elizabeth taylor has not yet died

(30 march 2009, 1 july 2010)

but, because elizabeth arden has started
exploring bereavement ad prices,
i think we are at liberty to reflect

Much as Dionne Warwick is famous for her psychic friends rather than her music career, so Elizabeth Taylor is remembered for everything but her acting. She may be best known for her perfume ads— the commercials that are pulled from the Elizabeth Arden vault like semi-precious brilliants to take their turn on TV every Christmas.  Suddenly, as dependable as Peanuts and eggnog, there she is, svelte and gorgeous, sporting that leonine hair all famous women seem to cultivate the minute they hit 52.

There is a jarring disconnect between the ageless Liz hawking sensual perfumes from a cabana overlooking the Aegean in footage that clearly hadn’t been reshot since 1989 and the elderly dame who had been wheeled out publicly every now and again since 2002.

Having first appeared in 1941, in an industry where many die young, Liz Taylor is one of those figures who seems to be stretched thin across far too many decades. Much like Churchill after WWII, she has outlived her use. We do not know what to do with her.

In their recently released Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, & the Marriage of the Century, biographers Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger attempt to figure that out. To find the proper box in which Liz Taylor will fit. And because there is nothing quite so convenient as the marriage box, they, like nearly all her biographers before them, examine her from that context rather than the context of her work. Never mind that amid all the marriages, her career was the only constant.

The first Liz Taylor movie I ever saw was Raintree County, which is essentially a Gone With the Wind knock-off wherein our southern belle imagines she is the love child of a slave and consequently torches Tara.

It’s a stirring mess to behold on its own, never mind the underlying real-life drama of Liz Taylor acting alongside Montgomery Clift, who was quite possibly the love of her life and was gay and would never love her as she needed to be loved and had just survived a horrifying, disfiguring automobile accident in the aftermath of which she knelt by his side in the road and held a severed chunk of his face onto his head.

When I first saw Raintree County, I knew none of this. I was twelve and back then it was all about the pretty lady in the pretty dresses. I didn’t know that the pretty lady in pretty dresses was one tough dame.

We overlook the fact that she has always worked, whether she had a husband or not. Her reasons may not have been noble—usually, just like us, she needed the cash. But even after Mike Todd died, there she was, back on the Cat On A Hot Tin Roof set. Back in front of the camera. Back to work.

Which is pretty admirable for someone primarily known for her breasts.

Liz Taylor is very much an acquired taste, like brandy or sushi or madras pants. She is scary. She is shrill. Whether she is young Liz, old Liz, thin Liz, fat Liz, hippie Liz, or ’80s Liz, she can be hard to watch. Still, when she’s onscreen, it’s hard to see anyone else.

I didn’t begin to appreciate Liz Taylor until I was in my mid-twenties. Hell, I would argue the world isn’t really old enough to fully appreciate her now. Her filmography is comme ci, comme ca— a grab-bag of minor frights studded with a handful of priceless gems. But those gems. Lord, do they sparkle.

The problem with Liz Taylor is that it’s always been assumed that she delivered more memorable performances in life than on film. That she was, in fact, not working but simply being Liz.

The most devastating aspect of her devastating performance in the devastating Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is that it plays as a Burton family home movie. We’re pretty sure she’s not acting. She couldn’t possibly be that good.

I’m pretty sure she was acting. I’m pretty sure she was that good. And the fact that we still overlook that is devastating.

female troubles

(8 may 2006)

biography is the national enquirer of literature. when done badly, it’s artificially revealing; when done well, it’s intrusive. the lynchpin of the genre is that each work is just as much about the biographer as the subject- if not more so. because there are always gaps and the author fills them.

this becomes particularly problematic in biographies of women. i recently read the sisters: the saga of the mitford family, then went on to reread one of the misses mitford’s madam de pompador and was struck by a line that took it for granted that madam de pomp’s happiness stemmed from her total deferment to the king and his wishes. nancy mitford surmised that this was “as it is in any happy union”- a statement that makes perfect sense when aligned with nancy’s own deferment to gaston palewsi, with whom she was madly in love and whose great love she was not.

this set me off on an email tangent with a friend about whether, as a woman, happiness is really based on complete sublimation of oneself, which naturally led to a favorite dead horse of mine- how difficult it is to approach a famous/historical female figure outside the convenient context of husbands.

believe me. i’ve tried. it’s tough.

so much of a woman’s public identity is based on the man she’s with or the drama that stems from that, a disconnect that is evident at the most superficial level of biography. check out titles the next time you’re at powell’s. for the men- a twilight struggle: the life of john f. kennedy; winchell: gossip, power, and the culture of celebrity; long live the king: a biography of clark gable; the survivor: bill clinton in the white house; the last czar: the life and death of nicholas II; andy warhol: the life of an artist; capote: a biography.

and now for the ladies- mistress to an age: a life of madame de stael; vera: mrs. vladimir nabokov; the silent woman: sylvia plath and ted hughes; the most beautiful woman in the world: the obsessions, passions, and courage of elizabeth taylor; the truth about hillary: what she knew, when she knew it, and how far she’ll go to become president; and two of my personal favorites- painted shadow: the life of vivienne eliot, first wife of t.s. eliot, and the long supressed truth about her influence on his genius, and jacqueline kennedy: the warmly human life story of the woman all americans have taken to their hearts, including the latest events in the life of this magnificent woman.

titles devoted to male subjects are largely defined by chilly detachment, while those pertaining to women are overheated and clunky. it’s indicative of a difference in the way books about men are marketed and sold versus those about women. incidentally- five of the seven books listed in the paragraph above were penned by men, so this isn’t a simple matter of feminine effusiveness.

