Unquestionably one of the greatest actresses ever, Elizabeth Taylor’s seemingly violet eyes seized the attention of cinema lovers for over four decades. She achieved a level of fame rivaled by few, and was perhaps the first example of a celebrity growing up in the public’s eye. Her personal life, known for its flair for the dramatic, mirrored her on-screen performances; and at times received more attention. These rare photos document the life of one of Hollywood’s greatest icons.
A Heavenly Childhood
Long before she became Hollywood royalty living a life the average person could only dream of, even Elizabeth Taylor’s childhood was charmed. She was born in the Hampstead Garden neighborhood, outside of London. Her parents, originally from Kansas, expatriated to London, where they opened up an art gallery. A young Elizabeth grew up going to Montessori school, surrounded by some of the most famous British politicians, artists, actors and actresses in England, all clients of her father.
In 1939, when she was seven, the American ambassador, none other than dynasty head Joseph Kennedy, phoned Elizabeth’s father Francis, urging him to leave England before the outbreak of war. That year, the Taylors relocated to Los Angeles, where an uncle had already settled. Immediately, Francis Taylor reopened the art gallery. He settled his family into the upscale neighborhood of Beverly Hills, establishing himself within the social elite of Los Angeles. A path opened before young Elizabeth.
Mr. Taylor’s clients and regular people on the street began encouraging ten-year-old Elizabeth Taylor to start acting. A beautiful child, she had a genetic mutation that made her eyelashes double-length. Her eyes, infinitely blue, were described as being violet. Through the help of some of his influential clients, Francis Taylor secured his daughter auditions at Universal and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studios.
After auditioning for both studios, she received offers from both of them, choosing to work for MGM. But her movie contract was terminated after only one year. One casting director said, “The kid has nothing…her eyes are too old, she doesn’t have the face of a child.” It was true. Unlike child stars of the time like Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, Taylor was more mature.
A Second Chance
Thanks to another family connection, Elizabeth won a minor role in Lassie Come Home. Her knack for impersonating a British accent then landed additional work that also required one. Her first starring role was in National Velvet; she was just twelve years old. Filming was pushed back several months so that she could grow and brush up on her horse-riding skills.
When the film released during Christmas 1944, it was a box office hit and breakout role for Taylor. As an adult, she said that it was the most exciting role that she ever played. Throughout her childhood, Taylor was groomed for success by MGM studio executives. As a teenager, she starred in another five films between 1947 to 1949, often playing the part of a teenage rebel or love-interest. Little did she realize an era was ending.
The Last Of A Generation
Elizabeth Taylor was the last great Hollywood star who grew up in the movie studios. Like the scene from The Godfather where movie executive Jack Woltz describes losing his star actress, MGM had spent millions on creating and sculpting the image of the young Elizabeth Taylor, often going to the extreme to achieve perfection.
In between films, they straightened her teeth, in addition to pulling two of them. They had her hairline plucked, and eyebrows reshaped. She received acting and horse riding lessons, all as part of the plan to develop MGM’s next big star. There was yet another aspect of control: boys. When she was still an adolescent, the studios encouraged romantic relationships, first between Taylor and football star Glen Davis. Then along came socialite and hotel chain-heir Conrad “Nicky” Hilton.
The Social Event of the Decade
Elizabeth Taylor and Conrad Hilton Jr. were married on May 6, 1950, in a private ceremony with 600 guests, that included the who’s-who of A-list Hollywood celebrities. The eldest son of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton Sr., and heir to his father’s fortune, the younger Hilton was a renowned Hollywood playboy.
Yet after a two-week honeymoon in Europe, already it became clear to Taylor that the marriage would not last. Hilton’s gambling habits, heavy drinking, and abusive behavior became too much for her. Even her parents were completely appalled by Hilton. They filed for divorce; the marriage ended just eight months after their wedding.
Coming Into Her Own
After her marriage, Elizabeth Taylor’s acting career began to progress. For the first time, she played more complex character roles. A highlight of her performances during the early 1950s would be the film A Place In the Sun, opposite Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters. Critics remarked that the depth of emotion that she could tap into on screen was far beyond her young years.
