A Class Act

SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 2011

ELIZABETH TAYLOR.  Actress, star, beauty, humanitarian, broad.  The compliments were, are and forever will be given to her.  She was all that, and a bag of chips.  A great lady that did more for this world than I think she even knew.  I’ve hesitated writing anything here with regards to her death, not because so much is already being written, rather it is simply a case of mourning.  I truly feel as though I have lost someone close to me.  Only now can I sit down and write about her.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR.  That name up on a marquee at one time used to indicate big box-office receipts; lines of people waiting to get into a theater to see her latest film.  Every magazine editor from every famous weekly, be it Life, Look, Time, Newsweek, People, Vogue all have said the same thing: when Elizabeth Taylor was on the cover, that particular magazine issue always sold out.

One great reporter/writer who was following Taylor over the course of several months to do a story on her had this to say: “She is like this little boat that just is cruising along not even aware of the huge wake that she is leaving behind her.”  She was myopic with regards to her celebrity, she had to be.  She became aware of her power as an actress and one who could negotiate like a “man” while married to the short and tough and sexy Mike Todd.  He informed her that, “audacity makes the star.”  Other actresses of her day went seeking her advice when it came time to negotiate lucrative film contracts for themselves.  In the ’50’s and ’60’s every Elizabeth Taylor movie earned what in today’s dollars would be the equivalent of around $250 million, at the box office alone.  There were no DVD sales, or other money making outlets at the time.  She also negotiated for 10% of all box office gross receipts up front.  For those who don’t know accounting jargon, that means that for every dollar that came in at the box office she received 10 cents right off the bat.  In 1967 the National Review Magazine called her, “the only true, gilt-edged investment” and referred to her as every man’s dream wife: “beautiful, talented and working…. and since she makes a minimum of $1 million per picture, she is the kind of wife that every man can afford.”

ELIZABETH TAYLOR personified what most people think of when they think of a movie star: unparalleled beauty, talent, drama, tragedy, husbands, villas, minks, diamonds, yachts, private planes, an entourage, at the top of all invite lists for all A-list parties.  Truman Capote had the “Burtons” on  his list when he was constructing his famous Black and White Ball at the Plaza in New York in 1966.  When Elizabeth arrived at the “Ball of the Century” party in Venice in 1967 she completely eclipsed guest of honor, Princess Grace of Monaco when she arrived wearing an elaborate head-dress that Alexander of Paris had made for her film “Boom.”  At the Lido opening in Paris in 1964 the invitation called for “pants only.”  When Elizabeth arrived, emerging from her green Rolls Royce as her chauffeur Gaston opened the door, she was wearing a gold lame ball gown with gold lame ribbons falling from her hair, and a million dollars worth of rare yellow diamonds on her fingers, wrists and ears.  The paparazzi went nuts, and of course, they still let her into the party, where she was immediately sat next to Aristotle Onassis.  Explaining her attire she simply said: “I wear pants to work.”  She could have just as easily said nothing but, “I’m Elizabeth Taylor.”

But this woman, this star was something much more to me.  Any of you who have followed my blog know that I come from a quite dysfunctional Italian-American family.  This woman was in a strange way a savior for me.  I’m sure that there are many other gay men who have a similar feeling or experience when it comes to this great lady.  I think I really became aware of her in the Spring of 1962, at the start of what would become known as “la scandale.”  She was in all her Cleopatra glory, make-up, sensationalism when her Life Magazine covers arrived.  Who was she, I thought?  Why were my parents and others talking about her in such vehement tones?  Grabbing a copy of Life and retreating to my bedroom, I read about her and was intrigued.  She was so fascinating, and beautiful, and doing whatever she wanted to do, and doing it all on such a grand scale.  Her life, her pictures took me away from all the screaming that was going on outside that bedroom door.  My little gay boy soul could be whisked away to a place of glamour, and other-worldliness.  Whatever torment I had to face outside of my bedroom simply melted away when I could just sit and read about Elizabeth Taylor.

To this day, if I am feeling blue, or things just are not going right, or I need some escapism, I can put in an Elizabeth Taylor DVD, and for those two hours or so I am pleasantly comforted and everything is ok.  I always wanted to meet her to tell her that she helped yet another gay boy/man cope.  I will always treasure the autographed picture she sent to me, accompanied by a private note, on stationary the color of her eyes, saying “thanks for thinking of me.”  I have the picture and note framed and they sit on the wall right above my computer.  I look at them every day.

So, goodbye Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor.  My gay brothers and I will always consider you a Saint.  You Dame Elizabeth personified the true definition of a Saint.  I am glad that your physical suffering is over, but you will forever be missed.  There is a pain in my heart over your passing.

I could not agree more with the words of her son, Michael Wilding, Jr., who said at his mother’s funeral, “the world is a better place for having had Elizabeth Taylor in it.”  Amen.  -JAB




Age 7.  In retrospect, the emotional and psychological abuse had prevailed from the time he was a baby in the crib.  He remembered staring through the crib bars watching the two of them, the two most responsible for his care, his security, verbally tear each other apart while turning down the bed covers.  The foundation never got any firmer.  The situation never did improve.  This was his life at age 7.  This would be his life for 19 years.  This was home.

He was “different.”  Not the athlete his brother was, and perhaps too easily influenced by his older sisters engaging him to harmonize with them on show tunes spinning on the record player.  This home was not what one saw on “Ozzie and Harriett.”  There could be an eruption at any time, for any given circumstance large or small.  Showing any effeminate tendency.  Or not knowing the difference between a Phillips screwdriver and a regular one, though no one had taken the time to teach him the difference between the two.  Such things could bring on such damaging, crushing criticism.

