Read The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice Online

Authors: M. G. Lord

Tags: #Taylor; Elizabeth, #Performing Arts, #Motion Picture Actors and Actresses - United States, #Film & Video, #Television, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #General, #United States, #Motion Picture Actors and Actresses, #Biography & Autobiography, #Biography

The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice (17 page)

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Taylor seemed to enjoy the put-down. Aglow in their shared celebrity, the Burtons swapped insults for hours, as if their second divorce had never happened. They left together, conspicuously, at the height of the party. Pendleton didn’t speak with Taylor until a few nights later, when he went to her dressing room to give her notes on her performance. She shut the door behind him. “ ‘I have to talk to you,’ she said. I thought she would bring up something about the show,” Pendleton recalled. “But then she said, ‘Should I marry Richard again?’ ” Pendleton was speechless. “Remember, I’m from Warren, Ohio. I can’t believe Elizabeth Taylor is asking me this.

“Has he suggested that?” Pendleton replied. “And she said, ‘Yes, he was over at the house a couple nights ago—we were in the kitchen—and he said, ‘Will you marry me again?’ ” Pendleton paused. “I had no idea what to say, but when you’re with her you don’t feel there’s a right answer or a wrong answer. So I finally said, ‘Do you want to?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know.’ ” The issue wasn’t Burton. The issue was marriage: “Should we try
that
again?”

For a while, Burton appeared to have become a better man—a supportive one, even. After seeing
The Little Foxes
, he dropped all his snide comparisons to Duse. Backstage following the show, he looked “openly astonished,” the cast members recalled. “And humbled.”

But Taylor and he did not remarry. Perhaps his drinking scared her. By 1981, his liver and kidneys were already cirrhotic. Or perhaps she was unnerved by his other addiction—to young women—which Richard McWhorter delicately described this way: “He had an eye.”

Burton’s “eye” propelled Taylor closer to the climax of her personal act 2. In 1983, she agreed to star opposite him in a production of Noël Coward’s
Private Lives
. It played to full houses on Broadway and on the road. It earned them millions. But during its run, Burton married Sally Hay, a freelance production assistant. And Taylor took up with her old friend, Jack Daniel’s. “I never touched a drop before the show,” Taylor confessed in her 1987 book. “I was too professional for that, but the minute the curtain went down, Jack Daniel’s was waiting in the wings.” As was Demerol.

The play deals with Amanda and Elyot—a divorced couple—who reunite after meeting by accident while on honeymoons with their new spouses. Amanda and Elyot have an irresistible, yet destructive bond—similar to the one that had existed between Taylor and Burton. But by 1983, the real-life stars seemed linked by little more than mutual rancor—so ponderous that it sucked the air out of Coward’s soufflé. This production has “all the vitality of a Madame Tussaud’s exhibit and the gaiety of a tax audit,” Frank Rich wrote in the
New York Times
. Worse, Rich said, it belied the promise that Taylor had shown in
The Little Foxes
.

The run ended on November 6, 1983. Taylor returned to Los Angeles, where, thanks to Jack Daniel’s and Demerol, she began passing out with her eyes open. After one such frightening episode, her children and close friends confronted her in her room at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. They forced her to look at what she was doing to herself. It was, Taylor wrote in her memoir, a classic “family intervention.” On December 5, 1983, Taylor checked into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. In her first harrowing week, she banished toxins from her body. For the rest of her stay, she began to feel again, and to deal with what she felt.

“The entire process of tearing down and rebuilding on a solid foundation of self-awareness makes it possible for almost anyone to conquer those demons,” Taylor wrote.

If one has to feel and see after a long period of anesthesia, the Bel Air house to which Taylor returned was an excellent place to do this. Located at the top of Nimes Road, it has an Olympian quality. Its air was purer, clearer, above the orange haze below.

At 7,100 square feet, the house occupied only a small patch of its 1.27-acre lot—a cabin, by Bel Air standards. Taylor let the trees around it grow thick. They blocked a striking view of downtown Los Angeles for something more important: privacy. If she couldn’t see out, the paparazzi couldn’t see in.