Despite her commercial success, Taylor’s relationship with MGM studios was beginning to deteriorate, as she faced a backlash for divorcing Hilton. She had harmed her public image, which in turn cost the studio money. Soon she began receiving inadequate roles that she largely did not want to do. Nevertheless, even in smaller roles like Rebecca in MGM’s epic, Ivanhoe, Taylor continued to earn critical acclaim. She could reorient herself at last.
A New Marriage
Elizabeth Taylor had remarked that her puritanical childhood greatly influenced the way she approached love and marriage. Much like her onstage performances, Taylor’s relationships were known for their flair of drama. It would be a constant theme in her relationships that she would need to contend with, as though her passion in front of the camera overflowed into her everyday life. Just one year after divorcing Hilton, she married British actor Michael Wilding.
Ironically, Taylor became more dependent than ever on MGM studios. Newly married and pregnant with the couple’s first child, Taylor cut a deal that would see Wilding star alongside her in future pictures. This was in addition to receiving a higher weekly salary of $4,700, and getting a loan for a new house. Everything seemed to be coming up roses.
Earning Praise From Her Peers
Taylor’s film roles at the time included playing alongside James Dean in Giant, and (again with) Montgomery Clift in Raintree County. The latter helped Elizabeth Taylor to solidify herself as one of the best actresses in Hollywood by earning an Academy Award nomination for her performance. But her newfound respect and rising fame didn’t come without hardship. Her busy career took a toll on her marriage, which ended in divorce in 1957.
Shortly after her split with Wilding, she married for a third time, to movie executive, Mike Todd. Sadly, this too was not to last: Todd was tragically killed in a plane crash just months after their wedding. In spite of the trauma, Taylor was barely even able to grieve. Just weeks later, she was forced to return to work.
Performance And Scandal
Between 1958 and 1960, Elizabeth Taylor worked at a feverish pace, no matter the details of her personal life. She completed three movies in that time, pairing twice with Montgomery Clift, and having the opportunity to act alongside such Hollywood heavyweights as Katharine Hepburn and leading man Paul Newman. She poured her grief into her performance in the film version of the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and critics took notice.
But at this time, the constantly scrutinized actress faced publicity of another kind: scandalizing gossip. Singer Eddie Fisher’s marriage with Singing in the Rain star actress Debbie Reynolds was seen as creating a pure Hollywood power couple — until news broke of his affair with Elizabeth Taylor. The press was hungry to sink its teeth in.
The Fight For An Oscar
Eddie Fisher’s affair with Elizabeth Taylor was the talk of the town. To complicate matters further, his best friend had been Mike Todd, her recently deceased husband. His divorce from wife Debbie Reynolds, and his 1959 marriage to Taylor, were immensely unpopular. Elizabeth Taylor was rebranded in the press as a villain, and Fisher’s TV series was canceled. Nonetheless, Elizabeth Taylor was determined to continue showing her prowess as an actress.
Despite her incredible performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Academy snubbed her, as though punishing her personal life. Then, after three Academy Award nominations for Best Actress, Taylor nearly died of pneumonia. With her tracheotomy scar visible, clutching Eddie Fisher as she ascended the stage, she won the Best Actress Oscar in 1961 for BUtterfield 8, a film whose script mirrored the plot of her scandalized personal life. She was now on top of her game. What was next?
Conversion To Judaism
At the height of her fame and in the midst of her busy acting schedule, Taylor turned her attention to something more personal: her spirituality. Although raised a Christian Scientist, she said that she had felt Jewish all her life. Despite the fact that two of her husbands were Jewish, she said her decision to become Jewish, converting in 1959, was entirely hers.
From the late 1950s and throughout her career, Taylor contributed to Jewish and pro-Israel causes, like purchasing Israel bonds, helping to fundraise for Jewish organizations, and fought for Soviet Jews to be able to immigrate. She would feature in a television film Victory at Entebbe, about the Israeli rescue of 102 hostages in 1976, and narrated the 1981 feature Genocide, about the Holocaust. But back in 1961, her sights were set not on Israel — but Egypt.
