Screen Studies - The most public of private lives
Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor

Ellis Cashmore

Ellis Cashmore is the author of Beyond Black: Celebrity and Race in Obama’s America and other books such as Martin Scorsese’s America and Tyson: Nurture of the Beast. He is currently Visiting Professor of Sociology at Aston University, UK, having previously held positions at the University of Tampa, USA, and the University of Hong Kong. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2016


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Book chapter



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The most public of private lives

DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 19–28

Figure 1. Surrendering what once passed for a private life, Taylor learned to live in the ceaseless gaze of the media.

Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images.

Elizabeth Taylor is the most important character she’s ever played.” Vincent Canby, of the New York Times was writing in 1986, when Taylor was fifty-four. “She’s never had any real, sustained privacy, she’s had to progress from childhood to middle age with what is, in effect, a bird on the top of her head.” The bird was her reputation. “The public’s identification with her highs and lows,” as Canby called it, was incomparable; in the mid-1980s, there was no one who engaged the public in quite the same way as Taylor. She involved others in her life in a way that encouraged the kind of associations we find commonplace today.

It inclined some writers, including William Mann, to believe: “Everything about today’s celebrity culture can be traced directly back to Elizabeth Taylor.” In the early 1960s, when, for most people, paparazzi could have referred to a kind of pasta, she introduced new journalistic livestock to the world. With a combination of guile and grace, she “created a market for scandalous, often telephoto, pictures of the private lives of stars,” Mann reasoned.

David Thomson agreed: “Liz was the first modern celebrity, playing herself at every moment and for every sly photographer.” This established her as “among the first to reach that special category of celebrity—famous for being famous, for whom her work was inseparable from the gossip around it,” as David Germain and Italie Hillel put it.

Are they right? After all, in the new world of celebrity, the kind of identification Canby had in mind has intensified into delirium; fans demand access to all quarters, leading to the frenzy of gossip, rumor, and tittle-tattle about private lives that Germain and Hillel suggest are vital to any celebrity’s status. Surrendering what once passed as a private life is part of the deal offered in exchange for the fame, however fleeting, sought by aspiring celebrities.

Taylor “may not be the reason that celebrity love affairs now are part of the air we breathe,” the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro concluded, “but she no doubt helped change and define our culture by serving as a template for modern-day stars whose real-life exploits are followed even more breathlessly than those on screen” (March 23, 2011).

Change and define? A template? Caro means Taylor created a model that others emulated. This must have been far from Taylor’s own thoughts when she seemed to pursue scandal as if it were an accolade rather than a condemnation to hell. But Taylor held the philosopher’s stone and could turn base ore into precious metal. Scandals had wrecked the careers, and in some cases lives, of other Hollywood stars. When Taylor behaved badly, the scandals were priceless. Even as late as the 1980s, entertainers had not fully understood the lessons Taylor had not so much taught as invented.

Madonna might have studied the template and decided to risk a promising showbusiness career by luring the media to her den, then shocking them with apparently reckless deeds that probably owed more to calculation than to impulse. She harnessed the public appetite for scandal to her own ends in much the same way as Taylor had twenty years before. Unlike Madonna, Taylor was not deliberately trying to create pandemonium. She was just being herself, but at a time when Hollywood stars were supposed to be living, breathing images of people created by the studio. Film stars had been managed practically since 1910 when Carl Laemmle, the pioneer mogul and later founder of Universal Pictures, discovered how a single actor, if well publicized, could sell a film.

“Taylor was a transitional figure,” according to Lisa Kennedy, of the Denver Post, “a stunning product of the studio system and a rebellious force as its power waned.” But the transition was not merely in the film industry: in the late 1950s and 1960s, when Taylor showed her desire to resist the technical authority of her studio bosses and the moral authority of the church, the media, and the public, there were all manner of other changes. Taylor withstood the abuse and opprobrium, resisting attempts to stifle her and never apologizing for what others considered her faults or errors. Disapproval, for her, became a reward more than a punishment.

So, when Kennedy concludes, “She benefited from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper’s adoration and later survived the powerful writer’s assaults,” she might have added “and prospered from them.” Adored or assaulted, Taylor proved people could not have too much of a good thing, or, in her case, a bad one. Audiences goggled at her as a restless ingénue, a rare beauty at the mercy of her mother’s vicarious ambitions. They looked favorably on her first clean-cut suitors. But then recoiled as her first husband, rich and seemingly anodyne, turned out to be a boozy boor with a gambling habit and a tendency to lash out.

