Elizabethby Alexander Walker
“A fine, serious, readable attempt to understand a woman who became a star-cum-studio victim . . . informative, thoughtful, and understanding.” –The Listener
Elizabeth Taylor is perhaps the most “public” of the great stars: an Oscar-winning actress who has lived her entire life in the glare of the spotlights. Much has been written about her; now, for the first time, Elizabeth offers a serious, in-depth look at one of the great legends of Hollywood. With the readability, sensitivity, and thoroughness that have made his previous biographies best-sellers, Alexander Walker explores the roots of Taylor’s extraordinary personality and reveals the secret not only of her success, but of her survival.
Here is a life to rival the very movies she played in, told with immense candor, wit, and sympathy: from her privileged London childhood, the enormous influence of her strong-willed mother, and her swift rise to stardom in such films as National Velvet, A Place in the Sun, and the catastrophe-ridden Cleopatra; to her six husbands, her desperate need to love and be loved, her obsession with jewelry, and the amazing resilience that helped her weather not only condemnation for “the most public adultery in history,” but also dramatic illnesses that have brought her to the verge of death–and, according to her, beyond.
Using scores of unpublished documents and interviews with those who know Taylor best, as well as his own meetings with her over the past thirty years, Alexander Walker recreates the comedies and tragedies in the life of a woman whose rewards and scandals have become the stuff of legend. Elizabeth has raged through life, ever the hungry explorer, never quite the victim, and Elizabeth provides a fascinating inside look at this perpetually alluring star, a story of contradictions and extremes seldom matched in fact or fiction.
“A fine, serious, readable attempt to understand a woman who became a star-cum-studio victim . . . informative, thoughtful, and understanding.” –The Listener
“Shrewd insights into a life more dramatic than most of her roles.” –The Daily Express
1 – LIKE FATHER, LIKE MOTHER
Elizabeth Taylor always had a pretty good idea of what might have happened to her had there been no war, no films and no need to leave the country where she was born: “Probably if there hadn’t been a World War Two, I would have been a debutante, lived in England and married someone very secure and staid. I never would have become an actress. I would have had as many children as I could physically have had…”
It is one of the few times in her life that she looked back. Rarer still was one of the few times she went back–back to her birthplace. Fifty years into her restless life, she suddenly appeared on the doorstep of the house where she was born, and offered to buy it back. The owners, a banker and his wife, appropriately enough, were surprised but gratified and invited her in. She had little trouble remembering her old nursery, her parents’ bedroom, the back staircase used by the manservant and the maid to get between the kitchen and their quarters.
But her memory for other parts of the house was more vague: she had barely turned seven when she left England. She might have recognized one of the road signs, though: dating from the 1930s, it portrayed a little girl in silhouette on a plumpish pony warning motorists of the nearby riding school and of “Horses Crossing”–a piquant omen for a girl who first found fame in the saddle. Local folklore points out the bridlepath along the side of the road–still unbuilt–in which the Taylors’ house stood, where venerable beeches divide it from pastureland that has since become a golf course. “That’s where she learnt to sit on a horse ” That’s where they taught her to ride for that film.”
It wasn’t, of course. But that’s one of the more harmless fictions about Elizabeth Taylor that have been seeded by those who never knew her, but, due to her star status, feel they do intimately.
That she was British by birth is no fiction. She was also American. She took one nationality from the country where she was born, the other, from her parents.
The house was called Heathwood, and stood in Wildwood Road in what was then a semi-rural pocket on London’s northern edge, where the “old money” of Hampstead Heath encountered the newer settlers of Golders Green. Names like “Heathwood” and “Wildwood” reflected the suburban dwellers’ dream of a countryside that was reachable and affordable, and much of it remains as it was in Elizabeth’s impressionable childhood. Blackberry brambles and red-berried rowans in autumn, celandines and dog-daisies in spring and summer, and, close by, the wooded acreage of Hampstead Heath. Foxes now come down to nose out the dustbins; voles are often sighted, too. One couldn’t have had a more English environment in which to grow up.
Elizabeth’s parents were taken to be British, too–by quite a few people in the 1930s, and even by some in the 1980s, including one of Elizabeth Taylor’s lovers. “He dressed like an Englishman,” says one London art dealer of Francis Taylor, who was in that line of business before the war. ‘she spoke with an English accent,” says one New Yorker who had encountered Sara Taylor, Elizabeth’s mother, while he and her daughter were enjoying an affair in Beverly Hills. The importance of being English was not exactly a fantasy on her parents’ part, but a part of the life-style they had adopted and grown to value by the time Elizabeth came along. They are good examples of folk who were transformed by fortune, accident and aspirations quite as much as their famous child would be. Like her, they exchanged one world for another and assumed quite different identities according to their needs, talents and opportunities.
