Taylor and Warhol

©AWF from the collection of the Andy Warhol Museum

The legendary artist used an MGM publicity still to turn the actress into an icon.

Elizabeth Taylor was one of the Mona Lisas of our time. In 1962-63, Andy Warhol, working from an MGM publicity still, created a series of about 40 pop-art paintings he dubbed Liz that have become some of the most famous artworks of the past half-century.

Her beauty and the exaggerated smears of bright makeup radiate from the canvas, but Taylor’s distant eyes and unconvincing smile play inscrutably against the surface glamour. Warhol had been inspired by the religious icons he saw growing up in an Eastern Orthodox family in Pittsburgh. “Because American society was worshipping movie stars, he held her up as a blessed figure on high to make her iconic,” says Eric Shiner, acting director of the Andy Warhol Museum.

But Taylor is believed to have never owned a Liz, though she did try to acquire one — as she told Warhol when she met him on the set of her 1974 film The Driver’s Seat.

“It was about a bourgeois depressed German lady who goes to Rome to find someone to murder her,” recalls Bob Colacello, author of the Warhol biography Holy Terror, who was on the set. Warhol had a walk-on role as a potential killer. “But it took two weeks to shoot. Elizabeth Taylor would show up at 4 in the afternoon and leave at 5. She had agreed to work for expenses only and then get a cut of the profits. Of course, the producer didn’t realize that meant a seven-room suite at the Grand Hotel with a room just for her dogs. When she started charging jewelry from Bulgari to the room, he had to put his foot down.”

Taylor told Warhol she had once called the Warhol Factory to ask for a print. “She was told no, or nobody called her back,” Colacello says. “And Andy said that must have been a mistake. He said: ‘I’ll do a new portrait of you. I just have to take some Polaroids.’ And she kept saying, ‘I’m too puffy today.’ This went on every day. He never got to take the Polaroids with her.”

She might have had second thoughts if she knew how valuable they would become. In 2007, Hugh Grant was estimated to have made a profit of $17 million on the sale of one. He later admitted he was drunk when he bought it. And on March 25, just two days after the actress’ death, hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen put his Liz up for auction with a reserve of $20 million.