Elizabeth Taylor (2022) is an enthralling authorized biography of one of Hollywood’s most famous stars. This fascinating and complete portrait of the legend chronicles her life of fame, tragedy, love, and loss.
Introduction: Discover the grit behind the glam.
Table of Contents
Nineteen-forties Hollywood – the Golden Age. The “Big Five” studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and RKO – dominated American filmmaking. Aged just 12, Elizabeth Taylor was already a movie star.
By the end of her life, she was an icon. Fame and fortune, however, were only part of her story.
In this summary to Elizabeth Taylor, we’ll explore the life of a pioneering actor who changed pop culture and affected millions worldwide. We’ll see an Elizabeth Taylor who was a mother, wife, activist, and philanthropist who bucked convention and survived the cutthroat world of show business.
Details here will have to be limited, of course, but what follows should paint you a vivid picture. It’s worth noting that people typically view Taylor’s life through the prism of her eight marriages. But we’ll go deeper and discover the story behind the story.
A note before we begin: this summary mentions medical procedures, suicide, and drug use. Please take care while listening.
As Taylor was fond of saying, “Let’s kick on.”
Early Life and Rise to Fame
Born in England in 1932, Elizabeth Taylor’s training began early, at the famed Vacani School of Dance in London. At three and a half years old, she performed in a benefit event attended by British royalty. The naturally shy girl blossomed on stage, sparkling under the lights. The Taylors, an American family, had only just begun their journey when the Second World War forced them to flee England and move to Los Angeles. Sara Taylor, Elizabeth’s mother, was convinced that her child would become a performer – but she had no idea the girl would grow up to become one of the most famous actors of all time.
In Los Angeles, Sara became obsessed with her daughter’s success. She began tutoring her in etiquette and preparing her for auditions. Maternal persistence paid off when the young Taylor made her film debut in Universal’s There’s One Born Every Minute. Despite signing a seven-year contract, however, the ten-year-old failed to impress – and the studio dropped her.
The family moved to Beverly Hills, and Taylor, now the family’s sole breadwinner, was under pressure to win work. Sara eventually managed to score the child an audition. After impressing the studio in Lassie Come Home, Taylor finally secured a long-term MGM contract. Of course, her mother took 10 percent of her pay – probably considering it recompense for fiercely protecting and advocating for her daughter.
Taylor’s road to stardom was challenging. She went to school on the studio lot, but as an MGM treasure, she was isolated and controlled, resulting in a lifelong tendency to daydream. Throughout this difficult time, the entertainer’s love for animals was a continual source of consolation for her. She formed a special bond with dogs and horses, providing her peace and an escape.
The young actor also found solace in bonding with her co-stars, many of whom were several years older than she was. Some, like Roddy McDowall, would become her friends for life. Taylor grew up surrounded by gay actors, and became a haven for them – nonjudgmental, empathetic, and sincere, long before much of Western civilization caught up. Her constant and profound affection for the gay community shaped her nearly limitless empathy for her loved ones. And her need to love and be loved influenced many of her career decisions – as we will see next.
Career Highlights 1940s–1960s
Elizabeth Taylor’s acting career demonstrated her talent and versatility. She appeared in numerous critically acclaimed films, attracting audiences worldwide. In the 1940s, when she was only eleven years old, she starred in Jane Eyre with legends Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Then she appeared in The White Cliffs of Dover (1944) alongside her friend Roddy McDowall.
Taylor went from being a child star to a serious actor with her next role, 1944’s National Velvet. As a reward for this box-office hit, the studio gave her a horse named King Charles. The young woman, yearning for freedom, rode King Charles as much as she could, much to the dismay of her studio handlers. Unfortunately, she fell off the giant steed and injured her back. A large cash bonus did nothing to soothe her physical pain – but, knowing how ruthless her industry was, she kept her discomfort a secret.
It was not long before Taylor felt restricted in roles that did not allow her to express herself fully. The release of Giant in 1956 sparked her desire for more challenging parts. Despite her love of fashion and jewelry, she brought her role in Giant to life, graying her hair and portraying a sensitive yet unyielding older woman. Variety magazine praised Taylor’s performance, lauding her emotional range.
Three years later, in 1959, Taylor was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Maggie the Cat in the film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Despite her nomination, she believed she would not win due to her reputation as a “bad girl” – she was already on her fourth marriage, having been divorced twice and widowed once. She did not win, but critics could not deny her talent.
Taylor was keen to push boundaries, and was successful in doing so, winning a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her work in the Southern Gothic mystery Suddenly Last Summer (1959). She received her first Academy Award for her next major film, BUtterfield 8. It was a bittersweet occasion because, worried about the public’s perception of her, she hadn’t wanted to play the role of a party girl. BUtterfield 8 was her final contractual obligation to MGM. But what came next would blow everybody away.