Both Francis and Sara Taylor came originally from a part of America where it was deemed prudent to retain a plain style of living until you had earned the right to flaunt your pretensions. Francis Taylor was born in Springfield, Illinois, on 18 December 1897; Sara Viola Warmbrodt in Arkansas City, Kansas, on 21 August 1896.
The Taylors were Presbyterians (Francis’s father was also a Mason), who had English and Scottish blood and probably also Ulster connections. Good looks ran in the family. Present-day Londoners who remember Francis all remark immediately on what a handsome man he was. His father had been a clerk in a general store who worked his way up to management level but still never lost a chance for a handshake with clients. Francis, too, had a concern for a good appearance and good manners. “He was a gentleman in every sense of the word,” says Sir Hugh Leggatt, the influential London art dealer, “and to a young man [like me at the time] he was kind, courteous and helpful” always elegantly dressed.” Another thing everyone remembers about Francis Taylor: his sparkling blue eyes.
How the young man rose to become a star in his own profession–admittedly a star of lesser magnitude than his daughter, but, to his own clients, every bit as dazzling–is something that would have interested F, Scott Fitzgerald. Already, it has a hint of Hollywood fatefulness about it.
A tantalizing glimpse is to be found in an unexpected place–in the private files of Hedda Hopper, the movie colony gossip columnist, a feared personage, a sycophant to those who toadied to her, the scourge of those who didn’t. At the time she was laying her public flail on Elizabeth Taylor for her brazen impiety, as Hopper alleged, in snatching Eddie (Fisher) from Debbie (Reynolds) before Mike (Todd) was cold in his grave. Hopper received approving mail by the sackful from readers whose indignation she had whipped up against Elizabeth. Among them was a letter from a Florida reader of her syndicated Hollywood column. This lady had been to school in Cherokee, Oklahoma, with Francis Taylor’s father. The Taylors moved to Arkansas City, “not long after cars became a common thing and a way of life”, she wrote to Hopper. “All the girls thought [young Francis] marvellous, but he seemed not to notice.” The writer then recalled how “Francis’s uncle from New York City came to take him to New York where he was buying and selling art.” By chance, she ran across the young man a few years later in Newman’s store, where his father was clerking. Francis was “back from Europe and New York, looking Ivy League or Cottontail ” We recognized each other, but you know how it is after so long, you just don’t speak ” He still looked like he was a nice lad.”
Howard Young, the husband of Francis’s aunt, didn’t have the good looks or charm of his nephew, but he had something more immediately negotiable–wealth (and no children of his own). He was from St Louis, where he had made money early on from his business retouching and tinting family photographs. Then he made much more money through a lucky oil-well investment. Howard Young in person was no wildcatter, but he was a thruster. He had energy for business and an eye for the main chance. He discovered he had a gift for opening and closing deals–not in oil, but in oil paintings. He probably lacked the patient temperament needed to manage an art dealer’s business, but he found an apt pupil in his nephew Francis. By comparison with his ebullient uncle, he was a shy boy, but one with taste, manners and above all charm. By the time his uncle had finished with him, Francis had been given a good grounding in the international art market that was catering for the demand of discerning Americans–and some less discerning–for good eighteenth-century European, and especially English, portraits. The experience of St Louis and New York had also given him an easy manner with the rich and famous. He was, as they would have said in his home-town, a good catch.
“He married a girl from Arkansas City who had done some “local theater””, wrote Hedda Hopper’s correspondent, “and had gotten bitten by the bug, and later my in-laws felt she had driven Liz to be the actress she [herself] could not have been.”
Sara Warmbrodt’s family origins are more widely scattered than Francis Taylor’s own well-defined WASP background. Her father was a German immigrant, an engineer by trade, who worked as foreman-manager at a laundry. Her mother had the artistic talents that the daughter inherited, including the ability to play piano and violin. By all accounts, Sara was a spirited girl. She was among the first in town to get her hair bobbed. And she took the route out of town quite as early as Francis Taylor, but into art of another kind–the theatre. Adopting the stage name Sara Sothern, she quickly worked her way on to the stock-company circuits. Friends she had in later life recall her saying that she could play any role offered her, “once I set my mind to it”.
‘setting her mind to it” was deeply ingrained in Sara by her upbringing and religion. Her mother practised Christian Science, a faith that gives its servants a powerful sense of individual worth and just as powerful a belief that you can gain whatever you want if your convictions are strong enough. In short, who you wish to become is inherent in who you already are. The plays Sara appeared in were useful practice-pieces for such positive thinking. She was rapidly promoted from “utility parts’ to leading roles. And those people who couldn’t see into Sara’s soul and witness her commitment to whatever character she was playing, had the consolation of her vivacious beauty to look at.
