Jorjett Strumme had a fascinating life and career in Hollywood. I first met Jorjett when I discovered that she worked as an assistant to the great costume designer Helen Rose from 1981-1985, which I wrote about here.
Jorjett went on to work with costume designer Nolan Miller from 1982-1985. And then, Jorjett was Personal Assistant and Stylist to Elizabeth Taylor for ten years.
Over the past few months Jorjett has kindly responded to my questions about her years working for Elizabeth Taylor.
Midway through the interview Jorjett made it clear that she would not reveal any details of Taylor’s multiple marriages. So, if you’re looking for juicy Elizabeth Taylor gossip, this is not the place to find it.
We admire Jorjett’s insistence on respecting Elizabeth Taylor’s life and memory. In a world in which privacy is almost completely unknown, Jorjett’s loyalty is a rare and enviable quality.
This interview was conducted via email.
How did you end up working for Elizabeth Taylor?
In 1983 I was working with costume Designer Nolan Miller when Nolan got a call from Aaron Spelling, saying that Elizabeth Taylor was going to be a guest star on his series Hotel and that Nolan would be creating her costumes. Nolan was thrilled! It was one of his life long dreams to design clothes for Elizabeth Taylor.
The sketches were made and Nolan went up to meet Elizabeth and show her the designs. When he came back, he told me that she had asked him to find her someone who would up organize her closet. She hadn’t lived in her house for very long, she had just lost a lot of weight and needed someone who knew clothes, could sort through what was there, edit and organize what was left. Nolan said that I would be perfect but I couldn’t go during the weekdays when I worked with him. So I called Elizabeth’s assistant and asked if the work could be done on the weekends and he said yes. So I went up and met her. We were instant friends. I think we have known each other in previous lives.
I continued doing her wardrobe and shopping and I started traveling with her. Traveling with her was amazing. I have been all over the world in the best ways possible. She was very generous and where she went, I went, along with Jose Eber, who did her hair and also traveled with us. We attended whatever she attended and met who she met: celebrities, royalty, all sorts of interesting people.
I planned special events, and coordinated her wardrobe. I have been to multiple Academy Awards and all sorts of other award ceremonies. I got her ready for photo shoots and commercials. I was there when she created the fragrances “Passion” and “White Diamonds.” I put together the personal part of her wedding to Larry Fortensky and gave her a bridal shower. I was her personal liaison for her big birthday party at Disneyland and her Life Achievement Award from The American Film Institute. And I spent time with her just doing things like watching TV and playing cards and laughing. We used to play our own version of Gin Rummy on planes.
Can you describe a typical day working for Taylor?
There was no such thing as a typical day. It could be anything. If I had a plan, it would always get changed. I might go to Beverly Hills and pick up clothes, accessories or make-up for her to look at. I might organize a trip or an event. There could be fittings for clothes. There could be a photo shoot. I might spend a good part of the day watching TV with Elizabeth in her bedroom. I organized make-up or jewelry. Once she told me she wanted to get a gift a for Michael Jackson and I asked her what she wanted to get him. She said an elephant. This was pre-internet so I got on the telephone and started calling people. I did the Christmas shopping. I traveled with her all over the world.
Did you get the elephant?
Yes, we got the elephant. We created a costume for her to wear when she surprised Michael. There is a great video on You Tube.
What TV shows did you watch with Elizabeth?
Movies usually, and it could be any movie, lots of old movies. We were both fans of Claude Raines. We watched Jaws (’75) one night and that was fun. One of the rare occasions I stayed overnight at her house. (I did not live at her house.) She was in one bedroom and I was in another bedroom and we watched the movie, all the while we were on the intercom talking about the movie. It was fun.
Did you ever talk about her days as a Hollywood star?
She talked about her movie days. I asked a lot of questions because I am such a movie buff. Or sometimes, watching movies or seeing something would trigger a great story about someone or something. She was brilliant story teller and she was really funny. Elizabeth had a fabulous sense of humor. However, Elizabeth was a very present person. Her focus was always in the here and now.
Being that I grew up in an American small town and went to school and did all of the things that typical kids did, like go to prom, etc. She would ask me about that. When I went to my ten year high school reunion, she was so interested and concerned. Did I have everything I needed? What was I going to wear? Did I want to borrow any jewelry? The minute I got back, she wanted to know every detail. It was fairly uneventful but she was curious.
Did she discuss her various husbands and lovers?
She and I talked about everything. However, I am very protective of Elizabeth’s privacy.
Tell me about Elizabeth as a mother.
Elizabeth had a great relationship with her children. She was close to all of them, talked to them all the time and they were at the house often. She loved being a Grandmother. She was close to all of the Grandchildren, very proud of them. She was also close to her brother’s children and her step-children. Her Grandchildren are carrying on her legacy with The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
I have heard that Elizabeth Taylor amassed an impressive collection of Impressionist art.
Elizabeth’s house was full of museum quality paintings: Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and in her bedroom suite, there were framed pictures made by one of her children, hanging next to these artists. That’s the way she was. Her daughter, Liza Todd-Tivey, is a renowned sculptor. Liza’s art was all over the house.
Did Elizabeth read books or magazines. If so, can you remember any?
