“In an April 1962 open letter in Vatican City’s weekly newspaper Elizabeth was charged with Erotic vagrancy.”
I’ve always liked Elizabeth Taylor–and this is no doubt influenced by childhood memories of her in Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew. We didn’t go to the cinema often and these two films, lavish productions, have both stayed in my mind. Plus how could I forget her bold performance in Butterfield 8. What a film! She delivers an incredibly passionate performance.
Over the years I followed Elizabeth Taylor’s career along with her many marriages (8 total–twice to Richard Burton). As time went on, the stardom faded and my impression, mainly thanks to headlines, is that she became a kind of joke. The tabloids are cruel, but there was plenty of fodder: the relationships, the short-lived marriages the metamorphosis to Washington wife, the jewelry. …
The book begins with an overview of Elizabeth Taylor’s life and then her life story begins chronologically. Her parents’ marriage seemed a bit odd, and the author later mentioned that Elizabeth’s father, always in the background, may have had relationships with other men. This goes some way to explaining Elizabeth’s parents’ relationship and her mother, Sara Taylor’s past thwarted acting career explains the whole stage-mother drive.
Elizabeth was a very lucky girl in many ways but unlucky in others. She might have seemed to have had an enviable childhood, but it wasn’t a childhood as much as a pre-adulthood. Sara’s drive to make Elizabeth a child star ensured she didn’t have much of a childhood; her mother made career decisions, and the family relied on Elizabeth’s income. National Velvet was a huge role for Elizabeth, and it was for her childhood roles that Elizabeth was introduced to drugs. The most shocking thing I read here concerned the ready flow of pills given to the child stars of the day. Barbiturates and amphetamines all around:
so that they’d be bright and chirpy and another pill at lunchtime and then pills she was to take home so she could sleep in order to get up at five in the morning to go back to the studio.
The author delves into Elizabeth’s disastrous first marriage to Conrad Hilton. On their extended honeymoon, he kicked her in the stomach and she miscarried. Here is this beautiful woman, courted by millionaires, diamonds thrown at her, who ends up abused just like any other woman. There’s also mention of Howard Hughes who basically tried to buy Elizabeth from her parents. Loved the snippets about various attempts to scoop stories for the media. Fancy Andy Warhol sticking a tape recorder under the banquette Elizabeth was sitting on. Then there’s the publicist who hid a camera in her “elaborate updo” on the set of Cleopatra.
The author makes the point that Elizabeth’s emotions were strongly tied to her health, so we see how catastrophic events converted into horrendous health issues. Elizabeth’s relationships with a number of gay men is given a lot of attention, but I would have liked to have see more on her female friendships and her affair with Frank Sinatra. On the husbands, of course her 2 marriages to Burton are explored. I knew the relationship was rocky, but I had no idea that it was a Tsunami. And it was easy to see that her marriage to Eddie Fisher (husband #4) was a reflex action after the sudden death of Mike Todd (husband #3) in an airplane accident. As for the final husband, there is more to be found about her marriage to Larry Fortensky on Wikipedia. Also extensively covered is Elizabeth’s AIDS activism. The entire Michael Jackson stuff was mentioned but not explored. She was one of his defenders.
Reading a biography inevitably brings up the issue of the biographer’s ‘job.’ Should a biographer remain on the sidelines with no opinion? Should a biographer interpret and analyze? I once read a biography of bit-part actress Barbara Payton and it is one of the best biographies I have ever read. The biographer John O’Dowd interviewed so many people so that he had multiple versions of several segments of Barbara Payton’s life. These versions in essence act as analyses or explanations of events. People do not see things the same way. Look, if anyone dies, you can ask a dozen people what they thought of the dearly departed and you are going to get varying opinions about that person. Those varied opinions are not necessarily wrong, but they may be limited or situational. We are all multifaceted people. No one person shows all sides to everyone. Period.
Elizabeth survived in a savage industry, and she maintained a lifelong love for animals and jewelry. She managed to maintain independence from the studios and also kept her own opinions in spite of public pressure. In this bio, there are are very few negative opinions. It’s mostly chronological and a simple history. It’s easy to read, doesn’t wander all over the place, and the author never loses control of the narrative. Ultimately, I came away from the book with the impression that Elizabeth was a complex person. At one point, one of her sons says he “marvel[s] at my mother’s ability to snake-charm” her therapist. I enjoyed that section as it showed that what was taking place between therapist and Elizabeth was not as linear as it appeared.
13 responses to “Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit and the Glamour of an Icon by Kate Andersen Brower”
I think that having to deal with tabloid journalists is enough to give anyone health problems…
Agreed. They sound merciless.
I too am rather fascinated by Elizabeth Taylor, so I’ll definitely keep this in mind for the future. Great points about the role of a biographer – it must be a very tricky balance to strike, especially to give a rounded view of someone as iconic as Taylor.
I should have added Raintree County too. Loved that film. Which are your favs?
Oh, BUtterfield 8, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Giant. It’s been ages since I last saw them, though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Raintree County, but it sounds like one to seek out.
I have the book version of Raintree County–another one to get to.
I probably won’t read this ( you know Proust and all that) but this is a fabulous account of Elizabeth Taylor’s biography.
I had always intended to read more bios, but I have to space them apart. Then there are always so many to choose from.
I am into Christopher Hitchens at the moment( not for reviewing purposes) Have you read Hitch22 ?
Interesting stuff – I’m not likely to read a Taylor biog, but this sounds fair-minded. There’s obviously an awful lot to cover in a life like hers. There is definitely an “art” to putting together a good biography, and getting beyond the “one damn thing after another” chronology which can be a blight. Added pressure when you’re dealing with a subject like this, who has a passionate fandom as well.
I recall mostly her later life, when she was treated as an object of curiosity if not an outright figure of fun by the press. You might think that the invasive omnipresence of social media would give people some insight and generate some empathy for figures who live with that pressure in their lives, but it would appear that is a forlorn hope. Most people still want to stare and point, and if given a chance, mock and tear down.
The author makes a point, a valid one, that Taylor survived a savage industry compared to Marilyn Monroe for example.
I wasn’t aware of her health problems yet it’s certainly not surprising. I prefer a biography that shows us the fondness of the biographer. I read Deirdre Bait’s bio of Simone de Beauvoir and the feeling that she hated her was so unpleasant.
I would say this biographer admired Elizabeth Taylor