I knew it before I knew it. My routine when I wake up is to go to personal e-mail, then to Twitter. (Embarrassing, I know, but there you are.) Different tweeters had links to unpublished pictures of Elizabeth Taylor, and I knew from those posts that she had died. Then I went to a news site to confirm it. My first thought was: Good. She’s been released from all the pain. She had about everything wrong with her that one can have. The last years had her wheelchair-bound and I suspected, if given a choice, she would’ve chosen to exit.
My second thought was: OMG, I actually had different experiences with her over the years, starting when I was 11. She was then 19 … and her eyes really were lavender with a double row of lashes. She was probably one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. This was in 1951 (winter in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but perpetual summer in California) and my parents and I were at the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Springs. That was so long ago, my friends, that there were only two good hotels! The Biltmore and the Racquet Club. To give you another idea of how long ago that was, my father would chat with Howard Hughes at the Racquet Club bar before he (Hughes, not my father) became so deaf he stopped interacting with people.
Taylor and my mother became poolside buddies. In those days, everyone was baking in the sun, with no thought of ending up with a face like an alligator handbag. Taylor saw that my mother was mixing up that ancient tanning potion, baby oil and iodine, so she told her to switch to what she was using: Jergen’s lotion. I was beside myself with joy to be on a first name basis with this fabulous movie star. She was very kind to me. Translated: she would talk to me. She even shared her comic books with me. (My mother forbade me to buy them. It only dawned on me, some years later, that it was a little odd that anyone nearly 20 years old would be reading comic books, but I digress.)
I shall never forget her kindness in signing 30 pictures of herself for my class back in Eau Claire. She was just … nice. Her beau then was Stanley Donen, who was not then the A-list director he would become. He was very sweet to me, as well. Mother, Father and I would see them out at dinner. Like the hotel situation, there were only two good restaurants: The Doll House and the Chi-Chi. There was dancing at one of these places, and I was mesmerized to see Taylor dancing, sans shoes. And I learned from the poolside chats that she had a bad back, even then, and that she had always had to watch her weight.
One day at the pool my mother was saying she and Father had a party that night, but no maids were available to babysit. At which point – be still, my heart – Taylor said she and Stanley would look after me. I could not believe my luck. How many kids, after all, could say that Elizabeth Taylor babysat for them?! We three ordered room service dinner at our casita. I have no idea what the conversation was between an 11-year-old and two Hollywood personages. My hunch is I just let them talk to each other unless I was asked a question.
After dinner, Taylor said I should do my homework (with which I traveled), go to bed when I was tired, and that she and Stanley would be outside at the pool. Well, homework that night consisted of me peering out the window at the two of them … and I was rewarded. After a while they went skinny dipping. Then I went to bed – the kid version of dying happy.
I saw her again in my late teens in Chicago. We had moved there when I was 14, and one of my high school chums, Cookie Kupcinet, was the daughter of THE gossip columnist, “Kup.” Everyone who came through Chicago was entertained by Kup. (And in those days, everyone did come through Chicago, because the 20th Century Limited, a wonderful train, was the favored mode of transportation from New York to California. Many of the movie people laid over to have dinner at the Pump Room and apprise Kup of their latest news.) At a cocktail party before one dinner, Cookie invited her good girlfriends, and Taylor remembered the Palm Springs meeting. The next time I saw her, again at the Kupcinet’s, I was in my late 20s And she remembered Palm Springs!
The final time I saw her I was in my late 30s and it was in New York at a large venue (Radio City Music Hall?) Alex Cohen was taping the first “Night of 100 Stars.” I was then married to the actor, Ken Howard, and somehow I was one of the few spouses to be allowed in the green room – in this case an extremely large space one might more properly call the green ballroom. It was a remarkable gathering. I mean, even Princess Grace was there, and all the stars were signing each other’s posters. Cohen, knowing the taping would take a long time — given the nature of the show – mandated there be no bar, thereby forestalling the possibility of a bunch of drunk movie stars.
Of course ET was there. When I saw her sitting on a sofa with Zev Braun, an Israeli movie producer, I casually said to my husband, “Would you like to meet Elizabeth Taylor?” He was thrilled. I brought him to the sofa. What I didn’t know was that she had brought her own bar with her, and was three sheets to the wind. I sort of bent my knees to be somewhat at eye level with her and picked a most unfortunate opening salvo. “I will never forget your babysitting me in Palm Springs.” Only later did I realize that an aging movie star might not appreciate a grown woman pointing out the age difference. She did not remember Palm Springs. And she did not respond to me. She just sat there looking at me with raised eyebrows. Now a normal person would feel the chill and immediately retreat. I, however, am afflicted with the truly self-defeating, if not masochistic habit of becoming nervous and continuing to talk. So I yammered on, and at no time did she say word one. When it became painful to watch, the former Mr. Howard took my elbow and led me away. He took me to Betty Bacall to recover. She liked him very much and so was quite sweet to me. (Not her usual mode, as I was later told.) I obsessed over my faux pas, but did finally pull through.
One thing you can safely say about Elizabeth Taylor’s life is that she missed nothing. She had it all – and “all” includes a lot of difficulty. She was not educated, but she was smart. She used her stardom to get behind AMFAR, and it is said that she was one of the people who took AIDS out of the closet. I suspect she would be on anyone’s Top Ten List of fabled movie people. I loved that I had met her, I am sorry that I annoyed her, and I hope she catches up with Richard Burton. RIP, beautiful girl. No one will forget you.