Yes, she read all the time! She was one of the most well read people I have ever known. It was impressive. She knew amazing details about history and she could quote classic literature. She would come out with some bizarre detail about something – like why Pumpernickel Bread is named that – some story about Napoleon’s horse – and I would be, Wow!
The funny thing is that she used to lament that she didn’t go to a real school. She went to the studio school which at M-G-M, was the Little Red School House. She said their education was good and they had to take State tests every year to check on what they were learning.
With all of the reading she had done, she was far more educated than many people I knew who had serious college degrees. When we traveled, with LOTS of luggage, there was always a suitcase full of books and it was not uncommon for books to be sent on ahead while we were on the road. Remember, this was Pre-laptop, tablet, smart phone or Kindle. Reading meant having a physical book.
She had a book, one summer, that was a draft of a novel written by someone she knew. She kept telling me the story, saying “listen to this.” I said, “Can I read it when you are finished?” She wasn’t supposed to give it to anyone else, so she ended up reading it out loud to me. She liked to discuss books with her friends because she was always excited about what she was reading.
She read history, literature and fiction. She loved Dick Francis mystery novels. She was always up on current fiction. I can remember when the “Silence of the Lambs” novel was getting passed around. I was the last one to read it because I was reluctant.
Magazines were random. I can remember having “Vogue” and “Vanity Fair” on airplanes and passing them back and forth or looking at them at the same time.
Did you ever discuss her work as an actress?
We didn’t talk about acting really, we talked about her movies. She knew I was a movie buff and I liked to ask questions about some of the people with whom she had worked at M-G-M. Elizabeth loved Jennifer Jones. And I asked lots of questions about her costumes and the costume designers with whom she worked.
She made one feature film during my time with her. It was a Franco Zeffirelli film called Young Toscanini (’88). It was made in Italy and that was my first trip to Europe.
She made 5 television movies during my time: Sweet Bird of Youth(1989), Poker Alice (’87), There Must Be A Pony (’86) and Malice In Wonderland (’85). She also taped two episodes of The Simpsons (’92-’93).
The night of the AFI award, I was in awe because, once I met her, I never thought about Elizabeth being “Elizabeth Taylor – famous film star.” She was Elizabeth, my friend and yes, my employer, but she treated me and others who worked with her like family. Like beloved family. Sitting there, at the AFI tribute, watching the montage segments that George Stevens, Jr. put together so beautifully and brilliantly. I felt so proud of her. I was sitting with legendary hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff, who was one of my closest and dearest friends, and Sydney had known Elizabeth since she was a little girl. Both of us had tears running down our cheeks all evening.
And the night of the AFI award, I was flashing back to my childhood, in Seaside, Oregon, when I would watch things like this on TV and dream about being able to be there someday. Here I was — with Elizabeth Taylor — pretty amazing!
Elizabeth, as I have said before, was very much a person who lived in the present so we weren’t just sitting around talking about old movies. We were usually talking about present day things. Our old movie conversations were usually triggered by something like a classic film on TCM. And, as I have said before, she knew how much I loved movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
There aren’t as many stories as just random factoids: like how much she loved Spencer Tracy, and how she called him Pops and he called her Kitten for the rest of their lives after making Father of the Bride (’50). She told me about Joan Crawford having her banned from the set of Torch Song (’53), which starred Michael Wilding, Elizabeth’s husband at the time. She talked a lot about how hard it was to be a kid at the studio, having to work like an adult and go to school like a kid.
Or, when she found out that I wore her costumes in the Helen Rose Costume Show, she said “How did you wear your hair?” I told her it was like her hair in Suddenly Last Summer (’59). She said, “Get me the hair brush and the hair spray,” and we sat on her bed and she styled my hair. I hadn’t known her very long and that was pretty amazing.
A lot of what we talked about in terms of old movies were just silly things. One night State Fair (’45) was on and we were both loving Jeanne Crain’s dresses in that movie. We both loved the clothes from that time period. Or another morning, we were watching Deception (’46) with Claude Rains and Bette Davis and talking about how attractive we both found Claude Rains in that movie.
Also, all of my conversations with any of the people I knew in Hollywood were conversations with my friends and like conversations with any of my friends, famous or not, there were many things said that I would never repeat. The stories I was told, these conversations, were simply two friends talking. It wasn’t me doing an interview with them.
I know some of my answers have not been very exciting but this is hard. There is such a fine line between telling a cute story and revealing things that I don’t feel are mine to reveal. Things that were told to me as a trusted friend. I am probably over cautious but I so respect the fact that these people, who had so little privacy, trusted me enough to take me into the private parts of their lives.
And there is still the part of me who is the kid, who grew up in Seaside, Oregon, population 6,000, if I had been living on the moon, I wouldn’t have been any farther away from Hollywood. I was awestruck by Hollywood and it was my goal to get there from the time I was a very little kid. Then I was there, actually knowing these people and it was incredible. What a gift I was given!
Nolan Miller used to affectionately joke that I wasn’t a real human, that I was actually a walking montage of film clips. I wonder sometimes if he wasn’t right.
One last question: How did your parents come to such a unique spelling of your name?
My mother’s mother was named Georgette and my mom always planned to name me after her. My mom loved the name but didn’t think it looked pretty when it was spelled out that way. So, she sat down and spelled it every way she could think of and she thought this version looked the prettiest. I have always loved my name.