Sara Sothern’s strength of will repays study. Later she applied it to shaping every detail of Elizabeth’s early life, and her own stage triumph in the early 1920s was created out of the same act of faith in an individual’s power to reshape reality by spiritual and emotional conviction. Sara really only played one part of distinction in her life; but she played it four years running, and so well that it took her from Los Angeles to Broadway and London’s West End. It was in a four-act play called The Fool written by the stage illusionist Channing Pollock, and Sara’s role, though minor, was crucially placed and dramatically effective. It was a story of faith-healing. Sara played Mary Margaret, “a poor cripple girl”, who, when the sceptical mob are forcing their way into the mission hall to attack the man they consider a false evangelist, falls on her knees and begins reciting the Lord’s Prayer. As “the friend of the people” is attacked by the intruders, she suddenly springs to her feet and runs to his aid. ‘mary Margaret, where are your crutches?” a woman screams. “I kin walk!” cries Sara. The mob takes fright: “God’s in this room.”
In short, The Fool had just the sort of fundamentalist conviction that Mary Baker Eddy and Aimee Semple Macpherson had popularized in America. Faith was answered and desire achieved. It also possessed a tempting sense of short-cut, just as prevalent in the film industry as it is in fundamentalist religion, where a unique individual can convert her stardom into real power by concentrating on what she wants and not minding too much how she gets it: “I want” ” FADE OUT” FADE IN” “I got”. In Act Four, the miraculously cured Sara gives her benefactor a coloured print of ‘mama’s Treasure” and he, in turn, gives her a muff and a neckpiece in beaver. (Sara’s daughter was destined to exact more prodigious tribute from her admirers.) And as the curtain comes down, she slips her arm possessively into his and both turn their gaze up at a putative Star of Bethlehem, Sara secure in the more worldly radiance of the stage spotlight. It was a thrill she could never forget.
Sara Sothern played the part opposite James Kirkwood on Broadway, where they opened in October 1922, and did so well that she was taken across the Atlantic and co-starred with Henry Ainley at the Apollo Theatre, London, in September 1924. Photographs of that production depict her as a plausible fifteen-year-old (though she was actually twenty-eight) with an urchin haircut and astonishingly large and staring eyes that singled her out from among the stiff and staid English players. Despite a sniffy notice in The Times–”a religious orgy of a type very popular in the United States’–The Fool had a respectable run in London, helped by its stars and its religious uplift. Sara’s personal success in it gave her an easy entree into fashionable London life and so-called “fast” society. Sara Sothern may have been solidly Victorian in matters of faith, but she also had the all-night energy of a Twenties’ flapper girl. One of the stage directions in the play read: “The conspicuous feature of [Mary Margaret’s] costume is a pair of soiled gold slippers that once set off a ballgown.” After the show, Sara frequently saw the night out in newer dancing shoes.
She was back in New York in 1925, unsure of what she should do next. Like most Broadway players, she had made a film test. But although her good looks were an attraction on stage, something about them prevented the camera from falling in love with her–and, at nearly thirty, she was too old for any of the ingenue heroine roles of the silent era. While she waited for work, she ran into Francis Taylor and his Uncle Howard in a Manhattan nightclub. She and Francis were married the following year.
Their temperaments were radically different, their wills of unequal strength, but they had a lot in common. The speed of their engagement and marriage perhaps signifies that they recognized this. Both had quit high school without a thought of going on to college; but the worlds of art dealing and the theatre, both international pursuits, had put a cosmopolitan polish on them. They had charm, too, in plenty. Moreover, when together, Sara and Francis made heads turn: they were a strikingly handsome couple. Though Francis was shy compared with his wife, she had ambitions for both of them and the conviction that if God wanted them to do well, then do well they would. To Howard Young, it looked a safe, steady combination. After hearing Sara swear that her stage career lay behind her, he sent the newlyweds off to Europe to buy art for his American clients.
The next three years were like a working honeymoon. Through Howard Young’s generous funding, and their own talent for turning social connections into business opportunities, the Taylors explored the art markets of London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, buying pictures from other dealers or people of wealth (or, as it happened, people suddenly without wealth due to the raging German inflation) which they sent back to the New York gallery. They mixed business and pleasure, always staying in the top hotels, leading a nomadic but very comfortable cosmopolitan life, rather like that of film stars. What brought their “grand tour” to a halt was the decision to start a family.
“We knew that when the time came to settle down and have a family,” Mrs Taylor wrote later, “of all the places in Europe we would choose England.”
