The voice of Elizabeth Taylor rang around the hotel-lobby in Salzburg, Austria, as brimful of hellcat fury as any tempestuous heroine she ever played onscreen.
‘Richard!’ she screamed at her fifth husband, Richard Burton. ‘Will you stop drinking and come to bed this minute! Your voice is ricocheting all over this hotel.’
It was a snowy night in 1968, and Taylor, acknowledged to be the world’s most beautiful woman, hardly looked the part at that moment.
Her hair was a tumbled mess, her Cleopatra-style eye makeup had gone smudgy. She wore a tatty black leather coat over a tarty red chiffon nightdress, and was barefoot.
To complete the surreal scene, Burton still wore the Nazi officer’s uniform from his day’s filming of the Alistair McLean war story Where Eagles Dare. He had stayed up drinking vintage brandy with companions, including me, while Taylor retired to bed.
Now, having waited for him until 2am, she’d decided that enough was enough. ‘Either come up now,’ she ordered him, ‘or don’t bother to, ever again.’
‘Aah, get away,’ snarled Burton, reaching for the brandy-bottle.
‘Get away yourself,’ Taylor hissed. And, clutching her leather coat more tightly around her, she stumped back to their suite on her own.
Next morning at the film location, however, all was sweetness and light again. Taylor called Burton ‘Boofy’ he called her ‘Ocean’ and between takes they canoodled like teenagers in love.
‘My dear, you light up the set,’ the film director gushed at Taylor.
‘She also lights up my heart,’ Burton said gallantly.
As an unworldly 24-year-old I spent several days with the couple, learning more about Taylor, both as an actress and a person, than most of the current obituaries can tell.
For a magazine profile I started out researching but ended up writing, I also talked to her parents, Francis and Sara, her closest friends, like the actor Roddy McDowall, her lawyer, Aaron Frosch, directors like Richard Brooks and old-time Hollywood moguls like Bennie Thau (who adored her) and Pandro S. Berman (who most definitely did not).
Being with her on such intimate terms has left an indelible memory. There was, for instance, the moment at dinner in Salzburg when she turned and fixed me with those amazing violet eyes whose double row of black lashes never needed enhancement by any mascara brush.
As she smiled at me, I felt suddenly robbed of breath, as if my Adam’s apple had suddenly become double its usual size. A moment later, she was regaling the table with a bawdy story about the producer Daryl F. Zanuck.
Taylor was a star of the hugest magnitude; the greatest Hollywood name ever to come out of Britain; a sexual icon to rival Garbo or Monroe. But throughout the craziest fantasies and excesses of her career, she remained always primarily a creature of flesh and hot, hot blood – not a silver planet twinkling coldly in the firmament, but a down to earth and earthy woman.
She was the last of the great movie goddesses, thrilling and intriguing the pre-rockstar, pre-TV soap world of the 1950s and 60s with a love life and lifestyle that any Hollywood story-editor would have rejected as impossibly far-fetched.
Even in these celebrity-overdosed times, with a new glamour icon rocketing to fame every other minute, Taylor’s eight marriages, her jewels, spending-sprees, tantrums and epic illnesses remain the stuff of imperishable legend.
She was born in 1932 in Hampstead, north London, on a modest street not far from where I live now. Her mother, Sara, had been a minor stage actress; her tall, handsome father, Francis, was an art dealer.
Even as a tiny tot, she had an unsettling, exotic beauty, almost as if the head of a mature woman had been grafted onto the body of a child.
On the outbreak of war in 1939, her father moved his art dealership to Beverly Hills, California, starting a gallery whose clients came to include actor Edward G. Robinson and writer-director Billy Wilder.
Sara, a ‘stage mother’ of the pushiest kind, steered her violet-eyed little girl into a contract with MGM studios whose patriarchal boss, Louis B. Mayer, boasted owning ‘more stars than there are in Heaven.’
Taylor’s drive to succeed was the equal of her mother’s. At 10, she set her heart on the lead role in National Velvet, a romance with a horseracing background, but was told she was too short for the role.
After several weeks of punishing exercise and weight-gaining diet, she went back to the director and managed to persuade him she’d gained three inches in height.
Child stars then seldom made a comfortable transition to adult roles – witness Shirley Temple – but Taylor managed it effortlessly. With her virginal beauty went a voluptuous figure that initially worried the self-censoring movie bosses. Officials known as B.I.s (bust-inspectors) patrolled her sets, ordering higher-cut dresses if too much cleavage was visible.
At 18, she married Nicky Hilton, a good-looking and deceptively charming young man whose father, Conrad, founded the Hilton hotel-chain.
The smiling charmer proved to be an abusive drunk who battered his young bride so brutally, she lost the baby she was carrying.
Divorcing Hilton, she rebounded into the arms of British actor Michael Wilding, a man 20 years her senior. The five-year marriage with Wilding produced two sons, Michael and Christopher, but, as Taylor herself admitted, was more brother-sister relationship than love match.
In 1957, she dumped Wilding for the American producer Mike Todd, a stocky, swashbuckling figure then preparing to launch his epic screen version of Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days. Todd was Taylor’s ideal man – powerful, protective, and irresistibly masculine.
He adored her in the uncomplicated way she craved, treating her like Delft china, showering her with jewels and furs, telephoning her every day no matter where in the world he was, Together they had a daughter, Liza, although the birth was so traumatic for Taylor that she had to undergo surgery to prevent any further pregnancies.
In March 1958, Todd took off on a business trip aboard the private aircraft he had named ‘The Lucky Liz’ in Taylor’s honour. Before he left, he couldn’t stop kissing her goodbye. ‘I’m afraid something’s going to happen,’ he told her. ‘I’m too happy.’
That night, en route for Kansas City, The Lucky Liz crashed in flames, killing Todd and everyone aboard.