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.”
Taylor’s illnesses certainly haven’t diminished her appetite for things that sparkle and shine. Today she’s sporting hundreds of tiny diamonds, on a cuff bracelet and a pair of four-inch pendant earrings. And there’s the big one on her finger, the legendary Krupp diamond, which Richard Burton gave to her in 1968.
“When I first went to Russia with Mike Todd, in the Fifties, I had on his engagement ring, which was 29 and 7/8 carats,” she remembers. “Mike insisted I say 29 and 7/8, because 30 would have been vulgar.” She holds her hand up with a laugh. “But with this one I broke the sound barrier. This is vulgar.” And, yes, she’s proud of it – “every inch of it.”
In recent years, Taylor has been delighted to see more young stars draping themselves with gems and discovering the joys that only bling can bring. “But everybody just borrows jewelry now, which just goes totally against my grain,” she says, smiling. “I mean, people have loaned me jewelry, and I’ve always enjoyed wearing it, but the trouble is, I end up buying it. Finally my accountants had a word with me.” Her last big splurge: a yellow daisy necklace that Van Cleef & Arpels loaned her for the 1992 Academy Awards. “ I didn’t mean to buy it,” she says. “But Valentino made me a yellow dress and I didn’t have anything else yellow to wear with it. So, what was a person to do?”
On Taylor’s lap as she speaks is her constant companion, a 12-year-old Maltese named Sugar. At night, the dog sleeps on Taylor’s pillow, just above her head. “I’ve never loved a dog like this in my life,” she says, stroking its silky white fur. “It’s amazing. Sometimes I think there’s a person in there.” She knows there isn’t, but still. “There’s something to say for this kind of love – it’s unconditional.” She laughs. “Yet the physical contact that one desires is sadly missing. Ah well, I guess it’s good when you get old, although I haven’t accepted it entirely.”
For much of her life, when her romantic adventures were a worldwide obsession, Taylor was seen as someone who couldn’t survive without a husband or a lover (or, occasionally, both). Right now she has neither, and she insists that she’s surviving just fine. “I’ve learned to be alone,” she says. “And being without a mate doesn’t mean you’re alone. I have great friends, and children and grandchildren. And memories – wonderful memories.”
Taylor doesn’t hesitate when asked to name her life’s happiest periods. There were to: her years with Todd, who was killed in a plane crash, and later, her years with Burton. The darkest periods came after each of their deaths. “I didn’t think I’d recover, either time,” she says. Evidently, her three surviving ex-husbands (Eddie Fisher, Senator John Warner, Larry Fortensky) don’t object when she proclaims that Todd and Burton were the big loves of her life. “Oh, they agree!” she chirps. Taylor has always remained friendly with her exes (“except Edna,” she says, using her term of nonendearment for Fisher, whom she split with bitterly in 1964). Last year, on the day Warner got married again, he called her from outside the church to share the news. “I’m happy he’s remarried,” she says, smiling. “And I hope he’s better to his new wife that he was to me.”
Was there ever a man Elizabeth Taylor wanted but couldn’t have? None that she can think of. At 19, she almost fell for Montgomery Clift, her costar in A Place in the Sun, but she somehow sensed his “situation” – his homosexuality – even before he did. “I don’t know how,” she says. “Because I was so young, and very puritanical, and I didn’t know much about life. But somehow I sensed it. And we loved each other so completely and unconditionally that I just accepted that as part of what he was. It was really fortuitous, because I could have very easily have fallen in love with him, and had a massively broken heart.”
When thinking back on the old days, Taylor is not one of those misty-eyed stars who remembers Hollywood as a kinder, more humane place than it is today. “No!” she says. “It’s exactly the same. It’s a dog-eat-dog town, and always has been. When I was a young movie star, I think it was even more vicious than now.” Working under contract for a studio, she says, amounted to “slave labor,” especially for women. “They had the right when you were pregnant to put you on suspension-there were things that today are undreamt of.” Nostalgia hasn’t clouded her memories of early childhood, either. “As a kid, the only time I was truly happy was when I was riding my horse,” she says. “And if I could ride now, that would still probably be the case. I love animals. You can trust them.”
