MS. TAYLOR WILL SEE YOU NOW
It says something for Elizabeth Taylor's much-criticized voice that I could hear it clearly over the loud hack-hack-hack of the helicopter during our ascent at sunset over Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch. Girlish, imploring, screamy , piercing the titanium rotor blades, she was clutching her dog, a Maltese named Sugar, and saying, "Paul, tell the pilot to go around in a circle, so we can see the whole ranch!"
By Paul Theroux, Photos By Michel Comte
NEVERLAND, THE TOYTOWN wilderness of carnival rides and dollhouses and zoo animals and pleasure gardens, was dropping beneath us, as Elizabeth , characteristically, asked for more.
Even with his ears muffled by headphones, the pilot heard. He lifted us high enough into the pinky -gold glow that Neverland seemed even more toylike - lots of twinkling lights looking futile because, apart from the security staff, there were no humans in sight, only skittish giraffes; and Frisbee-shaped frogs and fat pythons in the reptile house, where both a cobra and a rattlesnake had smashed their fangs against the glass cage trying to bite me; "A.J.," the big, bristly, shovel-mouthed chimp in the ape sanctuary who spat in my face, and Patrick, the orangutan who tried to twist my hand; the expectorating llamas and the aggressive swans on the lake; Gypsy, the moody five-ton elephant Elizabeth had given to Michael; the empty fairground rides - the Sea Dragon, the Neverland Dodgems, the carousel playing Michael's song "Childhood" ("Have you seen my childhood...?"); the large, brightly lit railway station, the lawns and flower beds where loudspeakers disguised as big gray rocks played show tunes, drowning out the chirping of wild birds. In the middle of it, a JumboTron showed a cartoon, two crazy-faced creatures quacking miserably at each other - all of this very bright in the cloudless dusk.
"That's the gazebo, where Larry and I tied the knot," Elizabeth said, moving her head in an ironizing wobble. Sugar blinked through prettily combed white bangs that somewhat resembled Elizabeth 's own lovely white hair. "Isn't the railway station darling? Michael and I have picnics over there," she said, indicating a clump of woods on a cliff. "Can we go around one more time?"
Elizabeth is at her most Elizabethan asking for more. Once again, the long scoop of the Neverland Valley , all 2,700 acres of it, revolved slowly beneath us, the shadows lengthening.
"The Neverland movie theater ... flowers... Michael loves flowers," Elizabeth said. "Look at the swans on the lake! Whee !"
With swans like that you hardly need rottweilers , I was thinking. The acres of lawn watered by underground sprinklers were deep green. Here and there, like toy soldiers, were the uniformed security people, some on foot, others riding golf carts, some standing sentry duty - for Neverland is also a fortress.
"Please can we go around just one more time?" Elizabeth implored.
"What's that railway station for?" I asked.
"The sick children."
"And all those rides ?"
"The sick children."
"Look at all those tents." It was my first glimpse of the collection of tall tepees hidden in the woods.
"The Indian village. The sick children love that place."
Even from this height I was reminded that this valley of laboriously recaptured childhood is crammed with statuary, which lines the gravel roads and the golf-cart paths: little winsome flute players, rows of grateful, grinning kiddies, clusters of hand-holding tots, some with banjos, some with fishing rods. There are large bronze statues, too, like the centerpiece of the circular drive in front of Neverland's main house, with its dark shingles and mullioned windows, a statue of Mercury (god of merchandise and merchants), rising some 30 feet, winged helmet and caduceus and all, balanced on one tippytoe , his bum like a buttered muffin in the last of the syrupy sunset.
"Tell the pilot we want to go low! Lower!"
It was a different voice again, even younger, with the more, please! pitched as a small girl's squeak. The pilot had heard. He brought us over the next valley, scattered with cows, then past downtown Santa Barbara and over the shoreline and almost down to the level of the breaking waves.
Elizabeth began to cry out in a shrill little voice, " Whee ! What a rush! Whee !"
Surf was breaking in fat white bolsters, releasing feathers of foam two feet below the helicopter's runners. Not far away at the famous Rincon break surfers lollygagging in the lineup of boards waved to us. Startled pelicans flew up as we approached, and they seemed as cinematic and outrageous as Neverland and its JumboTron cartoons, its statues and swans, and its contending music.
Our nearness to the ocean amplified the rotor noise, but Elizabeth was still chatty. She leaned forward and shouted into my ear, "Have you ever done this before? ".
"In Vietnam !" I yelled. "No, here!" She seemed annoyed, as if I had deliberately contradicted her. "Some-times we go so low we get wet! Whee !"
