Elizabeth Taylor’s obituary: outtakes from a 12-year work in progress
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Elizabeth Taylor’s death Wednesday moved me in an odd way. Although I never met or spoke to her, I had a ‘relationship’ with her that spanned a dozen years: Hers was the first advance obituary I ever wrote for The Times. The assignment, which I received in 1999, probably was precipitated by one of Taylor’s nearly annual brushes with death. I read a mountain of articles and books over a three-month period before writing a lengthy piece. And nearly every year since then I updated the article, adding a worthwhile quote or details about her latest illness. I felt I had come to know her and, unlike many of my subjects, I liked her.
More recently, I revisited the obit to shorten it. Some pithy quotes had to go, such as this one from writer Truman Capote, who once said: ‘Her legs are too short for the torso, the head too bulky for the figure in toto; but the face with those lilac eyes is a prisoner’s dream, a secretary’s self-fantasy.’
And this one from Paul Newman, her co-star in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’ He called her ‘a functioning voluptuary.’
One of my favorite anecdotes that didn’t make the final cut concerned Howard Hughes, the nutty billionaire who tried to run a movie studio after making a fortune building planes. After Taylor separated from her first husband, Conrad Hilton Jr. of the Hilton hotel chain, she was lying by a pool in Palm Springs when Hughes landed a helicopter next to her. ‘Come on, get your clothes on, we are getting married,’ he told the raven-haired beauty. She told him he was mad, whereupon he dipped his hand into a coat pocket and scooped out a handful of diamonds, which he then proceeded to sprinkle on her. Taylor roared with laughter and ran into her friends’ house, scattering the diamonds behind her.
The diamonds from Richard Burton, the Welsh actor who accounted for two of her eight marriages, were another matter: She kept most of those. I loved his recollection of his desire for a $1.1-million, 69-carat diamond ring from Cartier in New York, which he acquired for Taylor after outbidding Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. ‘I wanted that diamond because it is incomparably lovely,’ Burton said. ‘And it should be on the loveliest woman in the world. I would have had a fit if it went to Jackie Kennedy or Sophia Loren or Mrs. Huntingdon Misfit of Dallas, Texas.’
I noticed that when Taylor spoke about herself, she rarely took herself too seriously, a quality that made her appealing. ‘People have called me accident-prone,’ she told Life magazine in 1997. ‘That really pissed Richard Burton off. He’d say, no, you’re incident-prone.’
You can read the obituary here.
-- Elaine Woo