Thursday, July 07, 2011

FAREWELL ELIZABETH

A longer time ago than I had imagined, when the world was still full of hope and movie stars were real movie stars, I had a friendship with Elizabeth Taylor, the then most legendary name on gossipy lips. I had met her at the funeral of Laurence Harvey, a delectably outrageous and gifted actor, whose death was a kind of dark present to her, as her career was in mid-sag, and she really knew how to give great funeral. She stood at the back of the Episcopal church in Westwood at the end of the service, handing out tiny bouquets of violets, that not just incidentally matched her eyes. Truman Capote had consecrated her in print, memorializing those remarkable eyes, stamping them forever violet in the popular imagination. A woman at the funeral who probably thought she looked like Elizabeth Taylor, all but decomposed in the face of the real thing, her make-up running, black hair growing limp and lank, until pieces of her white scalp showed.

The funeral’s solemnity was lifted by an impassioned eulogy given by John Ireland, Harvey’s closest friend, and, up to that moment, no more than a mediocre film actor. But when he cried as to a lost ship on stormy seas “Larushka! Larushka!” even those who might not have been that close to Harvey wept. The ‘Larushka’ was both poignant and a clue to how inappropriate the church was, as Larry, though his acting was high end British, was a Lithuanian Jew. Still, the location worked well for Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and I became friends in our sadness, mourning Larry, who was almost singlehandedly a justification for Hollywood, stylish and witty, a genuine toff, with an English accent so elegant it might have deluded a listener into believing the town and the industry had been designed by Evelyn Waugh. Larry had left several paintings to Elizabeth, and they hung now in her house on Cordell Drive, rented from Tom Tryon, a movie actor turned successful novelist, which still didn’t mean he had taste. The bedroom was wallpapered or rather wall-aluminumed with a metallic pattern that acted like mirrors, so Elizabeth could see herself every way she turned.

She was at the time romantically involved with Henry Wynberg, who was later to be charged with turning speedometers back so the mileage wouldn’t register on the used cars he was selling. Even without that, he was hardly a match for her. Max Lerner, the great liberal columnist who wrote for the New York Post, had a theory that Elizabeth went from weak man to strong man to weak again, and so on and so on and on and on. Henry fell, or rather rose-- as he was with Elizabeth-- into the weak category. Richard Burton, her great love, whom she had twice married, was on the phone with her frequently from Europe. She was paying his bills in spite of their having divorced for the second and final time, perhaps the reason why she seemed to be under financial pressure. Her son by Michael Wilding was going through a crisis with his wife, from whom he was separated: she was not going to permit him visitation with their child, the air being heavy with the perfume of hoped-for cash, the heady scent blowing towards Granny Elizabeth. “We’ll just have to get us another baby,” Elizabeth said blithely. I was stunned, my love of babies being even more fervent than my love of movie stars, so I’d assumed that her maternal instincts were as powerful as the best of her portrayals.

Our friendship was intensified as Hollywood friendships go by Elizabeth’s wish to play the leading character in my novel The Motherland. The sharp-tongued agent Sue Mengers, at the pinnacle of her power, quipped “Tell her to get the newspaper off her lap.” It took me a few minutes to understand that she was saying Elizabeth was playing with herself. Apparently she was no longer bankable. No one was standing in line to make movies with her. When, on top of that, Burton became involved with Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, Taylor’s vertebrae gave out. She took to a hospital bed in her home, in traction, legs in the air, attached to a harness with pulleys. Max, who was intermittently present, feared for her long-term health and her spine, wondering if the doctors knew what they were doing, if the weights on those pulleys couldn’t possibly cripple her. But Elizabeth seemed sanguine if not downright cheerful about the whole ordeal, sickness having been a more faithful companion in her life than any of the men she had run with and through, except for the charismatic producer Mike Todd, who did not leave voluntarily, but crashed in his private plane, ironically christened The Lucky Liz.

“When Mike was making ‘Around the World in 80 Days,” she told me one day when I was visiting her semi-sickbed, “we really needed a holiday. So when we were in Hong Kong I got appendicitis.” There was no duplicity in the declaration, just a kind of innocent ditty that a composer would sing as he said ‘And then I wrote…”

She was seeing a great deal of herself between the wall d├ęcor that reflected her image everywhere she turned, and the TV, on which her old movies were almost constantly running, with herself, in traction, as a captive and captivated audience. In the TV Guide sitting atop the set, I saw that while one channel was showing ‘National Velvet’, in which she had starred as a child, another featured Village of the Damned. I asked her if she had ever seen it. “No,” she said, “but I read the book.” It was hard not to feel affection for her. A movie star who actually read.