The helicopter corkscrewed inland over the strawberry fields and fruit trees, and then flew east under a dark sky, toward the Van Nuys airport and a waiting limousine.
But Elizabeth was looking back at the western sky and its lingering light.
"It's like a Whistler Nocturne," she said quietly. The girl's voice was gone. This was a different tone: thoughtful, adult, a little sad, with the characteristic Elizabethan semi-quaver from a lifetime of lotus eating. And what struck me was her precise characterization of the sky; perfectly Whistlerish , with blobby light and ambiguous shadows hovering over the place where Neverland lay.
"SO YOU'RE WENDY and Michael is Peter?" I had asked a month before, at her house in Bel -Air.
"Yeah. Yeah. There's a kind of magic between us."
"Magic" had an odd sound in this setting. Sitting upright, her large, impressive head and smooth face on a small, much frailer body, she looked like a fugitive chess piece. She is only a few inches taller than five feet. A bad back, three hip operations, a brain tumor , a broken ankle ("I fell 17 times. I was like the Flying Nun!"), have given her a straggling sideways gait. In mid-August she was in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles with an impacted tooth. A week later, back home, she stumbled, suffered a compression fracture of a thoracic vertebra, and was shuttled back to Cedars-Sinai for a month of recuperation. (Her public relations man reported her in "great spirits.")
Elizabeth was sipping water while propped against cushions to favor her back. Her feet in thin slippers were braced against a coffee table on which there was a mass of meteorite pieces - or were they geodes? - 40 or more of them, purple crystals glittering in their interior. Behind her was a wall of masterpieces cheek by jowl: Van Gogh jammed against Monet, Rouault against Cassatt , Matisse on top of Modigliani, three Utrillos side by side - and, past the Tiffany lamp and the table of cut glass and crystal, what looked like a diamond the size of a coconut. "From Michael," Elizabeth explained later. "He said he wanted to get me the biggest diamond in the world. It's a crystal - isn't it fun? Go on, lift it." It must have weighed 20 pounds, and its sparkle reached the Frans Hals hung over the fireplace. There were shelves of bronze horses sculpted by her daughter Liza Todd, one of her four children. The Picasso was over the fish tank. The carpet was white, of the same whiteness as Sugar's fur, Elizabeth 's hair, her slippers, most of the furniture. The trophy room was next door, the Michael Jackson portrait in the hall ("To my True Love Elizabeth, I'll love you Forever, Michael"), a Hockney and three Warhols (one a silkscreen icon of Elizabeth ) in the library, and four works by Augustus John in, pedantically enough, the john.
It was late afternoon. Elizabeth, a night owl and a notoriously bad sleeper, had not long before risen from her bed, where she had been listening to the Italian singer Andrea Bocelli's album Romanza . It would be a normal day-rising in mid-afternoon or so, lots of music, some TV; a turn around the house. A date was planned for later, but nothing special. Rod Steiger was expected. For the past year and a half he has been picking Elizabeth up in his little Honda and taking her out for burgers and fried chicken.
"I was agoraphobic for about two years, she said. Medical terms trip off her tongue. "Didn't leave the house, hardly got out of bed. Rod Steiger got me out of here. He said I was depressed. Then we dated."
"Dated" is a maddeningly opaque word. In addition to Steiger , who denies that there is any romance involved, she is also dating another man, Cary Schwartz, a Beverly Hills dentist in his mid-fifties who accompanied her on her birthday to the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas (to hear Bocelli ) with his grown sons; José Eber , her hairdresser; Dr. Arnie Klein, Michael Jackson's dermatologist; and Jackson himself.
Both Klein and Eber had shown me the commemorative birthday snapshot - all of them beaming at a restaurant table, Michael looking distinctly chalky as he presented Elizabeth with a birthday present: a football-size elephant handbag covered in jewels, inspired by Gypsy.
"I've had some things happen in my life that people wouldn't believe," Elizabeth said, apropos of telling me that she could not bear looking back on her life and would never contemplate a serious autobiography. "Because some of it has been so painful, I couldn't relive it. Which is one of the reasons I've avoided psychiatry. I couldn't go back to some of those places and totally relive them. I think I'd go out of my mind."
But Elizabeth Taylor, imagination made flesh, has lived out her desires, a series of overlapping lives with a cast of thousands. She claimed she has even died.
"I went through that tunnel," she said, speaking of her tracheotomy operation in 1961, during which she said she was pronounced dead. "I saw the white light and it said, 'You have to go back.' It actually happened. I didn't talk about it because I thought, This is Looney Tunes!"
She admitted she is the opposite of reflective. Perhaps it is this unwillingness to look at the past that accounts for her optimism.
