Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Elizabeth Taylor, Black Widow

by Anne Helen Petersen

Elizabeth Taylor’s death on March 23rd triggered massive waves of nostalgia. She had so many husbands! She loved diamonds! She was an AIDS activist before it was popular to be one, she was friends with Michael Jackson, and, in her final years, she loved to hang out at a gay bar in her wheelchair! The stories of her relationship with Richard Burton were recited with particular care — the opulence, the fighting, the monstrous yacht that they sailed across the world in.

But I’ve heard that story before. Lots. So have you. I heard that story when I was a little girl and my mom told me that the lady in those black-and-white diamond commercials (“these have always brought me luck”) had had seven husbands, which, to a six-year-old, sounded like something biblical.

I heard that story when I first watched Cleopatra in junior high history (I mean, seriously, Idaho school systems, you’re killing me) and one of the girls in class announced that Cleopatra and Marc Antony had totally done it.

I heard that story when I went to Puerto Vallarta on Spring Break and there were plaques commemorating the time Taylor and Burton came to film Night of the Iguana, and the paparazzi put the town’s name on the map.

I’ve heard that story in every Taylor profile, every Taylor book, and every Taylor obituary. And yes, it’s salacious. Yes, their relationship — and its coverage — essentially marked the beginning of paparazzi culture as we know it. Yes, they married twice, and their passion does seem to be the very apotheosis of Taylor-ness.

BUT YOU GUYS, I AM GOING TO TELL YOU A SECRET. And that secret is that Taylor’s life was much juicier and more scandalous before Sir Burton, when Taylor wrote the book on gossip in the post-studio system Hollywood, and that book is, at least by members of our (approximate) generation, relatively unread. And it’s even more of a page-turner than Twilight the first time around, before you realized that [SPOILER!] Stephenie Meyer was going to have the baby eat its gross-disgusting-anti-choice way out of the heroine.

But let’s rewind. The first thing you need to understand is that Elizabeth Taylor was a child star — as cute as the Olsen twins with the precociousness of a Fanning sister.

She was signed to MGM at an early age, starred in Lassie, somehow made the role of Helen in Jane Eyre bearable, played the lead in The Greatest Horse Movie of Our Time (National Velvet) and joined the long list of Actresses Who Have Played Annoying StupidFace Laurie-winning Amy in Little Women. (Hairpin girls are Jo girls, there is no doubt.)

At this point, Taylor could have gotten all awkward and freaked people out when she played an adult, the way Shirley Temple did when she tried to play roles other than Asexual Child Tapdancer. But instead Taylor blossomed into adulthood, which is second thing to understand about her: She was exquisitely beautiful.

So beautiful that Time put her on its cover, calling her “a jewel of great price, a true star sapphire.” Beautiful Taylor then appeared in two moderate clunkers before starring in the film that would define the second stage of her career: Father of the Bride.

Now, for Hairpinners of a Certain Age, Father of the Bride summons images of Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, and that brunette girl who’s now married to country singer Brad Paisley. That remake was released in 1991, which is just about the time when I realized marriage was more than just something princesses and Aunts did, as well as the first time I understood that weddings could make people happy but also sad, especially dads.

In Father of the Bride, 1950s-style Elizabeth Taylor makes it clear that there are no other brides. And BIG COINCIDENCE, right around the time that the film was opening, Taylor also happened to be getting ready to marry Conrad “Nicky” Hilton, heir to the Hilton fortune, granduncle to Paris, and son of “Connie Hilton” as portrayed on Mad Men.

MGM designed the wedding dress, and the whole shebang was heavily documented by the fan magazines. But the union was primed for disaster: Taylor was 17 and trying to escape her overbearing mother, and Hilton, once on their honeymoon, drank incessantly and failed to consummate the marriage. Taylor was a wreck, the marriage was a wreck, and the two divorced after nine months.

Which happened to coincide with the release of Taylor’s next film, A Place in the Sun.

Sun is an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and, like all Dreiser novels, it involves a sad-sack working-class character seduced by wealth to generalized destruction. To wit: Hot Hot Montgomery Clift is poor. He goes to work in his uncle’s factory, where he starts dating another factory worker. OH BUT WAIT, there’s Elizabeth Taylor, all beautiful and high-society-like, and she wants to hang out. OH BUT WAIT STILL, Factory Worker girlfriend is totally pregnant, and wants Clift to get married. What’s a Hot Poor Guy to do? Try to drown his pregnant girlfriend, obviously, and go on to a life with Rich Elizabeth Taylor. I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice to say that things do not go according to plan.

The revelation of the film, however, was not that Clift was handsome, or that social climbing is impossible. It was that Taylor was a full-fledged man-eating Siren.