For much of the 1950s, no one could have thought Taylor was destined for anything but Hollywood stardom. It did not seem possible to look at her and think: “She will become one of the most notorious women in the world.” But she became exactly that. Carefree and careless in her choice of romantic partners, she was impetuously extravagant in practically everything she did. As she matured, Taylor’s English rose image wilted and in its place appeared a Venus flytrap.

Taylor the man-eater trapped and consumed any man she wanted and, to the horror of all, she wanted married fathers, like Eddie Fisher. But even before him, she snapped up two men old enough to be her father, the first married and, by her standards, bland. She left Michael Wilding for Michael Todd, a showman-cum-film producer with a gift for seducing the media and ticket buyers and who, many argue, introduced Taylor to conspicuous consumption. What made Taylor so peerless in this period was not so much what she did, but where she did it: in full view of the public. Unlike other actresses (the preferred term in pre-pc days), she repressed nothing, or so it seemed. Not for her furtive rendezvous and discreet affairs: her love life was blazingly visible. It was almost possible to see spirits of the damned following her about waiting for the Fall.

Taylor effectively turned her heresy inside out. In 1967, Lee Israel, reminded her Esquire magazine readers that other actresses had perished after sinning. (Israel’s article was republished in 1970.) Taylor showed no remorse after her initial transgression, an affair with someone who had been best man at her wedding and who claimed to be one of her ex-husband’s closest friends. Taylor’s grief at the death of her husband appeared oddly affectless when she was in the company of Eddie Fisher. If anything she displayed joie de vivre and, for a grieving widow, an indecent amount of joie d’amour. Taylor was not the first female Hollywood star to have a dalliance, though she was the first to turn it to her advantage. How?

Refusing to explain herself or rationalize her behavior, she instead acquired an irresistible, coruscating power to captivate audiences. There were lessons for anyone who chose to look: love and hate were potent emotions, so anyone who could elicit them in others had a priceless resource. Audiences turned against Taylor, but they did not lose interest. Quite the opposite.

Then a transformation. Not yet thirty and stricken with pneumonia, Taylor drew near death and was given an emergency tracheotomy. For a while, it seemed she would die and, in haste, a replacement for her role in Cleopatra was sought. Taylor recovered, though, in a way, she was reborn, as Lee Israel wrote, “with dimensions of greatness.”

Israel drew attention to the near-deific status conferred on Taylor after her initial indiscretion: “Instead of coming back from the valley of the shadow a repentant penitent washed in the blood of the lamb, Elizabeth Taylor went to Rome and did it again.”

“Taylor,” wrote Israel, “had been abused and misjudged prior to her illness” and, in a world where there was still a residual conviction that sinners suffer for their deeds, interest in her probably centered on how and when she would get her comeuppance. But the brush with mortality turned her into something other than a Hollywood star. “Other love goddesses, such as Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, were not in her league in terms of public and press attention. Everything she did was news,” recorded Britain’s Daily Telegraph (March 23, 2011). This became indisputably clear when, soon after recovering, she became involved in what became the most shameful, ill-famed, spellbinding, and fabled romance of the twentieth century. Taylor did not just appear in the news: she was news.

In her 2014 study of how the media today turn girls into spectacles, the film and media scholar Sarah Projansky writes of a “rampant” theme in the way young women are represented and which she summarizes as “the simultaneous adoration and denigration of girls.” While Taylor does not feature among her case studies, she might well have been the first. She was in many senses the prototype: people stood in awe, worshipfully admiring Taylor, while all the time maligning her promiscuity.

Projansky argues that modern media tends to divide female celebrities into high-achievers who attract adoration and others who are “at-risk” and tend to live on the cusp of, if not actually in trouble. Taylor was both. Resisting the typecasting tendencies of the media, even in the 1960s, she defied attempts to cast her out into the wilderness bearing stigmata and remained at the epicenter of the media’s gaze—usually exhibiting the stigmata.