He had to hide his penchant for drawing women in pretty clothes, though it was a natural by-product of his natural artistic ability.  These were not approved talents.  These were “non-talents.”  By age 7 everything was already a scary premise.  How could it not have been with very little guidance, not knowing with every step if you were doing something right or wrong.

Age 7.  Easter.  1962.  When he told the story years later to friends he believed the love-affair, maybe even obsession, started around this time.  She arrived in that chaotic home that spring.  He’d heard about her long before, usually in strong tones by his father denouncing her as amoral.  Yet others seemed fascinated by her.  Everyone discussed her.  What was it about her?  Who was she?  Why all the talk?  That Easter would always stand out.  Not for the Easter baskets, or dinner at the Moonlight Restaurant, in that familiar green leather booth.  The reaction to her arrival would be with him forever.  She was simply, unceremoniously dropped off at that home like a common thing.  Delivered by the mailman.

“St. Elizabeth” arrived that Catholic holiday of 1962.  His savior.  She would eventually progress to become a savior for a whole generation of gay men.  But that spring, that Easter weekend she came for him alone.  This journey with her would have to be clandestine in the beginning, less his father find out.  But he could not resist.  She was too compelling.

A future husband of hers would describe her as “beautiful beyond pornography.”  She was a breath-taking object, like a fine piece of art or sculpture.  His affair with her, his obsession  began in his bedroom, door closed, by the light of his end table lamp.  Just the two of them.  She took him to another world.  A world of luxury and glamour.  Of notorious audacity.  Of freedom and power.  Of “go fuck yourself” strength. She was beauty with balls.  He was transported away from all the screaming and pain.  It would all dissipate, left out in that hallway, that living room.  The mailman’s timing was perfect.  He delivered her dressed in a gown of gold, with sequins glued to her eyelids.  He went off into her world and everything, everyone else was eclipsed.

On the cover of Life Magazine.  She was Cleopatra.  She was Elizabeth Taylor.

From that spring on how many times would this woman come to his rescue?  Take him away from the abusive home, the bullies at school, the surreal drudgery of a Catholic upbringing, puberty, college, awful gay men, bad bosses.  Seeing her on the cover of a magazine or tabloid looking all violet-eyed and luscious gave him an escape that was better than any drug or drink  Her retorts to the ever-prying press regarding any aspect of her fish-bowl life with something like, “Who the hell’s business is it anyway?” could make him feel less powerless; transcend the numbing and mundane.

Call it what you want, she kept him sane.  He never considered lumping her into that “diva” category that so many want to pigeon-hole strong women.  The stories about her made her appear more like a broad, rather than a diva.  Kind to people others would deem unimportant, saving her power, her wrath usually for white straight guys, producers, who tried to use dick-wagging attitude around her.

She didn’t need a cock, she had them by the balls.  They’d do what she wanted.  Never one to tolerate fools, Elizabeth Taylor is, was and always would be a “broad,” the highest compliment he could give a woman.  She empowered him by living her life, and inadvertently taught him how to deal in a man’s world.  Even her crash and burns were lessons to be learned.  Always rising like a phoenix, she came back stronger, better, more powerful than ever, every time.  Never to be pitied.  The only time he saw her on unsure footing was that brief period with the Senator from Virginia.  What was up with that, he wanted to ask her.  Nevertheless, Senator “Asshole”  came and went in five years, and E.T. came roaring back, again.

His brother-in-law once asked him why gay men were drawn to such strong women.  He could only speak for himself, and only about Elizabeth.  She had her heartbreaks, alcohol and drug addictions.  Addictions to men.  Gay men obviously could relate.  He always loved the line Truvey uttered in “Steel Magnolias.”  Speaking of a local woman who had been through much trauma in her life, Truvey says, “…….why, in lifetime of sufferin’ she is right up there with Elizabeth Taylor.”  And she was beautiful.  Gay men love and appreciate beauty, he told his brother-in-law. “We might not want to fuck her, but we know what comprises beauty.”  He remembered the first time he saw her in that transparent white swimming suit, coming out of the surf in “Suddenly, Last Summer.”  What an exquisite creature.

In later years E.T. grew again, taught him again.  She became a real humanitarian.  She took her celebrity beyond what power it would provide for herself.  She could call a press conference and command the world to listen.  “She did it for us,” he would remind everyone.  She was no longer Elizabeth Taylor, superstar/icon.  She achieved anointed status.  She stepped up to the plate and dared the “dick-swingers” to ignore her.  Testosterone and naysayers never daunted her.  She taught him how to focus his eyes on one thing ahead and keep heading towards it.  Consistently awed by the little lady with violet eyes.

“She went to battle for us,” he would remind everyone.  She used her celebrity to it’s most pristine form.  Though she was no longer box-office, people didn’t necessarily turn down a call from Elizabeth Taylor.  Still, influential people hung up the phone on her.  Warned her to stay away from “that AIDS thing.”  Dauntless in her quest she would sweetly cajole some, strong arm others.  She came to help “us,” and she succeeded in spades.

His affair with her would never wane.  She would always mystify and mesmerize.  From 1962, age 7, and forever more, she would always be the most famous woman in the world, Cleopatra, one ballsy broad.  St. Elizabeth.   -JAB