Liz Smith: Liz, Liz, Liz! — The Violet-Eyed Phoenix Rises Again At Christie’s Auction

Our Gossip Girl dishes on the gowns, the jewels, the “stuff” — reminders of a great life, lived to the fullest

“NOBODY, but nobody, could touch the hem of her caftan!”

That’s what one bedazzled fan remarked Sunday at the final Christie’s exhibition of Elizabeth Taylor’s mammoth collection of jewels, clothes, accessories (shoes, scarves, handbags) luggage, art, various figurines, ornate vases, frames, sculptures — you name it!. All the trappings of her fabulous public life. (Tonight, the auction begins.)

What was not there? Kept personal were letters, diaries — well, there was one funny note to Andy Warhol — and anything else that told more than Elizabeth ever wanted to tell about herself. (This was unlike Marilyn Monroe’s auction, which contained little of value and exploited her private life with abandon.)

I had waited till the last minute to attend, here in Manhattan. The show has toured the world and drawn thousands of people. This was to be a more “private, casual” affair on Sunday, attended by friends, and family — and of course, friends of friends. These events always grow exponentially. But it was still a much less frenzied evening, overseen by Stephen Lash, the head of Christie’s.

Tim Mendelson, Elizabeth’s personal aide of 20 years, and Sally Morrison, Elizabeth’s press rep and cohort from the old amfAR days, were there. The display was as opulent, as dazzling, colorful, over-the-top as the star of stars herself. Mr. Lash admitted that Christie’s has never ever devoted itself to one person, on such a scale as this tribute to La Liz.

* * *

WHAT WAS it like to wander from room to room? Overwhelming. And not simply because Elizabeth had saved so much — almost all of it in pristine condition. To fans who never met her, the show was a confirmation of her grand life, that she was indeed the female movie star spectacle of the 20th century. And despite drastically declining health, one who held power over the media to the very end.

To those of us who knew her, it was something else altogether. I thought the memorial in Hollywood was “it” — the last goodbye. But seeing her items, beautifully lit, masterfully arranged, I was dragged back to the wonderful madness/earthiness of her. It was the final irrevocable farewell, and one that Elizabeth herself would have adored. For one thing, all the mannequins were exactly as Elizabeth always described herself as wishing to resemble — “tall, slender, willowy.” So the clothes looked truly remarkable. Of course, had ET been here for it, she would have changed everything and cost Christie’s millions more — and, they would have done it gladly, just as everybody was always happy — or at least terrified into — doing as she wished.

But what struck me most forcefully, was how totally Elizabeth inhabited her mammoth jewels and wildly colorful clothes. With the exception of the Elizabeth Taylor Ring (once known as The Krupp Diamond, a great brute of thing) which she always wore, and the exquisite La Peregrina Pearl necklace — I remembered it dangling from her famous cleavage in Maxims in 1968 — I couldn’t recall most of the incredible baubles. Or the more wonderful (or amusingly terrible) clothes. Because everything Elizabeth wore, all the finery, and elaborate hairstyles seemed to have melded to her. She wore it; it did not wear her. When Elizabeth walked into a room, time stopped. She dragged her history with her. You were agog, one way or another. During her Mrs. John Warner period, people would riot just to see if she really was as fat as newspaper pictures indicated. But draped in Halston caftans, cut perilously low and slit up the front so high you could see all the way to Virginia, she was still every inch — and ever other inch — LIZ.

The amount of “stuff” in the auction is mind-blowing. There is so much that Christie’s launched a special online auction of more jewelry and accessories. It is still ongoing. But to have truly appreciated what Christie’s managed to display would have taken several visits. There were “Cleopatra” negligees by Irene Sharaff … mini-dresses from “X,Y and Zee”…the famous “Boom!” kabuki get-up … her Louis Vuitton luggage with her own tags, “Mine!” attached … seemingly hundreds of heavily embroidered Thea Porter and Michael Vollbracht caftans … all the Versace she wore in the early 1990’s when she was so tiny … handbags and evening clutches galore … whimsical animal-themed jewels from Michael Jackson … absolutely exquisite Arnold Scaasi gowns … the gorgeous blue Thierry Mugler suit she wore to launch White Diamonds in NYC in 1991 (never was ET more ravishing than at this time!) … scarves, bangles, beads, shoes … clanking charm bracelets by the score … the wonderful bracelet from Edith Head, fashioned of ivory turn-of-the-century theater passes … wonderfully preserved costumes from “Secret Ceremony” and “Night Watch” … and two of her wedding dresses — a yellow scoop-necked Valentino (her first marriage to Richard Burton) and the diaphanous blue and green number, festooned with tiny partridge feathers from her second wedding to Burton, in Africa! … Her art collection, which is not major, but important enough — there is a Degas and a Van Gogh — lots of crystal knickknacks, sculptures, wildly ornate baroque picture frames. It was brain-boggling! (Interesting — I didn’t spot any of Elizabeth’s many fur coats. Well, who needs PETA complaining?)

