Liz Smith: Vicky Tiel Tells — "It's All About The Dress" (Especially The Ones I Designed For Elizabeth Taylor)

“HOW TO describe Elizabeth Taylor? She was not a movie star; she was the entire galaxy of stars in one package. That was the energy she emitted when she walked into a room. People froze. When they spoke to her, they stuttered.”

That’s designer Vicky Tiel describing her friend and frequent client Miss Taylor, in her book, “It’s All About the Dress: What I Learned in Forty Years About Men, Women, Sex, and Fashion”. This is a delicious, sexy, gossip-heavy memoir of Vicky’s rise as a designer in the Swinging 1960s.

It’s lots of fun. It is dotted with little essays on wisdom she learned from the likes of Chanel, Miles Davis, Kim Novak, Ursula Andress, along with recipes she picked up along the way.

She is candid about affairs with such disparate types as Woody Allen andWarren Beatty, as well as her own long extra-marital affair with Elizabeth and Richard’s makeup man, Ron Berkeley,which eventually led to a marriage — one not fated to last forever.

If you are at all interested in fashion and how it morphed so drastically in the 1960s, side-by-side (thigh-by-thigh!) with a new liberated society, this book will dazzle. Sometimes, Vicky’s adventures become exhausting. Too much of a good thing can be enough, with apologies toMae West. But readers will adore snippets such as her erotic encounter with Warren.

During the (expert) lovemaking, Warren took a phone call from an ex, sensitively talking her down from some emotional extremity. He never lost his, ah — resolve, during this dual duty. Fun, sexy, gossipy. A good solid, witty read. (That Vicky and her partner Mia Fonssagrives creations for Elizabeth were riotously inappropriate, hardly matters. “Elizabeth never gave a damn. She was always over-the-top.”

HOWEVER, I really was most interested in Vicky’s observations on the Burtons with whom she was close for years, joining at times, Elizabeth’s cacophonous entourage.

It reminded me of my most extreme times with the couple. She makes some startlingly astute observations of Elizabeth and Richard and their strange, fabulous relationship.

Some various snippets: “Elizabeth’s eyes were dark navy blue, like the deep sea, with an indigo light some people might call violet … Did she likebeing holed up in an enormous hotel suite with all her favorite food and wine and her favorite people flown in from all over the world? She loved it! … The things that mattered most to Elizabeth were being Earth Mother to her loved ones, sex, food and drink, helping the unfortunate (humans and animals) … Her fame and beauty did not matter much to her … She hated snobs almost as much as she hated cheap producers … She loved losers as friends. The bigger the loser, the more she loved him. She was a sucker for a sob story, she believed everyone …. Her generosity was her foremost quality.”

Burton, whom Vicky clearly adored as well, was a different breed. Although he and Elizabeth were always “deeply connected,” they had “little in common.” Richard hated almost everything that Elizabeth loved. He preferred solitude, quiet, reading. And he was jealous.

Tiel believes the night he lost the Oscar for “Virginia Woolf” but Elizabeth won, “Richard never got over the loss, nor his childish jealously.” (For her part, Elizabeth was devastated by Richard’s loss.)

But there is one more Taylor story that is so “her.” After Burton’s death, after being excised from the funeral by Richard’s last wife, Sally Hay, Vicky — who still designed for Richard’s subsequent wives — was called by Sally to help her dress for the service. To Vicky’s shock, Sally also tried on three elaborate evening gowns. “Now I’ll finally be able to go and wear smart things,” she said.

Tiel immediately called Elizabeth, barred from the services, distraught in L.A. “Can you believe she is so cold?” Vicky exclaimed. Elizabeth quietly replied, “Oh, no, Vicky. She must be in shock.”

Immediately following this book, I read the complete diaries of Richard Burton, soon due. Fascinating and rather melancholy. I tell all that, later in the week.

VERY INTERESTING piece in a New York tabloid the other day, attempting to explain why Janet Jackson, who always tried to keep herself above and away from her wildly dysfunctional family, became embroiled in the matter of overturning Michael’s will. She is terribly worried that she will have to end up supporting the Jacksons, depleting her own fortune. Especially as her career, like that of so many others who were big in the 1980s and ’90s, is no longer red-hot.

Unfortunately the plan backfired, and not only is Janet still worried about having to boost the finances of the other (far less talented) Jacksons, she has damaged her public image. Although this might not be fatal. Miss Jackson has a wildly devoted fan base. Many of them think Michael’s daughter Paris deserved a slap-down (literally or figuratively).

The real singer in trouble is Gladys Knight who went on “The Talk” and said that had Paris called her a “bitch” — the epithet she reportedly hurled at her aunt Janet — “she wouldn’t have any teeth.” Support for Ms. Knight’s proposed knuckle sandwich was not overwhelming in cyberspace. She needs to talk that one back, as they say in politics.

It’s all pretty trashy, but when was it not?


