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Elizabeth Taylor as "Cleopatra" (1963)

Elizabeth Taylor as Queen of the Nile in "Cleopatra" (1963)

There’s a delicious new Elizabeth Taylor biography on the market: How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood by William Mann. I’ve been reading juicy excerpts online. The book is so good, so rich in scandalous detail, that I’ve ordered a copy to be sent to my doorstep.

I’m devouring the chapter on the early 1962 filming of “Cleopatra,” when Elizabeth famously ditches husband #4 Eddie Fisher for her Welsh costar Richard Burton. Author Mann paints Elizabeth Taylor as quite the pampered diva, ensconced in her Italian villa, filming in Rome by day. Her butler, for example, was one of many charged with satisfying her every frivolous need.

An example: Elizabeth was a pack-a-day smoker – despite the fact that she was recovering from pneumonia and a tracheotomy that had seriously delayed the movie’s production and almost cost Elizabeth her life. Nevertheless, she smoked, and with a cigarette holder. She never used the same holder twice.

“Fresh ones – at least ten a day –  had to be at the ready, and they had to be color-coded. A green dress called for a matching holder – and Madame changed outfits quite frequently as her moods shifted. Every morning Oates [her butler] prepared a box of cigarette holders based on what Elizabeth would be wearing that day and evening, and not only did the holders have to match her outfits, they couldn’t clash with the tablecloth.” (1) 

Richard Burton as Mark Antony with Elizabeth Taylor as Queen of the Nile in "Cleopatra" (1963)

Richard Burton as Marc Antony with Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra" (1963)

But Richard Burton wasn’t dazzled by Liz’s Hollywood fame. Twentieth Century Fox was paying her $1 million to play the Queen of the Nile in their production. Elizabeth Taylor was the highest-paid actress of the day – but Richard Burton called her “Lumpy” – and to her face. She was intrigued by his dismissive attitude toward him.

Burton was a heavy drinker.  In his first big scene with Taylor, he appeared on the set with a terrible hangover. Elizabeth, although the mother of 3 children at the time, with an adoption of a fourth child in the works, had never been particularly maternal. Yet when she saw how sick Burton was, she felt an overwhelming need to take care of him. It was the turning point. They began a hot-and-heavy and very public romance.

Rumors seeped out and crossed the Atlantic, creeping into gossip columns by Hedda Hopper and Dorothy Kilgallen, scandalizing the film industry and the public who were just recovering from Liz’s latest romantic acquisition, when she stole the married Eddie Fisher from actress wife Debbie Reynolds.

In early 1958, Fisher embraces wife Reynolds in Las Vegas, though his eye seems to be on Taylor, his best friend Mike Todd's wife. In March, Todd dies in a plane crash, and Fisher soon leaves Reynolds for Taylor.

In early 1958, Fisher embraces wife Reynolds in Las Vegas, though his eye seems to be on Taylor, his best friend Mike Todd's wife. In March, Todd dies in a plane crash, and Fisher soon leaves Reynolds for Taylor.

Meanwhile, back on the “Cleopatra” set, Eddie Fisher learned of his wife’s affair. Their marriage had already been on shaky ground but was not yet in complete tatters. He wanted to salvage it. On February 5, at the suggestion of his  wife’s secretary, he took Elizabeth shopping. He chartered a flight to Paris. The international press followed their every move, as the former nightclub crooner Fisher and his gorgeous celebrity wife visited Parisian fashion houses such as Yves St. Laurent, Chanel, and Dior, where Eddie wrote check after check for gowns, jewels, and furs for his flagrantly unfaithful wife. Eddie Fisher once said,

“To keep Elizabeth happy, you have to give her a diamond before breakfast every morning.”

Delighted with her new trinkets, Elizabeth promised Fisher she would stop seeing Burton. A rupture was temporarily averted; they flew back to Rome.

Two weeks passed yet things did not go better for Fisher. Liz did not keep her word. She continued seeing Burton. On February 17, 1960, drinking heavily, Elizabeth swallowed 14 sleeping pills and passed out cold.  She was hospitalized for what was considered a suicide attempt. She was distraught over her personal life. She could not make the break with Burton. She had fallen head-over-heels in love with him.

A little over a week later, she turned thirty, and her parents flew to Rome for the celebration. Shortly afterward, Burton confronted her in front of Fisher and told her she must choose between her two men. On the spot, she chose Burton. Richard divorced his wife of 13 years, Sybil Burton. In 1964, Elizabeth divorced Fisher and married Richard Burton.