Taylor’s performance in Cleopatra (1963) catapulted her to superstardom. The most expensive production of its time, the film cemented her reputation as a Hollywood icon. From the start, filming was riddled with complications, ranging from rampant overspending and delays to Taylor’s serious health troubles. However, despite the unfavorable press surrounding her romance with costar Richard Burton, Taylor’s presence created a palpable sense of anticipation and excitement. Now 30, she was one of the most famous women in the world, but was still struggling to make sense of it all.
Her next big film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), brought her a second Academy Award. Further notable films include The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). Taylor continued to captivate audiences, winning awards and accolades for her performances. And all the while, she was dealing with an avalanche of private issues, as we will see shortly.
Personal Health Struggles
Taylor suffered from a range of health issues. She was born with scoliosis and experienced excruciating back pain from an early age. Unfortunately, her impairment was aggravated by her childhood horse-riding injury. Taylor’s bouts of ill health became so frequent that friends claimed she exploited them. The actor George Hamilton, who dated her, noted that she was skilled at gaining attention through theatrical performance and self-inflicted traumas. Taylor herself admitted that her mental state had always been linked to her physical health. But despite her fear of pain, she declared she wanted at least six children. She had two with her second husband, Michael Wilding – Michael Jr. in 1953 and Christopher in 1955. Then, on August 6, 1957, she gave birth to her third child, Liza Todd, via Cesarean section. Unfortunately, the pregnancy’s health risks led doctors to perform a tubal ligation. But the ordeal did not end there. In the summer of 1968, Taylor entered hospital for treatment to relieve her chronic back pain, and a hysterectomy became necessary. And there was more trouble to come.
In the mid-1950s, during a photo shoot for the movie Elephant Walk, Taylor got a bit of rusty debris stuck in her eye. She had to have surgery and took a few weeks to recover. Then, when baby Michael accidentally hit her in the same eye, it made matters worse, and a second operation was required. During this time, Taylor considered quitting acting altogether.
In the mid-1970s, while married to her seventh husband, Senator John Warner, Taylor suffered an injury while horse-riding that forced her to give up that beloved pastime.
She also struggled with pill and alcohol addiction for years, partly due to her constant pain. She sought help from the Betty Ford Center twice. Along with her multiple surgeries and illnesses – including surgery for a benign brain tumor in 1983 – she allegedly attempted suicide. The anxious star used sleeping pills every night. She never really beat her opioid addiction, thanks to personal doctors who could not say no.
Elizabeth Taylor was seldom alone, but often felt that way, much like her contemporary Marilyn Monroe. Her much-publicized marriages, affairs, and substance abuse masked familiar celebrity issues. The media’s negative portrayal was as relentless as the public’s appetite for her. Regardless, Taylor retained her spirit. She used her pain to better understand the suffering of others.
Style and Beauty Icon
Taylor’s bold personal style and stunning beauty made her a timeless glamor icon. From popularizing the cat-eye look to her striking fashion choices, she reveled in her favorite role: Hollywood royalty. So where did the actor’s infamous love of jewelry begin?
At age 12, Taylor purchased a colored-stone brooch as a Mother’s Day gift. It’s possible that each piece she acquired in adulthood reminded her of something she could never regain: her lost youth. Her love of decoration persisted, but it reached new heights during her most famous love affair. Her fifth (and sixth) husband, Richard Burton, enjoyed buying her gifts almost as much as she loved receiving them.
During their marriage, Burton bought the enormous pearl La Peregrina, a sixteenth-century Spanish crown jewel, for Taylor as a Valentine’s Day gift. Once owned by Napoleon III, the pear-shaped piece dropped from around her neck shortly after she received it. After a frantic search, Taylor eventually found the $290,000 pearl in the mouth of one of her Pekingese pups.
Burton also bought her the 33-carat Krupp diamond. Later renamed the Elizabeth Taylor diamond, it never failed to make an impact. The couple also purchased a massive 69-carat Cartier diamond. Their spending reflected their relationship: wild and frequently out of control. Clearly, the only people who could ever upstage the Burtons were the Burtons.
During the heady days of Studio 54 in the 1970s, Taylor enjoyed showcasing her collection. She toned down the glitz, however, during her time as a Washington wife. She became a jewelry expert, with a fine jewelry line, House of Taylor. She collaborated with her manager and friend Jason Winters to design signature pieces that combined her passion and impeccable taste. While extravagant, Taylor was always a sharp businesswoman, and was among the first to capitalize on her celebrity status with a perfume line – a product that would ground an empire.
Her wardrobe ranged from Christian Dior and Chanel to Balenciaga, but Taylor was never one to follow the latest trends, preferring to carve her own path. Unlike stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Taylor refused help from stylists. Her wardrobe choices sometimes drew criticism, but she dressed the way she did everything else: her way. This earned her the Fashion Designers of America’s prestigious Lifetime Glamour Award in 1998 – quite literally a fitting tribute. Taylor’s devotion to opulence raised her to the rank of a true glamor icon. She refused to be buried with any prized possessions, however. She saw herself as the temporary guardian of her collection. After her death, the auctioning of her jewelry collection raised $144 million for charity.