She conceded that, as Mrs. Larry Fortensky ; she had had to grit her teeth to go to a marriage counselor . "But I thought, Why not? I'll try anything."
Because Larry had seen the counselor before in the course of one or both of his previous marriages, Elizabeth said, "They had a conversation which had become a sort of code. I felt left out. But we did it. Got into the car. Did it. Then we wouldn't speak until the next appointment."
And she laughed, with a peculiar sort of self-mocking mirth that makes her likable. This fatalistic laugh at her own expense comes after a mention of anything absurdly catastrophic - marital disaster or hospitalization or accident, or coming back from the dead. It puts you at ease - its subtext is "I must be mad'." It is also a displacement activity, for the prospect of someone's pity or regret, she says, can reduce her to helpless tears.
WHAT BEGAN AS A FRIENDSHIP with Michael Jackson has developed into a kind of cause in which she has become almost his only defender.
"What about his... " - I fished for the word - "eccentricity? Does that bother you?" "He is magic. And I think all truly magical people have to have that genuine eccentricity." There is not an atom in her consciousness that allows her the slightest negativity on the subject of MJ. "He is one of the most loving, sweet, true people I have ever loved. He is part of my heart. And we would do anything for each other."
This Wendy-with-a-vengeance, once a world-famous preadolescent, said she easi-ly relates to Michael, who was also a child star and was also denied a childhood.
And Michael, who indulges in iconography, had for years collected images of Elizabeth Taylor, as he had of Diana Ross - and, for that matter, of Mickey Mouse and Peter Pan - most of whom, over the years in what is less a life than a metamorphosis, he has come at some point to resemble physically. Elizabeth , in the almost 60 years of her stardom, has similarly altered: The winsome child has morphed from Velvet Brown to Pearl Slaghoople (and most recently God's girlfriend Sarah in a new NBC cartoon series), via Cleopatra and Maggie the Cat. Each movie (there are 55, plus nine TV films), each marriage (eight), each romance (about 17 on record) has produced a different face and figure, a new image - while the woman herself remains unchanged: straightforward, funny, truthful, impulsively outward-looking, and somehow still hungry for more.
When out of the blue Michael offered her 14 tickets to one of his Dodgers Stadium concerts in the early '80s, she seized them. The day was auspicious, February 27, her birthday and also her son Christopher Wilding's. But the seats were in the glass-enclosed VIP box, far from the stage. "You might as well have been watching it on TV;" she said. She led her large party home.
"Michael called the next day in tears and said, 'I'm so sorry. I feel so awful."' They talked for two hours. "And then we talked every day." Months passed; the calls continued. "Really," she said, "we got to know each other on the telephone, over three months."
One day Michael suggested that he might drop by. Elizabeth said fine. He said, "May I bring my chimpanzee?" Michael showed up holding hands with the chimp, Bubbles.
"We have been steadfast ever since," Elizabeth said. "I was supposed to go with him on that trip to South Africa ."
"To meet President Mandela?" "I call him Nelson," Elizabeth said. Because he told me to. Nelson called me and asked me to come with Michael. We chat on the phone. 'Hi, Nelson!' Ha-ha!"
"Do you see much of Michael?" "More of him than people realize - more than I realize," she said. They go in disguise to movies in Westwood and elsewhere, sitting in the back, holding hands. Before I could frame a more particular question, she said, "Everything about Michael is truthful. And there is something in him that is so dear and childlike - not childish, but childlike- that we both have and identify with."
She said this in the most adoring Wendy-like way, but there is in such an apparently sweet manner something of the child taking charge - something defiant, almost despotic. "We have such fun together," Elizabeth said. "Just playing."
"YEAH, WE TRY TO ESCAPE and fantasize," Michael Jackson told me. "We have great picnics.... I can really relax with her; because we've lived the same life and experienced the same thing."
"The great tragedy of childhood stars. And we like the same things. Circuses. Amusement parks. Animals."
He had called me, with no secretarial introduction. My phone rang and I heard, "This is Michael Jackson." The voice was breathy, unbroken, boyish . Tentative, tremulously eager and helpful, but denser in substance, like a blind child giving you explicit directions in darkness.
"How would you describe Elizabeth ?" I asked.
"She's a warm, cuddly blanket that I love to snuggle up to and cover myself with. I confide in her and trust her. In my business you can't trust anyone."
"Why is that?"
"Because you don't know who's your friend. Because you're so popular; and there's many people around you. You're isolated, too. Becoming successful means that you become a prisoner. You can't go out and do normal things. People are always looking."
"Have you had that experience?"