ENDTHOUGHT: Boy, some things never change. I do mean the public’s ferocious desire to build up celebrities only to tear them down with ferocity. I was struck over the weekend by near-gleeful coverage of Olympian Michael Phelps’ first loss to competitor Ryan Lochte.

“Loser!” “Disaster!” “Pholp!” went the website and newspaper headlines about this young man with eight gold medals to his credit. Aside from a little bong-smoking, I wondered what innocents Phelps had killed to engender such satisfaction over his loss?

Well, now that Lochte came up short in the anchor leg of the 400-meter freestyle relay, he’s not the golden boy (with that vulgar diamond grill in his mouth) that he was only 72 hours ago. See, how fleeting backside kissing is, Ryan?

I’ve never met either athlete, but Phelps comes across in a more appealing manner. Lochte expresses his confidence with, well — too much confidence. Humility — even if it is false — is not to be despised.

As Phelps has announced his retirement after the London Olympics it would be nice for him to collect a little gold. And Mr. Lochte, too. The latter just needs a slight attitude adjustment. As does the ravening media. The people who write these headlines and stories — what have they won in life?

This column originally appeared on on 7/31/12

15 Responses so far.

  1. avatar janie k says:

    I wanted to like Lochte, but as soon as he appeared with that stupid American Flag grill in his mouth, he lost me.

  2. avatar Jay Gentile says:

    Liz, darling, much as I adore you and your column, I must take issue with you. Neither dress pictured in the photos of Elizabeth Taylor was designed by Vicky Tiel. The periwinkle 1970 Oscar gown was designed by Edith Head. I saw the Edith Head gown years ago at a charity auction (where it earned the highest price of the auction). It looked like an old prom dress without A) Elizabeth Taylor and her decolletage and B) minus the 69-carat diamond pendant.

    The kimono from “Boom” was designed by Tiziani.

    • avatar Liz Smith says:

      Dear Jay, darling…Did I indicate any of the photos showed Elizabeth in Tiel outfits?

      Vicky is a wonderful designer. For tall slender womern. What she put on Elizabeth’s tiny,bosomy frame wasn’t terribly flattering, though obviously Elizabeth didn’t agree. (Nor, I am sure, did Miss Tiel, but…she wanted to keep her job.) I chose pictures of that crystalized that over-the top period in Elizabeth’s life.

      • avatar Jay Gentile says:

        No, Liz, in fact you didn’t credit the designers. It would have been nice, however, to see some examples of the clothes Tiel designed for our favorite star. But, you’re right (of course). The photos you selected captured that over-the-top razzle-dazzle that was part of the ET aura.

        Thanks for being a good sport.

  3. avatar dew says:

    Liz, I hope you live forever!

  4. avatar Briana Baran says:

    I wonder if anyone besides me has noticed that Elizabeth Taylor is still dead, and, barring the intercession of a good houngan or mambo, will undoubtedly remain so. My point is this: While I typically don’t follow celebrity gossip, it would be refreshing to see something on this column about younger, quicker (in the Shakespearean sense), livelier people who were actually interesting for something other than infidelity, wrecking marriages, behaving like amoral fools, avaricious liars, or criminals…and if they do appear, not having them denounced as “boring” when compared to superannuated and even deceased stars of yesteryear.

    I’m even less interested in tell-all books full of plausibly exaggerated claims of buffoonery and debauchery by various aging celebrities and their sycophants than I am in the incredibly socially retarded antics of today’s so contrived and deliberate “outrageous” crowd. There are intelligent, thoughtful, fascinating actors, musicians, writers and artists out who are well worth contemplating…but they never appear in this column.

    What a crying shame.

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Briana…I’ve been keeping track….Matthew McConoughey’s comeback…the idiot young vampire couple…The Jackson saga (which appears to be quite a popular subject here!)… Tom and Katie…various books Liz has read…the interesting movie “Trishna”…comments on the “Batman” movie and tragedy….this is an an entertainment column, and one that concentrates more on serious subjects than others tend to.  Three columns in a row on “fascinating actors, musicians and writers” would have people complaining, “where’s the gossip?”  (you know–amoral fools, avaricious liars, criminals.) 

      Briana, I know you have  a very good sense of humor.   You need one to decide to read gossip columns.    And after all, dead people have to live too.


      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Briana…Oh, I forgot–Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher.  Last I heard, they were alive.  Sort of.


        • avatar Briana Baran says:

          I confess to being devastated by the mere idea of Mila Kunis allowing Ashton the Idiot to slobber on her. She’s lovely…he’s a gibbering fool.

          Maybe she’s been drugged…

      • avatar Briana Baran says:

        Ah, Mr. Wow, I do have a sense of humor. I just don’t have a single, solitary bone in my body that allows celebrity worship. Liz Taylor was never someone who wrung feelings of inspiration or admiration from me. I do understand she was human, and that she had an extremely long and wildly vivid run. The world never lost site of her.

