Photo: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of 'Cleopatra,' where they first met, in 1963. (Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images); Inset: Elizabeth Taylor during Arizona AIDS Foundation Trust Auction Honors, 1986. (Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
The Hidden Facets of Elizabeth Taylor’s Life and Loves
For a new authorized biography, Kate Andersen Browers sifted through 7,000 letters and notes to get to the notorious heart of the famous actress / BY Elizabeth Renzetti / December 9th, 2022
She was an addict and an activist, an abused wife and a star so powerful she could bend Hollywood studios to her will, a commodity and a goddess. Elizabeth Taylor was “limitless,” in the words of Colin Farrell, one of the last men to happily fall into her silken web (she was in her seventies, he in his thirties, when they embarked on an intense friendship).
If you know only the superficialities of Taylor’s life – the weddings and the jewels, the many surgeries and the two Academy Awards, the violet eyes and the White Diamonds perfume – then you’ll be amazed by the details in Kate Andersen Brower’s new authorized biography, Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon. Even those of us with a doctorate in Elizabeth Taylor studies are bound to come away impressed by the scope of her unmatched life: “I’ve been through it all, baby,” Taylor once said. “I’m Mother Courage. I’ll be dragging my sable coat behind me into old age.”
When Brower was growing up in Waterford, Conn., she only knew Taylor through the caricature created by the tabloid press, a much-married and divorced actress struggling with weight and substance abuse, hanging around with Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee friend. It was only when she sat down with Taylor’s sixth ex-husband, former Senator John Warner, that she began to learn more about her unorthodox and groundbreaking life.
“I didn’t know how amazing she was,” Brower says in a phone interview. “She was just an incredible woman, flaws and all.”
Warner introduced the American journalist and best-selling author to Taylor’s children, who persuaded her to write their mother’s authorized biography. At first she was daunted by the task, but as soon as she began researching, she was fascinated by the details that seemed almost beyond belief: Before her first marriage to abusive hotel heir Nicky Hilton, for example, Taylor’s mother forced her to undergo a virginity exam. Later, while under sedation for a caesarean section, she was given a tubal ligation without her knowledge. As a child actress and product of the MGM studio system, Elizabeth was given pills to pep her up and pills to calm her down – starting her on a path that would see her in and out of rehab in later years. Her hyper-empathy led to her paying for the funerals of people who’d died from AIDS, and also offering herself in exchange for hostages when hijackers took over a plane in Uganda at Entebbe airport in 1976 (this trade, fortunately, was declined).
In an archive consisting of more than 7,000 letters and notes written in Taylor’s sometimes messy cursive handwriting, Brower discovered the hidden facets of her life and loves – particularly for husband number five, Richard Burton. “Those love letters are just so passionate and genuine and raw,” Brower says. “The F word is in the book in a literal way.” The letters were also poignant and emotional, and perhaps could only be written from one drama queen to another. Following a fight, Burton wrote to his wife, “I love you more than anything on the sad face of this raped earth.”
After two marriages and countless quarts of Chasen’s chili and vodka, the two actors finally separated in 1976. But until then, their romance scandalized and hypnotized the world. Taylor was branded a “whore” and denounced by the Vatican. Burton, who was equally adulterous when their romance began on the set of Cleopatra, somehow escaped the public’s wrath. It was one of the many conundrums of Taylor’s complicated existence.
For example, though she didn’t call herself a feminist, she lived a completely feminist life. As a famous child actress and later a global star, she supported first her parents, then her children, and an entire retinue of staff. In the early 1960s, she became the first actress to negotiate a million-dollar pay cheque. “Before Gloria Steinem and all of that, she was demanding to be paid a million dollars,” Brower says. “She said to [20th Century] Fox, ‘I’m not going to do Cleopatra if you don’t give me what I’m owed. I know I’m worth a lot of money to you.’ That’s a totally feminist thing to say.”
Taylor’s character was forged early, for better or worse, as a child movie star. It was a particularly odd life, both punishing and rewarding, that later bonded her with her friend Michael Jackson. She felt like a commodity, used by her parents, by movie studios, and by her husbands. As Brower writes, this meant that Taylor was a cynic, constantly worried about being used, but also a person who had the courage to walk an unpopular path.
After Ronald Reagan was shot, she took out a newspaper ad in support of gun control, even though it infuriated Senator Warner, her husband at the time. She was an early proponent of gay marriage. And she found perhaps her most meaningful role in mid-life as an advocate and fundraiser for those living with AIDS, like her friend Rock Hudson, even as politicians and other Hollywood stars were too afraid to even broach the topic. She gave a speech in 1987 about her activism, which also incorporated another of her favourite things, swearing like a trucker: “I was made so aware of this silence, this huge, loud silence regarding AIDS, how no one wanted to talk about it and no one wanted to become involved. … I finally thought to myself, Bitch, do something yourself.”
Brower notes that Taylor, like all fascinating people, contained multitudes: “She was selfish and she was empathetic and she was smart. She could get what she wanted in a very shrewd way. She could be stubborn, and she was late for everything. When she walked into a room, jaws dropped.” In the end, she alone shaped her remarkable life. She did it herself.