Signs of that affection are evident all over the house. Although the living room is adorned with a Hals and a Pissarro (along with a now infamous Van Gogh, which Taylor bought at auction in the Sixties and is currently being reclaimed by the descendants of a Holocaust victim who allegedly owned it), what grabs your attention is the five-foot-long aquarium, loaded with fish and coral of every color. Shelves along one wall display a collection of bronze horses, sculpted by her daughter Liza. A stained-glass portrait of Sugar, bow in her hair, hangs against one window. Three cats scamper in and out.
The house often fills with human beings too: Taylor’s assistants, her household staff, her nurse and, right now, her visiting 19-year-old grandson, Quinn. And every year at Easter, Taylor invites all her friends over to spend an afternoon by the pool. “It’s very festive, with lots of sunshine and balloons.” There’s a petting zoo for the kids, along with circus performers and a tattooed lady.
Taylor also hires a psychic for the day, but that’s really for the guests. Despite the scores of the amethyst crystals that crowd her coffee table, and her past dabbling with the occult, Taylor doesn’t seem too preoccupied by the supernatural these days. She does pray sometimes, though. “I consult with God, my maker,” she says. “And I don’t have a lot of problems to work out. I’m pretty squared away.”
Is she afraid of death? “No,” she says firmly. “Really I’m not, because I’ve been there.” In 1961, during a bout with pneumonia, she felt herself leaving her body. “It’s hard to talk about. I was in a tunnel. I saw Mike. He said, ‘It’s not your time.’ I did fight and I did come back. And I remember it all. It was quite a trip.”
Her main complaint now, she says, is that her poor health is slowing down her work against AIDS, which has been her main passion for the past two decades. “I haven’t done anything for a year,” she says. “And it really bothers me. Because that’s the thing I live for. And I feel so stupid and feeble, that I can’t do the work I was meant to do, because of my bloody body.”
In early October, Taylor was back at Cedars-Sinai for a procedure to repair seven compression fractures in her spine. Calling from home just before press time, she says she’s feeling okay, “all things considered.” Since the summer there have been reports in the London tabloids that Taylor has been fighting for her life in intensive care, or suffering from senile dementia, or watching Richard Burton movies all day and all night. Asked about the stories, Taylor lets out the kind of long, theatrical laugh that implies that she’s not entirely amused. “I don’t read that s—,” she says. “Excuse my language. It gives me a good excuse to laugh. If I couldn’t laugh at it I’d be in serious trouble.
In her living room, when Taylor becomes too uncomfortable on the sofa, she offers to finish the interview upstairs. “Come on, Sugar,” she says. As she walks up the steps, her nurse trails behind her like a courtier, lifting the hem of her caftan. It’s not a quick trip. Taylor stops several times to catch her breath before finally reaching a doorway at the end of the hall. “This is my bedroom,” says Taylor, “which is a cheery little place.”
Cheery, yes, but not exactly little. It’s a vast space packed with photographs and memorabilia, and even a few more living creatures: In a gold cage by one window there are two white doves, gifts from Michael Jackson. Jumbles of crystals, porcelain figures and mementos crowd the desks, tables and shelves. At the foot of the bed: a huge flat-screen TV, the better for Taylor to watch Law & Order, her favorite show. On the nightstand sits a bag of Pepperidge Farm Orange Milano cookies. (“Oh my God, I could eat a whole bag at one go,” she says.)
And, everywhere, pictures of Taylor: with Burton; with Todd and Liza; with her mother; and by herself at age four, on the deck of an ocean liner, facing the camera with a defiant gaze. The most recent photograph is from her Easter party last spring. Surrounded by two dozen relatives and friends, Taylor sits in the middle, the smiling great-grandmother in a flowered bonnet. In that picture, like all the others, she’s wearing great big jewels, gifts from the men in her life.
Nowadays, when Taylor is alone in her room, does she ever dream about new men, new jewels? Evidently not.
The man is in my heart,” she says.
And the jewels?
She smiles. “All I have to do is go to my safe.”