In 1999, when asked to reflect on her two spells in rehabilitation, Taylor told J.D. Reed, of People magazine: “One of the questions they first ask at the Betty Ford clinic, to find out if you’re paranoid, is, ‘When you walk down the street, do you feel a lot of eyes are looking at you out of windows?’ I had to laugh at that.”

Taylor never appeared uncomfortable in the public gaze; if anything she luxuriated in it, exposed but never vulnerable. Contrast her with her contemporaries who mostly sought to conceal what was conventionally thought to be their private lives as they lived them. Details of Marilyn Monroe’s torment became known only after her death in 1962. David Lister of the British newspaper i believes: “We never really see a happy-go-lucky woman in the many happy-go-lucky parts that Marilyn Monroe played, because we know far too much about her real life pain.”

We know now; but, during her lifetime (1926–62), audiences knew what they learned about Marilyn from movies and publications, making her private life seem rather colorless. By contrast, Taylor’s private life was like van Gogh’s palette.

At a time when celebrity couples are a staple and our demands and caprices make it impossible for celebrities to conduct relationships outside our range of experience or thought, Taylor’s romance with Burton might seem faute de mieux normal. In the early 1960s, every aspect of it was extraordinary. Perhaps not quite every aspect: there had been relationships between married people, each with children, before—many of them in Roman Catholic countries—and probably several involving film actors or people prominent in other public spheres. It was the hysterical media reaction to the relationship that distinguished Taylor-Burton and effectively changed it from tryst into theater. As well as intimates, any number of observers were able to participate, vicariously perhaps, and at some distance. It was, in a sense, the first mediated love affair, conveyed to countless people through the agencies of newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.

Some writers, like the Los Angeles Times’ Tim Rutten suspect the leviathan actor Burton cast a large shadow in which Taylor could develop her talent for straight-acting. “Taylor was a film star who discovered a powerful dramatic persona in the penumbra of Burton’s influence,” wrote Rutten in 2010. Perhaps, but if we look closer—as we will in the chapters to follow—what becomes clear is that the two were like subatomic particles in a see-through accelerator: once switched on, they collided with each other repeatedly at high speed, while others looked on, transfixed. Taylor may have polished up her technical acting skills, while Burton learned that being with Taylor meant giving up all proprietary rights to privacy. It is often said that Laurence Olivier once asked Burton, “Do you want to be an actor or a household name?” to which Burton replied, “Both.” (Burton probably found the question insulting; on page 460 of his diaries, he describes Olivier as “a shallow little man with a very mediocre intelligence but a splendid salesman.”)

Burton was an Oxford-trained thespian with a portfolio of Shakespearean roles and a few Hollywood film appearances before he met Taylor. She was apparently impressed by how he always seemed to have been given a script to learn, lost it amid a drunken binge, and, too embarrassed to ask for another, relied on intuition. And still managed to pull off a bravura performance.

His private life, like hers, became more interesting, immeasurably more interesting, than any of his films. And some of the films in which they appeared together, notably Cleopatra, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were, in their own ways, richly compelling. Still, they were no match for what became known as Liz & Dick, a co-production as erotic, gripping, and fabulous as anything the Hollywood dream factory could produce. Mel Gussow, of the New York Times, uses the compression Dickenliz to underscore the similarities with more contemporary celebrity pairings, like Brangelina and Kimye. The media allowed audiences glimpses into what, at times, seemed a domestic cagefight, and, at other times, an affectionate soap opera. Indecorous, uncommon, and always engrossing, Taylor’s life was a narrative in its own right.

In 2005, Reni Celeste argued that Hollywood stars were “most fascinating” when seen “simply eating at a café, entering an elevator, or using a lavatory. What happens off the screen will be as important as what occurs on it, and even undistinguishable.” We take this almost for granted, even if we sometimes remind ourselves that the thrill of real lives is frequently not thrilling at all. The fact remains: audiences, or consumers, seem more interested in celebrities’ selfies than their portraits.

Today’s fans see in celebrities mirror images of themselves: they look and behave pretty much like everyone else. Taylor’s life was not so earthbound: she loved passionately, raged savagely, spent profligately, ate and drank prodigiously, and self-destructed as if she wanted to relinquish every advantage conferred on her by birth. The media covered her in as much detail as she allowed; and, what she did not allow, they conjectured. Pleasantly fascinated, consumers became complicit in an epic exercise in mass voyeurism.