"Oh, lots of times. They try to see what you're reading and all the things you're buying. They want to know everything. There are always paparazzi downstairs. They invade my privacy. They twist reality. They're my nightmare. Elizabeth is someone who loves me - really loves me."
"I suggested to her that she was Wendy and you're Peter."
"But Elizabeth is also like a mother - and more than that. She's a friend. She's Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, the queen of England , and Wendy."
He returned to the subject of fame and isolation. "A lot of our famous luminaries become intoxicated because of it - they can't handle it. And your adrenaline is at the zenith of the universe after a concert - you can't sleep. It's maybe two in the morning and you're wide awake. After coming offstage you're floating."
"How do you handle that?"
"I watch cartoons. I love cartoons. I play video games. Sometimes I read. I love to read short stories and everything."
"Any in particular?"
"Somerset Maugham," he said quickly, and then, pausing at each name, "Whitman. Hemingway. Twain."
"What about those video games?"
"I love X-Men. Pinball. Jurassic Park . The martial arts ones - Mortal Kombat . I usually take some with me on tour."
"How do you manage that? The video game machines are pretty big, aren't they?"
"Oh, we travel with two cargo planes."
"Have you written any songs with Elizabeth in mind?
"Is that the one with the line 'Have you seen my childhood?"'
"Yes. It goes... " - he sang to me - "Before you judge me, try to..."
"Didn't I hear that playing on your merry-go-round at Neverland ?"
Delightedly he said, "Yes! Yes!"
We talked about the famous Neverland wedding, about Larry Fortensky , whom Michael said he liked. About Elizabeth as an inspiration, and about how she supported her family from the age of nine.
"I did that too. My father took the money." There is a "Katherine" steam engine and a " Katherine Street " in Neverland . Katherine is Michael's mother; there appears to be nothing there bearing his father's name. "Some of the money was put aside for me, but a lot of the money was put back into the entire family. I was just working the whole time."
"If you had it to do again, how would you change things?"
"Even though I missed out on a lot I wouldn't change anything."
"I can hear your little kids in the background." Their gurgling had become insistent, like the last of the bathwater sucking through the drain. "If they wanted to be performers and lead the life you led, what would you say?"
"They can do whatever they want to do. If they want to do that it's okay."
"How will you raise them differently from the way you were raised?"
"With more fun. More love. Not so isolated."
" Elizabeth says she finds it painful to look back on her life. Do you find it hard to do that?"
"No, not when it's pertaining to an overview of your life rather than any particular moment."
Another Michael Jackson surprise; he had made me pause with "intoxicated" and "zenith of the universe," too. I said, "I'm not too sure what you mean by 'overview."'
"Like childhood. I can look at that. The arc of my childhood."
"But there's some moment in childhood when one feels particularly vulnerable. Did you feel that? Elizabeth said that she felt she was owned by the studio."
"Sometimes really late at night we'd have to go out - it might be three in the morning - to do a show. My father made us. I was seven or eight. Some of these were clubs or private parties at people's houses. We'd have to perform." This was in Chicago , New York , Indiana , Philadelphia , all over the country. "I'd be sleeping and I'd hear my father . ' Get up! There's a show!"'
"But when you were onstage, didn't you get a kind of thrill?"
"Yes. I loved being onstage. I loved doing the shows," Michael said, but he added, "I've never liked people-contact. Even to this day, after a show I hate it, meeting people. It makes me shy. I don't know what to say.
"But you did that Oprah interview, right?"
"With Oprah it was tough. Because it was on TV, it's out of my realm. I know that everyone is looking and judging. It's so hard."
"Is this a recent feeling, that you're under scrutiny?"
"No," he said firmly. "I have always felt that way.
"Which, I suppose, is why talking to Elizabeth over a period of two or three months on the phone would be the perfect way to get acquainted."
GIVEN ELIZABETH 's PAST, her having insisted to Oprah Winfrey that "Michael is the least weird man I have ever known" is not the hyperbolic statement it seems. She was put down as credulous at the time, but it is a fact that she has known - been married to, had affairs with, been mixed up with -some of the weirdest, most abusive, addictive, profligate, polymorphously perverse men imaginable - brutes, even.
She was slapped around by Nicky Hilton, cheated on by Richard Burton. She said she sold a 69 karat diamond and her purple Rolls to help get John Warner into the Senate (a great sacrifice that Warner didn't call me back to confirm or deny). And then there was Larry Fortensky - poor, beer-swilling Larry, whom Elizabeth treated to his first ride in a plane. And there were the lovers, who have reputedly ranged from Max Lerner to Carl Bernstein to a former Iranian ambassador, too.
