One could almost call it an altar: ten things you didn’t know about Elizabeth Taylor

It’s like the song goes, “Red lips, dark hair,” and those violet eyes. Those incredible violet eyes. Elizabeth Taylor was one of film’s most celebrated figures whose name was synonymous with Hollywood glamour: the London born queen of the silver screen who became a movie star at 12 with National Velvet. 

She fashioned a career that covered more than six decades, accepting roles that not only showcased her breathtaking beauty, but also her ability to take on emotionally charged characters, captivating audiences around the world with her sultry screen persona, fiery passion, and tumultuous relationships. 

The last great siren of Hollywood’s Golden Age, ten years ago the film world lost a great double Oscar winning actress, and the planet lost a superb humanitarian and tireless AIDS activist. When news of the 79-year old’s death made its way to the country of her birth on the evening of Wednesday 23 March 2011 we were heading out for our first night on the town in Dulwich, where we’d bought a townhouse in the leafy South London enclave. All the more ironic considering just the day before we had moved from Hampstead, the suburb where Elizabeth Taylor spent the first seven years of her life.

The area around East Dulwich’s Lordship Lane is a bit of a gastropub paradise but we liked the look of The Actress, literally, and seeing the choice also as a bit of a titular tribute to Liz we ventured in, only to discover the sign on the door to the ladies’s loo was emblazoned with a portrait of Taylor in her prime. No lettering, just a vintage photo to signify the sex (for the record, the gents displayed not Richard Burton but 007 himself, Sean Connery).

Serendipitous indeed. 

My partner David took one look at the sepia plaque and couldn’t believe it was the same woman he only knew of as being famous for being Elizabeth Taylor: a legend in retirement, and one that become largely known for battling ill health, challenged mobility and the omnipresent seven-strong list of ex-husbands. 

“God, she was really pretty,” he remarked. “I had no idea.”

This was often the case with people who grew up after Taylor was no longer packing them in at the box office. She hadn’t acted for the last ten years of her life, and in the prior two decades had featured in precisely two theatrical films and a few lowly television movies, mini series and soap operas.

It’s true. When your fame and celebrity becomes all encompassing that every little aspect of your life becomes scrutinised by the world’s media, the public are prone to forget what brought you to their attention in the first place. 

So let’s go for a mini refresher.

She’s the one who starred with Lassie, played at Cleopatra, partied with Bowie and painted by Warhol, who absolutely adored her. It was kind of hard not to.

Indeed, when I see those ubiquitous 1963 images almost as famous as the lady herself, my mind is flooded with ideas of image, manipulation, overexposure, eyebrows, drag, deity, divadom, dependency, glamour, iconicity, precocious, ferocious, victimhood, camp, celebrity, cult, parody, freakiness, queerness and fearlessness. 

But lest we forget, behind the public persona Liz was also a mother to four children and doting grandmother to 10, as well as great grandmother to a further four.

Warhol based his famous portrait on his own studio photo from 1959

And with her trademark class and sterling maternal instincts to the fore, she was largely successful in shielding her family from the spotlight, unlike some downmarket celebs (yes, you know who you are Madonna).

In honour of her decade past passing, here’s ten things you may not know about the very essence of fabulousness that was Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky.

One could almost call it an altar.

Elizabeth Taylor was as famous for her love life as her acting. There were no fewer than eight marriages – though only seven husbands. Widely regarded as the tempestuous love of Taylor’s life, boomy Welsh actor Richard Burton married (and divorced) her twice. Only Hollywood in its golden age could have produced such a thing. Smouldering with passion! (They met in Rome on the set of Cleopatra, while both were married to other people.) Glittering with diamonds! (Burton lavished endless jewels on the woman dubbed the most beautiful in the world.) Drenched in scandal! (The Vatican denounced the lovers’ lust for one another as “erotic vagrancy”.)

Le Scandale, as Burton called it, received an astonishing amount of attention from the tabloid press, and is considered the starting point of the modern-day morbid obsession with the lives of the rich and famous. 

However inadvertently, Dick and Liz were pioneers at inaugurating a Beatle-like adoration and public fascination, unable to travel anywhere without being hounded by mobs of fans, press, and “paparazzi”, a word that comes from the Italian for annoying insects.

