A Legend Remembered
Movie star, mogul and humanitarian: Those who knew the iconic actress best share their intimate memories.
Producer and head of production at 20th Century Fox during the making of Cleopatra
“We all grew up together. She was my sister’s closest friend at Pacific Palisades Grammar School. She and my sister were the same age, and I was three years younger. She’d come to our house, and Irving Thalberg, Jr. would join us, and we’d have dance classes and things like that. My sister was begging my father [20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck], “Please sign her up!” And he’d say, “Oh, she’s just your friend.” And then MGM signed her, and she got National Velvet and became a star.
[Years later], it was sort of because of her that my father came back to run Fox. He had made The Longest Day, which he poured his life into. He was worried that the Cleopatra debacle was going to affect the distribution of his film and that the studio was just going to throw it out there because they were in such need of cash. So he ended up taking over the company and then left and spent all of his time in Paris and put me in charge of the studio. Around me the studio was collapsing, and they were having this calamity in Rome, where they were filming. They’d built the set for her entrance to Rome and discovered it was on a site with unexploded bombs from World War II. That was just one of many calamities.
She loved [restaurateur] Dave Chasen’s chili, and the studio would get it on a plane two or three times a week for her. That was one of her extravagances. At one point, they also had to shoot some things in England, and she had a couple of dogs they wouldn’t let in. So she lived on a yacht on the Thames, and the dogs lived on the boat but would never set foot on British soil. Those were the beginnings of what are now practically ordinary demands by stars.
My father recut Cleopatra because the picture that [director] Joe Mankiewicz had presented was actually four hours long. At one point, they were thinking of making two pictures out of it, then they got worried that if the first one didn’t play well, they’d be stuck. So he cut it down and for about 10 days shot some extra scenes that he directed because certain things didn’t make any sense.
The studio sued Taylor and Burton for $15 million for their behavior on Cleopatra. And I was making a deal with her at the time for The Only Game in Town, and I remember going to see her in Paris at the Plaza Athenee. I sent five dozen red roses in advance and had the meeting, and on the way out, we passed the flowers. She hadn’t said anything, so I said, “Oh, these flowers that I sent, they’re beautiful.” And she said, “I’d have appreciated a gift from [jewelers] Graff more!” She giggled. It was half-joking, half-real. But I had great admiration for her. She could get away with murder, but there was something so likable about her. She was very direct, very outspoken and didn’t play a lot of games. When she believed in something or someone, there was no holding back — she would go 100 percent. She was quite a dame, in the best sense of the word.”
Carole Bayer Sager
Songwriter, friend and neighbor
“She was so totally warm; we really became true girlfriends. She would refer to me as her sister-in-love. Of course, she could be exceedingly late, but when she walked into a room, it didn’t matter — she lit it up, she was such a charismatic human being. We brought her to the studio when we were putting Stevie Wonder on ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ because she wanted to meet him. Looking at her was when I realized we should give the money from the song to amfAR. She had just taken that stand for people with AIDS, which other people were running from like the plague. She stood up and gave those young people suffering and dying a voice when it was totally unfashionable.
She did want to go into New York for the 25th anniversary of amfAR in February. They had put the song’s original singers [Wonder, Elton John, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight] back together, and they were honoring her as well as Bill Clinton. She really wanted to attend that. I went to her home and told her I didn’t think she should go. It was a lot to put her body through. She had fractured both her knees in the last year. That really confined her to a hospital bed and wheelchair. But she wanted to go, and I went on a little too long. She said, ‘You’re starting to bore me,’ and she laughed. That was the last time I saw her at her home; the next time was in the hospital. She didn’t go to New York, and I think that was distressing to her.”
Founder of amfAR in 1985 when her AIDS Medical Foundation joined forces with Taylor’s National AIDS Research Foundation, with Taylor serving as the group’s founding national chairman
“My intention when I first approached her about combining our two organizations was for her to lend her celebrity. The public liked her and admired her, and that was a fantastic advantage for us. I was impressed by her character and her intelligence. She was not stupid. I always had the impression that the public used her in the way that beautiful women who become actresses are used: They are made up, they are dressed to play the part.