Lush, well-tended gardens also insulated the house. Succulents grew from a retaining wall around the driveway, softening its appearance. Her backyard exploded with foxgloves, snapdragons, hydrangeas, and lamb’s ears—plants she would have encountered during her English childhood. It also held a greenhouse, in whose heavy air, tender orchids pushed up shoots. Farther back, amid a jungle of towering bamboo, was a secluded picnic table—a secret, exotic spot.

Considering Taylor’s resources, the house was jaw-droppingly unpretentious—a cozy buffer against the roughness of the outside world. Shag carpeting covered every floor. Silk-upholstered walls absorbed jarring sounds. It wasn’t a hard-edged, midcentury modern house, like the home she occupied in Benedict Canyon. It was a ranch-style house, built by Nancy Sinatra Sr., in 1960. The jewels and paintings Taylor stored in it, however, were far from commonplace—warranting high-tech security and Israeli-trained guards.

Some of her art had comforting associations. Her Frans Hals portrait and Pissarro landscape once brightened her room at Harkness Memorial Pavilion—a gift from Mike Todd during her 1957 back surgery. Other pieces recalled more chaotic times.

In her life before sobriety, Taylor had palled around with Andy Warhol’s circle, occasionally surfacing at Studio 54. But Bob Colacello, founding editor of Warhol’s
Interview
, told me that she had cooled somewhat toward him after he detailed her antics in
Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up
. These antics included downing a “Debauched Mary” (“five parts vodka and one part blood”) after arriving six hours late to the set of
The Driver’s Seat
, and, after appearing two hours late at a luncheon in her honor, demanding multiple bourbons and obsessively plucking leaves from a hedge and piling them on a table. He also mentioned a New York party at which she puffed on “big fat joints of Brazilian marijuana” before “aiming chocolate-covered strawberries at passing pedestrians.” Yet whatever irritation she may have felt with Warhol’s crowd, she appreciated his art. His iconic silkscreen portrait of her dominated her living room.

Taylor’s modest kitchen, with its wicker chairs and Mickey Mouse clock, made me think of something that Liz Smith had said: “No movie of hers quite captures the rather ordinary woman she is—full of fun, rather wacky, often wise, often foolish, her life and her motivations inevitably morphed by fame. When you are with her, it is her history and the atmosphere around her that are daunting. She is just a short, funny gal who wants to talk about what’s next on the menu.”

I could picture that gal in this house, sinking her toes into the carpet, dangling her feet in the swimming pool, whose lining twinkles with iridescent tiles. (Christopher Taylor, son of her brother Howard, did the mosaic work.) I could picture her in her upstairs bedroom—an octagonal space with big windows and a wraparound balcony that felt breezy—kookie—like a tree house or Laura Reynolds’s beatnik pad in
The Sandpiper.

Taylor loved looking down on the garden from her bedroom. One tree in particular inspired her. “Its three roots were twined around each other and then bent over to hug the ground,” she wrote in her memoir. “I think tree surgeons use the term ‘tortured.’ ” Yet it endured, renewing itself each spring. “Anytime I’ve wanted to give in to the dark forces in my life—from over-eating to self-pity—I look at that tree and find the courage to go on.”

In her house, beside that tree, Taylor chose a path to which “accidental” no longer applied. This path required bravery. She had taken challenging paths before—when, for example, she overcame Vatican opposition to adopt Maria Burton. But the obstacles on her new path were larger. In Los Angeles and elsewhere, she saw gay men, including her beloved
Giant
costar, Rock Hudson, wasting from an illness that could be neither treated nor cured. Worse, heterosexuals in the entertainment industry, who had once made money from the talents of these gay men, now shunned them.

Taylor was not one to desert her friends. “She has been surrounded by gay men who doted on her, her entire life,” Liz Smith said in 2009. “And a great many of her friendships—gay or straight—spring from her wanting to help a bird with a wing down.”

So she stepped up, changing with one decision the way the world remembers her. No director told her to do this. No booze affected her choice. “It was,” Kate Burton said, “her greatest conscious gift.”

19

Her Greatest Conscious Gift, 1984–2011

You are not here. You are nowhere.

Your son is dying upstairs, right above your head.

You can do nothing.

You can do nothing.

You can do nothing.