By the time Cleopatra finally hit movie screens, its reputation had far preceded it: massive budget overruns, director firings and re-hirings, and a scandalous affair between Taylor and leading man Richard Burton set the tabloids ablaze before a foot of film was ever screened. The critics scorned this epic biopic about the famous Queen of Egypt, which nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox despite audiences turning out in droves to see what all the fuss was about.

Yet is it really a bad movie? Well, it’s certainly not a perfect one, but it’s large scale, flamboyant style, and operatic performances (particularly Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar and Roddy McDowell as Octavian, before he became an ape) make it ever-watchable. Oscars were won for cinematography, art direction, costumes, and special effects, though not for the “scandalous” Burton and Taylor.

At one point in their relationship, Burton and Taylor earned more than any other couple in the world and had an income that rivalled small countries. Naturally, with that much money to burn they had homes all over the world.

You can visit the villas they purchased on the Bay of Banderas, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, where their much-publicised affair really heated up after Taylor joined Burton on the set of John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana in 1963, which was being filmed around the picturesque fishing village of Puerto Vallarta. 

Photographs of the pair from their time in the area show them with bronzed skin and loved-up smiles, splashing about in the waves, luxuriating on yachts and drinking in thatched-roofed palapa bars, an unending round of coco rums on the tables beside them. 

The Mexico of those evocative photographs still exists today – and no more so than at Casa Kimberly, the colonial nine-bedroom former home of the Burtons, a white-stucco relic of their romance which for the past few years has been serving as the ultimate celebrity-chic romantic hotel bolt-hole.

You’ve heard the phrase “Couldn’t live with them, couldn’t live without them”, right? The story goes that Burton bought Taylor the property opposite his own, the two being connected by a replica of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs – and that he was banished over to the other side of the complex whenever the pair had one of their famously tempestuous rows. 

As a testament both to their intense passion and bitter fights, the bridge is still there, as is the original pink-marble heart-shaped bathtub commissioned by Liz in what was her former bedroom. A 2500 square-foot sanctuary of tranquil opulence, a night at the Elizabeth Taylor Suite will set you back something in the region of half a grand, while the slightly less ostentatious Richard Burton Suite can be yours for a mere £380.

Ironically, Elizabeth Taylor the actress is the one facet – of all the different personas that defined her – that seems to get sidelined. It’s fair to say her dramatic abilities were often overlooked in favour of her looks and her lovelife.

Was she a great actress? Yes, she was but not all the time. Liz was a very versatile performer but her abilities seemed to fluctuate from film to film, often very dependent on the quality of the material or her director. For Taylor to be at her best she needed to be challenged.

No better example of that challenge came in 1966 with Mike Nichols’s searing marital drama, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?.

Adapted from Edward Albee’s taboo-shattering play, the 1966 film centres on an embittered, volatile couple (played by, guess who? Liz and Dick of course) who invite some newlyweds (Sandy Dennis and George Segal, who died today, on the 10th anniversary of his co-star’s death) over for an all-night marathon of sex, booze, and pagan profanity. 

It’s probably the most dysfunctional marriage every portrayed in a film and Taylor is near perfect, shocking audiences by de-glamming to the extent she did for the part. Never before had she so completely transformed herself into another character. The flawless movie star was gone, and in her place was Martha, a blowsy, loud and obnoxious woman who plays cruel mind games with whoever she encounters, chiefly her equally vile husband George.

Having been hitched for a couple of years, Taylor and Burton undoubtedly called upon their own romantic troubles for their raw and blistering performances, both of which are regarded as career-bests. Their expletive-laced bickering was so shocking it even led to the creation of the American MPAA film ratings system.

Nonetheless, the movie reaped 13 Oscar nominations and won five, including acting prizes for Taylor (lead) and Dennis (supporting). Not only did she win the Academy Award as Best Actress, but Liz gave the performance of her life, and it’s among the screen’s finest achievements by an actress and actor. Taylor’s towering performance forever legitimized the movie star as an artist of formidable gifts. She had been good before, nearly great in Raintree County (1957), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Suddenly Last Summer (1959), even winning an Oscar in the wildly over-appreciated BUtterfield 8 (1960) but nothing she had done could touch her astounding performance as the malevolent Martha.

