later, after I remarried, my husband and I saw her on Broadway in The Little Foxes.
Still later, we saw her and Burton (by then divorced for the second time) in Private Lives in Philadelphia, where during the curtain call Burton looked at Taylor with utter contempt and disdain. It was rumored, perhaps unfairly, that Elizabeth consented to this play to win Burton back, and that she became temporarily engaged to the Mexican lawyer Victor Luna (who gave her a ring worthy of Princess Di) to fuel his jealousy.
(A PR photo taken during the promotion of this play tells this story far better than my words: Taylor with her sapphire ring, Burton looking away, appearing very bored.)
It was further rumored that Burton consented to appear with her on stage only for the money, but that later their passion endured. Elizabeth Taylor spoke of a final love letter from Burton that she kept with her, one received after his death (while married to another), expressing his desire to come “home” to her. What is fact, however, is that the Burton-Taylor union, regardless of its attraction and passion, and its devotion to their children, constantly threatened to destroy them both with drugs, drinking, and general all-around excess.
As years passed the circus atmosphere surrounding Elizabeth Taylor descended into a pitiful albeit sadly fascinating freak show. She cavorted with the exceedingly wealthy, gaudy publisher Malcolm Forbes before she married husband number seven, Larry Fortensky, a construction worker she met at a rehab center. That wedding was hosted at the Neverland Ranch of her suffering, disturbed friend, Michael Jackson. Jackson’s chimp, Bubbles, was in attendance, as helicopters hovered above the proceedings.
Both Taylor and Jackson had been denied the emotional building blocks of childhood; and each knew the temporary, fleeting escape/addiction of drugs and compulsive excess. They played together, supporting each other, an experience they were sadly denied as children. As they did so, Michael fed Elizabeth’s appetite for precious jewels; and Elizabeth provided loyal sister-mothering to the victim of an abusive father.
Elizabeth Taylor’s huge, persistent generosity to children, friends, and later to causes—as well as her enormous talent, often unfairly overlooked by critics— speak for themselves and will endure. Yet it was only later in her life, when the roles and the men no longer came so easily, that this enormous talent channeled her passions in life-saving directions. We all bore witness to the cost Elizabeth Taylor paid for her addictions, one more of the gifts she has left for us to absorb.
I have no idea what happened to the man I spent that evening with long ago. But I wish I could tell him that these insights began with my evening with him. I would like him to know that his uncommon wisdom, generosity and dearness of that long ago evening were not completely lost on me (although, to be sure, it took some time). My husband of 31 years and I are daily grateful for our tiny, precious piece of the world, one we tend as well and carefully as we are able.♦
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