Book 3 of 52: Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon by Kate Andersen Brower

How about some glamour, darlings? Then let’s dive into Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon by Kate Andersen Brower.

This new book is the third biography I’ve read of Taylor. Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger is a biography of Taylor and husband number five (and maybe six, depending on how you count, as they divorced and remarried then divorced again) with a focus on that relationship; and How to be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor by William J. Mann is a supremely dishy read. I enjoyed them both, but Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon is by far the most comprehensive of the three.

Brower had access to unpublished letters, but she also talked to everyone — and I mean everyone. A short list: Carol Burnett, George Hamilton (yes they dated!), Brook Shields, George Hamilton, Anthony Fauci, John Travolta, Colin Farrell (who was a close friend), all of Taylor’s children, Richard Burton’s daughter Kate and his wife Sally. Brower said that 10 years after Taylor’s death, people were more willing to talk about her. The last few chapters feel like a bunch of people sitting around and telling their best stories about a person they loved who they all still missed. Those interviews alone make this worth reading.

There’s too much to say about Taylor’s life — which is why I think you should read this one! — to share here, but some highlights:

  • Taylor didn’t convert to Judaism because of either Mike Todd (her third husband, who died in a plane crash) or Eddie Fisher (Todd’s best friend and her next husband). She did so because she wanted to.
  • She made more money from her perfumes than she ever did making movies.
  • This book had the most about her work raising money and awareness about AIDS, including that she visited AIDS patients at a time when some mail carriers refused to handle their mail. She would arrive with hair and makeup fully done, and dripping in diamonds, because she wanted to give patients the full Elizabeth Taylor experience. She’d hug patients and hold their hands while they talked, and also check in on staff because she knew what they did was draining. She also focused her later AIDS work on what a lot of community activities and mutual aid societies do right now: keep the big picture in mind, but help someone with immediate needs, like do they need somewhere to stay, someone to walk their dog, someone to go grocery shopping for them? In her 70s, she’d sometimes go to the Abbey, a gay bar in West Hollywood, in go go boots and wheel chair to drink watermelon martinis. Of course she was treated like a queen.
  • She stayed friends with most of her exes (excluding Nicky Hilton, who beat her, and Fisher, who was overall awful). Brower interviewed Taylor’s second to last ex-husband Senator John Warner before he died, and in the acknowledgements, wrote that his wife Jeanne “sat next to her husband as he described his marriage to the most glamorous woman in the world. She seemed as interested in his stories as I was.” Despite her tumultuous relationship with Burton (one that was not helped by their twin addictions), she talked to him almost every day until he died. She did nothing halfway.
  • The press was viscous with her, including but not limiting to Joan Rivers, who wrote 850 fat jokes about her. Some of the descriptions of what photographers did to get images of her, including hounding her at Mike Todd’s funeral, was awful.
  • Despite finding solace from Mike Todd’s death in the arms of Eddie Fisher, who was at the time married to Debbie Reynolds, Taylor and Reynolds made up and stayed friends until Taylor died. Actress Ruth Lee said Reynolds told her they had a lot to talk about, “like what a shit Eddie was.” In Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge, biographer Sheila Weller goes deeply into this, showing that the Fisher-Reynolds marriage was never a great one, and a lot of the headlines were more about Reynolds drumming up positive press to protect Reynolds’ image than getting Fisher back. In 2001, Taylor and Reynolds did the Carrier Fisher-written TV movie These Old Broads together; and stayed together on September 11 — they were both in New York City on that day.

I used to say that I’d love to see a biopic of Taylor and Burton filming Cleopatra in Italy at the start of their romance but I’d be much more interested in the Taylor and Reynolds. What a story that is.

So yes I enjoyed it! I tore through the book in a few days. And if you’re not up to a Hollywood biography, I’d recommend checking out Brower’s The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House. She takes the same high level, deeply researched, talk to everyone who will talk to her approach to the people who make the White House function as a home. A very different kind of home — but still a home.

Nail polish: Free to Roam by Essie.

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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