What a dump? No, what a masterpiece.

In 2013, the BBC took on the legend of the 20th century’s most glamorous love affair. Depicting two ageing former spouses who just couldn’t get on, scarred survivors of tabloid prurience and marital wars. Burton & Taylor was set in the laundry closet of 1983, seven years after their second split, when the real life pair were reunited in a production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway. She would produce and they both would star.

He took the job, resulting in a bizarre inside joke of sorts, with Elizabeth and Richard spoofing themselves in public, “crassly” according to some critics: two contentious ex-lovers playing contentious ex-lovers who cross paths in France while honeymooning with their new spouses at the same hotel and acted out their “private lives” for a live audience every night. Unfazed by the indignity of hanging out their own linen in public, it was all Liz’s idea, seen by many as a ploy to try to win back the man she hadn’t seen for five years but had designs to marry a third time. And like the characters in the play, both now had new partners. As the couple bickered on stage, to the crowd’s delight, twenty years later television viewers watched them fight off it, part Private Lives and part private joke.

That the ultimate showbiz double-act were played by Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter at first seemed like odd casting decisions. Though having had a small supporting role playing a pesky journalist (typecast much?) in the press conference scene where the couple announce their professional reunion, I was particularly won over by West and how he’d clearly studied Burton’s dyspeptic demeanour and thespian voice to the nth degree. As with the titular twosome, there was a gravitas to compliment Taylor’s glamour.

But what really brings it home is Bonham Carter’s performance, which manages to encompass the range of Elizabeth Taylor without ever feeling contrived or unnatural. She screams, slaps, pops pills, winks at audiences, and kisses her grandchildren with the same, maddening air of fragility mixed with confidence that makes you wonder—was Liz always this fresh and vulnerable, or was she always acting? 

Despite all of the problems that plagued them—addiction, infidelity, insecurity, resentment, rage and fury—Burton & Taylor exposes a fount of love, trust, and mutual respect between its two leads. Often the two clash, because they’re the only people left who will truly challenge one another. Though it didn’t quite go to plan: the play closed early and Liz didn’t get Dick again. In a curious case of life imitating art imitating life, in July ’83 Burton married his fourth wife Sally in Las Vegas while the Private Lives production was on tour. The saga was over. A year later, he would be dead, passing away in Switzerland on 5 August 1984, having just completed shooting the film adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. He was 58. 

Elizabeth Taylor once said that “I always thought that I was a fine actress, but I spent a lifetime feeling that I was held back because I have such a dreadful speaking voice. The coaches at MGM attempted to help me and I did improve, but I will never shake the fact my ghastly small voice was what stopped me from being truly great…”

Nonetheless we’re fortunate that the rather marvellous hang-ups of the lady with the small voice and big heart weren’t enough to prevent her from speaking out on issues that meant something to her. Always one to empathise with the underdog, in the last three decades of her life Elizabeth proved to still be a compelling voice in the fight against AIDS and HIV, using her immense fame to motivate and symbolise the struggle to combat the epidemic. She spoke out forcefully and often, the death of her friend and Giant co-star Rock Hudson in 1985 helped steel her resolve. That year she helped found amFAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, which has plowed nearly hundreds of millions into HIV programmes and made research grants to more than 2,000 researchers around the world.

More than just shaking hands with hospital patients à la Princess Diana, Liz also set up the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and like her pop pal Elton John raised huge amounts of money to focus on care and education about AIDS prevention. Which is why she was the recipient of a special Oscar for her humanitarian work, and why she would be one of the first artists to sign up to an appearance at a little gig in London I attended in April of ’92. 

The only time I saw Elizabeth in the flesh was at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert For Aids Awareness at Wembley Stadium on that Easter Monday. During the televised memorial to the Queen frontman, Liz sashayed on stage looking svelte in slim black pants, and every inch the screen goddess in her glittering Versace jacket emblazoned with images of her as the diva Cleopatra. Aged 60, she was newly married to her seventh and final husband Larry Fortensky, and with trademark sass pre-empted any confusion as to why she was there, reassuring us with “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna sing.” Some of the 72,000 crowd cheered, the rotters.

