“OCTAVIAN, WHEN I am ready to die, I will die.”
That was Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra,” moments before she allowed the asp to do its business. Even back in 1963, a little chill would run through audiences — she had already been so close to death. And it seemed that she did indeed rule her fate.
Well, yesterday morning, Elizabeth Taylor, the true Star of Stars, was apparently ready to die. Congestive heart failure claimed her. Although the news is not quite a shock — she has been in precarious health for over 15 years — I honestly never believed I would live to write an obit on this amazing creature. She was only 79, but had lived a thousand years, had fired up and exhausted endless fantasies for herself and the millions who watched her, dumbstruck, as she commanded the Fates to do her bidding. Over the years, I came to the conclusion that Death was actually a little afraid of her.
* * *
MANY YEARS ago, around the time of her 40th birthday bacchanal, Elizabeth declared “I’m Mother Courage. I’ll be dragging my sable coat behind me into old age!” Of course, Miss Taylor was not Mother Courage. For one thing, Bertolt Brecht’s put-upon heroine had a child named Swiss Cheese. If La Liz had named a child after a food, it probably would have been Chocolate Mousse.
But Miss Taylor did endure her fair share of Brechtian woe, even with the heady compensations of wealth, privilege and glamour.
Professionally, she progressed from the child with the adult face who cuddled horses and dogs … the pristine, tiny-waisted sylph of “Father of the Bride” and “A Place In the Sun”… the voluptuous dramatic heroine of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Suddenly Last Summer” and “Butterfield 8”… the implausible ruler of ancient Egypt … the all-too-plausible drink-drenched virago of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf … and then years of high camp, rococo fun in films such as “Boom!” “Secret Ceremony” and “X, Y and Zee.” It hardly mattered as the decades rolled on, whether or not her movies made money. She defined Fame. She was Fame. Up until age 63, she was still a woman whose mere appearance in public could cause a riot. (Once, in 1993, I saw women weeping, and men slugging each other to get a better look at her, while she held a press conference at New York’s Plaza Hotel. She was attempting to auction off a diamond mask for AIDS. She looked like a goddess — more beautiful than ever in this era.)
It was her incredible public/private life that kept Elizabeth’s image afloat. Elizabeth Taylor Hilton/Wilding/Todd/Fisher/Burton/Burton/Warner Fortensky. Twice divorced by 24, a widow at 26, the world’s most scarlet woman by the age of 29 — the latter caused by two momentous extramarital scandals: luring Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds (her bridesmaid at ET’s wedding to Mike Todd!), and then snatching Fisher’s scalp from her belt, throwing it his face and taking up publicly with her “Cleopatra” co-star Richard Burton.
Miz Liz lived a real life more sensually dramatic than any of her film roles — rising and falling and rising and falling, a violet-eyed phoenix whose gaze was fixed eternally on the here and now, living only for the day. The past done, the future plump with promise. Her robust, good-natured vulgarity, childish delight in great jewels and luxury, her addictions and apparent disregard for public opinion made her unique among stars. She rarely complained or explained. When the Vatican denounced her as an unfit mother and an “erotic vagrant” she furiously replied, “Can I sue the Pope?!”
She seemed, at her height, to be intent on destroying herself, but the public couldn’t get enough of this short, stocky woman who dressed so badly and took other women’s husbands. Scandal enhanced her. Mike Todd, Elizabeth’s third husband, taught her “audacity makes the star.” She took his dictum and ran with it — rebellion had been brewing in her for many years anyway. She only married Nicky Hilton to escape a suffocating mother and an abusive father — and to have sex. That Hilton turned out to drink and beat her, scarred the girl for life.
When the Liz n’ Dick soap opera ended in 1976, she went off and married a staid Republican, John Warner whom she elevated to the U.S. Senate.
When she got fat during that marriage, it was as if she no longer had the right to live in this country anymore.
When she lost weight everybody fell at her feet again.
She triumphed on Broadway in “The Little Foxes.”
She was re-habbed at Betty Ford, twice.
She created fragrances that brought her more money than had her film career.
George Hamilton and Malcolm Forbes saw themselves in higher cotton than ever, merely being seen in public with her. (The Hamilton affair saw Elizabeth in ravishing shape and beautifully dressed. He insisted on it. Elizabeth and Malcolm were only friends. But she acted as his hostess — most famously at his 70th birthday party in Morocco — and he donated millions to her AIDS charities.)
I was the only reporter invited to Elizabeth’s marriage to Larry Fortensky, which took place at Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch. The sky was black with helicopters, like a scene out of a Vietnam war movie. The bride was 59 and looked 35. The groom was 39 and looked a little shocked. (Well, there was Michael, looking more feminine than Elizabeth!) Movies? Who needed movies? Elizabeth saved her genius for her life.
* * *
AND IT was her genius for life, and her love of life and her genuine compassion that led to the most important role of her life — becoming the name and face of the AIDS fight. Once she had shouldered the burden of raising funds and consciousness, it seemed a perfect fit — ordinary stars did charity for ordinary diseases. AIDS, the horrifying mystery ailment, had to land in Taylor’s hands. Who else could drag ‘em in, get the attention, say what needed to be said?
In days to come, I will write of some of my personal experiences with Elizabeth, starting with our fateful first encounter at the La Grande Cascade restaurant in Paris, with Richard, while they shot the interiors for “The Sandpiper.” (While the director Vincente Minnelli called frantically from the set, and we all laughed merrily over our drinks.) I traveled around the world with Elizabeth and Richard, and even after I became a dreaded “gossip columnist” the great star continued to trust me. Especially after she saw that I could, and did, use the power of my column to help her in her battle against AIDS.
And so I want to end this column, quoting Elizabeth herself. Not long ago, she told me, “Liz, every scandal, terrible headline, intrusive paparazzi, every lie — everything I came to hate about my fame — now I am so grateful for. Without all that, I never would have been able to do what I have been able to do for AIDS. Fame means nothing. It stopped having meaning for me many years ago. I thought it was absurd that I was still famous, that people still wanted to look at me or write about me.
“Then I saw what was happening with AIDS. That nobody was doing anything. But maybe I could. And I did. And why? Because of my ridiculous fame. My name still meant something. People wanted to pay big money to see if I was fat or have violet eyes or whatever. Bring it on, I thought. And I thanked God that my fame and my life had finally made sense.”
That was the essence of Elizabeth. And it is what I will miss, along with her great sense of humor, not to mention the glamour and fame she often laughed at.
Rest in peace, Elizabeth Taylor. Now you are with Richard and Mike, Monty and Rock and James Dean. Have a party, girl!