Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Elizabeth Taylor back among the stars where she belongs

"And, like the cat, I have nine times to die," Sylvia Plath bragged in 1962, then died within a year.

On the other hand, Elizabeth Taylor, who died last week of congestive heart failure at Los Angeles's Cedars Sinai, cheated death time and time again, before submitting, at the age of 79.

Although the actress was admitted to hospital two months ago, only the lowest-end tabloids kept an eye on her, faithfully reporting each week that she was gravely ill. The more current and glamorous media ignored what seemed clearly to be the end of her last life.

Story continues below advertisement

The star had suffered so often, and so horribly: As late as 2008 she was reported as having overdosed on pills and alcohol. Blogger Perez Hilton responded to this scare by posting a cruel photograph and scrawling "Got Pills?" beneath.

And she was aging and disabled; if infirmity is hard on women, it is sadistic to women once revered for their great beauty.

John Belushi appeared as Taylor on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s in a black fright wig and choked on a whole chicken.

And so the dismantling of her divine stature began - quickly, violently. Kenneth Anger used an image of the bloated then Mrs. John Warner on the cover of Hollywood Babylon II in 1984, and her appearance was, quite suddenly, a joke to talk show hosts and comics, and to filmmaker John Waters, who, less unkindly, cast his grotesque star Divine as a quasi-Taylor, most memorably in 1972's Pink Flamingos.

The violet eyes framed (because of a miraculous mutation) with double lashes; the bone-china skin and purplish-black hair; the dangerous curves, the "dark, unyielding largesse" (in Richard Burton's lovesick words) - all this was forgotten. Well, not by Burton, who wrote Taylor shortly before his death in 1984. "I want to come home," he pleaded to the "lavish" love of his life, who was always "too bloody much," a toppler of empires, an exquisite "apocalypse."

Taylor, in life, was a tough-talking, hard-cursing sort of broad: Her tour-de-force performance in 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (the role she was most proud of) was not that far off the mark, but she would never let herself go that way! To the very end, Taylor was big glam hair, oceans of jewels and comfortable-yet-flashy couture.

Very likely hurt by the world essentially screaming "Fatso!" at her, she appeared unperturbed: She had the sublime arrogance of a queen, and the hard pragmatism of someone who knew that power is infinitely more desirable than beauty.

Story continues below advertisement

Remember, this is the self-titled "Mother Courage" who bore five children, who married eight times, burying one husband (producer Mike Todd), and who befriended a series of beautiful, deeply damaged men - friendships that would lead, on one level, to her seminal and utterly critical work with AIDS charities and education.

In 1956, she became a confidante to James Dean (her co-star in Giant): The self-loathing, poly-sexual actor confessed to her that he was raped by his minister as a child, a secret she revealed in 1997 to a journalist with the proviso that it stayed with them until her death.

Also in 1956, she would run to the side of her closeted gay, drug-addicted and tragic friend Montgomery Clift when he smashed his car into a telephone pole after leaving a party at her house. She held his broken head in her hands; she gathered his bloody teeth until help arrived. And she remained his friend throughout his turbulent life.

As she did with Rock Hudson, when rumours of his being gay and HIV-positive roared through the industry and press. Since he had just kissed Linda Evans on Dynasty, the tabloids were filled with repugnant speculation by her and other cast members, who feared that they had caught AIDS by talking to him, it would appear.

Hudson died a broken wreck. He left his best friend a little ladder she would use to reach things in his home. She stepped up her AIDS activism: She would give and raise money toward, and speak about, this pandemic until she, quite literally, could speak no longer. People with AIDS or HIV are "my life," she said in a late interview.

Michael Jackson was her last anterior husband, so to speak (the lusty Taylor always had a romantic partner and close gay or sexually inscrutable friend - and he was always damaged, yet touched by her truly maternal warmth).

Story continues below advertisement

In a song both insipid and deeply moving, performed for her 65th birthday, Jackson asked "my friend Elizabeth" to remember the time he "was alone" (he is referring to his breakdown overseas after the first allegations of child abuse emerged) and she took his hand and "said, 'Let's be strong.' " She did, Jackson shout-sings, what "only a true friend" would do.

True friends are indeed in short order. Especially for the hunted and despised.

But, like the loyal-to-a-fault Egyptian queen she famously portrayed, Taylor used her nine lives to showcase her beauty and deploy the power it gave her.

Ancient Egyptians revered cats, of course (your local museum may have tiny feline sarcophagi). They worshipped the goddess Bast, whose lovely face intimated her role as the divinity of joy and infants; and they believed cats assisted the sun god on his descent into the underworld.

Elizabeth Taylor's life is too big, too awful and gorgeous to apprehend. So we must have faith that she used her time here very well, and that the lifelong star, whose "first memory is of pain," is, at long last, whole and secure in the firmament - her altar.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to