In 1961, Elizabeth Taylor left MGM and signed with 20th Century Fox. The studio would cast her in the highly anticipated release of Cleopatra, which made history as the most expensive film made up until that point. Taylor’s million-dollar salary, plus ten percent of the film’s profits, also made her the highest-paid female actress ever.
But the film nearly cost Taylor her life and bankrupted Fox studios. Marred by bad weather, script delays, and yet another scandal — this one involving an extramarital affair between Taylor and her co-star, Richard Burton — the production budget ballooned to an insane $62 million. To make matters worse, Taylor had a series of health scares: food poisoning, an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, and then a bout of pneumonia. Had she not had surgery, she would have died.
Critical Reactions and Hollywood Exploitation
Despite the commercial success of Cleopatra, the budget had been so extravagant that it took years to make back financial costs. Taylor’s portrayal of the ancient Egyptian queen was not well received. She was criticized for being overweight, and for her thin voice, a side-effect from the surgery that had saved her life. Now more than ever, the studio looked to capitalize on the headlines that obsessed over Taylor’s personal life.
She starred alongside Richard Burton again in The V.I.P.s, which was scripted to mirror their real-life romance. After filming, the couple would eventually secure divorces from their respective spouses and get married. At the time, the celebrity power couple was earning big time at the box office and on television. Throughout the 1960s, it is said that Burton and Taylor amassed $88 million through their various roles in TV and movies. But her best was yet to come.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
When producer Ernest Lehman purchased the rights to Edward Albee’s Broadway play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he knew that he would have difficulty releasing it. The play was known by veteran theatergoers as being notoriously provocative. It contained multiple violations of the moral guidelines for movies at the time, mainly because of its coarse language. In the film, Ivy League professor George (Burton) and his wife Martha (Taylor) host George’s colleague and his wife for a dinner party.
Throughout the evening, the dark dysfunction of the hosts’ marriage rears its ugly head, and all the guests can do is stand idly by and watch the trainwreck. The film is one of only two in history to be nominated for every single category at the Academy Awards. Taylor’s ferocious performance earned her a second Oscar for Best Actress. How would her relationship with Burton progress?
Liz, Dick, and The Jet Set Lifestyle
Taylor’s marriage with Richard Burton (by far her longest), was also the most well-documented and most scrutinized by the public. Having reached the epitome of Hollywood success, everything that the couple did commanded national attention. Both at home and abroad, they were continually scorned by conservatives for their relationship, which had begun as an extramarital affair.
The couple’s affair was confirmed when, on vacation in Italy, a photographer shot the two of them aboard a yacht off the coast of Ischia. The Vatican condemned the couple for what they called “erotic vagrancy”, while at home, many members of the US Congress wanted to see the celebrity couple banned from re-entering the States. It was a turning point in celebrity culture that would set a blueprint for the future.
The Biggest Actress In Hollywood
One of Taylor’s biographers, William Mann, noted that, “She was one of the first to make her personal life as important as her professional life in terms of her stardom.” Much like the reality TV stars of today, but with a bona fide talent, Taylor was not only the most talented actress in Hollywood, but was often considered to be the most beautiful woman on the planet.
In fact, Taylor’s beauty is so well known that scientific studies have been applied to her features. In 2009, a trio of researchers tried to uncover the facial proportions in people considered to be most attractive. After surveying hundred of participants, they came up with several ‘golden ratios’ in regard to facial and body shape. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Taylor was a quintessential example of what most surveyed deemed attractive. One man needed no convincing: Richard Burton.
Life After Virginia Woolf
After filming Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton turned their attention towards theater. They returned to their native England to bring Helen of Troy to the stage at Oxford. Afterwards, Burton would turn the play into an on-screen production, but it was a commercial flop, only earning $600,000 at the box office.
