Elizabeth Taylor: Icon
Two weeks before she was told she had a benign brain tumor, I visited Elizabeth Taylor at her gated and guarded estate in Bel Air, CA. Outside the sprawling house, I was met by a member of the star’s staff who took me on a tour of the new walkway, which slopes through the lush trees, ferns, and flowers of her extensive property. “Elizabeth is very eager for you to see her route, ” she said. “She walks this every morning at a fast pace. Then she goes upstairs and does stomach crunches.”
I almost dropped dead from shock. The one thing I’ve never known my friend Miz Liz to do is exercise. But her recovery from a third hip operation has come with many surprises. When I’d visited her at this house only a year before, she limped pitifully. At the time, I could hardly believe she would ever recuperate from that condition.
I waited for the star in the beautiful art-crammed living room, home to an array of bronze horses sculpted by daughter Liza Todd Tivey–and a glorious aquarium filled with coral and multicolored fish. After about ten minutes, in pranced Miss Taylor, wearing high heels and swinging her hips like the legendary temptress of presurgery days. Dressed in black jersey pants, a bright rose-colored chenille sweater, and impressive but sedate jewelry, she talked about “finally coming out of the woods medically.” Little did she know there would be a frightening postscript to our interview. It hardly seemed possible that after so many illnesses and so much time in the operating room, Elizabeth Taylor would suffer another blow to her health.
But, like the true survivor she is, Elizabeth sailed through the operation on February 20, during which a three-inch tumor was removed from her brain. Then, in an added display of bravery, she posed for photographs in her hospital bed with shaved head and seven-inch scar. Clearly, at age 65, the violet-eyed beauty has entered a new era of self-confidence.
LS: The past few years have been difficult for you. Your mother died in 1994, and then your longtime friend and publicist Chen Sam last August.
ET: Chen died in that room, facing the garden and listening to the sound of water in the pool. I was glad she was here. It was a beautiful time of year, and I think she felt tranquil.
How did you get through it? You were also in the middle of a divorce [from eighth husband, Larry Fortensky].
If I stop and become introspective, it brings a lot of pain. Why does anybody lose anybody they love? I suppose it’s to learn to be more compassionate. To be more sensitive to what’s going on in the world. You never know what tomorrow is going to bring. You just have to keep going. But many people have it worse.
You have money, beauty, fabulous kids, and wonderful grandchildren. You really lucked out in the kid department.
Oh, did I ever. For that I really feel grateful. I have no reason to feel sorry for myself at all.
Let’s talk about men!
Hmm. I haven’t been out a lot. I just can’t go out on dates, can’t get enthusiastic about it.
So the prospect of dating again is a drag?
I remember dating in the eighties-before I married Larry–and totally dreading it. I think I deserve to take a break.
But marriage always seemed to appeal to you. You did it a lot.
I guess it was habit-forming! Maybe it’s time to break the habit.
Do you still believe in romance?
I do, I believe in love. I am capable of enormous amounts of love.
I couldn’t make Larry understand that we had to communicate. We’d go to the marriage counselor, and he’d get all this anger out, and then we’d come back home, and he’d go to his room, and I’d go upstairs. And then we wouldn’t talk for a week. There was one point when I said to him: “Larry, I know myself really well. I reach a point in a relationship where I will have given my heart and my soul, my energy, my all-time love, and if I feel I’m lust not getting through-it may take two or three years–I will feel the curtain drop, like in a theater. And then I say to myself: I’ve got to work really hard on this relationship, and I need him to know that he needs to work really hard on it, because I feel like something is going to happen.” And he made fun of that.
Do you feel that being so ill took a toll on your marriage to Larry?
I think it must have been hard for Larry. But he had already started hibernating–he just didn’t come out of his room. I think he’s still doing it to a certain extent now. But I wasn’t able to bolster him, and he wasn’t able to bolster me. Things just totally unraveled. Nobody was there for anybody. So I can’t blame him. I never saw him.
Was he uncomfortable in your world?
No, he wasn’t. He stopped wanting to learn and stopped being inquisitive, which was one of the most fun things about him. He became very bossy, ordering people around, and he didn’t want to go to work any longer. I had really respected his going to work independently.
You didn’t marry him for his money, and you assumed he didn’t marry you for yours.
No, I married him for his sense of self and self-esteem. He wasn’t a wimp, and I’m not a wimp.
Do you feel lonely?
