Thursday, April 28, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Good Friends

by Liz Smith

A New Book Tells How The Queen of Hollywood and the King Of Pop Became Such Good Friends.

"ELIZABETH Taylor's die-hard support for Michael Jackson should be expected of this maternal and nurturing woman.  She loves Michael as she loves her own children. No further explanation is needed.  She is the original hand-in-the-fire-for-a-friend gal."

Click to order "Elizabeth & Michael: The Queen of Hollywood and the King of Pop — A Love Story."
That remark appeared in a column bylined by some woman named ... Liz Smith, way back in the 1990's, after Michael endured the first round of being accused of molesting a child.

This comes from a new book, "Elizabeth & Michael: The Queen of Hollywood and the King of Pop — A Love Story."  (Out from Atria Books in August.)

Written by Donald Bogle, this is a surprisingly comprehensive, sensitive and entertaining look at Taylor and Jackson, and not just their friendship, deemed so peculiar by the media.  Bogle has, essentially, written three books in one: Taylor's biography, Jackson's, and the tale of their mutual coming together, the how and why. 

The quality of the work is all the more impressive because it doesn't seem to me Bogle sought out any fresh interviews.  What he did was assiduously go through all the Taylor and Jackson biographies, the exhaustive news coverage on both, and melded it expertly with his own take on what made the Taylor/Jackson relationship click.

In the end, he pretty much asserts that most aspects of the friendship — what they really said to each other, how they connected, will remain a mystery. 
Michael, although very outgoing in his youth, became increasingly withdrawn and paranoid about the media, especially after being essentially destroyed by the first molestation charge against him — which he settled out of court (a decision he immediately and always regretted) and the trial for the second charge, which found him firmly acquitted.  As for Taylor, she always told just so much.  As I've written previously, the star of stars took many secrets to her grave.  She and Michael spoke in general "I love him/her" terms, with a few salient nuggets thrown in (both had abusive fathers, both had their childhoods ripped away, becoming the money-making figure in their family.) 
There was more, of course.  They both relished the publicity, although neither needed it.  Michael was generous and Elizabeth never lost her love for presents, particularly the glittery kind.  But, as writer Bogle chronicles, they surely bonded over their physical pain and addictions as well.  Taylor, born with a curvature of the spine, acerbated by accidents to her back, lived in almost constant discomfort, and in time, agony. Alcohol and opiates soothed those agonies — and her basic shyness. Michael's scalp, burned during the infamous Pepsi commercial, began him on his own prescription-drug odyssey, a journey that ultimately killed him.
The writer knows his subjects and his back and forth joint bios of Taylor and Jackson are extremely well done.  This column is liberally quoted, which is as it should be, as we've all but become historians on the subject of La Liz.   

Writing of Taylor's saga, Bogle is one of the few writers to indicate that Elizabeth's alcoholism began quite early.  It didn't just happen while she was trying to "keep up" with Burton or because she was bored all alone in Washington with John Warner.  Her drinking increased, but her taste for liquor was always an element in her life and most of her relationships, except for Larry Fortensky, whom she met during her second stay at Betty Ford.  (Their joint sobriety gave me hope that despite the 20-year age difference, that one might work!)
It was grimly fascinating to read how Taylor risked her fragile health during Michael's first child molestation crisis in 1994, and how from then on, both of them declined drastically — Bogle correctly states that Taylor's brain surgery and a minor stroke afterward, were the real turning points.  (I recall that some of the media, then, was insisting that Elizabeth herself might be arrested after she spirited Michael hither and yon in private planes, getting him into rehab as he fell apart. Of course, as usual, she didn't give a damn.) 
AT one point, Michael's family — his mother Katherine in particular — was so put-out by his reliance on Taylor, that they went into therapy, complaining bitterly. "That woman stole away my son" Katherine was often heard declaring.  She would not even sit in the same seat at Michael's house where she thought Taylor had sat!  The therapist finally told the Jacksons — who had reaped the benefit of his genius for years: "Michael is not your family in his mind. Elizabeth Taylor is his mom and you guys should move on!"  (Michael loved his mother, but he was conflicted — she had not stood up enough for him, as a child.  As a deeply troubled adult, it was Taylor who comforted him, and asked for nothing in return.  Not that she ever turned down a bauble he offered! Or a fabulous wedding at Neverland.)
It's all here, and succinctly presented for those who perhaps don't know the general dish on both stars — Taylor's cosseted and suffocating work life at MGM, the marriages that were always "forever," the scandals, the AIDS cause, her audacious disregard for public opinion.  And Jackson — another hard-working childhood, the professional toughness and expertise under the whispers and giggles, the disastrous plastic surgeries, Lisa Marie Presley, Debbie Rowe, the complete destruction of his image, in which he certainly played a part, but never realizing just how far he'd gone, or how much he allowed himself to trust and to be used.
IN A sense, obviously, each star lived in their own self-absorbed world, and were able to indulge themselves with their mutual and somewhat similar tales, shut away from the harsh realities that even they, as two of the most privileged and beloved figures on the planet, could not escape. 

But author Bogle suggests — and I totally believe it — that Elizabeth was attracted to Michael's wounds.  Along with Montgomery Clift and James Dean and countless others who benefitted from Taylor's compassionate nature, Michael was Elizabeth's ultimate bird with a wing down, her real life sandpiper.  In the film, "The Sandpiper," Taylor's character was able to heal the helpless bird and watch him fly off, healthy and free. 
Michael, alas, would never be either. Elizabeth knew it and that mattered not at all.  She would tend to her famous bird and soothe and amuse him for as long as she could.  It is likely she attempted to give him earthy advice, this woman who acted out her life so dramatically and lustily.  It's just as likely he appreciated that counsel but was unable to put it into action.
Bogle concludes that many of Taylor's relationships, especially with her men, can be summed up in her famous scene with Monty in "A Place in the Sun."   An agonized, inarticulate Clift, hiding so many secrets, weak but compelling, mutters:  "If only I could tell you all."  Taylor, just 17, softly says: "Tell Mama, tell mama all." 

Michael did, and so did many others.  But Mama didn't tell what she knew.  That's one of the reasons her friends adored her.

"Elizabeth & Michael" won't tell the reader all, but it tells enough, and tells it compassionately.

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.