The same year, in keeping with their new focus on theater, the couple starred in Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew, another all-star performance from Taylor in her Shakespeare debut. Her third movie of 1967, Reflections in a Golden Eye, was her first without Burton since Cleopatra. Although it featured Oscar-winner Marlon Brando, the film was not successful upon release. Burton and Taylor would release one more movie that same year, Comedians, but it was also a commercial disappointment.
By the end of the 1960s, Elizabeth Taylor’s acting career was on the slide. She was middle-aged, had gained weight, and the public finally started to become bored of hearing about the intrigues of her relationship with Richard Burton. Taylor’s on-screen characters were reflective of the inevitable change. No longer the young love interest, her movies in 1969 and 1970 featured older characters. None of the films were well-received.
1972’s Zee and Co., did somewhat better, starring alongside Michael Caine as a troubled married couple. Her performance won her a David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Actress, the Italian equivalent of an Oscar. Despite her seemingly waning star power, Taylor still commanded top dollar for her acting. Directors were quick to cast her in order to bank on her fame. In 1973, Taylor did her final film with husband Richard Burton, Divorce His, Divorce Hers. Fittingly, they divorced the following year.
Throughout the 1970s, Elizabeth Taylor made some of the worst-reviewed films of her career. After re-marrying and then re-divorcing Richard Burton, Taylor wed again, now for the sixth time, to Republican Senator John Warren of Virginia. He had met Taylor prior to becoming Senator, and worked as the Undersecretary (and then Secretary) of the Navy under President Richard Nixon.
By the mid-1970s, Taylor had largely taken a hiatus from filming, instead supporting her husband’s political campaign. After three more box office failures and a brief break from filming, she turned her focus again towards the stage, starring as wealthy Southern belle Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes. The production sold out for six months straight. Yet despite initial success in the United States, her performance was heavily panned by the British press. It seemed she could do no right.
From Productions To Politics
When she married John Warner, Elizabeth Taylor was dead set on getting her husband elected to the United States Senate, and she stopped at nothing to achieve her goal. Likewise, Warner was eager to show off his movie star wife to his political friends. She was popular on the campaign trail, shaking hands with voters and fans alike, causing a stir.
Wherever the couple showed up, there were bound to be several Taylor lookalikes with wigs and evening gowns. But the transition into political life didn’t come easy to Taylor at first. Reminiscing on some of his early interactions with Taylor, Warren recounted his embarrassment when she appeared in the bicentennial office wearing a flowing silk pajama outfit with a low neckline. From the look of things, this screen star’s return to show business couldn’t be far off.
From Politics To Television
During the 1980s, Elizabeth Taylor pivoted yet again, this time to TV, where she had already appeared in a few minor roles, including on the popular soap opera, General Hospital. Three years later, she would appear again in All My Children and North and South.
Taylor also took on several roles in made-for-TV movies. She played a gossip columnist in 1985’s Malice in Wonderland, and a fading movie star in 1986’s There Must Be A Pony. At the same time, she began receiving accolades for a lifetime of achievement in Hollywood. She was awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Award, as well as the Caplin Award, from the Film Society of the Lincoln Center. Now in her 60s, she would transition into another role: activist.
No stranger to philanthropy, Taylor was very cognizant of the fact that she could use her fame and influence to achieve actionable change. In the middle of the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaged communities across America, disproportionately affecting the gay community. Many of Elizabeth’s close friends and biggest fans were LGBTQ; she was a bona fide gay icon, and had a heightened sensitivity to the community’s needs. Taylor became frustrated by Reagan’s government’s lack of effort at stopping the disease.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, she once said, “I could take the fame I’d resented and tried to get away from for so many years – but you can never get away from it – and use it to do some good. I wanted to retire, but the tabloids wouldn’t let me. So, I thought: If you’re going to screw me over, I’ll use you.” And she did. In 1985, alongside the reputable Dr. Michael Gottlieb, she opened the National AIDS Research Foundation.
Engagement Number Ten, Marriage Number Eight
Let’s face it: part of Elizabeth Taylor’s celebrity allure came from her repeated romantic relationships. In total, she was married eight times to seven different men. She eventually tired of life as the wife of a politician, finding it boring. This resulted in new health issues stemming from trouble with addiction. In 1982, she divorced Senator John Warren, and briefly had a romantic fling with her lawyer, becoming engaged.