—Brenda Freiberg, “A Secret Gift,” 2008 (Freiberg’s two sons both died of AIDS)

It’s bad enough that people are dying of AIDS, but no one should die of ignorance.

—Elizabeth Taylor testifying before the Labor, Health and Human Services Senate Subcommittee, May 8, 1986

WHEN I LOOK BACK on the last decades of Taylor’s life, I cannot help but think of Virginia Woolf—not just Taylor’s 1966 movie but the writer to whom its title alludes.

In
Three Guineas
, Woolf set down some goals and guidelines for women, which, although they were written in 1938, jibe uncannily with the goals and guidelines of third-wave feminism, formulated more than fifty years later. They also jibe with how Elizabeth Taylor intuitively lived her life.

Woolf urged women to question patriarchal authority—to ridicule its trappings. “A woman who advertised her motherhood by a tuft of horsehair on the left shoulder would scarcely, you will agree, be a venerable object,” she wrote. Woolf told them not to mistake formal education (from which their mothers had been excluded) for wisdom. And even if they gained access to institutions previously closed to women, they should stand apart, in a Society of Outsiders, daring to oppose the majority for justice’s sake.

In 1985, when Taylor joined the fight against AIDS, she entered into a true Society of Outsiders. It was more inclusive than the one Woolf proposed—containing men as well as women. But its goals—and its adversarial relationship to the majority—were similar.

The 1980s were a harsh, smug decade. In 1979, Jerry Falwell, a Southern Baptist minister in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded the Moral Majority, an extremist organization that used religion as a pretext to scare average people and whip up antipluralism. Without Falwell’s showboating, AIDS would have been just another epidemic: a medical problem, not a political one. But in the illness he saw an opportunity to foment hate. In 1983, on his TV show,
Old Time Gospel Hour
, he called AIDS “the judgment of God upon moral perversion in this society.”

Falwell had no patience with Christian charity or forgiveness. His group was a political entity, part of the powerful New Right, to which President Ronald Reagan felt he owed his landslide victory in 1980. This allegiance colored the U.S. government’s handling of the epidemic. Because AIDS seemed only to affect marginal communities—homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and intravenous-drug users—the Reagan administration ignored it. Even within the academic medical community, the disease was viewed as a scary, controversial puzzle.

In January 1981, Dr. Michael Gottlieb, then a thirty-three-year-old immunologist working on experimental transplants at UCLA, saw his first AIDS patient: a gaunt youth, ravaged by an opportunistic infection, his immune system shot. In the next five months he saw four more. Concerned that the pattern might have public-health consequences, on June 5, 1981, he made a nine-paragraph report to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, identifying AIDS. He followed this report with a peer-reviewed paper on AIDS in the
New England Journal of Medicine
on December 10. For people in Los Angeles with HIV, Gottlieb became the man to see. Rock Hudson was his patient.

Like other physicians at the beginning of the epidemic, Gottlieb often felt helpless. “We were young doctors with young patients who were
dying
,” he said. “They had the disease; we had the frustration of not knowing how to treat them. We could offer very little, other than our sincere efforts—and hand-holding.”

To treat AIDS patients, doctors had to “make common cause with the sick,” Gottlieb said, using a phrase coined by physician and global health activist Paul Farmer. Many of the doctors, including Gottlieb himself, were conventional heterosexual men. But to serve their patients, they had to align themselves with those hardest hit: gay men. They had to join with society’s outsiders.

The need to do this divided the medical community. As a medical student in 1982, Dr. Francine Hanberg, now an infectious-disease specialist who treats people with HIV, saw her first AIDS patient. He had been flown by helicopter from California’s Central Valley to Stanford University Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Hanberg vividly remembers both the patient—and the annoyance that he caused to some of the emergency room staff. “Why did they bring him to us?” one colleague grumbled, irritated at having to deal with the body.

“Because he’s twenty-five years old!” Hanberg replied, livid. “Because it’s a new, mysterious disease. It’s going to be big. And they were hoping we could do something for him.”

Hanberg was right about its magnitude. By 1985, 15,527 AIDS cases had been confirmed in fifty-one countries. All but three thousand of those cases had resulted in death; the rest were expected to follow. These numbers mocked the U.S. government’s initial stinting response.

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