Richard Burton escorts wife Elizabeth Taylor in an Edith Head evening gown, 1970
Richard Burton escorts wife Elizabeth Taylor to the 1970 Oscars. Taylor wears an Edith Head gown that matches her violet eyes and displays her assets, particularly her own 69-carat, pear-shaped Cartier diamond — which later became known as the Taylor-Burton diamond.

Twice married, twice divorced to one another, the love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton remains one of the most famous – and tempestuous – of the Twentieth Century.

(1) Mann, William J. How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

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The Duchess of Windsor filled her empty life by buying expensive clothes and getting the Duke to buy her costly jewels. She was always immaculately dressed and never casual. In 1935, she made the Paris Couture best-dressed list and remained there for 40 years.

Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986), is remembered for her stylishness. She filled her empty life by buying expensive clothes from the big Paris fashion houses like Chanel and getting the Duke to buy her costly jewels from Cartier. The Duchess of Windsor was always immaculately dressed and never casual. In 1935, she made the Paris Couture best-dressed list and remained there for 40 years.

In my previous post, “Coco Chanel, Nazi Lovers, and the Windsor Set,” I described the wave of attention the Duke and Duchess of Windsor received when they settled in Paris in the late thirties. A glamorous social set of fashion designers, Nazi sympathizers, American heiresses, British ex-pats, and assorted other idle rich people welcomed the Windsors and became a sort of parallel court for the displaced royals. This French upper-crust group was dubbed “the Windsor Set.” The press buzzed about them like bees around a hive. All  their comings and goings, designer clothes, fancy homes, and elegant soirees were endlessly photographed and reported in the society columns of the day.

The Duchess and Duke of Windsor at hone

The Duchess and Duke of Windsor at home

At the center of this new social whirl was the Duchess of Windsor. She had never gotten over being snubbed by the British Royal Family and being barred from getting the attention she felt she and the Duke deserved.

Wallis had always been obsessed with her appearance. She knew she wasn’t a great beauty, having once said,

” Nobody ever called me beautiful, or even pretty.”

What she lacked in looks, she made up for in other ways. She selected simple, well-tailored clothes that accented her slim, almost boyish figure. Against this plain backdrop, she dripped with sometimes enormous jewels, sometimes mixing real gems with costume pieces, the real things being given to her by the Duke. Her taste ran to big colorful stones and yellow gold. She amassed a huge collection of jewelry which was sold at auction in 1987 for a record-shattering $50 million. “An 18-karat-gold cigarette case from Cartier—engraved with a map of Europe and set with 37 gems to mark the couple’s premarital holidays—sold for more than $290,000; Elizabeth Taylor phoned in a bid of $623,000 and snagged a diamond brooch.”

In 1949, the Duchess of Windsor acquired this diamond and sapphire panther pin from Cartier. The panther is crouched in a life like pose on a large perfect round cabochon star sapphire weighing 152.35 carats. This panther pin was one of the Duchess' favorite pieces which she frequently wore. It created an envy among other jewelry collectors and a demand for Cartier to produce more panther pieces. Today, the panther is a Cartier icon. The Duchess of Windsor's animal pieces became her signature.

In 1949, the Duchess of Windsor acquired this diamond and sapphire panther pin from Cartier. The panther is crouched in a life like pose on a large perfect round cabochon star sapphire weighing 152.35 carats. This panther pin was one of the Duchess' favorite pieces which she frequently wore. It created an envy among other jewelry collectors and a demand for Cartier to produce more panther pieces. Today, the panther is a Cartier icon. The Duchess of Windsor's animal pieces became her signature.

Wallis and Edward with best man Edward "Fruity" Metcalf at their royal wedding, June 3, 1937, at the Chateau de Cande, Mont, France

Wallis and Edward with best man Edward "Fruity" Metcalfe at their royal wedding, June 3, 1937, at the Chateau de Candé, Mont, France

Necklaces, bracelets, lapel pins – she had them all. The only gap in her jewelry collection was rings. The Duchess hated her hands. She thought they were big and ugly. (Notice the black gloves in the first photo above). Acclaimed British photographer Cecil Beaton photographed the Windsors many times. He took their wedding photos at the Chateau de Candé. Beaton remembered of that session that Wallis

“twisted and twirled her rugged hands. She laughed a square laugh, protruded her lower lip. Her eyes were excessively bright, slightly froglike, also wistful.”

 

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