Monday, March 28, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Once upon a time Liz Taylor's town: Washington, 8 a.m. Sunday, the Tidal Basin in a light snow.
By Carol Joynt

When Elizabeth Taylor died last week I expected it to be bigger. But maybe the fact that her passing was simply part of the news, rather than singularly the news, says a lot about how thin the significance of fame has become in the arc of time that spans her entrance and exit. At her peak, especially the sensational years of her marriage to Richard Burton, her only competition for media domination was Jackie Kennedy, with the occasional end run from Elvis Presley. There were no “Teen Moms,” Kardashians, no celeb crotch shots or sex tapes, no Snooki, no Internet or cable TV. There was only the cover of Life Magazine, an unparalleled piece of media real estate that couldn’t get enough of Elizabeth Taylor’s beautiful mug.

At our house, whenever Taylor was on Life’s cover, it was ripped from the magazine and taped to the mirror in my mother’s bathroom. There stood Mom, eyebrow pencil or lipstick in hand, studiously trying to match Taylor’s look. It didn’t matter that the movie star was a decade younger; that’s how fantasy works. Liz was in our home, our lives; dinner table conversation was early TMZ, with Mom dishing the latest Taylor-Burton juicy bits. As a teen, I cared more about the Beatles, but I loved my mother and paid attention. That’s why, as a young woman, after I met Elizabeth Taylor I immediately found a phone and called Mom with the news.

The meeting happened at the White House in the late 70s. A sunny afternoon. I had lunch with a girlfriend, Joy Chiles Anderson, who worked in the press office. As we paid the check she said, “Do you want to come back and watch the departure? Elizabeth Taylor’s going to be there.” Who could resist?

The “departure” was of President Gerald Ford, who would come out of the mansion to the South Lawn and board his helicopter, Marine One, for a hop to Andrews Air Force Base to board Air Force One for a trip to somewhere. The routine was that staff members were welcomed to form a small crowd to wave “good-bye,” eventually joined also by a press pool.

Joy and I arrived on the lawn before anyone else, with one exception: Elizabeth Taylor. She stood alone, quiet, self-possessed, and looking absolutely gorgeous. I have no recollection of why she was there, only that she was there, and we got up the gumption to walk over and introduce ourselves. Joy and I may have been accustomed to being around presidents and world leaders, but this was Elizabeth Taylor, a superstar without equals, and we approached carefully, as much in awe as anything.  

Gerald Ford and Elizabeth Taylor greet Queen Elizabeth II during a visit to Washington, D.C., in 1976.
She was happy to have someone to talk to, and was relieved that Joy, as a member of the staff, was informed about the “script” of the event. Taylor was mildly clueless about her role and what she could or could not do. If anything, she was demure. I stared at her, trying to record for memory every little detail. The eyes, of course, unmistakable pools of deep blue rimmed with black eyeliner, the violet hues brought up by her violet business-like dress.

Her skin was a light olive and flawless. She glowed with a dusting of tan. The dark hair was coiffed, bouffant. Her lips were a soft red and pretty in their shape and animation. As with so many film actors, she was smaller than expected. Not petite, but short, and the famous breasts were packed away under a high neckline, not in the least intimidating. There was no cleavage on the south lawn that day. There didn’t need to be. She would stop the show, regardless.

Joy Anderson: “My greatest recollection of her that day on the South Lawn was how timid and even insecure she seemed. For someone larger than life she was diminutive in every way.”

When other staff arrived on the lawn, followed by the press pool, there was hubbub, and when President Ford walked out everyone watched him watch Elizabeth Taylor. He made that beeline for Marine One that presidents always do, but he turned to look only at her, literally to ogle, and for a second I thought he’d walk into the side of the chopper.
Roy Halston poses in his New York showroom Monday night, May 21, 1979 with, Martha Graham, Betty Ford, Elizabeth Taylor, and Liza Minnelli.
This White House moment happened at a time when Elizabeth Taylor had become a part of Washington, as inexplicable as that may seem. It was a festive time in the capital. Post-Watergate. Post-Vietnam.  She showed up a lot, usually in the company of Andy Warhol, Halston, and Liza Minelli.

