Many women were envious of her. And many women admired her for her outspoken nature and dedication to those who were seriously ill or terminal.
Men lost their cool when first laying eyes on the “most beautiful woman in the world.” Some men could be intimidated by her; others trembled in her presence. And some men were so smitten that they could not live without her.
Elizabeth Taylor was passionate about so many things, as biographer Kate Andersen Brower writes in “Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon.”
Those who choose to read Brower’s sensitively-written biography about the woman with luxurious raven hair and rare indigo-blue eyes, who starred in 56 films (plus 10 television movies) and often told friends that “I’d rather be a good woman than a great actress,” will meet a very unique Taylor, unlike how she was viewed by disgruntled movie critics and generally-speaking, bad press.
Taylor was quite passionate about acting and the love for her children, family and friends. While it is true that she worshipped her extensive jewelry collection, she often donated very expensive pieces for charity purposes. This reviewer laughed after reading a statement she made to a friend: “I’d rather go to bed with my jewelry than a man. In the morning, the jewelry will still be here.”
Very few chapters of Brower’s book are redundant or boring. And people who knew Taylor on a personal level said that she was never boring. If anything, Brower points out, Taylor could be stubborn and unpredictable. Her feisty behavior often got her into trouble with co-stars, her seven husbands and movie executives. It was the latter who found out the hard way that Taylor could not, would not, be controlled.
There are so many parts of this biography worth noting and remembering. The love and support she gave to those who suffered from HIV and AIDS were so kind, and she showed the public that she wasn’t afraid to hug or touch them, like Princess Diana did when she hugged AIDS victims without wearing gloves.
It brought tears to my eyes when I read the chapters in which those stricken with HIV and AIDS would start to cry when they saw Taylor walking their way to greet them warmly. To this day, partners of HIV or AIDS victims, and their families, continue to give much credit to Taylor for her efforts to raise money for AIDS research.
According to Brower, Taylor worked closely with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading expert on AIDS during its early days. (Years later, Fauci had been one medical specialist who grew quite concerned about COVID-19 and how it has continued to survive and do much damage.) Fauci thought the world of Taylor, saying, “She was a little lady. But she was ferocious.”
For a bit of comic release from such sadness: during the Eighth International AIDS Conference, in 1992, Taylor called out Pres. H.W. Bush for a ban against HIV-positive people entering the United States. In her speech, she told the audience that she didn’t think he was doing much to help the cause and quipped, “I’m not even sure he knows how to spell AIDS.”
Thanks to the efforts of Taylor and others who fought long and hard to dismiss the stigma associated with AIDS, millions of dollars were donated to the foundation that she founded. Back in the late 1980s and the 1990s, she even witnessed a tremendous decline in deaths due to AIDS. Today, medical science has advanced to the point that there are pharmaceuticals available to help prevent people from contracting AIDS.
Many of Taylor’s closest friends were gay men. Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, Roddy McDowall and James Dean were a few. She described McDowall as “the perfect friend,” so dear to her and everyone else, Brower mentions in her book. McDowall starred with Taylor in “Lassie Come Home,” in 1943, and “Cleopatra,” in 1963.
Some of her most memorable performances were in “National Velvet,” in 1944, which made her an immediate hit with movie executives and the public; “Little Women,” in 1949; “Giant,” in 1956; “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in 1958; “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” in 1966; “Night Watch,” in 1973 (a performance not accepted too well in general, but this reviewer thought she was splendid); and later, “The Flintstones,” in 1994. It’s no secret that Taylor preferred played daring roles almost all throughout her lifetime.
Taylor, along with Richard Burton, who, by the way, graces the pages of Brower’s biography a great deal, were staunch advocates of promoting mental health awareness. Taylor had attempted suicide several times, and she went into rehab for drug and alcohol abuse. Alcohol and fights played such a key role in Taylor’s and Burton’s lives, that the substance abuse frequently overshadowed anything else going on in their lives.
Taylor and Burton separated several times, but to be without each other had proved more painful than being together. Several love letters to and from each other made them appear like star-struck teens, often writing, “Crazy, stupid love” or “My, darling (husband/wife), I love you, I love you forever.” This reviewer wished that more of these letters would have appeared in Brower’s biography. The passion that Taylor and Burton shared was unlike the on-going passion (and possible obsession) felt by other couples at the time in the movie industry.This is another sad issue because both Taylor and Burton were so intelligent, such believable and powerful actors, is it a wonder that they didn’t go nuts, what with fans and the press hounding them at home, on the street or following a performance? In one chapter, Brower describes how Taylor, Burton (and her additional husbands) and their children had to bar photographers and reporters from their door, literally shoving them out of their homes. They got that close and watched them almost 24-seven. Both actors appreciated their privacy if they shared any at all.
Brower writes of a harrowing incident when Truman Capote rode in a limousine with Taylor and Burton as they tried to leave “Hamlet”:
“Damp, ghostly faces were flattened against the car’s windows,” Capote recalled...”Hefty girls in exalted conditions of libidinous excitement, pounded the roof of the car; hundreds of ordinary folk, exiting from other theatres, found themselves engorged among the laughing, weeping Burton-Taylor freaks....Not even a squad of mounted policemen badgering the mob, in a rather good-natured way with their clubs, could budge the crowd.”
The high points of “Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon” occur upon first reading of her excellent portrayal of Velvet Brown in “National Velvet.” Her co-star, Mickey Rooney, was quite young himself then, and he and Taylor were quite convincing. Taylor’s love of horses really shone. She was known to have a way with “gentling” horses and other animals. She would often talk calmly with King Charles (grandsire of Man O’War) on and off the set. And she did most of the riding in this movie in which many endured injuries. In truth, Taylor first rode at age three, on a horse named Betty. So, riding simply came naturally to her. For her 13th birthday, MGM gave her The Pie (King Charles), plus a $15,000 bonus, a couple of nice perks, which seldom happened later in Taylor’s long acting career, with the exception of her numerous awards..
Taylor attended school on the MGM set. She hated it. On stage, when not in the MGM school with white picket fence and American flag, there was a cubby hole where her teacher would educate Taylor for 10 minutes, then Taylor would resume acting, only to go back to the cubby hole to get the facts. She wished that she could have attended a normal school. She felt isolated and lonely. Her freedom was having the chance to ride horses in meadows, to just get away and spend happier moments with the horses that seemed to understand Taylor’s loneliness.
The second highlight was learning of Taylor’s extreme devotion to family, friends and strangers. She often said if one is famous that she/he should do something good with that fame. And she detested snobs. Interestingly, Taylor never saw herself as a “true beauty.” To her, the true beauties were Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. Taylor joked once, saying, “My greatest beauty are my gray hairs.”
Born Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, Feb. 27, 1932, in London, to American parents, Francis, an art dealer, and Sara, an actress, the little baby wasn’t so adorable. Brower writes that Sara noticed the black fuzz (hair) that covered her baby’s ears, and a nose shaped like a tip-tilted button. Sara prayed that Taylor would evolve into a beautiful girl. Friends would look at the baby and say, “Poor little girl,” which annoyed Sara, a staunch Christian Scientist. Luckily, Taylor shared good times with brother Howard.
While Taylor did indeed blossom from ugly duckling to graceful, beautiful swan, she suffered many illnesses throughout her life and almost died from several diseases.
After many years of physical, mental and emotional torture, Taylor died from congestive heart failure in 2011, at age 79.
Most people choose to remember Taylor as a caring, compassionate woman, who wasn’t afraid of much, except physical pain, but never of death.
Carol A. Wright is a K-State graduate and freelance writer residing in Winfield.