Liz gave a powerful and sobering speech about the dangers of AIDS which demonstrated her brave and relentless advocacy in the fight against the disease, and none more so when she was heckled by a drunken jerk to my right who shouted at her to “Get off!”

With more of that much needed sass, an unfazed Taylor fixed him a steely stare and shot back: “I’ll get off in a minute. I have something to say.”

And, boy, did she. She was utterly unflinching in her directness. Go, girl! 

“Every time you have sex, use a condom,” she told the crowd, with her usual candour. “Every single time. Straight sex. Gay sex. Bisexual sex. Use a condom, whoever you are.”

“It was amazing. You’d be standing there knocking back the free booze and Liz Taylor would breeze past. People like that are beyond celebrity. She was wearing a diamond the size of a football.” — Joe Elliott, Def Leppard

There’s been innumerable musical odes to Hollywood stars over the years — Clint Eastwood (Gorillaz), James Dean (Eagles), Ingrid Bergman (Billy Bragg), Grace Kelly (Mika), John Wayne (Lady Gaga) and of course, those memorable Bette Davis Eyes (Kim Carnes); they’ve all had their fifteen minutes in a three minute pop song. Hell, Prefab Sprout even named an entire album after Steve McQueen.

Following in those illustrious title roles, Elizabeth Taylor should have been a huge hit, yet Clare Maguire’s 2016 single didn’t quite get the recognition it deserved. Her beautifully written song is just like Liz: rich, classy, and passionate — and above all relatable to both Taylor’s turbulent love life and our own lost love dramas on heartache avenue.

Coming on like a cross between Adele and Annie Lennox, Maguire’s powerful, emotive vocals belt out that she feels like Elizabeth Taylor alone in her trailer and surrounded by strangers. The soaring melody seeps a languid, dramatic beauty, with resonant piano harmonies and opulent string sonorities pulling at the listener’s heartstrings.

Just don’t call it a power ballad. 

Liz was notoriously close friends with fellow former child star Michael Jackson. The story of this odd pairing is recounted in Donald Bogle’s delightfully gossipy book Elizabeth And Michael: The Queen Of Hollywood And The King Of Pop – A Love Story.

Many wondered why would the silver screen’s glamour queen would pal around with a disfigured pop weirdo 27 years her junior. But with her legendary maternal instincts Taylor had a history of befriending gay men who struggled with their sexuality — hello James Dean, Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift  — and when it came to MJ the connection was as clear as her diamond earrings, linking their friendship to their accelerated upbringing: “One of the reasons I think Michael and I are so close [is] because neither one of us had a childhood,” she told ABC’s Barbara Walters. “He has been hurt by so many people. I think I’m the only person in his life that has not betrayed him.” 

Well, I’m sure that comment must have gone down well with his parents and siblings. In fact, Michael’s family were deeply offended by the fact that Michael preferred to spend time with Elizabeth over them in the ‘90s. On several occasions when he was hospitalised, he wasn’t fussed whether his family came to visit him, but was over the moon when Elizabeth showed up. Katherine, matriarch of the Jackson clan, was reportedly angry that the actress was able to see Michael whenever she wanted while she had to make an appointment to see her own child.

According to writer Stacy Brown, Katherine felt that Elizabeth had stolen her son. Janet Jackson became so concerned about the psychological well-being of her family that she paid for all of them to undergo therapy. When they complained about Michael, their therapist reportedly told them to forget about him and move on, as, in his mind, Elizabeth Taylor was his mother.

Later on, he did make her part of his family: Liz served as the godmother for Jackson’s eldest children, Paris Michael and Prince Michael, though, strangely, Wacko Jacko never introduced Debbie Rowe, the woman who carried the kids, to Elizabeth. He felt that if she wanted to meet Debbie, she could introduce herself. Elizabeth was dismissive until the children were born. Bogle writes, “Rowe told the story that she called Taylor’s office and even left her address. In return, she received a signed photograph from Elizabeth, thanking her for being such a supportive fan.”