currently, the starting point with any female biographical subject is as wife or lover. madam de stael is considered a key figure in the development of the novel and one of the leading french philosophes. her work is set on par with that of rousseau and voltaire. yes, she was sexually liberated, but the title mistress to an age suggests she methodically bedded the emperor’s entire army, an exaggeration that undercuts the significance of her work.

at both the historic and iconic levels, jackie onassis’ was arguably the most significant female life of the past century. and yet, how lazily biographers have wrestled with her. again, titles say it all: mrs. kennedy: the missing history of the white house; jack & jackie; jackie after jack; just jackie; jackie; jacqueline bouvier; a tour of the white house with mrs. john f. kennedy; jacqueline kennedy onassis; jackie and ari; the onassis women; and the ever-popular, jacqueline bouvier kennedy onassis (for apparent lack of anything more descriptive, it has been deployed on three separate occasions).

in biographies, JFK is summarized by his war experiences, one night stands, politics, or unfulfilled possibility. jackie is reduced to fashion, decorating and husbands. what are the odds that if JFK had outlived jackie, there would have been a book entitled jack after jackie? i’m thinking slim to none.

an argument grounded in book titles may seem superficial. particularly titles regarding jackie onassis, who has become more of a visual image than an idea or an actual person who once lived. but it says something about the genre and the culture that one of our greatest icons is almost exclusively approached through her names, one of which, ironically, is a feminized derivative.

admittedly, in the case of most of the women discussed here (plath, jackie, vera, hillary), marriage was their conduit to fame. but it isn’t hard to imagine that hillary would have eventually become hillary with or without bill’s help. that plath would have found her poetic voice with or without ted hughes.

jackie’s is a different, more nuanced story. i think she would have married someone who wasn’t JFK and perhaps not have been tremendously happy. but outside the apex of east coast society, she might have also had the freedom to write and paint and sculpt as she wanted, instead of simply being friends with those who did. the jackie i just described- the witty writer whose friends warned that she would be diminished by JFK; the frustrated artist who told photographer peter beard that she wished she could do what he did but she didn’t have the guts- only surfaces in two biographies. and it is a fleeting appearance at that. though the jackie icon is a veritable mine of possibilities, the biographical subject has been cruelly fenced in by wifely nomenclature.

my beloved wayne koestenbaum wrote, “‘mrs.’ seemed in jackie’s case, always to be concealing half-truth.” this then is the fundamental “female” trouble of biography. society/media/biographers/readers (us) are so hung up on the “mrs”- metaphorical or otherwise- that all the fascinating, characterizing concealed truths are flattened. thus, within the written record, our women truly are little more than beautiful, silent shadows. and that’s not nearly enough.

the teddy

(30 april 2006)

teddy kennedy was on the daily show last week. wearing an incongruous bright gold godfatheresque chain bracelet no less, which led me to realize it’s time we reconsider teddy.

not the stern, bloated teddy of today, but teddy circa 1945-1981. the charismatic, charming, carefree but troubled teddy. the teddy who knew how to party and cheated on his harvard exam. the teddy who was HOT.

in contemplating this teddy, we will obviously be glossing over the teddy who drank entirely too much, cheated on his wife, gained weight and contributed in some inscrutable way to the death of mary jo kopechne.

it is teddy, i think, who is the greatest of the family’s tragedies. a fact which, after looking at him for so long, people tend to forget. he’s always out there- all white-haired, red-faced and resolute. his simple survival has led him to be overlooked.

it’s easy to forget that he was a bad student who cheated on an exam so he wouldn’t be branded a disappointment. that he married a beautiful woman whom he couldn’t love enough and who loved alcohol more. that he was swept into politics by an overbearing father. that, at the age of 32, he nearly died in the plane crash that broke his back and killed his friend. that he inherited the thirteen children of his two brothers, whose legacy he could never live up to.

everybody has a teddy. that person who can be so charming and charismatic and has the potential to do so much, and yet either lacks the fiber to fulfill it or is crippled by a fear of real, grown-up life and escapes into a series of personal disasters, ie. chappaquiddick, that sex-on-a-boat business, bar hopping with willie smith. (the polar opposite would be the joan- the insecure, overly sensitive person who becomes haplessly tangled with the charismatic charmer and can’t fight his/her way out of the emotional fray without falling into a similar but opposed series of personal disasters.)

teddys are good people, but they’re heartbreaking to watch. instead of taking calculated risks, they haplessly wander into risky situations and then respond with the improvisations of befuddlement. michael kennedy was a teddy. a non-teddy would realize that neither sexual involvement with a baby-sitter nor football on skis in a blizzard is a particularly good idea. but while a non-teddy sees the potential end of a risk and either accepts or declines it based on that end, a teddy blindly falls into risky situations- not for the thrill that results, but because it’s where they’ve wound up. they take the risk because it’s there. they’re go-with-the-flow people who don’t make plans.

this makes the comparative success and longevity of teddy kennedy all the more admirable. after RFK’s death, he told a friend, “i can’t let go. if i let go, ethel will let go, my mother will let go, and all my sisters.” one of JFK’s mistresses said, “the old man would push joe, joe would push jack, jack would push bobby, bobby would push teddy, and teddy would fall on his ass.” though he’s fallen on his ass time and time again, teddy has been very un-teddy. he has not let go. he gave his neice away at her wedding the same day doctors amputated his eldest son’s leg.

it’s hard to imagine america without teddy kennedy.  i like to think he’ll gradually fade away like 104-year-old rose. and the family will throw grand picnics for all of his birthdays, and put him up in a posh suite in the compound where he can perpetually screen home movies from the good old days. he’s been holding tight for so long. i hope at some point he gets to let go. to just be teddy.