In 1997, I interviewed Elizabeth Taylor for the cover of POZ magazine. We met at her home in Bel Air soon after she had recovered from a successful operation to remove a benign tumor – called a meningioma – from the left side of her brain. In Part One of this latest in sessumsMagazine.com’s Digitalized Dialogues series, Taylor tells me about her AIDS activism, her early childhood memories of living in the English countryside, why she would cry herself to sleep once her family moved to Hollywood when she was still a child, her near-death experiences, and how her sense of camp has always comforted her. In Part Two coming up in a couple of weeks we delve into her more grown-up Hollywood days and her many romances. But Part One eases us into her life and the deeper currents of our conversation.
Here is the introduction I wrote for the edited Q and A when it was published in POZ. Click on the recording below to begin to listen to Elizabeth in our unedited conversation. I think it captures her down-to-earthiness at her most endearing.
The POZ intro:
Elizabeth Taylor is still the world’s most magnificent movie star, even though she hasn’t starred in a film in 18 years. Just listen to the expert, columnist Liz Smith, regarding the scourge of paparazzi—that frightening barometer of fame for the fin de siecle. “Can you guess which female celebrity, caught topless would ensure a million-dollar fee? It’s 65-year-old Elizabeth Taylor!” Taylor, who’s been famous now – at times notorious – for more than half a century, must have gotten a kick out of reading that item. Yet what this remarkable woman has done for more than a decade has nothing to do with press clippings or prying lensmen. She has chosen instead to dedicate herself to educating the world about AIDS, and her voice has been a clarion call to redouble our efforts. The founding chairman of the American Foundation for AIDS research (AmFAR), which provides much-needed funds to community-based science, she later formed the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to support direct care for people with HIV.
Those who cynically waited for her to tire of the cause once grief for her friend Rock Hudson subsided have been thankfully disappointed. And she has utilized that valued celebrity of hers to raise a fortune for research and patient care.
Taylor agreed to meet me recently at her home in Bel Air. The house, next door to the Reagans’, once belonged to Nancy Sinatra, Sr. Taylor bought it in 1982 for a couple of million dollars after she divorced her sixth husband, Sen. John Warner of Virginia. She kept a lot of the house and its furnishing the way the first Mrs. Sinatra left them—except for the mezuzah that Taylor, a convert to Judaism, has attached to the front door’s frame.
It is a surprisingly small home, done mostly in white. The carpet is modified white shag. White chaise lounges lunge toward the living room from either side of a large fireplace. On each chaise is an ornate pillow designed by her late friend, Gianni Versace, one imprinted with the face of his trademark Medusa head, eerily saddened by his murder only two days before. A huge aquarium filled with exotic lavender fish takes up one whole wall. Jagged geological stones, echoing the colors of the fish, are precisely placed about the gigantic white lacquered coffee table. A collection of paintings by Degas, Van Gogh, Monet, Modigliani, Cassatt, and Renoir hang above the white sofa. On it is a needlepoint cushion embroidered with the adage IT’S NOT THE HAVING, IT’S THE GETTING.
On the bookshelves in the game room are three Oscars. Two are Best Actress statues, received for Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The other is the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, bestowed in 1992. Also on the shelves are cherished photographs with the Reagans and the Fords. There is a jaunty shot from Ascot; laughing, she is escorted by Noel Coward and Richard Burton. Two pictures catch her candidly keeping company with that other famous Elizabeth from London, that other queen. A beautiful portrait of Natalie Wood, a present from friend Robert Wagner, has been given prominence.
I walk back into the living room. Leaning toward the aquarium, I inspect the piscine shades of lavender floating before my face.
“Hello, I’m Elizabeth,” I hear.
I turn to see Elizabeth Taylor. My recent computer search of bold-faced info magnifies the vision of a rather fragile woman before me, her face still boldly beautiful. Take, like me, a deep, appreciative breath: National Velvet, Lassie Come Home, Little Women, Father of the Bride, Nicky Hilton, A Place in the Sun, Michael Wilding, Giant, Raintree County, Maggie the Cat, Mike Todd, Suddenly Last Summer, Eddie Fisher, Cleopatra, double-barreled Burton, The Taming of the Shrew, the Krupp diamond, 73 hospital stays, weight fluctuations, Studio 54, the Betty Ford Clinic, mother of four, grandmother of nine, Malcolm Forbes, The French Legion of Honor, Broadway revivals of The Little Foxes and Private Lives, UNICEF, those three Oscars, perfume mogul, Michael Jackson, the Ryan White CARE Bill, Larry Fortensky, hip replacements, Chechnyan war orphans, and now, the recent recuperation from the removal of a tumor attached to her brain.
Taylor is wearing a white caftan-like gown. Her feet are shod in see-through plastic sandals, her toenails panted a frosty white. She wears very little makeup. Her hair, a shock of frostier white, is propped into a spiky flat-top. Sugar, her beloved 5-year-old Maltese, has entered with her. The tiny bundle of barking beribboned white hair seems to have molted from atop Taylor’s head and nestles there in her arms.
I take my place on the sofa. Taylor precisely places herself in a chair by my side. Surprisingly, her most noticeable bit of jewelry is the red piece of string tied about her left wrist as if it were a bracelet.
“Are you into Kabbalah?” I ask, knowing that a red wrist string is worn when one has begun to study this ancient Jewish form of mysticism, which has taken the place of Marianne Williamson’s spiritual shtick among the cognoscenti of Culver City and its environs. Madonna and Sandra Bernhard and Roseanne are adherents.
“Yes. I started about two months ago,” says Taylor, positioning Sugar in her lap. “I am deeply, privately spiritual. I’ve always been interested in spiritual things. Kabbalah is not conformist. You don’t have to be Jewish to believe in it. It’s not a religion. It coincides with many of my beliefs.”
“Which are?” I ask.
Taylor burst into the heightened giggles that gurgle up from her inner child-star. It is as if Lassie had just done something vulgar in front of adult company. “I don’t want to talk about it” she insists, calming herself by calming Sugar.
She does want to talk about a lot of other subjects. And our conversation is laced throughout with the sound of her distinct laughter, her most clarion of calls—not that girlish giggle, but a grown-up woman’s wanton, gritty cackle.