But she was intelligent and had a good sense of reality. She was both satisfied [with the progress in the battle against AIDS] and frustrated. She got much pleasure out of the wonderful friendships she made in becoming a champion for people who were fighting AIDS. But she was well aware that it had not moved fast enough. Although 30 years have passed, and a lot of progress has been made, we have not saved any lives yet; we have improved and lengthened them. She shared the frustration there, but she became a fantastic voice.”
Producer of 1994’s The Flintstones, Taylor’s last feature
“The moment she said yes, we wanted to make it a special experience for her. Lavender was her favorite color, so we made lavender stairs up to her trailer, and we filled the trailer with lavender flowers for her first day of work. I had also been told it was a tradition that you gave her lavish gifts for the first day of production, so we wanted to do that as well.
I’d actually been to her house for a wardrobe fitting two weeks before. She pulled me in very close and whispered into my ear, ‘Darling, you know that I like gifts on the first day of photography.’ I said, ‘Yes, I’ve heard of this tradition.’ And then she whispered, ‘I like Cartier, darling.’ We didn’t have an Elizabeth Taylor gift allotment in the budget, so I went to Mr. Spielberg, who was the executive producer, and I said, ‘Steven, I need you to write me a personal check so I can go shopping for Elizabeth Taylor.’ He loved that idea and understood why we couldn’t put it in the budget.
So I went to Cartier and picked out a beautiful watch that had a jewel; it was a sapphire, I think. Elizabeth also had a dog, Sugar, a beautiful Pekingese that she loved. So I got a sterling silver bowl with Sugar’s name engraved. The funny part of the story was that one of the members of our crew, Russell, was this very handsome, young, muscular prop man. Elizabeth was very taken by him. He thought it would be great idea to make a prop Flintstone prehistoric watch to give to her with the other presents. So he made this beautiful watch and put it in a beautiful egg, which probably cost $12 all told. Our gift cost $15,000.
At the end of the first day, it was time for the presents; she opened them all. But because the watch was from Russell, and he was so adorable and had made it himself, she loved that $12 watch and thought it was her favorite gift. She didn’t really focus much on the expensive watch and the silver dog bowl.”
Taylor’s longtime hairstylist
“I met Elizabeth Taylor in the early early early ’80s. I remember Chen Sam, who was her PR person, calling me and saying, ‘Ms. Taylor would like to see you.’ I waited in her living room, and then she appeared — she was strawberry blond. She was skinny skinny, she wore a pair of tight jeans, tight top, boots. She was very friendly. She wanted a trim and blowout, and I did it, and I could see she was observing me. I ended up going to her house three or four times a week. Instantly, we built our relationship. She was to me, besides my mother, the most important person in my life. I went around the world with her; I’ve met kings and queens and gone to palaces with her. The last trip was to England last April. It was a tribute to Richard Burton, and I got to spend the whole evening in Buckingham Palace with Prince Charles. When you were part of her inner circle, she shared everything with you. The people around her got the same treatment as she got. We’d go to Paris, New York, Spain, and it was always, ‘Are you comfortable?’ It shows you what kind of a woman she was, generous; I think that word was created for her.”
Executive producer, These Old Broads, the 2001 TV starring Taylor, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine and Joan Collins
“The first time I met her, she came on like the grande dame — then, of course, she opens her mouth, and it’s more like the Unsinkable Molly Brown. She had this very sweet voice and this very salty language. We were on set and preparing for her arrival; it said ‘Dame Elizabeth Taylor’ on the call sheet. Then she arrived, absolutely on time, and it was, ‘Let’s get down to work.’
They were all pros, survivors who were used to the old studio days where you don’t fuss. What was lovely was how generous the other women were to her because Elizabeth was clearly fragile. Debbie was being incredibly dear to her in an almost maternal way. Elizabeth wasn’t in a wheelchair then but wasn’t getting around smoothly. When she left, they gave everyone this photo of the four of them, with Debbie’s arm draped over Elizabeth’s shoulder, and you can tell how she was taking care of Elizabeth.”
