The Not-So Private Life of Elizabeth Taylor
“The Elizabeth Taylor who’s famous, the one on film, really has no depth or meaning to me,” the Hollywood icon told Life magazine’s Richard Meryman in 1964. “She’s a totally superficial working thing, a commodity. I really don’t know what the ingredients of the image are exactly — just that it makes money.” At the time, Taylor was married to actor Richard Burton. Their romance was already a succès de scandale and would grow in into an epic of Homeric proportions, as would Taylor’s entire life.
Elizabeth Taylor died on March 23, 2011. Ten years later, her influence remains. Each time you read a story in print about the private life of a celebrity, or watch a TV report purporting to expose a hitherto undisclosed aspect of a public figure, or listen to a radio broadcast about the personal aspects of a famous name, or click on a site that promises confidential details on someone you like or hate, you have Taylor to thank… or blame.
The Kardashians Changed Everything
Our current preoccupation with the private lives of others is not a natural craving. It was cultivated in the 1960s, encouraged for the rest of the 20th century and boosted in the 21st century by a social media stress-tested by countless celebs. We can trace the molecular trail back to Taylor.
Taylor lived her scandal-spangled life in full view of the media. She lived it without the customary protection afforded to Hollywood stars, who might have engaged in discreditable behavior but never advertised it. Taylor, by contrast, did everything but provide footage of her private life. Her lack of discretion shocked not only her fans and the media, but also the Roman Catholic Church, which castigated her for “erotic vagrancy.” She wore the opprobrium as if it if were one of the fabulous jewels gifted to her by admirers (one diamond alone was valued at $18.9 million in 2019).
The Life of Elizabeth Taylor
Born in London, Taylor was taken to the US at the outbreak of the Second World War by her American parents and touted around studios and gossip columnists by a pushy mother until she made her big breakthrough in the 1944 film, “National Velvet.” She was 12 at the time. Under contract with MGM, Taylor appeared in a series of family-friendly films before starring opposite Rock Hudson in “Giant” and in two Tennessee Williams adaptations, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Suddenly Last Summer.”
As is often the case with child stars, she matured at a different rate to most, and instead of spending her teenage years getting up to mischief, she got married. Taylor was 18 when she married Nicky Hilton, son of hotelier Conrad Hilton. The marriage lasted eight months. She was married again weeks before her 20th birthday, this time to British actor Michael Wilding.
She married her third husband Mike Todd, a producer, in 1957. When he died in a plane crash the following year, she married Eddie Fisher, who had been the best man at her wedding. It was an inexplicable and, in the 1950s, monstrous union: Fisher was married to the popular singer-actor Debbie Reynolds and had two children. He left them all for Taylor, prompting a memorable quote from Reynolds’ mother who, when asked to describe Taylor, sneered, “Everybody knows what she is.”
Hollywood had never had a notorious woman quite like Taylor. Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman were both involved in scandalous affairs, but Taylor’s was of a different order. For a while, she was damned by media and the public they served; she was spat upon, hissed and booed in public. Yet audiences flocked to her movies. So much so that she became one of the most valuable assets in Tinseltown — a fact confirmed when she was asked to play the lead in a remake of “Cleopatra.” She demanded and got a then-unheard-of fee of $1 million. Filming was delayed time and again, once because of a life-threatening illness that Taylor survived and which helped rehabilitate her reputation. But only for a while.
In 1962, Richard Burton, a Welsh Shakespearean actor, married with two daughters, was hired by 20th Century Fox to play Marc Antony, opposite Taylor’s Cleopatra. The filming was transferred from its original location in London to Rome.
As life follows art, Taylor and Burton became lovers. Their relationship provoked pandemonium. Taylor’s barely believable shamelessness in wrecking a second family and, in the process, humiliating her husband, set the world chattering and watching. Photographs taken by paparazzo Marcello Geppetti with a zoom lens captured the pair in flagrante. The images circulated around the world. By the time the film “Cleopatra” was released, Taylor and Burton were the most outrageous couple — arguably in history — and audiences could allow themselves to be agreeably confused: Were they watching Antony and Cleopatra or Liz and Dick, as they became known?