Next to this bunch, Michael - who doesn't smoke, drink, or take drugs - must truly seem to her like Peter Pan. He is famous for his whisper. Whee ! is one of his trademark expressions, too. His generosity toward this woman, who adores receiving presents, makes him her patron and her playmate.
It seems to me that every relationship of hers has involved her in a sort of role-playing; looking over the decades of photographs there is a startling dissimilarity in the Elizabeths , as though an inventive art director had had a hand in their design: the fresh young all-American Mrs. Hilton, the English Mrs. Wilding, the Jewish Mrs. Todd, the stage-wife Mrs. Fisher, the much louder and somewhat Welsh Mrs. Burton, the full-figured political campaigner Mrs. Warner, and finally the svelte Mrs. Fortensky in a leather jacket and jeans, famous for showing up, looking terrific, at Larry's construction sites.
Some of the marriages were melodramas; a few were tragedies. Nicky Hilton-young, rich, drunken, wasteful - was straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Michael Wilding effort - transplanted English actor wilting in Los Angeles - was an Anglo-American culture clash. The short intense marriage to Mike Todd, tragically ending in a plane wreck, had a sequel, with music: the marriage to Todd's friend Eddie Fisher, which turned into a farcical and faltering lounge-act movie about failure and pills. The Burton business was a two- parter , with serious drinking and spending; highly emotional, complex, and passionate, it proved Freud's dictum that in all love affairs four people are involved. One of Elizabeth's Utrillos depicts a château in Switzerland near the place where she says she secretly met Burton after the filming of Cleopatra; she values the painting less as a masterpiece than as the scene of what she said was one of the most romantic moments in one of her two great love affairs (the other was with Todd). The last pair of marriages - to rising politician John Warner, to construction worker Larry - amounted to comedies, involving all the excruciating pain true comedy requires.
One night, just before going out to meet Elizabeth , I saw Warner on television, talking about the war in Kosovo. He may be the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, but his close set eyes and narrow skull give him the ingratiating face of a spaniel.
Speaking about the Warner marriage, Elizabeth said, "It seemed to me that if I didn't get out of it soon I'd go crazy - out of that situation where you have no opinion of your own, just as the candidate's wife."
"That's like a movie title, The Candidate': wife," I said. I asked her whether her own marriages had seemed that way, so specific and so unreal at the same time.
Elizabeth considered this, then said, "You don't start a movie expecting it to crash. You get married expecting it to be forever. That's why you get married."
Elizabeth was of course the wrong person to ask about this, and yet everything she told me made it seem as though her marriage The Candidate': wife (1976-82) was infinitely more watchable than the movies she made around this period: A Little Night Music (1977), Return Engagement (1978), Winter Kills (1979), and The Mirror Crack'd (1980).
"I had to go along with the party line," Elizabeth said. "I was told not to wear purple. The Republican Women's Committee said, 'It denotes royalty.'
"I said, 'So?'
"'And it denotes passion.
"I said, 'What's the matter with that?'
"They said, 'You're the candidate's wife!"'
Elizabeth bought herself a conservative suit - "I hate suits!" - and campaigned for the next two months, five or six places a day, no time to eat, the candidate frenetically stumping for votes, the candidate's wife smiling bravely. One day hurrying on their way to a Republican function, Candidate Warner - whose pet name for his wife was " Pooters " - said, "There's some fried chicken right there, Pooters . Grab some fried chicken, and get a breast or something down into your stomach. This is the last chance for us to eat for the rest of the day!"
"So I grabbed a breast," Elizabeth said, "and all of a sudden - aargh ! You know these two-and-a-half-inch bones? One of them got stuck in my throat. John Belushi did a whole sketch on it on Saturday Night Live, the bastard! Choking on a chicken bone in Big Stone Gap, Virginia!"
Warming to her theme as she told the story, she described how the doctor at the hospital took a long rubber hose and stuck it down her throat. "To get the bone into my stomach - with no anesthetic , not so much as an aspirin. But the jokes! I was teased for a year!"
After Warner was elected, a luncheon was given for Elizabeth by the Republican ladies to thank her for her contribution to Warner's victory.
For the occasion, I took my purple Halston pantsuit out of mothballs - had it all spruced up - and wore it in all my glory.
"I said, 'Judy...' - she was the office manager of the campaign - 'I'm wearing this in your honor !"'
With Warner in the Senate, Elizabeth was redundant. " Washington is the cruelest city for a woman in the world," she said. She was idle; he was, she said, obsessed with showing up for the roll call vote - he wanted to record his perfect attendance. From this exertion in the Senate he returned home exhausted.
"And he'd say, 'Why don't you pour yourself a Jack Daniel's, Pooters , and go on upstairs and watch TV.' So Pooters would pour herself a large Jack Daniel's and go upstairs and watch TV and wait for another day," Elizabeth said.
