Wednesday, December 20, 2017

My Terrifying Interview With Elizabeth Taylor

I could lie and say I was actually a part of this laughing group of celebrities — David Geffen, Sally Field, Jane Fonda and Ted Turner.  But I was just wedged up against the door, near the entrance to the old Vanity Fair party at Morton's restaurant, eavesdropping. I am wearing, absurdly, but with confidence, a terrific copy of Elizabeth Taylor's Taj Mahal pendant, wrapped around my neck.  
It's Not That She Was Rude, Exactly ... My Terrifying Interview With Elizabeth Taylor. 
by Denis Ferrara

“I WILL have to ask you to mind what you say.  I am Isis.  I am worshipped by millions who believe it!”

That was Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra,” schooling Rex Harrison — as Julius Caesar — in the reality of her divine association with Egypt’s goddess Isis.
AS SOME of you know, it was my teenage and young adult fascination with Elizabeth Taylor that was partially responsible for my relationship with Liz Smith — after years of writing Liz anonymous letters, I finally put my name and address on an long note reporting on the activities of Miss Elizabeth Taylor, in 1981.  

Once working for Liz, I was never at loss of words when it came to The Star of Stars, even if at times, Liz Smith herself was. (She’d say ‘Let’s not write any more about Elizabeth!”  I wouldn’t.  Two weeks later — “Don’t you have anything about what Elizabeth is doing?  Every else does!”  And so it went.)

My other, more tender, much safer idol — she died young, stayed pre-tay, as Blondie sang. 
Finally in 1993, I had the opportunity to really sit and chat — and without a doubt, I was certain, charm and fascinate my idol.  (I was, despite my printed gushing, actually very realistic about Taylor.  Just as I was about my other idol, Marilyn Monroe. My feelings for Monroe, however, were much more tender, as MM was conveniently dead, canonized as Hollywood’s Tragic Venus, and would never grow old, disappoint or embarrass me in any way.) 

In ’93 Elizabeth was launching her first jewelry line. The product was kind of iffy, tacky, except for gold Egyptian-style cuffs and a fantastic reproduction of Elizabeth’s own Taj Mahal jewel, a gift from Richard Burton.

Elizabeth didn’t necessarily want to sit with me. Her first choice was Liz Smith.  But Liz was not going to upend whatever it was she was doing, and whomever she was doing it with, to travel to L.A. and talk about costume jewelry.  Not even Elizabeth Taylor’s costume jewelry. Liz called Taylor’s wonderful and daunting press rep, Chen Sam, and negotiated the details of my travel.

Now, I’d met and spoken to Elizabeth many times — and knew more about her than she knew about herself — but she always seemed to address the middle of my forehead, not recall my name and generally fuzz out in my presence. Chen would say, “Don’t take it personally; she knows you were a fan before you got in the business. I think she remembers you from those days. She just has certain relationships with certain members of the press. Elizabeth is a star.  Liz Smith is a star.  You’re ...”  I chimed in — “Just the assistant?” Chen went on, “Denis, she doesn’t dislike you, really.” That wasn’t much of a balm. (In revenge, I enjoyed frightening Chen with all I knew from my very good sources. “You’re not going to print that?” she would scream.)
Elizabeth agreed to downgrade. I flew to L.A. I viewed the jewelry the night before the interview. It was not inspiring. Even more distressing, the people connected to the product were under the impression that Miss T. and I were old friends. “Oh, it’ll be great, because you two know each other so well!” I rang up Chen: “Uh, these gals seem to think I’m Dominick Dunne, or something. Do they realize she manages never to remember my name?” Chen said, “Darling, don’t worry, it will be fine.”

The next day, I arrived at a small studio somewhere in the midst of Hollywood. I was early. Miss Taylor was not. As one hour dragged into two, I began to feel faint, and in desperate need of a drink. Suddenly, she was on the premises. Glancing down a long, dark hallway, Elizabeth, in a plush, bulky purple sweater and tight pants, didn’t look very impressive, despite her entourage (and her little dog, too). The top to toe of her never was impressive, unless she was very slender — way too short and bosomy. She was also wearing flats, rather than the usual stiletto heels.