In the tradition of all grand romances, Burton lavished Taylor with extravagant gifts, especially gems — for which she had a well-documented taste. They married in 1964. It was around this time that Taylor reflected on how she’d become a well-paid product of her own creation: a depthless, meaningless object of public fascination, almost like a marionette without strings.
Taylor and Burton’s relationship was volatile, spanning 14 years — practically each second chronicled by a media then sensing the public appetite for other people’s private lives. Unlike most other Hollywood stars of the time, Taylor had no compunction about sharing her personal affairs. Her conduct might have been ruinous, but in the 1960s and 1970s, a kind of voyeurism was taking hold. She made six films with Burton, each blurring the line between fiction and fact. The public’s vicarious involvement in her tumultuous, often alcohol-fueled relationship grew and spread to the point where a certain prurient curiosity became respectable. It is still respectable, of course.
Taylor and Burton divorced in 1974, remarried the following year and divorced again after 10 months in 1976. Taylor continued to act and remained a media magnet. She married an American politician, John Warner, and became less visible in movies. Her taste for alcohol became a dependence and, together with a strong desire for prescription drugs, became an incapacitating weakness that required attention. In 1983, Taylor became the first celebrity to check in to the Betty Ford clinic. She made no attempt to conceal her indisposition and, predictably, the media sent teams to monitor her progress.
Michael Jackson, Charities and White Diamonds
When she emerged, Taylor had found a new partner, this time from outside the spheres of entertainment or politics. Larry Fortensky was a construction worker, 20 years her junior. The eighth wedding took place in 1991 at the Neverland ranch of her by-then friend Michael Jackson. The wedding ceremony was interrupted by a journalist who, in a foolhardy attempt to get a scoop, parachuted into Jackson’s estate — suggesting that Taylor’s media appeal was undiminished.
Taylor’s unlikely and somewhat puzzling friendship with Jackson was genuine enough. She was at Jackson’s side when he was on the end of abuse allegations and proclaimed her support for him, though sickness prevented her from appearing in court for him.
The illness and eventual death in 1985 of her friend Rock Hudson motivated Taylor to support AIDs charities. In that year, she helped launch American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). She stayed true to AIDs causes for the rest of her life and could take credit for being one of the most effective promoters of LGBTQI+ causes ever.
Taylor was not the first celebrity to lend her name to a perfume — that was Sophia Loren. But when she transferred some of her mystique to the White Diamonds fragrance, it turned what might have been a scent into one of the biggest market brands ever. Nowadays, every celebrity, from Ariana Grande to Dolly Parton, has their own fragrance.
White Diamonds still holds its own in the world’s perfume market. In a way, it maintains the Taylor legend — and hers is properly a legend. There are all manner of unauthenticated stories and tidbits about her that meld seamlessly with the truth. That is, after all, what a celebrity is: someone about whom a lot is known, but a lot more attributed.
Elizabeth Taylor was a prototype. Some would say a culprit. But few entertainers leave such an inescapable legacy: Almost every area of society, not just entertainment, is open to inspection. Taylor was a maverick when she allowed fans to pry into her life. Today, we expect every aspiring star, politician and probably everyone else to be as uninhibited. While some rue the passing of what we once regarded as a personal life, the disclosure of forms of abuse once considered domestic and so restrictively beyond the reach of enforcement agencies is part of the rollback of privacy. No one and nowhere is free from public attention.
Taylor’s legacy is that she started a debate, more excitingly and decisively than any other artist, about the public and private spheres. Is it better to maintain a separation or to inquire and reveal as much about ourselves and others as possible? And which of the two benefits society most? Taylor’s answer seems obvious.
*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of “Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption.”]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.