Here’s a moving and revealing Elizabeth Taylor anecdote by the great costume designer Helen Rose, drawn from her memoir, Just Make Them Beautiful, L.B. Mayer’s instructions to Rose when he hired her at MGM.
The year is 1958. Elizabeth Taylor is in the midst of filming Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The script called for only three outfits for Taylor, but Helen Rose made the best of this narrow range. Taylor’s trio of costume changes, a slip, a skirt and blouse, and a short simple afternoon frock worn throughout most of the film, have become classics—especially the frock. Later, under the Helen Rose label, this cupcake of white chiffon took the fashion world by storm, sold by the thousands, and was known as “The Cat Dress.”
At the time, Elizabeth Taylor was married to Mike Todd, real name Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen, who was flying to New York to pick up an award.
Rose narrates the tragic sequence of events:
… I was dressing to go to the studio when my daughter Jode, burst into the room. She had just heard on the radio that Mike Todd’s plane was missing! I quickly finished dressing and rushed over to Elizabeth’s home, which was close to mine in Beverly Hills.
When I arrived, Elizabeth was running through the house from room to room like a frightened fawn, completely distraught. With the help of her Dr. (Dr. Rex Kennamer) we were able to get her back into bed as she was still running a high fever. [Taylor was stricken with the flu.] I have never seen anyone so grief-stricken. Her whole life seemed to have come apart, and there were no words of comfort. For the next three days she lay in bed, hardly closing her eyes or eating, and tears seemed to flow without stopping
Elizabeth was very sympathetic and when someone she knew was in distress she, too, would suffer, and do everything possible to help. Almost simultaneously with Mike Todd’s death, Lana Turner was facing the most tragic experience in her life. Those of us who knew Lana were well aware of the love she had for her daughter. When Cheryl reputedly killed Johnny Stampanato, it was one of the greatest tragedies to ever hit Hollywood.
We tried to keep this news from Elizabeth, as we knew how upset she would be, but somehow the news reached her. She turned her face to the wall and kept saying, “Poor Lana, poor Cheryl.” Several times that day, I would get Lana on the phone so Elizabeth could say some words that might comfort her. In spite of Elizabeth’s own suffering, Lana was on her mind constantly.
Mike’s parents were buried in an orthodox Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Chicago and he had expressed the wish to be buried with them. Elizabeth asked me to go with her to the funeral… Although there had been no news of her departure, when we arrived at the airport at midnight, the curiosity seekers were already there, lined up to see Elizabeth in her misery. Someone ripped my coat sleeve trying to get closer to Elizabeth while I was trying to protect her.
Rose mentions that her maternal grandmother was buried in this same Jewish cemetery. This is an interesting editorial lapse because earlier in the book Rose goes to great lengths to give the impression that she comes from an upright Scottish Christian family. In fact, like Mike Todd and so many Hollywood Jews—children of humble Jewish immigrants—Rose worked hard to obscure her religious origins. Click here for my scoop on Rose’s (Rosenstein) Jewish roots.
When we arrived on this windy, wintry day, the cemetery was packed with people—mostly women and children. We were told some of them had been there since early morning and had brought their lunches in paper bags. I hadn’t remembered the cemetery being so rundown and littered with debris. The graves were so close together we had to be careful not to step on any of them.
It has been reported that Elizabeth threw herself on Mike’s coffin. This is not true. As we left the enclosure, she placed her hand on the closed coffin [Jewish law forbids an open coffin] and quietly said, “Goodbye, Mike.”