By the time the curtain eventually fell on Liz & Dick (Burton died in 1984), Taylor had assumed and abandoned the persona of a politician’s wife, a part she played with her customary professionalism. It was a more patterned role that kept her and her husband John Warner in the limelight, though, in a sense a warm-up for the two new personae Taylor would assume in the late 1980s.

Today, it seems, there are as many celebrity perfumes and colognes on the market as there are celebrities. In 1987, the concept of linking a person with a product, though not completely original, was relatively untested. Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion became one of the bestselling fragrances on the market and was the first of a range of perfumes from which Taylor made her late career fortune (she was estimated to be worth between $600 million (£374.6m) and $1bn at the time of her death).

Her life restructured by serious illness and dependencies, and the death of her friend Rock Hudson (in 1986), Taylor aligned herself with Aids charities and became the world’s most prominent and influential campaigner. This is a book predicated on the view that Taylor reflected her times, but helped shape them too. While her Hollywood years are always the most fluorescently conspicuous, she was at her most persuasive in her mature life, when she embarrassed politicians into committing funds to Aids research, and cajoled shoppers into paying nearly $200 for signed flacons of her heady, floral scents (1987 prices too).

At a time, when the celebrity firmament seem to grow ever more congested as Hollywood actors were joined by rock stars, television presenters and, soon, reality tv contestants, interest in Taylor’s private life might have declined. To an extent, it did, though a couple of spells in rehab, an eighth marriage and various dependencies were enough to keep audiences captivated. Taylor’s friendships, romantic, platonic, real or made up, continued to fascinate.

As incongruous couplings go, Taylor’s friendship with Michael Jackson was up there with the weirdest. Her bewildering and, in some ways, shocking friendship with the King of Pop, whom she met briefly in 1984 then developed a strengthening bond for the rest of his life, sucked her into new controversy—though not of her own making. At the start of their friendship Jackson was the world’s leading male pop singer. Soon after, child abuse allegations surfaced, so that by the end of his life (in 2009) he was a somewhat tragic, haunted figure. Having been something of a social leper herself, Taylor probably figured out that a vengeful scandal-seeking media was out to get Jackson; so she stayed beside him during his crash, rise, downfall, recovery, and ultimate demise.

There are other points of comparison, discerned by Rafer Guzman, Gary Dymski, and Michele Ingrassia, in 2011: “Much like Michael Jackson, with whom she shared an unlikely friendship and oddly similar taste in clothes, Taylor became known more as an icon than an entertainer . . . Taylor lived nearly her entire life in the public eye.” Taylor never failed to get a charge from this: being the object of others’ voyeuristic fascination, far from fazing her, seemed her main source of energy. Jackson oscillated between exhilaration and fear.

“Just try telling the story of the second half of the 20th century without her,” David Thomson dares writers. Of course, no one has tried telling the story of the second half of the twentieth century with her either. This, as the reader will now realize, is what I have chosen to do. Taylor’s life is at the center of the book, but her times are equally important. I do not believe we can understand Taylor’s life, or indeed anybody else’s, without appreciating the context in which they lived. By context, I mean time and place, events preceding, following and surrounding people, and other background factors; all assist in fully understanding Taylor, both as an individual and a cultural figure.

Telling someone’s life story in this nonlinear way implicates us in all manner of unexpected events and with people who seem to have no relationship to Taylor, at least not in a direct way. The reader will find out how Taylor’s life intersects with the publication of the Kinsey Report on sexual behavior, in 1948, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, in 1963, the Patty Hearst kidnapping of 1979, and the launch of Madonna’s Like a Prayer in 1990. Taylor did not appear from a cultural void.

Jeff Simon, of Buffalo News, wrote shortly after Taylor’s death in 2011: “Certainly her life, unsnobbish, hardly ethnocentric, filled with divorces and illness and material triumphs, with its political movements leftward and rightward, curiously mirrors the American decades from 1950 until now.”