Both of them were Anglophiles, as much by sympathy as business sense. Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney and lesser artists of that genre always sold well in Howard Young’s New York gallery, but the Taylors liked nothing better than being in London. They already had a large client list there, and the social life, entertainment and a standard of living that was a cut above what they could expect in America all appealed to them. Embassy records show that Mrs Taylor arrived before her husband, possibly to house-hunt. She registered as an American citizen on 5 February 1929 (her passport number was 313, a token of simpler days of travel). Her husband followed on 2 April 1929 (passport no. 492). By then, Sara had found a ‘dream house” for them. It had not been an easy search. She had constructed the home she wanted in her mind before she found it on the property agents’ lists. Sara had been brought up on the improving narratives of Victorian storytellers in which family mansions abounded, as well as on the Edwardian pastoral fantasies that Kenneth Grahame’s children’s books embodied. Her imagination was coloured by the latter’s Dream Days and The Golden Age, and by her favourite book of all, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Eventually, at 8 Wildwood Road, Hampstead, she found a place that fulfilled the craving of her imagination. The house itself was solid enough, and modern, too, built two years earlier for a Mr Kadesh: it was imposing-looking at the top of its tiered front garden, with a porticoed entrance. Mrs Taylor saw it first in early spring. It looked to her as if a film studio had planted it out with all the flowers the scene needed: “tulips almost three feet high, forget-me-nots, yellow and lavender violas, flaming snapdragons, rich red wallflowers, and a formal rose garden that terraced down to [the] heath”. The garden today still has its slightly “out of this world” look: but now three thirty-foot-high magnolia trees, probably planted by the Taylors, edge its otherwise unfenced border with the footpath. Behind the house were a tennis court, more herbaceous beds, and something that sealed Sara’s immediate attraction to it. A tiny wooden gate let into the hedge gave access to a semi-private wild wood, “all fenced in with iron railings’, containing a brook, a pond and a rich variety of wildlife and birdsong. It was called “The Sanctuary”, or, more prosaically, “Turner’s Wood”. It was a wonderful place ” for children to play, Mrs Taylor thought.
Her first child arrived in 1929, a boy who was named Howard, as a compliment to his wealthy uncle. Sara’s mother had been writing to her from America, impressing on her daughter the Christian Science tenet that beautiful thoughts produced beautiful consequences ” and beautiful babies. In Howard’s case, the recipe worked spectacularly well. He was a striking infant, golden-haired, with a well-defined face that inside a few years made him look like a budding Rupert Brooke–a comparison he grew to hate. By this time, the Taylors had moved into Heathwood, clinching the house purchase with an on-the-spot cheque, so certain was Sara that good omens were already in residence.
A little over two years later, at 2.30 a.m. on 27 February 1932, a cold and foggy morning, with a Dr Huggenheim in attendance, Sara gave birth to her second child.
After thanking God for a girl, the mother fell into a deep sleep of exhaustion and contentment. But on awakening, she discovered things had not gone so smoothly this time. The child looked, well, “funny”–in the sense of peculiar, not droll. Quite alarming, in fact. Her eyes were screwed tight shut, though that was commonplace among the newborn. But across her shoulders and upper arms was a thin down of black hair. Hypertrichosis, said the doctor reassuringly, a chromosomal variant: it would soon disappear. In fact, it was to recur at intervals for years. Mrs Taylor blamed herself for this deficiency in the baby; she had not been imbibing beautiful thoughts of the requisite strength. From then on, she prayed strenuously that her baby be restored to normal. It cost her an effort of faith as strong as the one she had so successfully simulated in The Fool. The miracle wasn’t as dramatic as throwing away her crutches and walking, but, when it came, it was gratifying. After ten days or so, during which the doctor occasionally prised the infant’s eyelids open but found only the whites visible, the child was being held in Sara’s arms when she suddenly snapped open her eyes and looked straight up at her parent’s face. A delighted Sara found herself gazing into two pools of deep violet fringed by thick black lashes. She remembers–with the sharpness of a film close-up–that the baby then smiled. A nurse of an unromantic nature put this down to wind–babies at that age, you know, can’t show emotions. But Mrs Taylor remained convinced of her daughter’s very special greeting for her. The child’s birth was noted in The Times and registered at nearby Hendon–for the Taylors’ address was actually in Golders Green, rather than smarter Hampstead, though Sara glossed over this. She was given the names Elizabeth Rosemond, the latter after her aunt.
“Just pink skin and no feathers,” Elizabeth wrote, much later on, when she came across a dead fledgling that had dropped out of the nest. She picked it up and cosseted it, uselessly of course. Mrs Taylor, in the months ahead, fussed over an infant who looked just as vulnerable and pathetic. At the age of sixteen months, Elizabeth’s babyhood chrysalis began peeling away and a dazzling child slowly emerged. Dark hair, those double-lashed eyelids, seed teeth where, at one time, bare gums had suggested to Sara the awful likelihood of her baby needing dentures! Soon she was the “dark angel” to the “Botticelli angel” of her fair-haired brother: prayers had been abundantly answered. Elizabeth was slow to walk; but when she started toddling, her family found there was no stopping her.
©1990, 1997 by Conundrum Limited. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.