"And on and on, and I thought, My Jack Daniel's are getting larger and larger, and if I don't get my finger out I'm going to drink myself either to death or into such a stupor that there is going to be no life for me."
Against the advice of nearly everyone she knew, she accepted the lead role in the Broadway play The Little Foxes. "I went to a fat farm, to lose weight and get some energy back - stop drinking, feel good about myself. Took the script with me."
Tennessee Williams showed up for her road-test of the play in Fort Lauderdale; he told Elizabeth he had always thought of her as "a Tennessee Williams heroine," and she proved it, playing his heroines in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Suddenly Last Summer, and Sweet Bird of Youth. She says that she felt liberated by The Little Foxes: She liked the theater people and the applause and the family atmosphere of a show. The play went on the road, and so did Elizabeth - in every sense. She was soon divorced from Warner but continued with the London run of the play;
It is the perfect ending to The Candidate's Wife: The star who has forsaken acting to assume the real-life role of the wife of a rising politician finds that she is superfluous after he gets elected. Seeing that she is dying as a Washington wife, she chooses freedom by getting herself a part in a play, another role-within-a-role. She can only be herself and "feel freedom and joy" when acting.
And then the actress who is liberated by the play falls for Tony Geary, a soap opera star, and she makes a number of guest appearances on the TV series General Hospital .
Life to life, role to role. Ten years pass, and the next movie is The Construction Worker's Wife (1991-96). The jewels are gone and Elizabeth is in jeans, the adoring spouse of a monosyllabic blue-collar worker named Larry'. "I got such a kick out of taking him to places that I had never gone to, so that I wouldn't have an advantage over him and we could share the newness together." She takes him for his airplane rides - to Morocco , to Thailand . Because they are the guests of the Thai royal family, they have a motorcycle escort. There are never any other cars in view when they are on the road; the roads are cleared of all traffic for them. Larry, in his innocence, assumes that all foreign travel involves being saluted by policemen. But he hates foreign food. He is bored. "He wanted to go to McDonald's, wherever we were."
Back home in Bel -Air, "I used to get up at four in the morning and have breakfast with him. After Larry went to work, I went back to bed. Then he would come home and it was wonderful - he was sweaty; he had dirty hands, he was beautiful, and he played with his [homing] pigeons.
"I was so proud of him for working. I was kind of hurt when he stopped."
And when Larry the construction worker stopped working and began drinking, it could only end with his departure from Bel -Air. End of movie.
I felt Elizabeth deserved praise for putting her heart and soul into these doomed love affairs, for throwing herself into the role of spouse with such gusto. By changing characters she has kept her vitality, though one of her biographers, Sheridan Morley, told me she was like a certain sort of character in a Henry James novel, ''innocent, yet at the center of death and destruction."
With the exception of Eddie Fisher ("Let's say we're not exactlv intimate buds"), she has remained fairly close to her surviving ex-husbands. And while she pokes fun at them, she is never unkind; she simply lets the facts speak for themselves.
"It's a mixed blessing, discovering boys," she said after a long, pleasurable recollection of riding her horses as a girl. In the beginning there were two or three strictly chaperoned romances and then, after a short courtship, she married Hilton. "I was a virgin - I was halfhearted . That was a foolish thing, let me tell you."
Her voice became drier, and she quailed slightly, crouching on the sofa, seeming almost physically to contract, as she continued. "He started drinking two weeks after we got married - I thought he was a nice, pure, all-American boy. Two weeks later, wham! Bam! All the physical abuse started. I left him after nine months of marriage...after" - she paused and looked into the middle distance-"having a baby kicked out of my stomach."
"That's terrible," I said.
"He was drunk. I thought, 'This is not why I was put on earth. God did not put me here to have a baby kicked out of my stomach.' I had terrible pains. I saw the baby in the toilet. I didn't know that I was pregnant, so it wasn't a malicious or on-purpose kind of act. It just happened."
Without another word Elizabeth got up, holding herself, and left the room. Some minutes passed before she returned, saying that the memory had given her physical pains in her abdomen. She added, "I have never spoken about this before," and changed the subject - to Montgomery Clift , how she found him his first lover.
How had she known that Monty was gay?
"No one had explained it to me, but I knew it. Monty was in the closet, and I think I knew what he was fighting. He was tormented his whole life. I tried to explain to him that it wasn't awful. It was the way that nature had made him."
