Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon
By Kate Anderson Brower
Harper; paperback, 512 pages, $21.99; also in hardcover, $32.50
Kate Anderson Brower is a CNN contributor and covered the Obama administration for Bloomberg News. She is also a former CBS News staffer and Fox News producer. She is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Residence and First Women, which was also a bestseller. She has written for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and the Washington Post.
Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon, the first ever authorized biography of the most famous movie star of the twentieth century, is now available in paperback. Brower uses Elizabeth's unpublished letters, diary entries, and off-the-record interview transcripts, as well as interviews with 250 of her closest friends and family to tell the full story of her remarkable career and her explosive private life that made headlines worldwide.
No celebrity rivaled Elizabeth Taylor's glamour and guts or her level of fame. She was the last major star to come out of the Hollywood studio system. She rose to massive fame when she was just twelve years old in National Velvet, and became the first to negotiate a million-dollar contract when she appeared in the film Cleopatra.
Taylor was a legend known for her beauty and her magnetic screen presence in a career that spanned most of the twentieth century and nearly sixty films. As if that wasn't enough, her private life was even more compelling. During her seventy-nine years of rapid-fire love and loss, she was married eight times to seven different men, including her fellow actor, Richard Burton, and Senator John Warner. Brower also writes a lot on Taylor's deep friendship with actor Montgomery Clift, perhaps the greatest love of her life. She co-starred with Clift in multiple films, including A Place in the Sun and Raintree County.
The word that describes Taylor above all others is survivor, as she was twice divorced and once-widowed by the time she was 26 years old. Her life was a soap opera that ended in a deeply meaningful way when she became the first major celebrity activist to lead the fight against HIV/AIDS, and convinced her friends, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan to address the crists. She was a co-founder of AmfAR, and raised more than $100 million for research and patient care. She was also a shrewd businesswoman who made a fortune as the first celebrity perfumer who always demanded to be paid what she was worth.
In this excerpt, Brower writes of how Taylor was viewed by herself and others in her midst: "Elizabeth never thought of herself as being larger than life," Brower writes. "And how could she? She could not remember a time when she was not famous. In 1944, when she was twelve years old, she played the lead in National Velvet and became a heroine to girls around the world. She was the last star created by the Hollywood studio system, and her global fame is rivaled only by a handful of other women: Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Queen Elizabeth II. Jackie (who was fascinated by Elizabeth) withdrew into a private world, Marilyn collapsed under the pressure, and the Queen was buffered by the walls of Buckingham Palace. Elizabeth, by contrast, flourished. In 1963, when Elizabeth was just thirty-one years old, The New Yorker magazine's film critic Brendan Gill noted that she was 'less an actress by now than a great natural wonder, like Niagara or the Alps.'
She made fifty-six films and ten television movies over nearly sixty years, but her lust for life has eclipsed her professional accomplishments. She was famous, even infamous, for her eight marriages to seven different men. By the time she was twenty-six, she was twice divorced and once widowed. Her stardom was organic and so much a part of who she was. Long after she stopped acting, the drama surrounding her personal life was on display on magazine covers at every supermarket checkout counter in the world. But beneath the psychic clutter of her own mythology was a bawdy woman, quick to laughter and self-deprecation. Her life was a soap opera that ended in a deeply meaningful way.
She was an early influencer and the original multihypenate. She was the first to do so many things: she played daring roles, like Maggie the Cat, who voiced the suspicion of homosexuality, a verboten topic in the 1950s; she was the first actor, male or female, to negotiate a million-dollar contract, when she appeared in the epic film Cleopatra; she was the first celebrity to get treatment for her addiction to alcohol and drugs at the Betty Ford Center; she was the first major star to use her fame to change the course of history through her bold and defiant HIV and AIDS activism; and she was among the first celebrities to create her own massively successful perfume line. Elizabeth was a 'lady boss,' long before the term was popular.
Still, she never saw herself the way other people saw her. Truman Capote described her first impressions of Elizabeth: 'Like Mrs. Onassis, her legs are too short for her torso, the head too bulky for the figure in toto; but the face, with those lilac eyes, is a prisoner's dream, a secretary's self-fantasy; unreal, non-obtainable, at the same time shy, overly vulnerable, very human, with the flicker of suspicion constantly flaring behind the like eyes.' She also shared Jackie's clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Jackie sat beside her husband when he was shot to death in 1963 when she was just thirty-four years old. Five years earlier, in 1958, Elizabeth was twenty-six years old when her husband, Mike Todd, died suddenly in a plane crash and left her alone with three young children to care for.
'I don't want any surprises,' she instructed her manager later in life. She had too many that had left her reeling.
J.D. Salinger once called Elizabeth, who had indigo-blue eyes, which were often mistaken for violet, sable hair, porcelain skin, and a perfect profile, 'the most beautiful creature I have ever seen in my life.' The photographer Bob Willoughby chronicled the lives of movie stars of Elizabeth's era, including Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. 'He loved Audrey and he was friends with her, but he was truly staggered by Elizabeth's raw beauty,' said Willoughby's son Chris. 'Once, he was standing close to her and he was looking into her eyes, which were just glowing, and he forgot to pick up his camera.'
But in 1964, when she was thirty-two years old, Elizabeth described how she actually saw herself: 'I think Ava Gardner is truly beautiful; I think my daughter Liza is. I think Jacqueline Kennedy is a beautiful woman - tremendous dignity. I am pretty enough...I'm too short of leg, too big in the arms, one too many chins, nose a bit crooked, big feet, big hands, I'm too fat. My best feature is my gray hairs.' Other times she cited Lena Horne and Katharine Hepburn as true beauties; she never counted herself among them, even in her private, unguarded moments.
What she saw when she woke up every morning and looked in the mirror, she said, was a face that needed washing. Liza Minnelli knew Elizabeth well, and she said that she was awestruck by Elizabeth's beauty - and neither was her mother. 'Mama [Judy Garland] knew 'em all. They were all gorgeous. But the thing about Elizabeth is that she looked like she didn't know that she was beautiful. And that could be an act, but I believed it, and you know I can figure things out like that because of mama.'
But at the same time, Elizabeth could never deny her glamour. She admitted, 'I don't pretend to be an ordinary housewife.' And the public did not want her to be. They wanted to see diamonds dripping from her neck as she traveled around the world in her yacht on the arms of a different man every few years (or less). Her life scintillated and fascinated, and it offered a reprieve for the normal housewife, and she knew it. She also knew that her beauty was a double-edged sword; people sometimes underestimated her because of it. But she was shrewd and sophisticated, and she knew a good script instinctively. She was most proud of her work in the critically acclaimed films National Velvet; Father of the Bride; A Place in the Sun; Giant; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Suddenly, Last Summer; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; and Taming of the Shrew. But some of her movies she made purely to finance her lavish lifestyle. By the late 1960s, she and Richard Burton had a combined fortune of almost $90 million in today's dollars."