Let's remember the mother, not the wife

Carolyn Moynihan
24 Mar 2011
Reproduced with Permission

I have taken very little notice of Elizabeth Taylor during her lifetime and have seen, from memory, just one of her 50-odd films (National Velvet, the one that launched her movie career) but it seems obligatory on a family blog to say something about, possibly, the most married film star ever. Dame Elizabeth died on March 23rd of congestive heart failure at the age of 79.

It is tempting to view her marital career as a farce -- "Eight weddings, seven husbands (she married Richard Burton twice) and two funerals (she was widowed once)" -- but unfortunately it was all too real. Liz herself (according to the epitaph she devised for herself, "She hated being called Liz.") tried to inject a little virtue into it by explaining that she just couldn't bring herself to have "affairs". If she was romantically involved with someone it had to "lead to the altar", she once said.

The "altar"? More likely the registry office. And it took her a while to arrive there at times -- about three years in the case of the already married Richard Burton. The scandal of that affair drew a denunciation from the Vatican.

One biographer reckons that Taylor and Burton "made married love sexy, and created the prototypes for future tabloid celebrities", to quote a Telegraph journalist. The truth is that the couple showed how sexiness and general intemperance unmade marriages -- including their own. It is said that their roles as a bitter, verbally abusive couple in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, were painfully true to life.

In her favour, Elizabeth was the mother of three birth children -- two sons by her second husband Michael Wilding and a daughter by Mike Todd -- as well as a handicapped German girl whom she adopted with Richard Burton. (Must find out more about that.) Those children gave her 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. That is quite a good record for Hollywood, I guess. Her son Michael Wilding has called her "an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humour and love." All her children were with her at the end.

The superstar also deserves credit for her Aids charity work and for loyalty to fellow celebrities who fell on hard times -- notably Rock Hudson, when he was dying of Aids, and Michael Jackson during his trial for sexual abuse of children. Whatever one thinks of her friends, it shows some character that she stood by them.

She was, of course, a very beautiful young woman, although that was not her work.

Hollywood exacts a heavy price for the celebrity it confers on film stars, and Elizabeth was a trail-blazer in that respect. The daughter of an art dealer and an actress, she made her stage debut at the age of three, dancing in a recital before members of the British Royal family in London (she was born there, and Britain gave her a title in 1999). Encouraged, if not pushed by her parents, she made her film debut at the age of 10 and lived in the overheated atmosphere of Hollywood ever after.

A Telegraph article describes the mounting toll:

In later life she moved into television and cameo roles, barely needing to act. Her mere presence at a party or at one of her multiple weddings was sufficient to command attention. She was renowned for gaining weight, for losing it, for alcoholism, drug dependency, detoxification and - throughout her life - for a succession of often life-threatening ailments. Ulcers, amoebic dysentery, bursitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, brain tumours - she had them all. And survived, every time - until now. She underwent more than 30 operations, once after nearly choking on a chicken bone.

She married her eighth husband in 1991 while in rehab for alcoholism.

Beauty fades, and sexiness. Mediocre acting talent is no longer overlooked and the world begins to snigger as an ageing star agrees to keep living in the limelight. If only it had withheld its applause much earlier, when she failed so patently in the most important role of all, that of a married woman, it would have helped her. Perhaps it was all a desperate bid for true love, but a much less married, less sexy Elizabeth Taylor would be so much easier to admire.