In the never published introduction to a book about Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels—which caused a brief rift between the star and him—the author recalls scenes from their 30-year friendship, beginning on a movie set in Italy.
by Dominick Dunne March 2007
Recently, while going through an old file cabinet, I came across the introduction to a coffee-table book about Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels that was published in 2002. Elizabeth and my friend Michael Korda, the editor in chief at Simon & Schuster, had both requested that I write the introduction. I had a wonderful time writing it, and Michael liked it, but Elizabeth demanded changes. Michael wrote me a letter listing the changes, and I got mad. The piece was never published. About a year later, when Elizabeth and I were speaking again, she told me that she had actually never read the introduction. It was her publicist who had read it and requested the changes. Below are the introduction I wrote, Michael’s letter to me, and my notes back to him on his letter.
If you ever hear anybody refer to Elizabeth Taylor as Liz Taylor, you can be pretty sure the person doesn’t know her. She’s not Liz. She’s Elizabeth. So remember that, if you should ever be lucky enough to get to know her, as I have been lucky enough to know her. Thirty years ago, when she was turning 40, I had the good fortune to spend the better part of a year with her, making a film in Europe. She was married to the late film star Richard Burton, and it’s safe to say that they were the most glamorous couple in the world at that time. I saw her every day. I witnessed all the varieties of her moods. We lived on different floors of the same hotel, the Miramonti, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Elizabeth has an uncanny ability to create total chaos around her while remaining serene herself.
The experience of spending so much time with the Burtons, as Richard and Elizabeth were referred to, was one of the most fascinating I have ever had. Being with them was like being in a state of almost surreal celebrity. Elizabeth was at the peak of her great beauty, and she and Richard drew vast crowds whenever they appeared in public. They understood the obligations of fame. They waved like royals to the crowds. “What’s it feel like to be cheered?,” I once asked Elizabeth after witnessing one of their public ovations. We were talking about fame, a subject that has always captivated me, and my proximity to the Burtons made me able to explore the subject later, when I stopped producing and became a writer. She said, without an iota of braggadocio, that she could almost not remember when she wasn’t famous. I was spellbound by the couple, even when I was being driven crazy by them.
The film was called Ash Wednesday. It wasn’t a success, but the experience of making it was like living in a novel. Henry Fonda played Elizabeth’s estranged husband, and the handsome young Austrian star Helmut Berger played her lover. Richard Burton, who was not in the film, seethed on the sidelines. Before we started to shoot the film in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Larry Peerce, the director, and I spent New Year’s Eve with the Burtons at the Grand Hotel in Rome. We met alone with them in their enormous suite for champagne and caviar, while their other guests waited below. As we entered the sitting room, Richard was on the floor in a green velvet dinner jacket picking up with a Kleenex dog shit left by their unhousebroken Shih Tzu, on which Elizabeth doted. Her dogs were never house-trained. When Elizabeth finally entered, she was dressed and bejeweled as if she were going to a ball at Buckingham Palace. It was our first meeting. Her beauty was even more breathtaking in person than on the screen. It was not uncustomary for people to gasp a little when they first saw her, and I did just that. I didn’t want to stop staring at her. She requested Edith Head, the great costume designer at Paramount, to do her costumes, but she said she also wanted to wear a long white cape with a white-fox hood that Valentino had made for her for the opening of the opera in Milan.
Dunne and Elizabeth Taylor on location in Italy while filming Ash Wednesday, 1973. Photograph by Gianni Bozzachi/courtesy of Dominick Dunne.
The couple talked about Tito, the dictator of Yugoslavia, who had become their friend during the shooting of a film there. Then Elizabeth’s secretary-majordomo, Raymond Vignale, came in, pointing to his Cartier watch to remind her that their guests were waiting downstairs. Raymond was a great character and wit, who stage-managed the Burtons’ nomadic hotel existence, took charge of the packing of their 30 trunks, carried the jewels, and hid the pills. He could speak five or six languages and camp in all of them. Elizabeth loved campy men and had a camp sense of humor herself. Raymond wore a white mink coat with jeweled buttons that Elizabeth had given him for Christmas.
Like a king and queen, the Burtons descended the marble stairway from their suite to the lobby, where they greeted their guests. There were about 20 for dinner, all dressed to the nines: Elizabeth’s hairdresser, Alexander of Paris; her other hairdresser, Gianni Novelli, for when Alexander of Paris was in Paris; her makeup artist; her dresser; her secretary; her photographer; her chauffeur—on and on. The Burtons had the largest entourage I had ever seen, and the people who worked for them worshipped them. I had somehow expected that their guests would be princes and princesses.
