Wednesday, January 6, 2016

LIZ SMITH: At Home With Elizabeth Taylor

La Liz — Not the "lady of the manor." At least not at 700 Nimes Road.
by Liz Smith

At Home With Elizabeth Taylor — A Beautiful New Book Displays Her Private Life.  Maybe.

"SHE WAS never above messiness, nor love, nor hate, and she knew that spilling blood was part of the business of living, too. It's exceptional, all that; here was this person, as big or little as your screen deemed her to be, meeting the hugeness of life with a huge laugh, and who saw existence for what it was."

Click to order "700 Nimes Road."
That is the late Ingrid Sischy, in the introduction she wrote for the lovely Catherine Opie's lovely book, "700 Nimes Road." That was the address in Bel Air, California Elizabeth Taylor called home, from 1981 to her death in 2011.

Not long before Taylor's passing, she approved, surprisingly, an endeavor suggested by photographer Opie, to photograph her house, for a book. As Elizabeth's longtime assistant Tim Mendelson puts it: "She was so public in the world, but she was always so private in her home. She didn't ever want photographs to be done there. Normally, she wouldn't have done this. But in hindsight it was pretty obvious she was coming to the end of her life ... she must have understood the importance of what Cathy wanted to do."

The result is an elegant book, intimate yet intriguingly distant. Ms. Opie was only a few months into her work when Elizabeth died. She never met the star, who by then was basically confined to her bedroom. Opie then spent more months completing the task, taking photos as Elizabeth's many possessions were laid out, in preparation to be auctioned at Christie's. The photographer, who is a self-described butch lesbian, was initially challenged, when confronted by Miss Taylor's overpowering femininity, but somehow, it works.
A look inside "700 Nimes Road."
One gets to see Elizabeth's awards, her cherished photos, the art, the elaborate crystals and knick knacks and souvenirs, the closets, lined with clothes, the bedroom, kitchen, her pet cemetery where her adored companions were laid to rest, the beautiful gardens where she often sought solace or simply contemplation, handbags, make-up, sunglasses, books (Miss Taylor was quite interested in the concept of angels!) Describing it now sounds invasive. But the result is not. In fact, there is an affectionate, respectful reserve — a restive coolness.
And, it is the perfect tone, I think. Taylor wanted her house — surprisingly modest, for such a great star — to be a home, not a showplace. It was cozy and welcoming to her friends, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. She was not the lady of the manor, she was Elizabeth, and one was always welcome. And don't worry about dropping that plate of mac and cheese on the rug, the stain will come out.

Single Lady in Manhattan, 1974. Photo: Bill Goulding.
Over the many decades of her unprecedented fame, the public thought they knew everything about Elizabeth Taylor. But in reality, she told very little. Even as the years went on, and Taylor accommodated herself to more frequent TV interviews, she told just so much. My own experience was that unless properly motivated, Elizabeth set out be a dull subject.

She was not inclined to assist interviewers who asked, over and over the same questions about "National Velvet" or Rock Hudson, or James Dean or her Krupp diamond. She told the familiar stories, with few variations. When she deviated or relaxed, it was super-charming. (Her sit-down with Johnny Carson in 1992 probably captured her zesty humor and dry wit, best. And if I may brag on myself, several of my Cosmopolitan magazine features showcased her bawdy, unfettered glory.)

Elizabeth took many secrets to her grave.

And so "700 Nimes Road" is much like its mistress — beautiful, beckoning, at heart touchingly girlish and sentimental, but holding up one bejeweled hand, politely asking, "No, no closer, please. I've given so much. Don't ask for more."
IT looks like 2016 will be a big year for Taylor, book-wise. Soon there will be "Elizabeth & Michael: The Queen of Hollywood and The King of Pop, A Love Story," by Donald Bogle. Also "Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption" by Ellis Cashmore. And, "Elizabeth Taylor: Quotes and Facts" by Blago Kirov.

Click to order "Paparazzo: The Elio Sorci Collection."
Currently a huge coffee table number is on the shelves — "Paparazzo: The Elio Sorci Collection," which contains hundreds of photos by the Italian pap. Miss Taylor, circa 1962 is on the cover, and no doubt on many pages inside. (There is a special deluxe edition, for the steep price of $1,400.)

Now, what we need is a great, new biography. My idea? Forget the early MGM years. The Eddie Fisher scandal, the "Cleopatra" scandale deluxe. The high-flying, ostentatious Sixties — trains, planes and limousines. Done to death.

Begin with the second divorce from Richard Burton in 1975 and go on from there — the rebound marriage to Warner ... the triumph of "The Little Foxes" ... the camp debacle of "Private Lives" ... how she de-fanged Joan Rivers ... rehab (twice), Malcolm Forbes, George Hamilton, parties, madness, comebacks, reinventions, the AIDS cause, Larry Fortensky, the final heroic years, facing the world bravely as her health declined, and quite a lot of work — some of it very good indeed — on screens small and large.
ET in 1977 — she did have her good days as Mrs.
John Warner.
Taylor — Fresh, and fresh out of re-hab, in 1984.
The Queen of Re-Invention. Liz in 1992.
There are plenty of people still around to tell all.
Contact Liz Smith here.