Suddenly Last Summer

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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 Grossinger’s 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. Grossinger’s 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 Grossinger’s 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 Fox’s 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 men’s 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-father’s 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. Burton’s dressing room, and he distractedly asked me to get him a drink of water—which I did. Soon, I was just there at Mr. Burton’s side all the time, whenever he wasn’t onstage. I told him I was Spyros Skouras’ grandson, and he thought I was working for the producers. The producers thought I was Burton’s 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 Burton’s 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.

“What’s your name?” Elizabeth asked me.

“Howard. Howard...um...Skouras,” I said. Elizabeth, too, thought I was Spyros Skouras’ grandson.

“Oh, my gawd. My brother’s 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.

There was always pandemonium surrounding Elizabeth, and it soon became my job to escort her from the dressing room to the stage door and back, where I handed her off, or retrieved her, from the burly security guards. Broadway was roped off, and there were literally hundreds of policemen mounted on horseback. During Hamlet’s entire run at the Lunt-Fontaine, I spent the second act with Elizabeth. I felt like a pig in s--t and thought that, at 19, I had finally arrived. None of my goody-goody yeshiva classmates, nor any of my Far Rockaway High School peers, could boast of having spent the summer with the most famous movie stars of all time. Eventually, I told Burton and Elizabeth the truth, and they somehow were more charmed by the story than they were offended.

In 1973, I met a handsome young model named Bruce Weber, and a friendship was forged over a mutual obsession with Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty. He went on to become one of the world’s greatest photographers. He has shot Elizabeth many, many times (and has become a great friend). In fact, he and I exchange rare pictures of Elizabeth for Christmas and our birthdays almost every year.

In 1989, the actress Cindy Williams came into my partner Carol Baum’s office and pitched a remake of the 1950 Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor classic Father of the Bride, with Jack Nicholson starring. I remember my heart leaping at the thought. I just knew I was destined to produce a remake of an Elizabeth Taylor vehicle. It was difficult to sew up the rights, but because of my single-mindedness I was determined to overcome every obstacle—including writing a personal check for $150,000. I did not have the $150,000 in my bank account, and we would have lost the rights at the close of business that day if Ted Turner at MGM did not have a check in his hands.

“You’ve got big balls, Rosenman,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg when he found out what I had done. “Don’t worry. Disney will cover your check. You’re now officially a producer. Congratulations!” It was because of my passion for Elizabeth that I was able to take these gigantic risks. Father of the Bride turned out to be one of the biggest successes of my career.

In 1987, I participated in a communications workshop called Lifespring that David Geffen insisted I attend. At first I thought he was nuts, but it became one of the most valuable tools with which I’ve ever worked. I learned about punctuality, commitment, teamwork and the concept of giving back. In fact, I became a vociferous player in the Lifespring community, where I developed my sense of service—like AA on steroids.

Because AIDS was nearing its fulminant apex and so many of our friends were dying these horrible deaths, we decided that our leadership program was going to be in the service of AIDS and those suffering from it. At the time, the disease was still in the closet, and there wasn’t a place for HIV and AIDS patients to congregate, watch TV, read a book or talk to doctors with their families. I decided to approach Elizabeth about creating a spot for this purpose at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and she of course donated. I can’t tell you the number of letters we received from patients and parents thanking us for this safe space.

Directly out of this experience, I assisted Marianne Williamson, along with 10 others, in founding Project Angel Food as an outreach program of the Los Angeles Center for Living—sort of a Meals on Wheels for HIV and AIDS patients. The start of Project Angel Food was quite difficult, as we never had enough money to keep the place afloat. In 1990, Michael Childers started an annual art auction, Angel Art, that was chaired by my close friends Berry Berenson and Tony Perkins. The first one raised more than $540,000, aided by the contributions of Geffen, Barry Diller and Sandy Gallin. (At the time, I co-ran Sandollar, Dolly Parton and Sandy Gallin’s film company.) By 1992, Project Angel Food had grown from providing 15 daily meals to 350 daily meals—but still there was never enough money. So where did I go? To Elizabeth Taylor, of course, who provided us a grant of $150,000 from the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which she had started in 1991.

One day, Bruce Weber called and said, “I’m shooting a commercial for White Diamonds with Elizabeth Taylor. Get in a tux and come down to the Shrine Auditorium. I’ll put you in the background.” So, in the middle of a beautiful day, I got into my 5.0 triple black Mustang convertible, in my tux, and shlepped to the Shrine, where there were hundreds of people beyond the lines and in the shot.

I found Bruce. He took me by the hand and led me to a Bentley out front, with a driver in full livery. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“You’re going to play Elizabeth’s escort,” he said. “It’s my birthday present to you.”

The commercial would have Elizabeth and her escort (me) pulling up to the Shrine for the Oscars. She would be wearing a diamond necklace, and as we got out, the crowds would go crazy.

I waited about five minutes. Suddenly, the door opened and Elizabeth entered the Bentley. She was really tan, wore a gorgeous yellow dress and was as beautiful that day as she had been back in the days when my obsession with her began. Her shoulders were bare, and she had on a necklace of diamonds that was absolutely mind-blowing. I was speechless for one of the very few times in my life.

Elizabeth looked straight at me, and in that full bawdy voice, she said, “Are you looking at my tits...or my necklace?” I burst out laughing, and so did she. In truth, I didn’t know what was more beautiful—her face, her décolletage or those incredible diamonds.

A couple of years ago, I got another call from Bruce. “Howard, I have the greatest job for you. You were born for it. Quinn Tivey, Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd’s grandson, wants to apply to USC Film School and doesn’t want to drop their names to get in. Can you help him pull it together for his application?” Duh.

I met Quinn at Ed’s Coffee Shop on Robertson in West Hollywood. He was, at 19, the male image of a young Elizabeth Taylor—beautiful black hair and the same stunning eyes, with the longest eyelashes, built powerfully, very much like his grandfather. He did a riff on Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction that was as close to a dissertation on the postmodern deconstructed film as I have ever heard. He obviously knew a lot about pop culture. “Why don’t you use your grand-parents’ names on your application?” I asked him.

“I didn’t really think it was appropriate...and it wasn’t comfortable for me.” His shyness was refreshing. I wanted to hug him. It had been years, if ever, since I had met someone in Hollywood who didn’t want to exploit his genealogy. I decided that second I would do all in my power to help this kid in his quest to attend USC—because he deserved to be accepted.

Quinn went through a rigorous admissions process that took quite a few months, but he proved his mettle and was admitted. Then last year, producer Michael Peyser asked me to give a lecture to his class at USC. When I walked in, there was Quinn Tivey sitting in the second row.

At a recent Stanford graduation, Steve Jobs gave a commencement address. I wasn’t there, but a friend told me what he said. Jobs explained to the fresh-faced grads and their kin not to plan their lives too closely, to open themselves to new experiences because you never know where they might lead. It is only later in life that you can look back and connect the dots to see how you got there.

What does this mean? Well, it turns out that my fascination with Elizabeth Taylor as a young yeshiva student put me where I am today. Over the course of years, it was the common ground that connected me to one of my closest friends, enabled me to reach out and help an underserved group, gave me the nerve to go after my dreams and prompted me to do what I could to ensure Elizabeth’s DNA stayed in showbiz.

If I draw lines connecting the turning points in my life and career, I see a pattern resembling planets orbiting a shining object with enormous gravitational pull.

And all of the lines lead back to Elizabeth Taylor.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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