Elizabeth Taylor lived in a diamond encrusted bubble.
Hers was a life utterly devoid of any sense of normalcy. From age twelve, when she became a child star in National Velvet, (1944) Elizabeth Taylor was thrust into an aberrant existence. Here was a young girl who never went through the ordinary rites of passage that create well-rounded, mature adults. Her school house was MGM. She never went to a prom, never shopped for groceries. Instead, she made love to adult men on-screen. While ordinary American teenagers did chores around the house and collected a weekly allowance, Elizabeth Taylor had an entourage of hair-dressers, clothing designers, and make-up men, while earning thousands of dollars a week.
In the hot house environment of the Hollywood studio, where other child stars, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, burned the candle at both ends, Elizabeth never internalized the basic vocabulary of love and affection based on common values. All she knew of the world was learned in the movies. The high drama that fueled the narratives in which she starred became, for Elizabeth, the model for her life, most notably, her mad, passionate loves and marriages.
Condemned by the Vatican and denounced on the Senate floor, Elizabeth Taylor’s romance with Richard Burton was known as “Le Scandale.”
Emotionally fragile, Taylor suffered gloriously as she and Burton plunged into a reckless romance. He was married to Sybil, a good, down-to-earth Welsh woman. Elizabeth was married to Eddie Fisher, the popular crooner.
All this during the making of Cleopatra, (1963) still — counting for inflation — the most expensive movie ever made.
In the compulsively readable Furious Love, Sam Kashner amd Nancy Schoenberger, relate the following story:
Walter Wanger and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the producer and director of Cleopatra were deeply concerned that the Taylor-Burton affair was proving massively disruptive to the already over-budget, out-of-control production. They came for lunch at the luxurious Villa Pappa intending to have a talk with Taylor and convince her to stay away from Burton. There they found Taylor…
…being tended to by a physician, Dr. Coen. She seemed unusually pale, Wanger thought, and after lunch she confided how terrible she felt about hurting Sybil. “I feel dreadful,” she’d said. “Sybil is such a wonderful woman.” Wanger had tried to comfort her by talking about how difficult it was to swim against the tides of life. “How funny you should say that,” Elizabeth said. “Richard calls me ‘Ocean.’ ” She then retired to her bedroom and slipped into a pale gray Christian Dior nightgown, claiming exhaustion. A few minutes later, when he checked on her, he was told that she took some sleeping pills. That’s when one of her entourage called an ambulance, and word got out to the press that Elizabeth had attempted suicide.
The Christian Dior nightgown was a nice, dramatic touch. The studio immediately concocted a story about food poisoning. And the cover-up worked. The Taylor-Burton affair resumed.
A few weeks later, Sybil left Burton. She never spoke to him again. Ever. Fisher, a beaten man, flew back to New York, and saw his career crumble to ashes as the Beatles redefined popular music.
Taylor and Burton escaped to a villa outside Rome where they reveled in their “guilty paradise.”
Burton later recalled that mad weekend in his diary:
We drank to the point of stupefaction and idiocy. We couldn’t go outside. We were not married…. We tried to read. We failed. We couldn’t go out. We made a desperate kind of love. We played gin rummy. E. kept on winning and oddly enough out of this silly game came the crisis. For some reason—who knows or remembers the conversation that led up to it?—E. said that she was prepared to kill herself for me. Easy to say, I said, but no woman would kill herself for me, etc. with oodlings of self pity… out of it all came E. standing over me with a bottle or box of sleeping pills in her hand, saying that she could do it. Go ahead, I said, or words along those lines, whereupon she took a handful and swallowed with gusto and no dramatics.
Burton assumed she had swallowed some vitamins. But when she went to sleep, Burton could not wake her. He dragged her into a car and sped to a hospital in Rome where, for the second time, Taylor had her stomach pumped.
Burton and Taylor claimed that they were in love. But it seems to this screenwriter that these two actors habitually blurred the line between movies and reality. The movie narrative is powered by conflict. Played out on the silver screen, mad love looks romantic, wonderfully tragic. But in real life this script becomes ugly and destructive, not only to the featured players, but reverberates to family, ex-spouses, parents and children, with often tragic consequences. The Burton-Taylor romance was suicide in slow motion.
If you enjoyed this post, you will want to read Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Fight Over Judaism.