Although she was in good shape, she looked a bit dumpy. But I knew what was coming. She arrived on the little interview set-up — a tiny settee and coffee table; she glanced up toward the lights and it was all there — That Face. Once you were close to her, you also realized she really was slimmer than she appeared in “long-shot.”

Elizabeth and her friends immediately settled in on the settee. Her hair was mauled, her makeup freshened, her mood kept up with a nonstop stream of campy jokes. I lingered just outside the lights, nervous and beginning to sweat. Finally, she was alone. Chen took my hand and brought me over. “Elizabeth, you remember Denis.” Elizabeth looked dramatically blank for a moment, once again found the middle of my forehead utterly fascinating, and then said, “Oh, of course.” I sat down.

As often as I’d seen her over the years, I’d never had the opportunity to be so close to her for an extended period of time. By this point, she’d had a good deal of plastic surgery — there was stuff happening in her face that hadn’t been there when she was 20. (Never had she had such a firm jaw line!) But the basics remained — the perfect nose, the riveting sapphire eyes, that incredible rounded brow, a still-beautiful complexion. Sometimes, she would turn her head or the light would hit her in such a way that the face of her childhood was still there; that strange, overly-mature dark beauty.

And then the interview began. To this day I hardly remember what happened. The director had to break in several times because I kept going “um” or “yes.” “Remember,” he said, “This will just be Elizabeth speaking. You’re not in it! And we don’t want to hear you, okay?” OK! 

I was then giddily reminded of the scene in Judy Garland’s “A Star is Born” where starlet Vicky Lester has a bit where she waves a handkerchief from a moving train.  She ruins the scene because she leans in and her face becomes visible.  “CUT!” screams the director.  “We saw her face!  We saw your face! CUT!”  (Thinking of this made me laugh. Miss Taylor and the director looked at me and then at each other. I didn’t laugh again.)

I did my best trying to get her to talk about the jewelry, but she seemed oddly resistant, considering that was the point of all this.  I spoke to her of movies and she livened up a bit. Then I spoke to her about movies she didn’t do.  That was a flop.  (“I never wanted the role in ‘Barefoot Contessa.’ That was Ava’s role!” she insisted, even though her pleading telegram to Joe Mankiewicz — printed in several biographies — indicated otherwise. “I. Never. Sent. Any. Telegram to Joe Mankiewicz,” she said, with imperial conviction.)

During a break (more hair-mauling), the jewelry folks dashed over to me, and said, “Make her talk more about the jewelry!” Now remember, Taylor was sitting no more than a foot away from me. I threw my hands up and gestured to Elizabeth, “Tell her!” At that very moment, the star was holding a huge mirror, exquisitely applying lip gloss. Without stopping the hypnotic back and forth on her lips, staring straight into the mirror, Elizabeth said, “I don’t want to talk about the jewelry; it’s boring!” You never saw people vanish as quickly as those poor souls.

Still, even after this, I was no way in the clear. Elizabeth wasn’t unkind, just ... distant. She was not happy that Liz Smith hadn’t dropped everything to attend to her. (Also, the chronic grinding pain of Taylor’s deteriorating hips was increasing — she would undergo her first hip replacement the following year. And there were rumors of trouble in the paradise of her eighth marriage. So, it wasn’t all my fault.  Or at least I tell myself that, now.)
Taylor, with the always generous Mr. Burton, shows off one of her 40th birthday gifts to Princes Grace.  
Her answers were succinct, without elaboration. My attempts at wit fell flat. I felt a little bad.  I hadn’t expected us to bond, exactly — although I’d become quite adept at charming celebs I interviewed.  Surely she knew how much I was responsible for the unending good coverage in the column?  If not a bonding, at least ... a warming? No such luck. And at one point a definite chill descended.