Legacy and Philanthropy
Yes, Elizabeth Taylor was a legendary actress, but she was also a trailblazing activist and philanthropist. As a rising Hollywood star, she realized her popularity equaled power. Later, she decided to use her influence to promote social change. Here’s an example.
In the 1980s, Taylor was one of the few public figures to speak out about the AIDS epidemic affecting many of her friends and loved ones. At a time when the disease was still shrouded in fear and misinformation, she was a vocal advocate for research and treatment, lobbying President Ronald Reagan to take action and raise awareness about the disease. She also helped educate on HIV/AIDS prevention and push for LGBTQ+ rights.
Although the entertainment industry was seriously affected by AIDS, these were taboo subjects. Gay performers still feared tabloid exposure, which could ruin their careers. Taylor was appalled by the inaction. She had seen many close friends suffer homophobia. Now they were facing much worse. As such, it was Taylor who helped organize the first major celebrity fundraiser for AIDS. Every aspect of it. Raising $1.3 million, it would be the first of many.
Taylor’s work was not limited to public speaking and lobbying. She became an active supporter of various AIDS organizations working toward finding a cure. In addition, she remained a champion of gay rights, bolstering the LGBTQ community when it was unpopular to do so. By the 1990s, Taylor had prioritized activism over acting and her perfume empire. Because of her charity work, she became something of a secular saint. She nursed her friend, Rock Hudson, through his last days of the disease, and was a founding member of the AIDS Research Foundation, serving as its chair.
On October 6, 1991, Elizabeth Taylor wed Larry Fortensky. Shrugging off criticism with her characteristic poise, the eight-time bride sold the wedding photos to People magazine for one million dollars – a sizable sum ideal for establishing the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF).
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was more than a famous actress. Behind her star-studded life and illustrious career, she was a passionate advocate for equality. She embraced sexual autonomy before women were encouraged to do so, and many of her colleagues left firsthand accounts of her unwavering support and selflessness. Taylor’s compassionate spirit left an indelible impression on everyone she met.
From her early civil rights advocacy to her efforts to raise funds for AIDS research, her work and voice transcended class and cultural boundaries, exemplifying genuine compassion on a global scale. Her legacy exemplifies what it means to make the most of one’s privilege.
Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit and Glamour of an Icon is a biography of Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most famous and iconic actresses of the 20th century. The book is written by Kate Andersen Brower, a journalist and author. Brower draws on extensive research, including interviews with Taylor’s friends, family, and colleagues, to paint a vivid portrait of Taylor’s life and career.
The book is divided into three parts:
- Part One: The Early Years discusses Taylor’s childhood and her rise to fame. Taylor was born into a wealthy family in London, and she began acting at a young age. She quickly became one of the most popular child stars in Hollywood, and she went on to star in some of the most iconic films of the 1950s, such as National Velvet and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
- Part Two: The Golden Years discusses Taylor’s peak years as an actress. Taylor won two Academy Awards for her performances in Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. She was also one of the most popular and glamorous stars of her time, and she was known for her lavish lifestyle and her eight marriages.
- Part Three: The Later Years discusses Taylor’s struggles with addiction and her declining health. Taylor was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, and she died in 2011 at the age of 79.
Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit and Glamour of an Icon is a well-written and informative book that provides a comprehensive overview of Taylor’s life and career. The book is not easy to read, but it is worth the effort if you are interested in learning more about one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the book:
- Taylor was a complex and contradictory figure. She was both glamorous and vulnerable, talented and troubled.
- Taylor was a survivor. She overcame a difficult childhood, numerous personal tragedies, and a serious illness.
- Taylor was a force for good in the world. She used her fame and fortune to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and other important causes.
One potential limitation of the book is its focus primarily on Taylor’s public life, with relatively less emphasis on her inner thoughts and emotions. While Brower provides glimpses into Taylor’s personal struggles, readers looking for a more intimate exploration of her psyche may find this aspect somewhat lacking.
In conclusion, “Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit and Glamour of an Icon” is a well-researched and engaging biography that offers a comprehensive view of Elizabeth Taylor’s life and legacy. Kate Andersen Brower’s meticulous attention to detail and ability to capture the essence of Taylor’s persona make this book a must-read for fans of the iconic actress. By exploring Taylor’s professional accomplishments, personal challenges, and philanthropic endeavors, Brower provides readers with a nuanced and captivating account of a true Hollywood legend.
I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a well-researched and engaging biography of Elizabeth Taylor. The book provides a comprehensive and engaging account of Taylor’s life and career, making it a valuable resource for anyone interested in Hollywood history, pop culture, and the lives of iconic figures.
Here are some additional thoughts on the book:
- I appreciate that Brower does not shy away from the darker aspects of Taylor’s life. She discusses Taylor’s struggles with addiction, her eight marriages, and her diagnosis with HIV.
- I also appreciate that Brower does not try to make Taylor into a saint. She acknowledges that Taylor made mistakes, but she also celebrates her strengths and her accomplishments.
- Overall, I thought Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit and Glamour of an Icon was an excellent book. It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in learning more about one of the most fascinating and iconic figures of the 20th century.