Laurence Harvey, with his irrepressible spirit, was visiting her in dreams. This was a phenomenon I found neither far-fetched nor bizarre, as both Elizabeth and I were interested in metaphysics, convinced that signs and omens of other dimensions are everywhere, that ‘here’ is probably not all there is,. “I woke up in the middle of the night one night, sat bolt upright, looked at the clock,” Elizabeth told me once, “and I knew Gary Cooper had died. The next day it was in the papers, and the time of his death was exactly when I woke up.”

I ran that by a girlfriend of mine, the psychic Patricia McLaine, who said “What a shame, with her psychic gifts, -- Pisces with her moon in Scorpio,-- that she wastes it on something negative.” Burton’s sun, Pattie told me, was on Eliabeth’s moon, (sounds kind of dominating and kinky) so they were astrologically perfectly aligned, star-wise, and should never have parted. “But what can you do,” Pattie sighed. “It’s Hollywood.”

Though she was not well enough yet to have any grand parties, Elizabeth did manage to pull herself together sufficiently to have a picnic on her patio one Sunday. Informal as it was, she still managed to be quite late, a behavior usually allotted to time and make-up and allowing for an entrance at other people’s houses. Her entrance that day was edged with pathos: she was clearly in pain. As she slathered mayonnaise and mustard on her third hot dog bun, I resisted the impulse to spit on it to keep her from over-eating. She was a very tiny woman, so the acquired weight was beginning to seem ominous, as she moved into Muu-Muus, with turbans twisted on her head. Max Lerner was present at that luncheon, his eyes filled with adoration and concern.

“The nerve of him!” she told me one day afterwards. “He actually claimed to have been my lover.”

“Maybe he just really loves you,” I said.

“Of course he loves me,” she fumed, “but that isn’t what he told people.” Still, she kept him as a courtier.

For a while I lost track of her. When next I saw her, she was in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was with a doctor friend of mine, who was gentle and fairly harmless, but very liberal with his prescriptions. At the time she was heavily into Bloody Marys and painkillers, so the violet eyes were somewhat glazed.

I asked what she was doing. “Oh, I’ve just been sort of… hedgehopping,” she said. She still looked , even with double rows of lashes drooping, every inch the movie star, but the inches were increasing. A mutual friend, a photographer who traveled with her on a holiday said she carried one suitcase that was like an arsenal, its weapons different pharmaceuticals.

When she met Senator John Warner, the Virginia Republican, impressive, tall, handsome, held in high regard by the establishment, it seemed like another shot at a Fairy Tale ending, or at least a continuing. The magic during that era shifted periodically to D.C., often referred to as ‘Hollywood on the Potomac.’ The local pols were enchanted by her; their wives more so. She told me her hand hurt from having to slide ladylike gloves into eager palms. Warner seemed like the right husband material, tall, with good hair, many of the perks that come from power, and plenty of closet space, which she showed me proudly when I visited their house. She had become a Jew for Eddie Fisher, so why not a Republican for John? Hearing past the oratory, though--she was no dummy and the content was considerably less than stimulating, -- she got bored, and it ended.

Her marriage to Larry Fortensky, whom she met in Rehab, took much-publicized place at Neverland, Michael Jackson’s home/amusement park in Santa Barbara. I’m not sure where she was for her divorce.

A wealthy and prominent man who considered courting her told me he’d had to give up, because of the fuss that surrounded her, when she was still the center of press attention. “It’s a circus,” he said, “only without the clowns.”

Jamie Lee Curtis, a close friend of mine for decades, says from the inside of that cloistered world that movie stars are, as a rule, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard , when she makes her last great speech, about its being “just me, and the camera, and those wonderful people out there in the dark.” As much as they need love, for the most part the love has to be anonymous, faceless. With movie stars, much as I loved them, and much as they sometimes seemed to love me, the relationship was, of necessity, about them and their needs. A press agent said to maintain a relationship with stars, you need to be ‘on call.’ And I had books to write, children to raise, and a husband to love.

I think Elizabeth may have understood that, if she was interested. I’m sure she was interested when she wanted to do The Motherland. But much of what would pass for camaraderie in other places is, in Hollywood, about business. So when a deal collapses, or never happens, the relationship disappears, too. People move on to the next project, and the next human connection. If everyone, as in the Andy Warhol dictum, gets their fifteen minutes of fame, in L.A., when that happens, you also get a few minutes of friendship.

But don’t think it wasn’t fun while it lasted. Even now, having seen the recent re-make of Jane Eyre, admirable as it was, I missed the scene that most moved me when I, myself, was a child. Little orphaned Jane, played by Peggy Ann Garner, in the cruel school that was Lowood, had one friend, and that was Helen, played by an unbelievably luminous little Elizabeth. She had a gentle voice, those exquisite eyes, jeweled even in black and white, and long, lustrous black curls. When the harsh headmaster cut them off and made her stand all night in the rain, holding a sign that said ‘VANITY,’ an ordeal that led to her death, I wept. I weep now.