Here is a reminiscence I wrote down after the event:
Burton's name always sounded like a frog to me, a kind of gruff dismissal. But people drew out Taylor's name -- Taaaylor -- as if in awe of those lavender eyes so steady you wondered if you'd fear them. The difference between Elizabeth being coyly happy to see you and Elizabeth releasing you forever was, it seemed, all in a small turn at the very corner of her mouth.
Amazingly, one day we found ourselves at her house.
You get there through a couple of white swinging gates in Bel Air. The place is smaller than you'd expect, actually, a one-story brick affair with a lot of glass, probably built in the thirties. There is an ancient pool in the back. A snorkel lay nearby, but it looked as if it hadn't been used in years. Rather than the flamboyant decorations you might anticipate, you find a place more reserved, even comfortable. There are a couple of rock crystal collections on glass tables. Her Oscars. Pictures of her with presidents. Citations for public service. On a living room wall, in checkerboard fashion, are paintings by Monet, Pissarro, Utrillo, Modigliani and Cassatt. There are very few pictures of Elizabeth, it turns out. A painting. A big copy of the Warhol serigraph -- 6 by 6 feet. Walk out the back, and you find a spectacular English garden -- not large, but airy and smoky and spraying color in the California air. Irises, rhododendrons, a wall of foxglove. Potato vine. Jasmine.
Elizabeth is running behind, say the fellows who take care of her. The head of them is a wide-eyed, chubby black guy named Jason. "It will be at least an hour," he says. "Her hairdresser isn't even here yet." The hairdresser comes over every afternoon. Elizabeth never goes out without her hair done. We walk the property, petting cats and filling the air with cellphone calls.
When she finally comes out, she staggers along on the arm of Jason. Walking is difficult. She's wearing a big, patterned caftan and, for some reason, is holding a tiny purse in her own house. Suddenly, the caftan catches on a piece of furniture, slowing her down, and we hear the first words from the mouth of the two-time Oscar winner. "Jesus Christ!" she spits, but regains her balance, smiles and continues forward.
Someone says, "Elizabeth, this is Jeff Goodby, the head of our agency." She reaches out her hand and looks at me with the darkest eyes. They are, indeed, purple. Not blue. Purple. "Wow. What a pleasure," I say, like a schoolboy. Although she no doubt hears things like this all the time, Elizabeth still seems to like it.
She sits down on the couch and, as Ron Rolleston of Elizabeth Arden suggested ahead of time, he and I flank her, surrounding her so that the things we show won't be seen by her voluble handlers. Up close, her skin shows her age. Contrary to what you might imagine, it doesn't look as if she's had much work done. The vanity is there, though -- they show us her latest Herb Ritts portraits, all heavily retouched ("She doesn't look like that," says one of the Arden people).
Liz roars and swells dramatically, larger than life. All eyes are on her, and the entire room revolves around what she might do next. She tests the waters of her persona, seeing just how much we're buying it. We try to show her we're truly onboard, smiling uneasily.
"Where do we start?" she says. I tell her a bit about the agency. "I've got a tape here to play for you," I say, "a tape of our commercials. But I've got to tell you, with your Oscars up there and all, it's making me kind of nervous."
She reaches her hand over and touches my leg. Not just at the knee, but rather high up. "I don't mean to make you nervous," she says lecherously, then bursts into gales of laughter. All follow. I suspect I was many shades of red.
After one commercial, she proclaims she knows the work and loves it. I give her the tape. "I'll play it at dinner parties," she says, with a hint of mockery.
It turns out she actually has quite good judgment when it comes to makeup and perfume (of course). She agrees with the suggestion that she shouldn't be in the advertising; she corrects our scent name, "Forever, Elizabeth," to be merely "Forever"; and she tells everyone, rightly, to lighten the red in the package. Dramatically, she pulls a lipstick tube from her purse and draws it across the hand of one of the Arden women. "That color," she says with a flourish.
She is wearing a frumpy print dress, with wide, gold-plated Cleopatra sort of necklace and earrings. On her hand is a massive diamond. "This one is 33 carats," she says, "but I had a 69-carat once. You had to wear it as a necklace, it was so big. Burton got it for me through Sotheby's. We were in a London pub, and his man told him he hadn't won the auction for the diamond. He was beside himself. 'That diamond is yours,' he said to me. 'It belongs to you.'" Decades later, Elizabeth still seemed genuinely impressed with this. "So he called Sotheby's, found out who bought it, and he just bought it from them."
A few days later, she says, when the thing was supposed to have been delivered, Taylor and Burton were on a yacht in the harbor at Monte Carlo. Four speedboats came out of the distance, one from each direction. Off each boat walked an identically dressed man, each with 12 jewelry cases. The diamond was in one of the 48, but the messengers had no idea which one.
Elizabeth is a terrific raconteur, truly holding the room with a little girl's delight. The other long story she tells involves getting divorced from Virginia Sen. John Warner, then "hitting the bottle, drying out and deciding to do a Broadway play as therapy."
"Richard told me I could never do it," she says, "that my voice was too small. So I learned to push it down and out to the back of the house. It was 'Little Foxes,' and I had to push it down and out. From deep in my diaphragm. On opening night, we waited at Sardi's for the reviews to come in. Finally, they came, and the Times said, 'Elizabeth Taylor is the toast of Broadway.' I stood up and danced on the tables. I was the toast of Broadway."
She takes me, alone, on a walk in the garden. Jesus, I don't know why. We go down a long path to a clearing where a metal table and chairs stand, rusting in the dampness.
"We would have dinner here, Richard and I," she says. "We would stay down here for hours." Back up in the yard, I stand in the grass, towering over her little self. "I have to tell you, Elizabeth," I find myself saying. "You look great. You are very beautiful."
She laughs in my face. "Jeff !" she whoops. "DO YOU KNOW WHAT MY BODY USED TO LOOK LIKE?!!!"
It is time to leave. "Will we go shopping?" Elizabeth hoots to her handlers. "Are we shopping today?"
"We could shop, yes," says one of the house guys.
On the way out, he tells me, "Shopping means staying here and having stores bring over a selection of stuff. She's Elizabeth Taylor. She can't go out."
She's Elizabeth Taylor. And she can't go out.
As our cars pull out, Elizabeth actually comes to the door and waves. It's like "Giant."
There's a postscript to all this
Elizabeth eventually did shoot a commercial with us, on the Universal back lot. She insisted that Herb Ritts direct, and had several fussy requests about food and transportation. Our head of broadcast production, Cindy Fluitt, told me that, before the camera rolled on the first take, Elizabeth looked tiny and frail.
"She scowled as Herb Ritts told her about the scene," Cindy said. "When he finished, she said skeptically, 'So you want me to stroll toward the camera?' Herb confirmed and quietly said, 'Action.' After a long moment, Elizabeth softened her face, straightened her backbone and shed 20 years. Her eyes glistened. She transformed like one of those time-lapse shots of a flower blossoming, looking like she could not only walk, but maybe even run. She practically floated toward the camera.
Everyone was breathless. And with a wicked laugh, she cackled: "Herb, I hope you got that!"
Indeed, we did.