If there is a constant in her endlessly altering life, it is the friendship of gay men. Husbands and lovers have come and gone, but there has always been a gay man-and usually more than one - acting as escort, confidant, friend - almost sister. Roddy McDowall was one such friend, from 1943 when they appeared in Lassie Come Home until his death in 1998. So were Rock Hudson, Tennessee Williams, Halston , Malcolm Forbes, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote. Actors, directors, fashion designers, hairdressers, writers, nearly all of them adoring and - even she admits - among the closest friends she has had in her life. Some of her lovers have been abusive, but there is not a recorded instance of even a spat with one of her gay friends.
When AIDS began to claim the lives of some of them, she distinguished herself by calling attention to the disease and by being possibly the first person in Hollywood to raise money for AIDS research with the American Foundation for AIDS Research and then also with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
"If you're famous there's so many good things you can do," she told me. "If you do something worthwhile you feel better. I spent my whole last 50 years protecting my privacy. I resented my fame until I realized I could use it."
She hosted the landmark AIDS fund-raiser in Hollywood in 1985 that was a $1 million success. Many more have followed.
"I am this dreaded famous person. I can get under their skin," Elizabeth said. She has always rather liked the idea that she has been rebellious, and this has been a way to make rebellion work. Her efforts have earned more than $100 million for AIDS research, and she is still at it.
"That's why I do photo shoots - to keep my fame alive. So people won't say, 'Who's that broad?"'
Elizabeth could be said to be the last true Hollywood star. There is something missing in Hollywood today. It's not the decline of the studios and the rise of independent filmmakers. Nor the scandals and the crazy marriages and the murders - there are still enough of those.
" There's no tits anymore," Elizabeth said. "And if they are, they're fake balloons. I mean, you can spot them a mile off. It's not very sexy"
"So Hollywood 's titless these days - that's the message?" I said. "But I don't want to put words in your mouth." Laughing, she said, "Didn't I say that?"
AS WAS HIS HABIT, Rod Steiger showed up one evening driving a little Honda. Shaven-headed, square-shouldered, wearing black (with sneakers), he could have been Mussolini on a day off, paying a call on Clara Petacci . Sunk in depression, Steiger had not been able to work for eight years when, with medication and doctoring, he was able to begin acting again. A year and a half ago he visited Elizabeth, whom he hardly knew, to propose that she appear with him in Somewhere, a script he cowrote about Oz revisited, with all the characters grown older. In this version Elizabeth would play the aged Dorothy. But Steiger was shocked when he saw her - she seemed blue and housebound, and because he had been through some of the same things himself he decided to make her his mission. He told me, "She'll go anywhere for fresh air."
Michael Jackson is fresh air. Perhaps her ultimate film is the one she is enacting with him now - truer to the spirit of her life than Steiger's Wizard of Oz update. There are two books on the coffee table in the library of Michael's house at Neverland : Peter Pan and a picture book, Michael's own HIStory . The house is full of Peter Pan iconography. Almost consciously, Elizabeth and Michael are role-playing in their sequel to J.M. Bar- rie's book, but this version, about Wendy grown older and the reclusive Peter refusing to age, is stranger, more highly colored , more complete than any of Elizabeth 's marriage movies that I have animadverted upon. There is no conflict nor any likelihood of it, no sex, no struggle, no deprivation. If they crave an elephant or a concert or a game or a jet plane to take them away, they have it immediately. For their purposes, the Neverland Valley Ranch is perfect: the girlish mother, the boyishly patronlike son, the frisson of sex existing in the pulses of the air - the touching, holding, teasing, hugging - life as play plenty of money, even pirates! Already Peter and Wendy has shown that it has legs: This friendship has lasted longer than any of Elizabeth 's actual marriages.
Elizabeth has an appetite for life, and appetite was the word that kept occurring to me when I thought of her. It was zest, and also a hunger, which was some-how never satisfied. In this hunger she is at her most Elizabethan. Of course it is a metaphor, but she is not a metaphorical person - her feet are squarely on the ground, she is literal-minded, and her appetite is literally that, a desire to devour. She has said many times that when she was fat it was not as a result of unhappiness - it was that she loved to eat. And she adored the most fattening foods: ice cream, burgers, fried chicken. Sometimes Steiger brings her hot dogs from a joint in Malibu ; the dentist takes her out for burgers.
Everyone who has known her has a theory about the way she has lived her life. Most are stories about her being fabulous, her excess, her nine lives, her accidents, her ailments; many others are about the oddity of her having been at the center of so much catastrophe. Alike Nichols, who directed her in his first film - and one of Elizabeth 's best - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf , has been the most succinct: "I never saw her be unkind, be untruthful, or be on time."
