A Life for the Star

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Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s Picture Library
Elizabeth Taylor, 1954; photograph by Cecil Beaton

If one is attempting to judge the depth and force of a woman’s feminism—the woman, in this case, being the American actress Elizabeth Taylor (1932–2011)—surely the first thing to do is to determine exactly what feminism is. The most succinct opinion I’ve seen is the famous doormat quote from Rebecca West:

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Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s Picture Library
Elizabeth Taylor, 1954; photograph by Cecil Beaton
I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.

It’s true that Elizabeth Taylor was a star for a very long time: since at least 1944, when National Velvet was released. How much stardom insulated her from executive corrosion is hard to say. “Actors are cattle,” Alfred Hitchcock said. It was his motto and to some extent the town’s.

In the early years of her career I imagine Elizabeth Taylor did as she was told. Feminism was not yet news. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were not active. In the years of her maturity Elizabeth Taylor was as beautiful as any woman on the planet; her looks sometimes won battles for her that other beauties didn’t win, and of course, she had her marriages to attend to: eight, counting Richard Burton twice. Mike Todd, who was probably the love of her life, died in a plane crash, whereupon he turned out not to be as rich as he seemed.

Husband management may be a feminist skill. Acquiring baubles probably isn’t, but Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry sold for over $137 million at Christie’s recently. You don’t get $137 million in gems by marching in feminist parades. By the time she got the baubles she was a great star. And she lived high.

Though not so good at marriage, she was a wonderful friend, particularly to gay men. She did not forsake Roddy McDowall, Rock Hudson, or Montgomery Clift. In the terrible car wreck Clift had while making Raintree Country she literally saved his life, by pulling his teeth out of his throat so he could breathe. The accident occurred near her house, and she may have saved his career as well by threatening the photographers who soon showed up. She told them that if they took pictures of Montgomery Clift in his smashed state she would see to it that they never worked again.

The friendship with Rock Hudson began in the mid-Fifties, when they were making Giant in the harsh environs of Marfa, Texas, as bleak a place as you’ll find in America, except for maybe Pine Ridge, South Dakota. I won an award there recently and was able to visit the ghosts of Liz and Rock: I was given the Rock Hudson suite in the Paisano Hotel, where the actors stayed while making …

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