Twice in my life I’ve been someplace when Elizabeth Taylor appeared, and the effect on everyone in the room demonstrated what real fame is. Once I was invited to a box seat at the Kennedy Center to see Rudolf Nureyev-himself a potent dose of fame-dance. The box next to me was empty until a few moments before the curtain, then Elizabeth Taylor arrived. This was during her marriage to Sen. John Warner, so it was around 1980. She had her dark hair fluffed up and was wearing a pant suit-the kind of “stylish” pant suit that stylish grandmothers of that era used to wear-but despite her extra pounds she was still extravagantly beautiful. A murmur went through the crowd, “Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor.” Soon everyone in the sold-out house had swiveled their attention from the stage to stare at a middle-aged woman waiting for the ballet to start. I’m sure many of the people at the Kennedy Center that night went through life thinking of themselves as the kind of people others looked at with awe, but Taylor reduced everyone to a gawker. The lights dimmed and Nureyev danced, wonderfully, yet my attention was split the entire time between watching him and watching Taylor watch him. I wasn’t the only one-I could see heads in the crowd randomly turn all night just to get a glimpse of Taylor. By the end of the evening I could only imagine what a burden being this famous must be, your every gesture noted, the impossibility of ever just disappearing into a crowd.
The next time was about 10 years later in a restaurant in Santa Monica, Ivy at the Shore, an entertainment industry hangout. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and had lunch there with friends occasionally and it was perfectly normal for us to say, sotto voce, “Bruce Willis just sat at the table at your right.” What you never did was obviously turn your head or openly look at the celebrities. Then Elizabeth Taylor came in for lunch. She was in her brief blond phase and she was escorted by her demi-celebrity hairdresser, Jose Eber. When Taylor arrived, everyone in the place dropped the pretense of being too sophisticated to stare. All conversation stopped, forks stayed poised mid-air, and everyone’s eyes bore through Taylor. I was seated with an agent who said she’d never seen people act like this. Remarkably, this was long past the time Taylor was an active star or was regularly appearing in movies. But she had an enduring power to reduce everyone to a stunned fan.
There are celebrities who die young-James Dean, Marilyn Monroe-who in death enhance their fame. They are always at the height of their beauty, they always leave us longing for the performance they never gave, the scandalous love affair they never had. Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando were two potent figures we got to watch live out normal life spans. Their careers dimmed, their weight ballooned, they made lousy movies and then mostly stopped. Yet their youthful power lived on beyond their actual, aging selves. “Elizabeth Taylor” does not evoke an old woman with red lipstick in a wheelchair. Instead we think of how we couldn’t get enough of every detail of that amazing love affair between Richard Burton and the most beautiful woman in the world.
Photograph of Elizabeth Taylor by Getty Images.