Behind Elizabeth Taylor’s house in Bel-Air, just down the hill from the pool, there’s a hidden grove of tropical plants – “the jungle”, she calls it, a thick cluster of palm fronds, birds-of-paradise, bamboo. Every day, sprinklers drench the place with water to keep it lush and shady, and to protect the exotic birds and insects that have settled there, taking shelter from the relentless California sun. For years, Taylor loved to sit under the palms on one of the wooden benches, listening to the strange tropical sounds. Now, though, because it hurts her so much to walk (and to stand, and to sit), she doesn’t go to the jungle at all. Most days, in fact, it’s a challenge just to get down the stairs to the living room.
But for a woman who has faced what Taylor has during the past 72 years – abuse, addictions, brain surgery, near-fatal attacks of pneumonia, the death of one husband and divorces from six more, and so on – challenges are a routine part of life, and they’re meant to be faced with aplomb. When Taylor shuffles into her living room at sundown one evening this past summer, she’s wearing ruby-red lipstick, a gauzy white caftan with violet trim and her favorite 33-carat diamond ring. After making sure her guest has something to drink and plopping herself down on one of the big, puffy sofas, she hints that this is no ordinary evening for her.
“I even had my hair washed for you,” she says with a coquettish glance and an ironic laugh. “I want you to know there were a few sacrifices.
Taylor’s sparkling good humor might surprise those who last saw her at Cannes in 2003, teetering drowsily up and down the red carpets. In the past year she’s gone out in public exactly twice-once for a party, once for dinner. Her body, she explains, is letting her down. Recently diagnosed with congestive heart failure – “a bore,” she declares – she’s also suffering from scoliosis, which has twisted her spine so severely that she’s in pain around the clock.
“I was born with it, but it has finally caught up with me,” she says. “My body’s a real mess. If you look at it in the mirror, it’s just completely convex and concave. I’ve become one of those poor little old women who’s bent sideways. My X-rays are hysterical. The bone doctors just throw up their hands and say, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do!’ Which is so cheery.” Not that any of this is having much effect on Taylor’s renowned survival instincts. “People must think, My God, she’s still alive?” she says. “But there’s some resilience in me that makes me keep fighting. It’s the damnedest thing –I just keep coming back.”