Please Join Me for Coffee, Ms Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor – classic beauty

In March of 2019, there was a spate of paid Facebook postings that depicted three or four celebrities and the question “Cup and Conversation with…?”  You were supposed to click on the most appealing of the prospective interlocutors.

That Facebook campaign was most likely a clickbait thing, probably targeting women because most of the time the celebs depicted were deceased dreamboat males.  But I must say that it got me thinking. If I had to name four people with whom I’d love to have coffee and a chat, of course they’d be women. One of them would be Elizabeth Taylor. Another would be Hedy Lamarr.

Okay, stop right there. I know what you’re thinking, and there’s more to the story than that. Really, there is.  How can there not be? Neither of them is a redhead. But I’ll explain.  I’m taking Truman Capote’s recommendations on the first of those wonderful women.  As for my reasons for including Ms Lamarr, neé Hedwig Kiesler, read my earlier blog post here.

How I would have loved to do coffee, or lunch, or whatever, with either of them. It would have been nice to have been able to count either of them among my friends.

Additionally, I like the way Capote thinks about the company of women in general.  I’ve been reading Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote.  In it there’s a piece titled “Self-Portrait,” a Q&A that reads like a magazine interview.  In a lengthy response to “How do you like best to occupy your spare time?” he states,

“Many people say they hate to lunch…[it] altogether spoils their day. It makes mine. There are some men I enjoy lunching with, but by and large I prefer beautiful, or at least extremely attractive, alert, and au courant women.”

After naming several such ladies, he continues, “But I don’t think that any woman deserves full marks until she attains and maintains qualities of style and appearance and amusing good sense beyond the point of easy youthful beguilement.”

All righty, then.  Truman and I do see eye-to-eye.

Truman Capote

It’s right after that when Capote first mentions Liz Taylor. He names several more women who had distinguished themselves in their lives and careers, then points out that they are all private citizens rather than public characters whose trade is “allure.”

Taylor and Garbo are two such public characters.  He depicts Garbo as “an ultimately selfish and tiresome woman;” Taylor, however, is “a sensitive, self-educated lady with a tough but essentially innocent attitude – if you sleep with a guy, gosh, that means you have to marry him!”

I suppose if that wasn’t enough to whet my appetite for more insight into the ravishingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, I could also fall back on what my mother once said about her: “I wouldn’t cross the street to meet that tramp.” Up until then, I’d always thought that a tramp was one of those homeless guys that we also called hoboes. I never knew a woman could be one.

Sorry, Ma. It’s quite clear that Elizabeth Taylor was anything but a tramp. Truman Capote was an acerbic, exacting observer of human nature, and he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He skewered many of the beautiful people in his writings, but Liz was not one of them.  So I’ll take his word for it. One of his essays tells of their friendship that blossomed after a number of casual meetings and finally, one of those lengthy lunch dates.

Of Ms Taylor’s love life, he points out that the two worst things that had happened to her were the death of her third (of an eventual eight) husband, Mike Todd, and her subsequent marriage to the “singer” Eddie Fisher. That latter marriage was an event “almost as unsuitable as Mrs. Kennedy’s Grecian nuptials.” Ouch!

Taylor as Gloria Wandrous in “Butterfield 8”

Capote learned that despite her liberal use of four-letter words, Liz was “in various areas a moralist, quite a strict one, almost Calvinist.” She hated having to play Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8, saying “I don’t like that girl. I don’t like what she stands for. The sleazy emptiness of her. The men.The sleeping around.”

Yikes. Liz actually sounds like my mom there. She didn’t like tramps either. But she was under contract to John O’Hara and she had to do the movie. She played the tramp and won an Academy Award. As one reviewer on IMDB put it:

“Much of this movie is cheap psychobabble, but Taylor smolders with a raw sensuality that you would never guess she had in her. You knew she was strong, beautiful, and flawed, but you never knew she could be all three and still be able to act with that much cleavage. The unfortunate thing about this movie is that there are other people in it.”

Yes, Elizabeth Taylor was a damn fine actress and much more than a pretty face. But she was also a brainiac, as Capote found out that day. He goes on to state his surprise at how well-read she was:

“…not that she made anything of it, or posed as an intellectual, but clearly she cared about books and, in haphazard style, had absorbed a large number of them.  And she discussed them with considerable understanding of the literary process; all in all, it made one wonder about the men in her life, with the exception of Mike Todd…Nicky Hilton, Michael Wilding, Mr. Fisher – what on earth did this very alert and swift-minded young woman find to talk to them about?”

He lets Liz herself answer that one. She told him, “Well one doesn’t always fry the fish one wants to fry. Some of the men I’ve really liked really didn’t like women.”

Illustrating this point, further, Capote mentions a later meeting he had with Taylor and Fisher, whom Capote disdainfully dubbed “The Busboy.” Eddie was sitting on a couch, rubbing his eyes in frustration. He complained “It’s all that reading. That thing you tell me I gotta read. I’ve tried. I can’t get through it somehow.”

Taylor turned to Capote and explained, “He means To Kill a Mockingbird. It just came out. I think it’s a really lovely book.”

There’s a good deal more about Elizabeth Taylor that’s downright appealing. It makes me wish we could somehow have been friends, and not just lunch companions.  She didn’t seem at all like a fair-weather type. She took  friendship seriously – not something that I would associate with the cutthroat world of show business.

Montgomery Clift

Liz stood by another old friend, Montgomery Clift, while his life was slowly unraveling with substance abuse. She briefly salvaged his career by insisting that he play opposite her in Suddenly, Last Summer. It turned out to be his last good performance.  By 1966, Clift was considered unemployable. Liz got him one more role. She put her salary for the planned film Reflections in a Golden Eye, up as insurance in order for him to co-star with her.  But Clift died before the film was made, and Marlon Brando got the role.

Some years later, when she was married to Richard Burton, they were leaving a Broadway play by car. A large and rowdy crowd of fans swarmed all over the car and kept it from moving.  One guy climbed onto the hood, fell off, and was kicked by police horses. Burton was amused by it all, saying that the rabble was just “enthusiastic.” Not as far as Liz was concerned.  She was afraid that someone could be seriously hurt. To her, they were there

“To see a pair of sinful freaks. For God’s sake, Richard, don’t you realize the only reason this is happening is because they think we’re sinners and freaks?”

Taylor and Burton were married to each other and divorced from each other twice. With their constant squabbling, they were always fodder for the tabloids.  But there still had to be something special between them.

Taylor and Burton in “Cleopatra”

Capote was with them one evening. Burton had left the room to go fetch some more champagne.  Capote wrote that her enthusiasm for her husband “illuminated the room like a mass of Japanese lanterns.” Then she said,

“Oh, we quarrel. But at least he’s worth quarreling with. He’s really brilliant. He’s read everything and I can talk to him – there’s nothing I can’t talk to him about. All his friends…Emlyn Williams told him he was a fool to marry me. He was a great actor. Could be a great actor. And I was nothing. A movie star.

“But the most important thing is what happens between a man and a woman who love each other. Or any two people who love each other.”

I would say that Elizabeth Taylor truly “got it.” What a formidable, remarkable woman she was. Can you now see why I’d love to have a cup and conversation with her?  And would you care to join us?

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