Pysician and AIDS researcher
“I was Rock Hudson’s doctor, and I would escort Elizabeth to visit him at UCLA. She saw how devastated he was by AIDS. Elizabeth had many gay friends and personal assistants who were affected or beginning to be aware of AIDS. I think she felt very deeply about her friends, and she saw what AIDS was doing to that community. She decided to be an AIDS activist. Her instinct was to be compassionate and to relieve the suffering of people with the disease. My own bias, coming from the university, was research. That’s why we founded the National AIDS Research Foundation, which became amfAR.
In the ’80s, federal funding for research lagged. We traveled to Washington and made the rounds on Capitol Hill to increase the National Institutes of Health budget. Elizabeth’s presence and lobbying effort pressed Congress to fund treatment research at NIH and liberalize access to promising drugs in development. The result was the AIDS Clinical Trials Group at universities that tested new AIDS drugs and led to the treatments we have today and revision of FDA policies to allow earlier, compassionate access to promising treatments on the verge of full approval.
She made AIDS activism not just OK but ultimately fashionable. She was in many ways the premier AIDS activist. AIDS activism became a model for other diseases like breast cancer, and ultimately many celebrities have become activists. But it took a lot of guts to go to bat for AIDS because there was so much fear and aversion to it at the time — and to stay in for the duration. Most recently, she had been a donor to a program in Malawi, Africa. It was based on her sending mobile clinics into New Orleans after Katrina. Based on that model, she funded four mobile clinics in Malawi that provide HIV testing and care in the villages of that very poor country.”
Photographer whose images of Taylor’s visit to Iran in 1976 are on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
“I was just starting out as a photographer when I met her at the Iranian embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1976. She was the guest of my cousin Ardeshir Zahedi, who was the Iranian ambassador to the U.S. In D.C., Elizabeth and I became friends, and it was decided we would go on this goodwill trip to Iran. Then, in the summer of 1976, after she’d just divorced Richard Burton, we went to Iran. We went all over the place there. One day we went to the bazaar, and Elizabeth bought all these tribal outfits. She said she’d like to do a photo dressed like that. I went and got my camera, and she got made up. I’d done a few small shoots for Warhol; I’d never done a major shoot. It was not an assignment, just taking pictures not knowing they would one day wind up in a museum, as they are. I was so pleased to do this tribute to her; after all, she helped start my career.”
Senior vp global marketing — fragrance, Elizabeth Arden
“Her Bel-Air home — that was her fragrance headquarters. She was not about selling her name. She had always wanted to create fragrance — she loved fragrance and was extremely knowledgeable about frankincense and myrrh. She wanted to design scents that she loved personally, and I don’t think she wore any fragrances but her own. I would regularly get calls from her for more bottles that she gave to her friends. Even in the process of developing a new scent, we would present her with modifications, development samples. She’d wear them; she’d let us know how she felt about them. It was really only natural that in the advertising, she be the face of her brand. She knew instinctually what she wanted, and she really appreciated good quality and design. She was open to ideas but personally influenced the end result: the bottle design, the juice, the ad campaign. Scent was the most important component, then the bottle. She saw herself as a designer; she designed these bottles to be like her jewels.
Elizabeth Taylor pioneered the celebrity fragrance. White Diamonds has sold well in excess of $1 billion; the brand was acknowledged by the Fragrance Foundation and inducted into the Hall of Fame. It’s one of the most successful fragrances of all time, up there with Chanel No. 5. She wanted rich, sensual fragrances; for her, fragrance needed to be very sensual. Her garden was an inspiration, and she wanted to couple that with the diamonds she’s so famous for. The most recent fragrance from her brand is Violet Eyes. It was inspired by her mesmerizing eyes. The packaging, she thought, was very charming. It’s purple, violet, very shiny. She was a little sensitive about calling it Violet Eyes. She asked her fans on Twitter about the name, unbeknownst to me, and they unanimously loved it.”