Her seventh (and last) husband was a construction worker named Larry Fortensky. Again, her wedding garnered huge interest from the American public. One paparazzo went so far as to parachute into the wedding at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in Santa Ynez, California. Taylor found a way to use the attention in order to benefit the great good: using the money that she earned from selling her wedding photos to start her AIDS foundation. But she was not without her quirks.
Elizabeth The Eccentric
Having solidified herself as one of the best actresses of a generation, by the latter part of her career, Elizabeth Taylor was in a category unto herself in terms of wealth and fame. One of her most curious relationships, albeit not a romantic one, was with none other than the King of Pop, singer and dancer Michael Jackson. The two shared a common bond of mutual affection towards one another, often showering each other with lavish gifts.
More bizarre, the two shared an interest in exotic pets. It is well-known that Jackson’s home at Neverland Ranch featured its own zoo, which housed an elephant named Gypsy, a gift from Taylor. Lesser known is that Elizabeth Taylor and her husband Richard Burton once owned a pet monkey, who wreaked havoc when the couple brought it with them during their stay at the famous Gresham Hotel in Dublin. Jackson found one avenue to truly spoil his friend: jewelry.
Throughout her career, Elizabeth Taylor was known for her fashion sense and expansive, dazzling jewelry collection. On screen, her costumes were created by famed designers Helen Rose and Edith Head, and later by Irene Sharaff. Sharaff, in addition to winning an Oscar for her designs in Cleopatra, also owns credits on West Side Story, The King and I, and Alice in Wonderland the musical.
In her personal life, Elizabeth Taylor amassed a jewelry collection that ranked among the most valuable in the world. Included were three rings from former husband, Richard Burton with diamonds that were 33 carats, 69.42 carats, and 50 carats, respectively. After her death, her jewelry collection was auctioned off by British auction house Christie’s for an astounding $156.8 million. Her clothes fetched an additional $5.5 million. And that was far from being her only fortune.
Elizabeth Taylor was the first celebrity in history to develop her own brand of fragrance. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she released two best-selling perfumes in collaboration with Elizabeth Arden Inc., now a subsidiary of Revlon. During her lifetime she went on to release eleven different scents, and in true Elizabeth Taylor fashion, oversaw the production from start to finish.
It is rumored that the profits that she earned from her fragrance lines eclipsed the money that she made from all of her movies combined. At the time of her death, The Guardian estimated that most of the money valued in her estate, an estimated $600 million to $1 billion, came from her line of perfumes.
A Star Joins The Constellations
On March 23, 2011, Elizabeth Taylor passed away at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was seventy-nine years old. The cause of death was congestive heart failure, but it was perhaps a culmination of injuries and stress stemming from a Hollywood career that spanned over four decades. Since falling off a horse filming National Velvet as a child, breaking her back, Taylor was prone to different ailments and illnesses throughout her career.
In addition to her brush with death during the filming of Cleopatra, she underwent several back surgeries. Later in life had an operation to remove a benign brain tumor, and she used a wheelchair. At her funeral, per her request, the rabbi began fifteen minutes behind schedule so that, in her words, she could be late to her own funeral!
Elizabeth Taylor will forever be remembered as one of the last stars of classical Hollywood cinema, and one of the last products of the studio system. She received as much attention for her personal life as she did for her acting, setting the standard for today’s movie stars. The film historian Jeanine Basinger once remarked, “No actress ever had a more difficult job in getting critics to accept her onscreen as someone other than Elizabeth Taylor — her persona ate her alive.”
She was a feminist figurehead, becoming the best in her profession in an industry dominated by males. She is considered a gay icon for her devotion to the community as well as her tireless effort in advancing research about the HIV/AIDS virus. Taylor is a member of the chivalric Order of the British Empire, but not least, she will be remembered as the girl with eyes which, under the right lighting, shone brilliantly violet.
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