The queen is dead. Long live the queen. Only there isn’t a new queen to take her place. Just as there was no second Cleopatra.
She was everything and its opposite. She was a trim, beautiful National Velvet in her youth. When she got older and expanded, she was National Velveeta but still beautiful. Actually her weight fluctuated wildly: Sometimes she resembled the “I” in the Hollywood sign, sometimes the “O.” But she was always as much a symbol of Hollywood as that sign.
Elizabeth could be stiff and wooden in public, but was always loose and endlessly entertaining in private. She was a better actress off-camera than on. Her private life was a second career that often eclipsed her first.
She tended to play dramatic parts onscreen, but off she played romantic comedy with great skill and timing. Of course, there were the occasional thunderous outbursts. Her dialogue in private was sprinkled with phrases about having a longtime interest “in underwear” and getting “my tit caught in a wringer”
* * *
I “lived” with Elizabeth Taylor for a month. I was doing a story about her for Esquire. She was campaigning for her sixth husband, who was running for the Senate from Virginia.
When I first got the assignment, I thought Elizabeth Taylor was about the last person on earth I wanted to meet. I thought she represented all that was wrong with bloated celebrity. I thought she was overrated.
I was wrong.
As I got to know the behind-the-curtain Elizabeth, I came to realize she was not what everybody believed her to be. Behind the walls she herself had put up — out of lack of confidence or simple survival — she had hidden one of the funniest women I have ever known.
I started my month-long interview by asking her how she had met John Warner.
“I was invited to a small dinner for Queen Elizabeth,” the other Queen Elizabeth said. The setting was to be the British Embassy in Washington.
Our Elizabeth said she couldn’t go without a date. The British Embassy told her they would get her a date. A blind date. The man they chose was John Warner, a former secretary of the Navy.
“He called for me at The Madison Hotel,” Elizabeth said.
She sent her secretary downstairs to check him out.
“He’s pretty dishy,” she reported.
“That’s good luck,” Elizabeth said.
I asked what happened after the date. Did he drop her off back at the Madison?
“I brought you home in very proper fashion at a proper hour,” said John Warner, the candidate running in conservative Virginia.
“Well, five a.m.,” she said.
“When did you see each other again?” I asked.
“We went to my farm in Middleburg,” Warner said.
“How much later was that?” I asked.
“The next day,” the candidate said reluctantly.
“See, I held out,” Elizabeth Taylor said.
* * *
One day, after lunch in his Georgetown mansion, Warner wanted to read me Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son. Finding the right page in a voluminous book, the would-be Senator read for several minutes. Essentially, the Lord told his son that a politician had to avoid telling the truth while not telling lies. Thanks.
“What I’ve always heard about Lord Chesterfield,” Elizabeth announced, “was that he had this marvelous personal aroma. In fact, his aroma was so wonderful that women competed to get his discarded shirts, which they rolled up and put in with their lingerie.”
“You really have had a long-term interest in politics,” I said.
“No,” she said, “just in underwear.”
* * *
One day on the campaign trail Elizabeth told how she got what might still be her most famous part. The director said she was too young and too short to star in “National Velvet.” She was 12.
“I’ll grow,” she told him.
“That’s very sweet, honey,” he said.
Elizabeth continued telling the story: “I went to work. I had huge breakfasts. Steaks. I hung from bars trying to stretch myself. I grew three inches in three months. The director marked it on his door. And I got the part. That was the last time I was ambitious.”
* * *
At one of our campaign stops, a film student told Elizabeth Taylor: “Of all your films, the one that made the biggest impression on me was Cleopatra.”
“Gasp!” she said.
* * *
Back at the Warner mansion in Georgetown, I was impressed once again by the artwork. Renoir. Monet. Degas. Roualt. Modigliani. Pissarro. Utrillo. And an Andy Warhol Elizabeth Taylor. All hers.
Struck especially by her Van Gogh, I asked her how she acquired it. She explained she had been looking for the right Van Gogh for years with no success. Then sixteen years ago, her father, an English art dealer, took her to Sotheby’s in London. One canvas, a blue wheat field, made her dig her fingernails into her dad’s hand.
“Don’t even change your expression,” he ordered. “I don’t even want you in the country when I buy it — or you’ll have to pay twice as much.”
* * *
Later in their living room where they were cuddling, I asked if Elizabeth had made John Warner more liberal, while he had made her more conservative.
“I don’t believe in labels,” Elizabeth said.
“Well, you must believe in one label,” I persisted. “You must be a Republican.”
“I’m not a Republican!” she exploded.
“Oh, my God, you are too a Republican,” the candidate sputtered. “You may have blown the whole thing.”
“I’ll become a Republican,” his wife declared, “when you come out for E.R.A.”
John Warner hastily untangled himself from Elizabeth, jumped up off the couch, and rushed out of the room, probably to throw up in the toilet.
Elizabeth leaned forward and said: “If you print that, I’ll get my tit caught in a wringer.”
I printed it.
* * *
At the end of my time with them, Warner said: “Don’t forget the present for Aaron.”
“What?” asked Elizabeth.
“You know — the arrowhead.”
Picking up a magnificent white flint arrowhead from her husband’s desk, Elizabeth said: “I had planned to wait until the article came out, and then, depending on how it came out, I’d give it to you in your hand or through your heart.”
I loved her.
God save the queen.
Editor’s Note: Aaron Latham is regular contributor to such publications as Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times. He wrote the article that inspired the movie “Urban Cowboy” and co-wrote its script with director James Bridges. His new novel, Riding with John Wayne, will be published in May.