        I suppose that gossip columns as a whole are just that: gossip. For me, the lives of celebrities are interesting for the very things that do not fascinate most people. The quiet things rarely discussed, the odd gestures, the privacy maintained, the small revelations of personality and humanity. Sometimes what they do in public I find hysterically funny…when others are expressing outrage, disgust, loathing or, alternatively, highest praise, starry-eyed devotion, and burnt offerings. As to the latter displays, often the actions that prompt these responses in others seem completely insignificant to me. The Stars are as mortal and human as everyone else.

        But then, I learned that hard lesson very early: that everyone is human. For me, the dead do live…but it seems somehow a bit pathetic that it should be in tell-all books meant to draw attention to those still alive, but fading, or in gossip columns. Rather like the carrying of Marie Antoinette’s head and body, on separate stakes…through the streets of Paris. That was a form of celebrity too.

        However. Ms. Taylor does live on in one very special way for me. My mother loathed her. Detested, hated, abhorred her. Why? Because Elizabeth Taylor was more beautiful than she was, and she was unafraid of flaunting herself, faults and all.

        For that, I will always treasure that marvelously wicked, thoughtless, earthy woman.

  5. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Almost everyone remembers her as Earth Mother. How she probably would have loved to have been remembered.

  6. avatar Dorothyt says:

    I figured Janet’s involvement out myself.  There’s no other reason she would be involved except that the family was hitting her up for money all the time. Let Michael’s kids pay – not me.  The brothrs and sisters actually believe that it is their money!  If they can’t break the will, they’ll go after the adoptions (or whatever took place) of these kids.  Dispicable lot.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      Unfortunately, I have become intrigued by this new saga in the lives of the Jackson Family Dung Beetles. It must be true that Michael is still dead, as now the whole band of miscreant failures seems to have become enmeshed in a battle royal to Get the Money. Never mind the minor children who have had the distinct misfortune to have been fated to have Michael Jackson and his arrested development as a father…they don’t count to most of the avaricious cretins.

      Fortunately, it seems that TJ, Michael’s nephew, who is a family man himself with a stable life, truly cares about the royal scions and actually parenting them. Substantial proof of this might be had in the new “joint” custodial arrangement…he is responsible for all of the so ***dreary*** day-to-day care that Katherine just can’t manage (feeding, clothing, education, parenting, comforting, teaching, setting boundaries, running the household, security, entertainment, affection, home-life, etc.), while SHE has control over exactly what her own spawn wanted: The $70K monthly allowance. TJ doesn’t appear to give a damn about that at all…he just wants the kids to have stability, care, nurturing and real lives.

      I think the judge did well. Grandma and the hell-spawn should be satisfied for the nonce, and maybe they’ll leave those poor kids be. Yes, even rich, celebrity kids can be “poor kids”. Money and fame is nothing when that’s the only reason your caretakers care about you.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        It’s no doubt going to get more interesting as the family heads for a hearing on the guardianship and the “dictum” by the estate attorneys that some of the family is no longer welcome to “drop in” so to speak. Which apparently is fine with their mother. Who apparently came to her senses after she returned, or was returned, home.  TJ is Tito’s son.  His children were provided for in the will.  The estate is set up similar to a trust so they get income like everyone else. Well, everyone else who was named in the will. The only people named in the will apart from Michael’s children were Katherine Jackson and Tito’s children.  The estate attorneys act much in the same way as trustees do in a regular trust.  Katherine Jackson is free to give what she wants to from her percentage in the estate. The problem appears to be that it isn’t enough for everyone who she supports. Or perhaps that should be who expect her to support them.  Including Joe Jackson.  Shame Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t around. She’d back on Twitter. Having at it… 

        • avatar Briana Baran says:

          Yes, TJ is Tito’s son…but he has no difficulty with letting grandma control Michael’s childrens’ allowance, and he has a well-earned reputation as a Real Human Being. He also isn’t after more of the pie…just the welfare of the kids. He doesn’t appear to be a drama queen (applicable to most Jacksons), or an abject failure at life, reality, humanity and a seeing others beside himself. I have to wonder if he is a Real Jackson.

          Katherine may, or may not have come to her senses. She now has no burden of responsibility according to the court’s current custodial division between herself and TJ….she only has control of the money…and TJ’s attitude seems to be “Fine. I have more than enough for my kids, and his kids, and I just want the kids safe, attended to, cared for and about, and parented”.

          Which is a Good Thing. Look how most of Katherine’s kids came out. Can’t JUST blame Joe for that, now can we? She’s got the money, and nothing to “stress” her, and the children get a parent for the first time in their short lives.

          I wonder why Michael’s siblings feel that they should have been named in his will. O, yes, right…because they’re a group of feebs, leeches and failures who were counting on him to die young so that they could dive into his still-warm corpse with teeth and claws. Scavengers and vermin.