Though Elizabeth says she examines nothing in her life or behavior , her unpunctuality is the richest of the many aspects that would repay scrutiny. Her lateness amounts almost to a title, Her Serene Lateness. There is a lateness story associated with everything she has ever done. Her film career began when she was nine, but that is the sole example of her ever having been early.
Lateness is an important theme in her life, as is illness, and yet the themes are not related. Illness does not explain her unpunctuality - unpunctuality is a lame word for her chronic and incurable condition of reluctance and delay, which verges on the pathological.
In Elizabeth's case the awaiting might be me sitting in her living room, or many hundreds of people in a theater wondering when the curtain is going to rise on The Little Foxes, or a thousand people stranded on the set of Cleopatra, or John Warner tapping his foot on his wedding day - for she was late to that event, too.
In the theater , the curtain has been held. Directors have raged in vain. Heads of state, Queen Elizabeth II, the pope, her closest friends - none were privileged to see her on time. She is impartially unpunctual. What about airplanes? I asked a person who sometimes travels with her. Many times commercial flights have been held for her. Was your plane unaccountably late in taking off from LAX? Chances are Elizabeth had a seat in first class.
That lateness reveals a neurotic sense of entitlement and a bid for power is obvious. It is a consistent feature in courtship and sexuality - the aroused person is made to wait, the act is delayed until the loved one appears, - and the Seventh Veil is dropped.
Lateness is a diva's trait, one that allows her to make an entrance. It is also classically passive-aggressive. "I'm always late," Elizabeth says to Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. " It's part of my charm."
A late person obviously places a high value on punctuality: Everything must commence the moment the latecomer arrives. The latecomer is never made to wait - this is one of the demands of lateness. I was once privy to Elizabeth 's saying, "If he is not here in 15 minutes, then I'm not seeing him again."
No one has ever said that of her. She expects to be taken on her own terms, so her lateness functions as a sort of test. If you are not willing to wait for her she isn't interested in you. It is characteristic of the ball-breaker, the manipulator, the control freak, someone deeply insecure. It is the trait of the bullying man, the coquette, and the cocktease , the person needing reassurance, anyone who wishes to assert control.
What puzzled me was - given the facts that she is not in films much anymore, that her workload is light, that she doesn't seem to read, that she has little more to occupy her mind than her dates and her dog - what on earth is she doing when she is not where she is supposed to be?
Like a little girl, Elizabeth disingenuously apologized for being late when we met, and I always made a point of asking her what she had been doing. "I was upstairs - singing and dancing," carried away by the music of Andrea Bocelli , she told me once. But she also fusses endlessly, changes her clothes - whole out-fits - adjusts her makeup, kicks off her shoes and tries on others, dithers over her jewelry , cuddles Sugar, talks on the phone.
This deeply dislikable quality ends friendships, but of course another effect is that it tests friendships. In Elizabeth it is an accepted mode of behavior , on par with a handicap, as though she is a figure worthy of sympathy, like a limper or a twitcher , or, in her case, someone seriously time-challenged. But I saw it as another detail in the ongoing drama of Peter and Wendy, for most of all it is a trait of the troubled child, who is often a foot-dragger without really knowing the deeper reason - and in the case of the foot-dragging child there is always a deeper reason.
PLEASE, GOD, SUPERSIZE MY LIFE, has always been Elizabeth 's prayer, as eating has always been an Elizabethan theme. There is a story of Elizabeth looking into her refrigerator and speaking fondly to the food she saw on the shelves, saying, "I would love to bite you...and you...and you..."
At Neverland , in Michael's dining room, she was tucking into a big cheese omelet , with ketchup, when she saw someone else with a plate of french fries -the twiggy, frozen Mickey D. Kind - and she said, with real gusto in a hungry voice, "Hey! Where did you get those?" In minutes she too had a big plate of fries.
One day she was telling me, very slowly, with real feeling, about a photo shoot she had done for her new line of sparkling White Diamonds perfume - an enterprise that has assured her a substantial income and eliminated the necessity of ever acting again.
"I had on a 101 karat diamond," she said, pausing alter each word. She licked her lips, and there was a chuckle of pleasure in her throat. "No flaws!" and, again pausing between the words, "Talk about a rush!"
She clutched the finger on which the imaginary emerald-cut diamond ring had been fitted, and a shudder of hunger shook her small, brittle body as she lifted the finger to her mouth and said with a shout that barely concealed a shriek: "I wanted to swallow it!"
Another day she was listening to a Bocelli ballad and singing along, then interrupted herself and said, " Piu '! Piu '! I love piu '! What does piu ' mean?"
"It means 'more,"' I said.
" Piu !"
After a particularly good session of talk at her house, I went away. Soon after, speaking with a mutual friend, Elizabeth asked, "Is Paul married?"