Published March 23, 2011
Even into her golden years, and even at the end, withered and ravaged by disease, Elizabeth Taylor remained the most beautiful woman in the world, spiritually. And so I do not have to change the title of my 2000 HarperCollins biography of her, "The Most Beautiful Woman in the World: The Obsessions, Passion, and Courage of Elizabeth Taylor," which arrives in a new updated edition next week. Her humanitarian work, which required that this legendary beauty put the welfare of others before her own, brought forth a glowing inner radiance that far transcended the superficial good looks the world had celebrated in her heyday as the sultry Gloria Wandrous in "Butterfield 8" or the kohl-eyed seductress Cleopatra.
The first time I encountered Taylor was in a Las Vegas casino around 1959 or 1960. Rooted to my spot a few inches from her, I couldn’t help staring, and she didn’t appear to mind. The first thing you noticed about her when she was still in her twenties was that, despite the beauty she displayed on film, no camera had ever done her justice.
Her skin was unbelievable. She had on a simple sundress, and her shoulders were velvety and iridescent. Her coloring made me think of a rose at dusk. Her manner was appealingly demure—typical 1950s ladylike poise. Being in her presence, at the height of her beauty, was an almost religious experience. She was an example of nature perfecting itself, a once-in-a-generation phenomenon.
In her middle years, I had dinner with her one night when I was escorting Radie Harris, Broadway columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and one of Elizabeth’s closest friends in the press. Elizabeth was in New York City promoting her boyfriend John Warner for the U.S. Senate. What a pity Elizabeth didn’t run herself.
She also supported Ronald Reagan (for president) and he, like Warner, also won.
I wish she had put that energy into a campaign of her own. She would have been a better Senator than Warner, a better President than Reagan.
If she had a fault, it was thinking that some man could complete her. “You’ve got to be f**king kidding me,” she told Warner after their brief marriage, when he said they were moving into a two-bedroom flat in the Watergate. It would have taken that just to hold her diamonds.
That night when we were with Radie (and Halston, Andy Warhol, and Calvin Klein), Elizabeth looked at me with eyes that paused to take me in, fully, as a human being. It was like being handed a communion wafer.
And then she and Radie started bickering like old friends over how, according to Elizabeth, Radie had got it all wrong, “as usual,” about exactly how Elizabeth had choked on food at a recent barbecue. Beneath too much makeup, she was a handsome middle-aged woman.
How like her that when beauty, a transitory and passing thing, could no longer assure fame, she found a way to remain the most famous person on the planet, whose every health setback was front-page news. The way she found, the way that kept her on top, was honesty and humility.
When the fast track at last caught up with her, she admitted her alcoholism and addiction and went into rehab, braving headlines but gaining respect for courage and candor.
And when the cheering for her as a movie star was a distant memory, she turned businesswoman with a line of fragrances, including the ever-popular White Diamonds, still worth $200 million at her death.
What really sparked her septuagenarian inner loveliness was her AIDS charity, which helped save millions of lives and showed the world that the once self-centered movie star had at last overcome herself and was now putting the welfare of others before her own.
Back in the 1980s, when no one would even mention the word AIDS, including the president of the United States, Elizabeth rolled up her sleeves and went to work. Such gays as her co-stars Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson had been her closest friends, and now she spoke up for them and millions of others, using “her hetero-power,” as her pal Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen in the original TV "Superman") puts it in my updated "Most Beautiful Woman in the World"), to browbeat President Ronald Reagan into at last recognizing AIDS.
One collateral benefit of her AIDS work has been the long-overdue granting of first-class citizenship to homosexuals the world over -- still very much a work-in-progress but one that might never have happened without the bravery of Dame Elizabeth.
More than movie fame, it was the humanitarian breakthroughs of her senior years that now insures her immortality. It did not go unrecognized by the world’s greatest governments. America gave her a Presidential medal and the coveted Kennedy Center Honors. In Buckingham Palace, HRH Queen Elizabeth II invested her as a Dame Commander of the British Empire, the highest order of chivalry, and in France she received the Legion of Honor. In her hometown, Los Angeles, California, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave her her third Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
The inner beauty she achieved in recent years was usually concealed behind makeup and jewelry—with one notable exception. She appeared at the memorial of her friend Michael Jackson without makeup—and it was a revelation. In her seventh decade she had acquired the sort of beauty that shone from James Stewart’s mother Beulah Bondi in the final scene of It’s a Wonderful Life: strong, noble, hawk-like, invincible.
I once told Zsa Zsa Gabor, over coffee at her house in Bel Air, “You are so lovely this morning. You should never wear makeup.” It concealed the natural glory of her features, diverted attention from her magnificent cheekbones. Zsa Zsa said I was being ridiculous; the world expected her to look like a movie star.
But Elizabeth, in her grief at Michael’s funeral, didn’t give a hoot about the anyone’s expectations, and had avoided the earlier hoopla at the Staples Center. Though in pain, she managed to show up at the cemetery, and we at last got a look at the real Elizabeth Taylor: a senior citizen of dignity, loyal to friends despite scandal—and brave enough to show her real face, which still, in its way, was the most beautiful in the world.
Ellis Amburn is the author of "THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN OF THE WORLD: The Obsessions, Passions and Courage of Elizabeth Taylor" (HarperCollins). The revised edition with two new, updated chapters arrives in paperback next week and in e-book form on Friday, March 25.