She would party till the wee hours at raucous and extravagant parties hosted by Iranian Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi. These were the last years of when the Shah still had Iran and Zahedi was his man in the U.S., and Washington hasn’t known anything like him (or that moment) since. He was precisely Liz Taylor’s perfect host, with limitless supplies of champagne, caviar, jets, baubles, and opportunity.
Elizabeth Taylor with Margaret O'Brien, Roddy McDowell, Maureen Stapleton, Joesph Mankiewicz, mother Sara, and Andy Warhol.
The high life slowed when John Warner came along and swept Taylor off her feet. He was divorced from a Mellon, had some some Mellon money, was a country gentleman, former Navy Secretary, and aspiring politician. In 1976 they married and Warner parked her at his remote Atoka Farm in the rolling “hunt country” fields between Middleburg and Upperville. At the time I lived just down the road, meaning several miles, and wondered if for her this setting had shades of “Giant.” It’s a beautiful part of the world but if there was ever an unlikely habitat for Elizabeth Taylor it was the wide-open Virginia horse country, regardless of  “Giant” or “National Velvet.”

Elizabeth Taylor and John Warner.
There was neighborhood gossip but I wasn’t privy to her private life at Atoka. If the public face told us anything, she wasn’t having much fun. She gained weight and often looked blousy. The late make-up artist Way Bandy, who was dispatched to Atoka to get her camera-ready for a photo shoot, said her face was so puffed up that he just about cleaned out the supply of yogurt at the Middleburg Safeway. He applied it to her face—over and over—until the puff was reduced and she was ready for her close-up.

In 1978 John Warner entered the Virginia Senate race and the campaign seemed to energize Taylor. After all, the rubber chicken circuit is about performing and she knew the ropes. She dazzled. She was Princess Diana to Warner’s Prince Charles: the crowds came to see her, and then stayed to listen to him. But no matter how much she enchanted audiences; she could not win the race for her husband. At the state republican convention Warner lost the nomination to Richard Obenshain. Then, amazingly, fate intervened.  Soon after the convention, Obenshain was killed in a plane crash. The nomination reverted to Warner, who went on to win the Senate seat.

With the campaign over, Taylor shifted roles from hunt country matron to Georgetown hausfrau, and she was not happy about it. While her husband had Capitol Hill to entertain him, the greatest movie star of all time was at home on R Street with food and booze and not much in common with the neighbors.
The Georgetown home of Elizabeth Taylor, for a few years in the 1980s, with then-husband John Warner. Is the dressing room still purple?
On the Washington street where Liz Taylor lived: In this home, with John Warner, and coincidentally next door to his ex-wife.
In her richly detailed 1982 book, “The Last Star,” Kitty Kelley chronicled Taylor’s Washington years. A story from back then involved a young couple who, at an auction, bought a dinner with the Warners at their Georgetown home. They recounted this once-in-a-lifetime experience as something out of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf,” with Taylor in rare form while Warner tried to play the cool statesmen. It was hilarious reading.

Kitty Kelley: “Washington was a tough town for La Liz. She looked forward to spending time with him but he flew into the Senate determined to prove himself and worked around the clock. She sat home (where her bedroom and dressing room were painted purple) and as she said became ‘the loneliest person in the world.’ She'd been a star all her life —The Last Star of the biggest studio system in the world — and a talented actress but she could not play the part required of Mrs. John Warner.”
President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan with Elizabeth Taylor at the Kennedy Center in Washington after her performance in "The Little Foxes," March 20, 1981. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook).
Diana McLellan at the time wrote the notorious “Ear” column for The Washington Star. It was a fertile era for DC gossip and the “Ear” was the go-to for the juiciest bits. 

Diana McLellan: “During their great romance, John looked a bit as though he had combat fatigue. He was famed in the Warrenton Hunt for choosing feisty horses. ‘John's over-mounted again,’ said one member. She was so romantic a figure that even her X-rays were stolen from a local hospital.”