Simon likens Taylor to Elvis Presley in the sense that she is destined to stay an “inhabitant of the American imagination.” I believe Simon is right, though he might have emphasized that she is in the world’s imagination too and has been there for about six decades. So, when Saul Austerlitz, in 2010, wrote, “Taylor was far less than meets the eye,” he was not being sarcastic nor even mildly critical. Taylor just supplied raw material: we put together the Taylor we knew, or wished we knew or just dreamed we knew. In this sense, as Austerlitz concludes: “Taylor’s legacy lies off the screen. It lives on in the well-publicized travails of Britney and Paris and Jessica and Lindsay, the in slew of beautiful young actresses and singers upon whom the white-hot gaze of the media’s eye briefly falls.”

Like some of the other writers already mentioned, Austerlitz sees in Taylor, not just a person, but a kind of code for celebrity. Everything she did, she seemed to do in front of the media; it was sometimes as if she waited for photographers to arrive before she became herself. There was no core personality, as psychologists are wont to call it, there were fragments and experiences. It was “her iconic beauty, eight marriages (two of which were preceded by scandal), religious conversion, family, major illnesses, love of animals, political alliances and personal friendships, jewelry indulgences, that all produced ‘Elizabeth Taylor’ in the public domain,” as Florence Jacobowitz expresses it. This was the “Elizabeth Taylor” everyone knew in some way. She led what Richard Corliss calls “the most public of Hollywood’s ‘private lives’,” and Brenda Maddox, “the most public private life in the world.”

Again, I am inclined to remind readers that, while today’s celebrities are locked into a pact that obliges them to sacrifice their private lives in exchange for entrance to even the W-list, Taylor was not. She was just an ungovernable actor who opted to live differently. I am reminded of a headstrong child who, when presented with an unbreakable toy, instantly picks up a hammer and tries to break it. Taylor wielded a hammer and, in the process, changed culture. This is quite a claim, but one I intend to back up in the pages that follow. Whether Taylor takes credit or blame for the changes that followed her first indiscretions will depend on the reader’s perspective.

Taylor is already a portal into imagined worlds. Her life, or episodes from it, has been disclosed to us in many different ways. There have been several feature films, two plays, paintings, in fact a whole portfolio of paintings, the first completed in 1982, by the American artist Kathe Burkhart. Andy Warhol used a still from Taylor’s 1960 film BUtterfield 8 for his 1964 silkscreen. She is in the background of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, in which one of the central characters is a producer dispatched from Hollywood to Italy to sort out the chaos on the set of Cleopatra (the book’s title is taken from a description of Richard Burton, when fifty-four, his once Adonic looks eroded by drinking liquor).

Taylor has also appeared spectrally in two J.G. Ballard novels. In Crash, she is an inhuman presence: the ultimate sexual thrill for the protagonist is to die in a head-on car collision with a car driven by Taylor. Her image appears on a 2008 edition of this title. In The Atrocity Exhibition, Taylor appears though in fragments, images, and projections, as if Ballard is, again, conceiving of Taylor, less of a person, more as an idea. As a living subject, Taylor was multifarious, though never elusive; in other words, she took many different shapes, and had many different aspects, but she was always available. She will be no less available in her death, if only because the Taylor everyone relates to is not the flesh-and-blood mortal, but the Taylor of the imagination. I will expand this argument in the chapters which follow.

Telling a story from beginning to end is the most straightforward but not always the most enlightening route. I have remapped Taylor’s story, stalking celebrity culture to its lair. This is not a linear path. For this reason, I have provided a chronological timeline of Taylor’s life (and times, of course) from the year of her birth, 1932, to 2015, four years after her death. This is on pages 1–17 immediately before this chapter. Like any other human, Taylor was surrounded by others, all of whom influenced her to some degree or another. After the main text of the book, I provide a who’s who of the people who figured prominently in Taylor’s life.

As the reader will have by now realized, I draw on many sources, often quoting or paraphrasing other writers, sometimes dipping into newspaper archives for reportage of events in and around Taylor’s life. I have added a full list of sources in the bibliography at the end of the book, including, where available, shortened URLs (uniform resource locators) for readers who wish to return to the originals on the internet. Where it has been possible to include a page number in the text, I have done so immediately after the quotation. For example, (p. 45). So research-oriented readers can go back to sources if they wish. Where no page number is indicated, it will mean that the source document is unnumbered, or the document has now been uploaded onto the net with no numbering. Such are the challenges facing a didactic author: in common with other nonfiction writers, I strive to be informative and edifying, though without delivering a tutorial.