Talking of signed photographs, when I was a wee snip of a boy (okay, 19) I discovered an issue of a film magazine that printed contact details for actor sorts in their back pages. The inference was that you too, autograph hunter, could dash off a quick request and maybe, just maybe, you might actually be lucky enough to receive a signed fotie in return. I scanned the plethora of PO Boxes and management forwarding addresses and one name stuck out: Elizabeth Taylor. If I was going to write to a Hollywood star then it had to be her. I’d had some sort of strange fascination with her ever since “Elizabeth and Richard” were name checked on Cleopatra, an Adam & The Ants song on one of the first albums I ever bought, Dirk Wears White Sox.

I‘d never even mailed anything to America before and, seriously, I never expected to get a response. But in the spring of 1989 a large brown envelope postmarked California landed on the mat and it was a 10×8” black and white photo of lovely Liz, signed in beautiful violet ink to match those famous eyes. It couldn’t believe how easy that was, because sending away for an autograph of some celeb wasn’t actually the kind of thing I would normally do. In fact, the only previous time that had happened was a correspondence with Pete Burns and Dead Or Alive when I was 15.

Crazy.

Liz and Dave Stewart, 1993. Photography by Jean Pigozzi

As well as that entwinement with MJ, Liz liked to hang out with with sane pop stars too, with the reasoning that they made her feel young. She loved the company of everyone from Bob Dylan to Elton John and Liza Minnelli. 

She’s seen here in the South of France being photographed by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics in 1993 at one of the beau monde pool parties businessman Jean Pigozzi hosts at his family’s Mediterranean seafront villa in Cap d’Antibes.

Usually held during the Cannes Film Festival, everyone from Mick Jagger, Michael Hutchence, U2 and everybody’s favourite youngster Tony Bennett have all graced the annual parties at Villa Dorane with their presence, their attendance forever immortalised by Pigozzi’s camera in his book, Pool Party. 

Damer versus Damer

If there’s one person you don’t keep waiting, it’s Elizabeth Taylor. That is unless you’re David Bowie, and it’s September 1974 and you’re becoming one of the most sought after musicians on the planet, despite keeping vampiric hours due to your industrial sized cocaine habit. Pity poor photographer Terry O’Neill, who played the waiting game for a prickly two hours with an increasingly tense Taylor. Liz was on her “lost weekend”: that strange sabbatical between her first and second marriages to Burton (they had divorced one my fifth birthday, 26 June 1974).

The actress attended one of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs shows earlier that month, and requested her gal pal Faye Dunaway arrange a get-together at George Cukor’s house in Beverly Hills. Cukor would be directing her the following year in The Blue Bird and the photo session was set to accompany the expected announcement that Bowie had agreed to co-star with her in the film.

“Liz was pretty annoyed and on the verge of leaving,” O’Neill told London’s National Portrait Gallery about the incident. “But we managed to persuade her to stay.” To break the ice when Bowie finally arrived, O’Neill began casually snapping photos of the two. The result? A now-iconic monochromatic series of the unlikely pair sharing a cigarette.

Reminiscing about some of his favourite work, O’Neill told Harper’s Bazaar in 2011, that “When I look back at my photographs of her, it’s always this set that I come back to – a young David Bowie in a nervous embrace, Elizabeth in total command. In the fading light of Hollywood director George Cukor’s home, a pop star meeting a superstar. At Elizabeth’s request, I had arranged the whole thing. An unlikely meeting, an intoxicating pair; the shots were instantly snapped up all over the world.” 

The movie went ahead without the Thin White Duke, who would sign on for his movie debut in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth instead. He reflected on the Blue Bird project in an interview with Rolling Stone the following year, alleging that Liz jumped the gun.

“I never said that, Elizabeth Taylor did. It was her idea for me to be doing the film. I read the script though and it was very dry. I mean she was a nice woman and all, even if I didn’t get much of chance to get to know her. She did tell me I reminded her of James Dean — that endeared me to her— but her script was so … boring. My own films are more important anyway.”

Probably not entirely coincidentally, Bowie would namecheck “that bluebird” in the last single released in his lifetime, 2015’s Lazarus. 

Long live Lazarus, long live Liz!

Steve Pafford

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