From the beginning, there were problems on the picture. We kept getting more and more behind schedule. Richard Burton sent a note from his room to mine saying that Elizabeth was “chronically” late, and she was. Robert Evans, then the head of Paramount, kept calling from Hollywood, complaining bitterly about the overages. “Read her the riot act!” he yelled at me. The next day, however, when she walked onto the set three hours late, with a hundred extras waiting in evening clothes and Henry Fonda fuming off to one side, was I going to read her the riot act? No such thing. This movie star would have made mincemeat out of me if I had ever tried to tell her off. Even as a child star at MGM she had held her own with Louis B. Mayer. I just told her how beautiful she looked in her Edith Head red velvet evening gown and her Alexander of Paris hairdo, and we kissed on each cheek. After that, she went right on being chronically late.
Catastrophic things happened on the Italian location. A doctor had to be flown in from Rome on two occasions, but I won’t go into that. At one point, Richard imagined an affair between Elizabeth and Helmut Berger that didn’t exist. There was a terrible scene, excruciating for all of us, with screaming and tears, during a lunch break at a chalet on the top of a mountain. Their lives were so public that even when they fought in private Larry Peerce and I were often called into their suite to be witnesses. We never knew what to say, we were so embarrassed, but they weren’t embarrassed at all.
We were told that she was used to receiving gifts at the start of a film from the director and producer, and I was shown a diamond bracelet that one producer had given her. Larry and I were both going through divorces at the time, so money was a thing we worried about. We gave her a pair of Art Deco lamps that had once belonged to Colette, and she was courteous in her thanks, but not ecstatic. On the contrary, she was clearly disappointed, so we knew that we had to buy her a piece of jewelry. We figured that $2,500 to $3,000 between us—which didn’t sound as cheap back then as it does now—would get something with diamonds, and I asked one of the drivers from the film company to take me into Venice to Nardi, the famous jeweler on St. Mark’s Square. I settled for a coral ring set in gold, with diamonds around the coral. It was pretty, I thought, and she liked it. She wore it for days, and kept looking at it on her finger. Then she lost it. Raymond Vignale said she had left it in a taxi in Rome, but I couldn’t imagine Elizabeth Taylor ever taking a taxi.
I never asked her, but I always felt that the two men she loved most in her life were Mike Todd, the master showman, who was the father of her daughter Liza, and Richard Burton, with whom she adopted a child named Maria. She had married Richard twice, and was absolutely mad about him, but they fell out of love on our picture. She had a capacity for great friendships with men. Montgomery Clift, with whom she made her most romantic movie, A Place in the Sun, became her best friend, and he later lost his beautiful looks in an automobile accident after leaving a party at Elizabeth’s, during her marriage to Michael Wilding, the father of her two sons. Elizabeth had a lot of guys who were her friends. Not lovers, just friends. They included Laurence Harvey, Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, and quite a few others who died too soon. I was with her at the time Rock Hudson died. She mourned. She did the first great charity show for AIDS when AIDS was still a forbidden topic of conversation in polite circles. Everyone of any consequence in the film industry went to that party. I was Elizabeth’s date that night, and I was writing a story about her for Vanity Fair. “I don’t know how you got all these studio heads to come here tonight,” I said to her. She replied, “If you have fame, this is the way to use it.” Let’s face it, the lady has class.
During the O. J. Simpson trial, I used to go to her house in Bel Air almost every Sunday for lunch. I loved talking to her. She was very loyal to the waifs who were regulars at the house. I remember especially Bernard Lafferty, the famous butler of the billionairess Doris Duke, who became Duke’s heir and her executor. People were suspicious of him. Some even thought he had killed Duke, but Elizabeth would have none of it. She remained stalwart in her friendship. She even arranged a memorial service for Lafferty when he died rather unexpectedly. I don’t see her much anymore. She lives in Los Angeles. I live in New York. Mostly, I hear about her. We have a couple of close friends in common who keep me up-to-date.
Life has dealt her a sufficient number of hard knocks to even out the glory years of fame, fortune, and accomplishment. To my mind, she’s had more than her share of hard knocks. But she copes. She goes on. She keeps smiling. Once, when I was at her house, she wanted me to hear an advance copy of Michael Jackson’s new album. He had sent his engineer over to install special speakers so that she could get the proper sound. Elizabeth and Michael Jackson have a rather unique friendship. She remained totally loyal to him during his scandal and legal problems, once flying all the way to Bangkok with a bad back to be with him during an especially difficult period of negative publicity. While we were listening to Jackson’s recording, the doorbell rang. It was his chauffeur, delivering a gift in lovely wrapping, tied with lavender ribbons, lavender being Elizabeth’s favorite color. Presents thrill her. Inside the tiny box was a sapphire bracelet. She squealed with delight and put it on. Then she studied it on her wrist. She was as excited as if it were her very first bracelet.
Dominick Dunne is a best-selling author and special correspondent for Vanity Fair. His diary is a mainstay of the magazine.