No, I don’t at all. I’ve got great friends. I’m surrounded by beauty. My bedroom is like my tree house. I do most of my work on the phones up there because I love it so much. But I’m not being reclusive. I’m not upset with my life. Maybe I should be, but I’m not.
Which male movie star do you think is sexy today? And you’d better say Alec Baldwin, because he’s in love with you.
But he’s married.
Well, I mean generically sexy. You don’t have to marry these guys.
Okay, Alec Baldwin. And Sean Connery. He could put his slippers under my bed any day.
I always felt that if Richard Burton hadn’t died, you two would have ended up together again.
Oh, I know it. Absolutely, I was happy with him.
You gave your own sixty-fifth birth. day party to raise money for AIDS. Why make a public event out of it?
It was the only way I could raise money for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF). I can’t sing, I can’t dance. I’m not getting married again. That’s how I started ETAF, with the Herb Ritts photos from my wedding to Larry. We got a million dollars for them. Whenever I see a chance to make some money for ETAF, I become really crass and commercial.
You’re still involved with the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR)?
Of course. I was there for AmFAR on AIDS Day. There’s no such thing as rivalry. I created ETAF because I wanted to be a little more hands-on. I received one gift for my birthday that earmarked $100,000 for research. I will send that directly to AmFAR for protease inhibitors.
How do you feel about the suggestion that Sharon Stone wrested your power away from you at AmFAR?
Sharon Stone is a very sweet lady and works as hard as she can for AmFAR. We’re all in this together. How could there be any rivalry or jealousy between us when we’re trying to do a good thing?
Is it easier or harder now to involve people in fighting AIDS?
Because people have been given a dose of hope, they are beginning to withdraw. But AIDS is not cured. It will take nine billion dollars to reach every person who needs the protease cocktail–just in the United States. The figures are staggering.
Let’s say somebody came to you with a great role for a woman who was just your age. Would you do it?
Sure. For a great role, I’d put on old-age makeup, I would put on prosthetics, I would put on a gray wig, I would put on 20 pounds… But I’m not looking for a role, and I’m not going to take a film just to take a film.
Do you have to work? You must have money.
Yes, I do. I don’t “have” to work. But I like working. I like the challenge, I like having something to do. I couldn’t sit on my duff the whole day. I have to have something to fix my mind on.
Have you still got all your old jewelry? Of course!
I thought you might have sold some of it.
Do you take it out and play with it?
Sure. If I ever had to sell my jewelry, believe me, you’d know about it.
Sotheby’s would explode… Do you feel you’re a vain person?
No, I don’t. Otherwise I think I’d be slender. I really don’t think I care that much.
So have you made peace with your body?
I would like to be tall, slender, and willowy, not short, fat, and dumpy. But I’m not dumpy; I’m not really fat. I don’t want to go through life trying to look like a Vogue model–that’s not me. I don’t think I’ve been meant to deny myself any more than I have denied myself.
What do you keep in the refrigerator when you are dieting?
Well, I really am a hedonist. I don’t enjoy dieting. I think dieting is truly vain–it’s only for yourself. If you want to feel good about wearing a size 6 instead of a size 12, that’s up to you. But it’s not going to make your day. It’s not going to make you more attractive spiritually. It’s not going to enable you to see the mountains clearer.
What’s your favorite meal that you would cook for yourself?
Fried chicken! With mashed potatoes, gravy, and peas. Mmm, mmm.
What is the physical attribute you like best about yourself?
It’s funny. I was going to get a tattoo.
A girlfriend had seven it to me for Christmas. The tattoo artist came to the house. And I couldn’t think of one place on my body that I wanted anybody to see. So I didn’t get it. I have nice shoulders, but I don’t want a tattoo on them.
Were you ever tempted to lie about your age?
Never. It would have been impossible, because I always wanted to be older. As a kid, as a teenager, as a 20-year-old.
Age is so irrelevant!
Does anything scare you?
Not since I went through a near-death experience. When it happened to me, it wasn’t fashionable to talk about it, because it made you sound totally crazy. So I still don’t talk about it. But if you go through that and survive it, you look at the world differently. I can honestly say I’m not afraid of death–I’ve been almost there a couple of times.
What’s your biggest regret in life?
I don’t live with regret.
What are you proudest of?
That I’ve managed to survive.
What do you want to accomplish in the next five years?
Wipe out AIDS, wipe out AIDS, wipe out AIDS. Then take a rest. A walk on the beach.