Though the marriage didn’t last — the Warners divorced in 1982 — Taylor did return a year later to appear at the Kennedy Center in Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” Everyone went, including me, if for no other reason than to be in the same room with Taylor and her co-star, Richard Burton, twice her ex, but now he was remarried. After all that unruly and boozy history they made as wild, passionate nomads, it was stunning, and a little sad, to see these giants on stage together, mortal and obeying the script. The romance had become too hot to endure, but tamed they weren’t the same.
Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor at a rally in support of John Warner's bid for the U.S. Senate in Richmond, Virginia on September 28, 1978. (UPI Photo/FILE).
Elizabeth Taylor and Nancy Reagan at the 1980 GOP convention.
Elizabeth Taylor and I did intersect one more time, in the mid-90s, when I was a producer for Larry King. In my role as the show’s “big game hunter” I was assigned to bag Taylor. Larry and Liz were friends, but that didn’t mean she would just say “yes.” She knew better than to ever be easy. She would have to be pursued.

It took a full year to get a “yes” and the person I worked with most closely was the late and legendary Chen Sam. The publicist entered Taylor's life in the tumultuous 70s, when she and Burton had evolved into "Liz and Dick," and needed fierce gate keeping. Research taught me it would be wise to approach Chen Sam carefully, to be appropriately intimidated. However, after six months of letters and phone calls, when she finally conceded to meet with me face to face, she was charming. Her office was in New York. As I recall, way over on the East Side, possibly in a loft building.
Elizabeth Taylor testifies to the Senate 1986 in Washington, DC. after the death of close friend Rock Hudson in 1985. (Photo by Stephen Ferry/Liaison).
Certainly the space was loft like. It was Chen and a lot of young staff ... all focused on the needs of one client, Elizabeth Taylor.

The day Liz came to Washington for the interview she stayed at the Willard Hotel. I waited in the lobby. Three of Chen’s staff joined me at the hotel coffee shop within view of the elevators. Larry’s executive producer, Wendy Walker, knew this was not a broadcast that could air "live" because no one could predict the actual time that Taylor would emerge from her suite. (Note: she arranged to arrive exactly 15 minutes late to her own funeral). So, a lot of people were on stand-by. While the PR team and I waited at the coffee shop, two limos idled outside, and, over at CNN, Larry, Wendy, the show’s staff and a studio crew cooled their jets.
December 8, 2002: Actress Elizabeth Taylor, actor James Earl Jones, first lady Laura Bush, U.S. President George W. Bush, actress Chita Rivera, conductor James Levine and singer Paul Simon at the Kennedy Center Honors of 2002.
After an hour, the elevator doors opened and Liz appeared. Her little dog “Sugar” skittered at her side. Her hairdresser, Jose Eber, skittered on the other side. Jose was in a cowboy hat and jeans. Taylor wore a long flowy caftan that was either white or yellow. I don't precisely recall. What I recall is being delighted to see her and how quickly we all snapped into motion. Liz and Jose (and Sugar) took Limo #1. Her staff and I took Limo #2. We were off. 

At CNN an elevator was held open for her. The dog was at her feet and I was afraid it would get squished. Taylor was unconcerned, but occasionally asked, "Sugar, Sugar, where are you Sugar?"  

Elizabeth Taylor with her maltese Sugar.
The group of us rode straight up to the Larry King Live floor. The break room had been converted into a private dressing room, but all that happened there was Liz sitting by a big window, snuggling with Sugar, while Jose fussed with her already done hair and make-up. I sat with them, too. She talked to me as an old friend or a child. "What did you do last night?" "What are you doing tonight?" Friendly, not the least uptight or difficult, eager to please and have fun. I did not mention our White  House meeting, but did tell her how my late mother adored her. That brought a sweet smile. 

Larry and Liz got along beautifully, of course, two old pros putting on a show. She flirted with him. He flirted back. They sparred on some of her private life she didn’t want to discuss. The hour went swiftly. When it was over the staff grouped around her for photos, which included Sugar. Liz was gracious, allowing all the time we needed to get shots for the memory books.

What stayed with me from that day was how much she had aged between the 1970s and the 1990s and how hard the intervening years had been on her — but not the eyes. Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes did not appear to age. They remained deep blue with hints of violet. What had those eyes seen? I couldn’t help but think of all the other people who had looked into them.
Washington, 8 am Sunday: a dusting of winter in spring.

Carol's upcoming memoir is Innocent Spouse, excerpted at