As a starstruck 14-year-old living in Far Rockaway, Long Island, I began an obsession with Elizabeth Taylor. I cut out every picture of her (I still have the file all these years later) from every magazine and newspaper listed in the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature in the New York Public Library and covered my bedroom walls with them. That should have tipped off my parents that something was very different about their little Howard.
In the summer of 1961, I was a waiter at Camp HILI (Hebrew Institute of Long Island), a Modern Orthodox Jewish camp in White Lake near Monticello in the famed Catskills. Close by was the fabled Grossingers resort. I went there with a group of friends on my days off. We would sneak into the pool area, use the key privileges of some unknowing guests, charge our meals and massages to their rooms and delight in these great, luxurious vacation days.
I was always the mastermind of these deceptions, and people were amazed at my chutzpah. Grossingers was known as the playground of the rich and famous, and in the halls of the basement there were literally thousands of framed pictures of celebrities nailed to the knotty-pine walls. Naturally, I had my eye on the Elizabeth Taylor- Eddie Fisher-Jennie Grossinger shot. On each of my days there, I would pull at the photo a fraction of an inch at a time. By the end of the summer, I was able to yank it completely off the wall.
Leonard Lyons reported in the New York Post that someone had stolen the picture of Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher and Jennie Grossinger off the wall of Grossingers basement. My mother came into my room in Far Rockaway, looking for the evidence. Do you have any idea who could have done such a thing? she said, looking very displeased (suspicious, actually), scanning the room and not seeing the picture. I think she was secretly amused. Today, almost 50 years later, it still hangs in the hallway of my home in West Hollywood.
A year later, in June of 1963, Cleopatra was about to open. There was a media frenzy surrounding the entire venture, and the headlines of newspapers around the world had been filled with the exploits of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Turns out there was more drama in the making of 20th Century Foxs Cleopatra than there was in the picture itself: It was the most expensive movie ever made up to that time. Elizabeth Taylor had left Eddie Fisher after having stolen him from Debbie Reynolds, and now she was stealing Richard Burton from Sybil Burton. There were drunken fights, late appearances, no-shows, huge extravagances, and Elizabeth was always sick.
I decided I had to be at the opening of this much heralded and anticipated movie at the venerable Rivoli Theatre in New York City. In preparation, I cased the theater the week before the event and found that above the mens bathroom on the balcony level, there was an attic-like space that housed the air-conditioning apparatus. To see if I would fit in there, I squeezed into a stall and hoisted my way up to check the space. I fit.
The morning of June 12, I got up early, put on my old navy blue bar mitzvah suit, took the A train from Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway into New York City and arrived at the theater at 9 a.m. I again sneaked into the theater, up to the balcony, into the bathroom and into the air-conditioning space, where I waited the entire day. At 7:30 that night, I jumped down from my hiding space, covered in a cloud of dust, opened the bathroom stall door, and lo and behold, standing there pissing was Danny Kaye in full black tie. I brushed myself off, said, Hi, Danny! and left him with an astonished look on his face.
Still recovering from the Danny sighting, I bumped into Beatrice Lillie, who gave me my first air-kiss on both cheeks, and with an impeccable English accent, she said, Why, you must be Spyros grandson!
Spyros Skouras was the head of 20th Century Fox when Cleopatra was being filmed. I made my way down the huge spiral staircase and into the theater, approached one of the ushers and, in my most sincere voice, said: I am Spyros Skouras grandson. Where are my grand-fathers seats?
I was promptly ushered to a cordoned-off row and happily watched the premiere of Cleopatra.
A year later, Richard Burton was appearing on Broadway in Hamlet, directed by Sir John Gielgud, at the famed Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Again, I cased out the area and, early on the day of the opening, hid in the theater. At one point, I managed to find my way into Mr. Burtons dressing room, and he distractedly asked me to get him a drink of waterwhich I did. Soon, I was just there at Mr. Burtons side all the time, whenever he wasnt onstage. I told him I was Spyros Skouras grandson, and he thought I was working for the producers. The producers thought I was Burtons assistant.
One night, Elizabeth Taylor, in molded-to-the-body pants and lilac suede high-boots, came to the theater right before the end of the first act and spent the intermission and entire second act in Burtons dressing room, a bottle of champagne in one hand, a copy of Hamlet in the other, laughing and cursing like a drunken sailor.
Come here, you beauteous old broad, Burton roared at the end of the first-act curtain, grabbing her in a big hug and squeezing her ass in his large hands.
Who are you calling an old broad? Elizabeth screeched in delight.
He gulped a drink. Elizabeth then gulped as well in order to keep up with him, and the two of them doubled over with laughter. They were so much in love it was impossible not to be carried away by their momentum and sheer zest for living and loving.
Whats your name? Elizabeth asked me.
Howard. Howard...um...Skouras, I said. Elizabeth, too, thought I was Spyros Skouras grandson.
Oh, my gawd. My brothers name is Howard! We are going to get along soooooo famously! I love Howard more than anyone on Earth...except, of course, for Mr. Alas, poor Yorick over here!!! With her full throaty laughter filling up the entire Lunt-Fontaine dressing room, Elizabeth pulled me into a gigantic hug right up against her very famous cleavage, her emerald brooch sparkling off to the side.
These are the most famous tits in the world, I distinctly remember thinking.
Suddenly Last Summer
How an obsession with Elizabeth Taylor helped make me the man I am today
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