Elizabeth Taylor, No Words of Comfort

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Elizabeth Taylor in the iconic Helen Rose designed dress for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958, directed by Richard Brooks, real name Ruben Sax.

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.

Snip!

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After receiving the Best Picture Oscar for “Around The World In 80 Days,” Mike Todd kisses Elizabeth Taylor, 1957.

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.

Snip!

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.”

helen rose portrait.jpg
Legendary Hollywood costume designer
Helen Rose, 1904 – 1985.

Make sure to read my friend Self-Styled Siren’s pitch-perfect tribute to Elizabeth Taylor. This lovingly written memorial shows why Seraphic Secret chose Siren as the Best Film Blogger of 2010.

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Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, 1950.

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6 Comments

  1. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted April 1, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Bill:
    It’s impossible to say that Todd was the love of her life. I would argue that Taylor, a star all her life, was the love of Taylor’s life. She knew nothing else but public attention and adoration, lived in a bubble so rarified we mortals could not even begin to imagine the isolation.
    But Elizabeth Taylor was special.
    At a time when Hollywood Jews did everything possible to deny their Jewishness, Taylor converted to Judaism with great enthusiasm and as several Los Angeles Rabbis have told me, contributed to Israel and numerous Jewish charities with great generosity. Her loyalty was solid. She never succumbed to the fashionable anti-Israel frenzy that grips post-modern Hollywood.

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  2. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted April 1, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Johnny:
    After 25 years as a working producer/screenwriter in Hollywood, my gaydar is like an ICBM, fast and highly accurate.
    In my Yeshiva HS, we never studied T. Williams—G-d forbid—we stuck to Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickens. Mostly, we studied Talmud.

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  3. Bill Brandt
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Robert – just last night I am web surfing and coming across a lot of Liz Taylor pictures – and one of them from a NY newspaper was of her at that cemetery in Chicago accompanied by her doctor.
    In my reading of her since her death it was mentioned that of all the men she married Mike Todd was one of her true loves – and the writer (speculating) suggested that had he lived Liz would have stayed married to him.
    But of course, who knows?
    I don’t know why I have focused so much interest in her; after all she certainly had her own scandals, but she seemed a woman of so many conflicting aspects.
    She was loyal to friends – friends that may have been unpopular at the time – and yet married 8 times.
    She was apparently a very shrewd business woman – estimates of her wealth range from $600 million to 2 billion.
    Perhaps the belief of many that she was the “last real movie star” – with public scandals and yet mystery and allure – is what fuels my interest.
    I honestly don’t know.
    I really enjoy your write ups of so many of these stars of classic Hollywood.
    Thank you.

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  4. Johnny
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Robert:
    You just needed your gaydar recalibrated.
    In my junior year of high school we spent a lot of time one semester in American Lit on Tennessee Williams. Looking back on it now, no one thought it strange to have a middle age nun leading a discussion of homosexual themes and subtexts in his works. But now I know that my Catholic education consisted of closed minded teachers unwilling to discuss sexuality with us. We just needed people that have never stepped foot in a Catholic school to tell me how deprived we were.

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  5. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Johnny:
    I confess that I am not a fan of the work of Tennessee Williams. I feel about him pretty much as I feel about Harold Pinter: pretentious, tedious, dull, preachy and all together boring.
    I remember the first time I saw “Cat.” I was a freshman in college, newly arrived from a life-long yeshiva education.
    I simply could not understand why Paul Newman would not have relations with Elizabeth Taylor. Really, I thought, this is pure craziness. Look at that woman! What kind of man refuses intimacy with such a dazzling beauty?
    Another student, far more sophisticated than I explained the homosexual subtext of the film—I don’t go to the theater, ever—and I was, to put it mildly, in shock, never really having heard of homosexuality while growing up in a heavily sheltered orthodox environment.
    P.S. The student who explained all this to me turned into a very close friend. Apparently, I was the only student on campus who did not know that he was gay.
    Go figure.

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  6. Johnny
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Cat and Suddenly Last Summer were both made before they could be presented the way Williams wrote them. Then again I’m not sure you could make a faithful version today of either play and expect it to be a commercial success. But Taylor should looked great as Maggie the cat.
    Stampanato’s death may have been one of Hollywood’s greatest tragedies but I’m sure Stampanato himself would have put it at the top of the list.

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