The jewels of course, have to go, though it is difficult to imagine them being worn by others. However it’s a pity the clothes couldn’t be preserved for a fashion museum. Quality couture in great condition — fashion history spanning decades. There are some boxy little Chanel numbers from the early Sixties included, and Puccis you would wear out on the street right now.

Maybe it disappeared into the online auction but I looked in vain for the jeweled bird-pin Elizabeth had shown me while making “The Sandpiper” in Paris. We were waiting, sitting on the set. She said, “This was given to me by the producer — Marty Ransohoff — and though I don’t really care about it; it cost $25,000!”

I gulped. She gestured at the pin, removing it from her sweater and handed it to me to examine. “I just wanted to see if I could make him buy it for me.”

* * *

AND WHILE it was slightly bittersweet, I could still hear Elizabeth’s wild cackle every so often, raucously enjoying life and love and sex and excess, the eating, the drinking, the drama — madly devoted to her children, loyal to a fault to her friends.

While one could make a fairly good case for Dietrich or Crawford, given their longevity, they fall short of ultimate stardom. (Marlene’s seclusion, Joan’s monster movie choices.) Marilyn became a tragic myth, an entirely different entity. La Liz was never tragic, despite her dramas, illnesses, multiple marriages. The closest to Taylor might be Katharine Hepburn, who kept up a public image even toward the last — the ultimate egomaniac.

But Elizabeth lived the life of what a real movie queen was supposed to be. A throwback to the opulence of Gloria Swanson — only Taylor never faded. She teased her audience and the media by stepping close to the abyss time and again, only to rise like a great violet-eyed phoenix, more beautiful, more determined, more surprising. (Whoever could have imagined her AIDS bravery and dedication?)

Elizabeth Taylor was IT. The greatest star, by far. I miss her. But I have so many wonderful, funny memories. She lived again on Sunday, as I gaped over her possessions. She will always live, onscreen, and in my heart.

6 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Andy Budgell says:

    I was lucky enough to attend the first day of the exhibit in NYC on the 3rd. It was pandemonium! I met two ET fans in line and we quoted her best (and worst!) lines, and told stories about seeing her in person, and how we initially fell in love with it. Overwhelming is the perfect word to describe it. It was a proper final goodbye for me to my hero, a woman whose presence has been in my life for almost as long as I can remember.

    I’ll be streaming the auction online this evening and toasting the life of an incredible lady. “The greatest star, by far.” Indeed.

    • avatar rick gould says:

      Lucky you, Andy!
      I thought about going when the exhibit was in LA, but the only person I know there is the realtor who sold her house…small world ; )

      I am fascinated that the estate tour was E.T.’s idea.
      Also, Christie’s has made a beautiful behind the scenes video of the exhibit.
      Check it out.

      As far as stars go, Elizabeth Taylor was indeed “it”!
      You won’t be seeing this kind of hoopla when Angelina and Catherine Zeta pass!

  2. avatar NSH says:

    Beautifully said, Liz. Thank you for the lovely tribute.

  3. avatar Count Snarkula says:

    I tried like hell to get away and come to NYC to see all that. Could kick myself for not making it happen. So glad you got to see it Liz. Thanks for the wonderful report. XOXO

  4. avatar Judy S says:

    I couldn’t get to the exhibition, but just walking past the Christie’s windows with those gorgeous, enormous images of her was a feast for senses. Beautiful woman.

  5. avatar Jay Gentile says:

    I was at the legendary jewels auction on Tuesday night. It was a marvelous and long evening. But the topper came when a drag queen in a picture hat and mink coat raised a beefy bare arm to bid $400,000 for the Prince of Wales brooch. Everything about Elizabeth Taylor always seemed to take on the air of exaggerated reality.