By Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery, Catalog of American Portraits
Before I was a wandering teenager, I spent most Saturdays at home watching professional wrestling, Sons of Hercules, baseball (in season), and movies during the winter. One afternoon the feature was National Velvet. It was not my usual flavor, but I was glued to it anyway—I think I’d seen Mickey Rooney in Young Thomas Edison a few weeks before and I thought he was worth watching.
So I watched Mickey Rooney, and I watched the horse, and then I don’t remember much else except rooting for the horse to win. I certainly did not notice the color of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes, because even though the movie was in Technicolor, I was watching it on a black-and-white television. However, I did notice Elizabeth Taylor. I am certain she entered my life a full year before Farrah Fawcett.
Even as an eleven-year-old, I remember thinking, “Wow. I want to be her boyfriend.” That was in 1974. I asked my mom who she was, and mom said she was a grown woman now, married to Richard Burton, she thought, or maybe Eddie Fisher. Later I understood why that might have been a difficult fact to nail down. “Too bad she’s married,” I thought. So, like all boys my age in the mid-1970s, I respectfully moved on to Charlie’s Angels and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.
Half a dozen years later, college brought Elizabeth Taylor back into my life two more times. During an American drama course, I read the play and watched the film version (1966; Warner Brothers) of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Richard Burton was George, and Elizabeth Taylor portrayed Martha, in an odd meeting of allegorical and satirical nomenclature. In its devastating story of marriage-turned-maelstrom, Burton and Taylor were equal to the parts. The dialogue sometimes resembles fencing; at other times it is more like trench warfare as George and Martha battle in front of their guests, Honey and Nick (Sandy Dennis and George Segal).
GEORGE: Martha had her daguerreotype in the paper once . . . oh, ‘bout twenty-five years ago . . . Seems she took second prize in one o’ them seven-day dancin’ contest things . . . biceps all bulging, holding up her partner.
MARTHA: Will you put a record on and shut up?
GEORGE: Certainly, love. How are we going to work this? Mixed doubles?
MARTHA: Well, you certainly don’t think I’m going to dance with you, do you?
During the Albee class, someone mentioned that Elizabeth Taylor had a mighty range and that it was difficult to believe she was the same person who played Velvet just two decades prior to Virginia Woolf. I had not put the two together, and I think that is when the word versatile entered my lexicon. Someone in class mentioned that she had been married once to one of the Hiltons.
Around the same time, the early 1980s, I had my third, more bizarre encounter with Elizabeth Taylor. Some afternoons I would stop by my grandmother’s house for lunch and catch parts of either One Life to Live or General Hospital. It was actually not possible to go by my grandmother’s house on a weekday and miss either of those soaps; she was especially fond of Luke and Laura on GH, and the early 1980s was their heyday.
At one time in the Luke and Laura odyssey, Helena Cassadine, the widow of Mikkos Cassadine, the wicked warlock of the weather machine, appeared in Port Charles to curse Luke and Laura on the eve of their nuptials—this after Luke, Laura, and Robert Scorpio had saved Port Charles and the rest of humanity from the evil Cassadine family plan to freeze the earth with their advanced atmospheric controlling and altering device. Elizabeth Taylor was Helena Cassadine. “She’s married to a senator from Virginia,” I remember my grandmother saying.
It was always surprising to see where she would show up and with whom. I don’t ever remember her appearing less than stellar, and when she tasked herself with humanitarian causes in her later years, it seems like she became all the more beautiful. There was no role she could not play.
Elizabeth Taylor was among the first iconic celebrities to publicly fight for AIDS research, and she did so in a time when it was a politically unpopular fight. She stayed by her friends during controversy—she was with Michael Jackson through his worst times—and she never gave up an inch of ground.
She was as compassionate and gutsy as she was beautiful. And now she’s married to the heavens. We’ll miss you Liz. And for every boy who had a crush on you after watching National Velvet, I think I can safely say we’ll always be proud to be your men, even though most of us never put a ring on your finger.
For more on Elizabeth Taylor’s work with AIDS and to sign her online memorial page, please visit the website of the Elizabeth Taylor Foundation.
Elizabeth Taylor / Sid Avery / Gelatin silver print, 1955 (printed later) / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Ron and Donna Avery, © 1978 Sid Avery
Elizabeth Taylor / Boris Chaliapin / Gouache on board, 1949 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mrs. Boris Chaliapin