Actress-turned-gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, invited by the studio to view the filming, was so astonished by Taylor’s powers of seduction that she called the actress over, exclaiming “Elizabeth, where on earth did you ever learn how to make love like that?”

Indeed. The precocious child star had amassed some unnamable power to make men do what she wanted, both on and off the screen.

Taylor applied this power to Michael Wilding, Husband No. 2, a hot-tempered Brit 20 years her senior. They had two children, but divorced in January 1957 after five years of marriage. Taylor, however, had another Michael waiting in the wings — the sophisticated and wealthy film producer Michael Todd.

Todd was a 1950s mash of Mark Cuban and Justin Timberlake: confident, entrepreneurial, and a bit bombastic, topped with a dash of sex appeal. He and Taylor were, by all accounts, deliriously happy. They fought like cats and dogs, but their passion endured — Taylor herself listed Todd, Burton, and diamonds as the three true loves of her life. Look at this video of them on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person.

Just listen to that voice, describing all the houses they own, all the places they’ve been, how very tired they are from all their leisuring. It reeks of privilege, but oh god it’s perfect. She’s such a spoiled bitch, and I love her.

During this period, Taylor also appeared in a series of films that further ratified her image as a voluptuous man-eater: as a socialite turned ranch-wife in Giant (1956), this time attracting the affection of both Rock Hudson and James Dean, and as a wealthy, tempestuous Southern belle in Raintree Country (1957), tricking an impressionable young man (Clift again) into leaving his very blonde high school sweetheart (Eva Marie Saint). The common theme: sultry, sexual Taylor attracts man, drives plot.

But then tragedy struck, when, in March 1958, Todd’s private plane crashed en route to New York, killing all on board. Taylor was devastated. Fast-forward to September, when “The Widow Todd” was photographed spending late evenings in New York night clubs with one Eddie Fisher.

AND HERE IS WHERE IT GETS REALLY GOOD. Because Fisher was not just some new Michael, nor was he simply a bandleader with a fading but formerly popular television show. He had been Michael Todd’s BEST FRIEND, and he was married to the perennially pig-tailed Debbie Reynolds, a.k.a. Miss “Good morning, Good MORN-ing” from Singin’ in the Rain, a.k.a. the woman whose mother had embroidered “N.N.” (No Necker) on her high school sweaters, a.k.a. do-not-cheat-on-this-woman-unless-you-want-the-world-to-hate-your-everloving-guts.

Reynolds and Fisher’s courtship had been fully documented by the fan magazines, from their first kiss all the way to their marriage in an enchanted f-ing castle in the Catskills. They had two young children (including Carrie Fisher!). They had all double-dated.

(Todd, Taylor, Fisher, and Reynolds)

This. Was. Huge.

MGM’s morality clauses and studio fixers had prevented transgression of this magnitude in the past, papering over Clark Gable’s manwhoring and covering up Joan Crawford’s various dalliances. But Taylor’s relationship with Fisher had already gone too public for any amount of crafty PR to conceal.

Plus it was the late ’50s, and as the studios slowly jettisoned their massive star-making apparatuses, stars were increasingly left to their own devices. (Unless, of course, you’re talking about Big Gay Rock Hudson, who was still doing things like marrying his agent’s secretary, but that’s another post.) Plus, there was the possibility — somewhat untested — that even “bad” publicity could make people want to watch a star’s movies, especially when it involved sex, intrigue, and Elizabeth Taylor.

At first, both Fisher and Taylor denied that anything was going on — we’re just going to nightclubs to cry on each others’ shoulders! Obviously! A gullible Hedda Hopper, Taylor’s advocate since childhood, repeatedly defended the star in her gossip column.

But the affair went public on September 10th, 1958, with Taylor issuing a statement declaring “Eddie is not in love with Debbie and never has been [. . .] You can’t break up a happy marriage. Debbie and Eddie’s never has been.” Hopper, super pissed that Taylor had deceived her, penned a blistering critique, including a misquote of Taylor that would be reprinted hundreds of times over the next decade: “Mike is dead, and I am alive.”

The next day, the front page of the Los Angeles Times announced that “Debbie Will Seek Divorce from Eddie.” Soon after, Fisher made an official statement declaring that his marriage “was headed for break-up long before he even knew [. . .] Taylor.”

Reynolds fought back, taking the I-love-my-kids high road:

“It seems unbelievable [. . .] to say that you can live happily with a man and not know that he doesn’t love you. That, as God is my witness, is the truth [. . .] I now realize when you are deeply in love how blind you can be. Obviously I was. I will endeavor to use all my strength to survive and understand for the benefit of my two children.”

From that point on, it was the Black Widow Liz vs. No Necking Debbie, and the fan magazines had a FIELD DAY. I cannot adequately relate my cackling glee as I looked through issues on the microfilm machine in the basement of the library while researching my dissertation. (The weird guy looking at ship’s logs from the 18th century definitely thought I was crazy.)