Taylor wearing a copy of her Taj Mahal jewel, for her Avon Jewelry Line, 1993. 
Speaking of her own famous collection of baubles, I asked if she intended to leave anything to her daughters, Liza Todd and Maria Burton. “Actually, they don’t care much for jewelry.”  I said, “Oh, then will it all be auctioned off for AIDS?”

For the first time, Taylor looked me straight in the eye. “I have no intention of telling you what’s in my will, dear.” Believe me, you haven’t lived (and died) until Elizabeth Taylor lowers the boom.

There was one other truly tense moment. The last time I’d seen Elizabeth was in Venice; she was attending a gala AIDS benefit, accompanied by hubby Larry Fortensky. As usual Elizabeth acted as if we’d never met. But Larry, rather lost amid the glitz, was friendly (and attractive). I chatted with him about a carpentry task he was doing for the Mrs. — a closet. He described the various woods he was using and he was really very sweet. Now, desperate to ingratiate myself, I mentioned my discussion with Larry in Venice.

“You talked to him ... about that?!” Elizabeth’s response might have been understandable had I said we’d been talking about their sex life.

“Uh, yeah. It was interesting. He was very nice. He’s nice. Nice.” I was stuck.
Silence. Then she turned to give me a bit of the famous profile, still mute. I broke it by gushing over the reproduction of the Taj necklace, and encouraged her to tell the tale behind it. She did. Whew! Obviously, at that point, “nice” wasn’t the adjective she associated with her mate.

Finally, it was over. I was wearing a silk shirt. It was disgustingly wet. Thank God, I was not appearing in what would end up as a little infomercial. Not pretty.

I staggered away from the settee. Miss Taylor’s entourage swooped in, petting and complimenting her. Taylor acknowledged my departure with a nod that may or may not have indicated she actually knew if I was still there. I felt like Lotus, in “Cleopatra” — the servant who tries to poison her.  But Cleo is onto the plan. “Oh, mistress, forgive me!” Lotus begs.  “I forgive you, Lotus. Now drink it,” the ruler of Nile commands, indicating the chalice of poison meant for her.  Lotus obeys.  I just wish Taylor had ordered me to drink.  I would have broken out the tequila pronto, and died gladly.

Chen Sam approached, “Darling, wasn’t that fun?!”
"I forgive you, Lotus.  Now, DRINK it ..."   
“Fun?  As opposed to what — bamboo shoots under my fingernails? Chen, really ...”  Just as I was about to unload, Miss Taylor was upon us, all smiles, radiating a thousand kilowatts of star power.  “Oh, Denis, Chen told me you had a terrible flight in from New York?”
“Uh, yes. It was very bumpy.”

Taylor, still wearing her romantic jewel, in 1999.
“That’s awful. I hate flying myself, you know.”

“Yes, I know.”

“But you’re OK now?” She furrowed her brow, then smiled and crinkled her nose, in an expression familiar to millions of ET fans. She seemed really concerned.

“Yes.  But I didn’t sleep much last night.  I was awfully nervous about doing this.”
“Nervous? Denis, what for? Why, we’re old friends.”

Then, with a dazzling smile and puckered air-kiss, she turned and sashayed out, shaking her little backside like the 16-year-old she remained at heart in so many ways.
And so, she reeled me right back in, bless her!

The enjoyable P.S. came later in the evening. I dined with Chen, who was wonderfully indiscreet.  She knew I’d never print or repeat any of what she said. (Sorry!)  But as I was still a bit stung by the afternoon’s events, I persuaded her to give me one of the terrific — and very expensive — reproductions of the famous Taj pendant. 

“Do you know a woman who’ll really wear this?”  said Chen.  “No, darling, “ I replied.  “It’s for me.  I’m going to wear it!” And I did, for years. It was always a big hit.
 
Contact Denis here.