I am sorry to have missed the BBC movie of Burton and Taylor last night, but I did not miss the real-life event. Although the review in the New York Times quotes her never reading material until she was playing the role, she did read a novel of mine, and we became friends, sort of. I received an actual telegram from her in the days when people still sent them--it was the year THE MOTHERLAND was published by Simon & Shuster, "the only book we are publishing this Spring as far as I am concerned," Michael Korda had written me, forgetting, I guess, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. Elizabeth, whom I had never met, was congratulating me on my "wonderful novel," and clearly wanted to play the part of the heroine, Evelyn, inspired by my mom, who had told me "I didn't like children even when I was one of them." Thrilled that she wanted to play the part, I told my then close friend Sue Mengers, who responded, with her standard cruel on wry, "Tell her to get the napkin off her lap."
Elizabeth was then clearly past it, though not in the popular imagination, and certainly not in mine. So we became friends. She was "dating" Henry Wynberg, living with him in the house of Tom Tryon in the Hollywood Hills, where the wallpaper in the bedroom, where she spent most of her time, being in one of her semi-invalided phases, was a metallic foil, so reflected her everywhere she looked. She was lying in bed watching one of her old movies on TV in-between the metal reflections of her, the first time I went to visit her, and to complete the picture, Richard Burton was on the phone. He was dating Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, and needed money, and Elizabeth was going to give it to him.
At the same period of her personal history, a few of her long- time friends were in attendance, including Max Lerner, the very kind and markedly Left columnist for The New York Post, who was clearly and Hebraically in love with her, worrying over the pulleys on her bed that were weighing on her spine, a remedy her current trendy doctor had prescribed for her. "He had the nerve to imply he had an affair with me," she bristled, but still invited him to a picnic lunch on the terrace for a few close friends, one of whom I was hopeful of becoming. I loved her enough already that I sorrowed over the extra slather of mayonnaise-- mayonnaise?!!-- she lavished on her hot dog, as she was in one of her weight-gaining phases. I remember a discussion of Village of the Damned, where someone asked her if she had seen the movie, and she said "No, but I read the book." So much for tales of her not reading.
We became friendish enough that she confided to me her visions-- one of which was waking bolt upright in the middle of the night to announce that Gary Cooper was dead, which caused another mutual acquaintance to note how wasted were her psychic powers since they revealed nothing that would help anyone to better their lives. But I cherished the friendship-- I had always been in love with movie stars-- and there was no one Bigger in the cosmic awe sense, than Elizabeth.
At the time I myself was still a bit of a hit, so when she gave a party, I was one of the first ones invited and there, to be waiting the hour and a half for her late arrival. My friend, who had once been my agent, and was now a fabled bad but prolific and successful producer, Elliott Kastner, murmured to me at one point that "the only two above-the-title names here are you and Liza Minnelli." Liza, whom I knew only slightly, had arrived and made a bee-line for me, "Oh, thank God," she said, as though I were her best friend. "Will you come to Guaymas to visit me? I'm making this movie called LUCKY LADY with Burt Reynolds and Gene Hackman and I don't know either of them." I was at the time just embarked on writing a murder mystery about a movie company on location. "How will I learn about a movie company on location?"I'd asked Don, my husband that morning. Always the quickest to help me, he had gone to the library and come back with the magazine story "Burt and Sarah and that Dirty Little Death in the Desert,"about the mysterious death of Sarah Miles' flunky press agent, while she was making a movie with Burt. He had died with a "star-shaped wound," and it was murmured that Burt was the star. So the invitation seemed like the answer to a dark prayer, and I was soon to go to Mexico and write what was to become my next adventure. But that is another story. In fact, another, not very successful novel.
But as for Elizabeth, we remained... how can I put this? What is the best synonym for close, that isn't close really? I have checked Rodale's Synonym Finder, and the best I can find is "articulate," which sort of says it. I saw her once a few years later in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was with a friend who had been my doctor in New York, Lou Scarrone, who was, to put it kindly, vague, and generous with medication. He had married, for a short time, a classmate of mine from Bryn Mawr, Peggy Hitchcock, the heiress who funded Timothy Leary. "Oh, I'm just sort of hedge-hopping," Elizabeth muttered, her violet eyes unfocussed.
The next time I saw her she was heavy again, and had married a Washington pol. That didn't last very long.
Some years later, I was in Mexico, where I had once stayed at the Garza Blanca, the fabled hotel where she and Burton had had one of their trysts, which must have been just that-- completely and really. I climbed the hill to their cottage: it was overgrown and dark, no sign of life or movement, as by then neither of them had either.
But she remains, even dead, where remains are really remains, one of the last great movie stars. I look at who's out there now and wonder how they can be considered stars at all.