Thursday, March 24, 2011

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor arriving with her son Michael Wilding Jr. at Caxton Hall, London, for the young man's wedding.
by Ned Brown

My first encounter with Elizabeth Taylor came in 1964 when I was attending the Le Rosey boarding school in Switzerland, and we were at our winter campus in Gstaad. I was 12 at the time. The head of the English side of the school, Mr. Edward Turner, summoned me to his office. Once again, I thought I was in trouble.

However, on this occasion, Mr. Turner said that an American mother wanted to send her son to Le Rosey the next school-year. Before doing so, she wanted to speak with an American student her son’s age to ask how I liked the school and my experiences. I was selected for this duty, and told to go to Charley’s Tea Room, a local Gstaad après ski gathering place, the next afternoon at 4:30. I was to meet a “Mrs. Burton.”

The young mother with Michael Jr.
Liza Minnelli, Michael Wilding Jr., and Elizabeth Taylor.
Newlyweds Michael Wilding and Elizabeth Taylor.
Newlyweds Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
The Wilding brothers, Christopher and Michael Jr.
Elizabeth Taylor with her children, Michael and Christopher Wilding, Maria Burton, and Liza Todd, in Las Vegas 2007.
So on the appointed day, I showed-up at Charley’s. It was memorable for two reasons. First, I quickly learned that Mrs. Burton was Mrs. Richard Burton, aka Elizabeth Taylor. I sat at the table, ordered hot chocolate and she ordered a small plate of pastries for me. She could not have been kinder. She could see that I was nervous, and went out of her way to put me at ease.

So, flash forward to the next school-year, and my room-mate became Michael Wilding, son of British actor, Michael Wilding, Sr. and Elizabeth Taylor. What I remember most about Michael was his resemblance to his mother and her unique violet eyes. Michael was beyond handsome — even at 13.

Nearly twenty years later, I was dispatched to Miami Beach by Lee Iacocca, Chairman of Chrysler, to help coordinate Chrysler’s sponsorship of a pro-celebrity tennis event at Turnberry Isle resort. The event would benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, of which Iacocca was a big supporter. Lee’s first wife, Mary (of whom I was tremendously fond), died from complications of diabetes.

As I recall, I arrived on a Wednesday. The event would be Friday and Saturday. I cannot recall when or how, but I met Elizabeth Taylor’s executive assistant at the resort.

I quickly learned that Mrs. Warner/Taylor, then married to Sen. John Warner, was in Miami performing in the road version of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. I then said to the assistant, “Oh, I know Mrs. Warner,” and explained how.

The next day, I got a call from the assistant summoning me to their suite of rooms. I entered, and lo and behold, there was the Elizabeth Taylor sitting at a desk doing what I supposed was correspondence. She immediately got up, gave me a big hug and kiss, we caught-up on her sons, Michael and Christopher, and she asked where I was staying.

When I told her that I was staying over at the main building in Turnberry, she said, “Nonsense, move into the connecting suite to ours.” So here I was in Miami Beach, in a connecting room to Elizabeth Taylor, her assistant, and Taylor’s long-time publicist and confidante, Chen Sam, who has since died.

The next day, Thursday, Taylor’s assistant and I went over to the hotel bar, where many of the pros and celebrities were hanging-out. I remember we sat with Australian tennis great, Roy Emerson, and actor, Robert Duvall.

I remember (for me) a fascinating conversation with Duvall. At the time, I was living in northern New Jersey, and somehow mentioned that I liked to fish on the E. H. Harriman estate just north of me.

In any event, Duvall mentions that he used to live just south of Harriman in the private and gated enclave of Tuxedo Park, started by Pierre Lorillard and Jay Gould. Duvall proceeds to tell me that he rented a carriage house there while he was appearing on and off-Broadway during the early 1960s.

I remember Duvall as saying, “I loved that place and had the best time.” When I asked why, Duvall then told me that he was home most mornings, and wouldn’t head to New York until late afternoon. Most of the husbands living in Tuxedo went off to Wall Street each morning, and the kids off to school. The wives/mothers were home alone.

So Duvall, the handsome young actor, would venture out for a walk in the neighborhood, coffee cup in hand, whereupon he met many of the local women. Duvall told me that he got his cup refilled along the way and “then some.”

Post drinking in the bar with Taylor’s assistant, we went back to my room where there was a large Jacuzzi tub. We ended up in the tub drinking champagne. One of us got the bright idea of adding bubble bath to the tub, and turning on the Jacuzzi jets; they do not mix. Before long, we had a huge pile of bubbles that began to move toward the door.

Obviously, the two of us were a bit inebriated with copious amounts of champagne. What I then remember is Elizabeth Taylor standing in the bathroom door around midnight after her performance in Little Foxes, and saying something along the lines of, “What the hell is going on here?” Then she laughed, turned around and left. It was my last night in Miami before returning to New York the next day.

The next morning Liz, Chen Sam and the assistant pleaded with me to stay for the weekend. I explained that I had to leave, and called a taxi for the airport. When the cab arrived, I descended with my bags. I was in the cab, and above me were the three women on a balcony yelling down at me, “You can’t leave.”

The cab driver looked-up at them for a moment, then turned to me and asked, “Excuse me sir, is that Elizabeth Taylor shouting at you.” I said something like, “She’s a friend." He shook his head, and we drove off.

A couple of times, when I saw Liz Taylor in subsequent years, she was as gracious as when I first met her when I was 12, and we both laughed about the Miami encounter.

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