The best is Photoplay’s defense of Debbie, which basically tries to make it clear that Debbie liked boring things, while Fisher like exciting things, like, oh, I dunno, busty widows named Liz.

Debbie “prefers her own home, two infant babies, her garden and her constant reading of novels and scripts nightly in front of the fire,” while Eddie “loves all this dearly but must also get out with people, travel, shake hands, listen, talk, and make friends.” (Emphasis mine.)

The article also uses a PRICELESS structuring metaphor — the kind you only see in freshman creative writing and bad celebrity profiles — of a massive chair that the estranged couple bought in order to allow the entire family to sit together. “A few months ago, Debbie had sat there with Eddie and both their babies,” yet “now, on this cold night, she was learning another way to sit in the chair — alone.”


To make matters worse, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was in theaters, in which Taylor, playing Maggie “The Cat,” spends the film wearing a skin-tight white slip, yelling at Hottest of All Hot Paul Newman, trying to convince him to have sex with her, and conniving to get the family fortune. It’s a semi-hysterical performance, but when Taylor yells “Maggie the cat is alive! I’M ALIVE!” it’s hard to fault her for using that aliveness on Eddie Fisher.

Things eventually calmed down. Fisher and Taylor married, and Reynolds started dating, allowing the fan magazines a second gossip cycle.

Taylor was then nominated for three Oscars in as many years: for Cat (1958), for excellent beach writhing in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and for revisiting the white slip as a call girl in BUtterfield 8 (1960).

And here’s where the story gets ridiculously good: Taylor signs an unprecedented million dollar contract to appear in Cleopatra. She heads overseas, contracts pneumonia while filming, and is literally on her deathbed. Like about to die. Fisher runs to her side; the papers go crazy. But she miraculously recovers — JUST IN TIME FOR OSCAR BALLOTING. She wins Best Actress for BUtterfield, but, still recovering, accepts the Oscar from her hospital bed, her tracheotomy scar shining like a diamond necklace. Shirley MacLaine, nominated for her clearly much superior performance in The Apartment, declared “I lost to a tracheotomy!”

The Evil Husband-Stealer isn’t just talented, she’s vulnerable and wounded, and it’s impossible to not root for her, even when she’s playing a call girl, is on her fourth husband, and makes so much more money than you do. So does this sound at all familiar? Just a liiittle bit?

If you’re not picking up what I’m putting down, let me suggest you revisit 80% of Life & Style and Us Weekly covers from the last five years, in which there is a beautiful, sunny-haired girl-next-door whose husband is stolen by a dark-haired, full-lipped, over-sexed vixen with a better body, better film roles, and a clearly more interesting life.


Clearly, we tell the same stories — the dark, sultry woman steals from the light, innocent one — to explain why relationships end the way that they do. And we (by “we” I mean gossip columnists, PR reps, and gossip consumers) tell these stories because, in reality, we have zero idea what actually happened, and we never will.

We try to make sense of the break-up of unions that have, in whatever way, become meaningful to us. We turn certain figures into villains and others into victims, usually according to the extent to which sexuality and deviance are manifest in their images and on their bodies.

In this way, someone like Taylor, who wasn’t even that trampy — she pretty much married everyone she had sex with, which is, in many ways, quite conservative — was cast as the evil temptress, while the woman who still looked like a little girl became the victim. As for the man caught between, he, like Brad Pitt, just sort of slides to the side, and the real issue becomes which woman seems to represent the best sort of lifestyle, not what the man did or did not do, or what responsibility he does or does not have.

With that said, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have written the book on how to rectify bad publicity. They have adopted beautiful babies and given birth to other beautiful babies, all while basically doing every good thing and speaking up for every worthy cause in the universe. Taylor may not have played the publicity game with nearly as much panache as The Brange, but she did know how to keep people talking about her, and went from one scandal to the next, following her heart in a way that kept people endlessly fascinated, even if they didn’t necessarily like her. That’s the allure of the bitch: You kinda hate her, but damn if you can’t take your eyes off her.

Reynolds, on the other hand, eventually married an old dude who swindled away all of his money and hers, leaving her to scrap for gigs through the ’70s and ’80s. Earlier this month, she gave up her lifelong dream of starting a Hollywood memorabilia museum, and auctioned off the bits and pieces of classic Hollywood she’d hoarded over the years. Which seems awfully tragic, especially since Taylor was off hanging with the gays and chatting on Twitter.

Once a victim, always a victim. Once a winner, always a winner. Which brings me to the third and final thing to understand about Elizabeth Taylor and the stars, past and present, who’ve been cast in similar gossip roles: They will always make mincemeat out of the Debbie Reynoldses.

Previously: Marlon Brando’s Dirty Dungarees.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.