It was Max Lerner, the political columnist who looked like Albert Einstein and caroused in Hollywood like Hugh Hefner, who once wrote an article calling Elizabeth Taylor a legend and Marilyn Monroe a myth. That legend thing Taylor projects — the ability, still, to command attention even though she’s now a lacquered, hypochondriacal 63-year-old grandma corseted into the kind of sequined shmattes Fran Drescher’s on-screen mother might covet — is evidently the reason there’s room on the shelf for Liz. C. David Heymann’s biography arrives hard on the heels of Donald Spoto’s analysis-prone Taylor study, A Passion for Life; and the question you’re probably asking is, Do I really need one more accounting of the star’s illnesses, addictions, lovers, and husbands, not to mention problems with excessive body hair? The answer is, you need Heymann’s bio (billed in the subtitle as ”intimate,” which explains the stuff about the body hair), if only to understand what Hollywood stardom used to be, what it is now, and how journalism like Heymann’s reflects everything that has coarsened, in celebrity and in journalism, in our time.
The author’s talent is to get other people to gossip while he maintains a neutral, professional face. And it is indeed a talent, tirelessly pursuing people who have known the subject, or who knew someone who knew the subject, in the hope of getting some of them to supply something thrilling. ”Perhaps because she was small in stature,” says Miguel Ferreras, a fashion designer who created a maternity wardrobe for Taylor when she was pregnant with daughter Liza, ”Liz gave the impression of spilling over: she had gargantuan breasts, a mammoth ass, and lumpy, shapeless legs.”
”I had heard Elizabeth’s father was homosexual,” says Ashton Greathouse, identified as ”a pal” of Montgomery Clift’s, ”which may explain her attraction to and interest in gay men — Monty, Rock Hudson, James Dean, and others. Her father’s sexual bent may also shed light on her overriding concern for the present-day AIDS movement, her great desire to raise funds for the cause and help those afflicted with the disease.”
Did Heymann say these things? Oh, no, he’s just dutifully reporting what others have told him. Do Ferreras and Greathouse have any axes to grind? Oh, well, that’s not Heymann’s concern. (The author also reports allegations that first husband Nicky Hilton beat her, and that third husband Mike Todd once knocked Taylor unconscious — among other claims she’s threatening to answer with a lawsuit.)
It is arguably instructive to learn that, while studio flacks claimed Taylor was hospitalized with food poisoning in 1962 (at the height of her affair with Richard Burton while she was married to Eddie Fisher), she was, according to Heymann’s account, having her stomach pumped following a suicide attempt. Flacks are paid to lie in the service of image, and in more innocent times, when movie studios really owned and shaped their actors, those lies were more easily digested by a much less skeptical public. Elizabeth Taylor was created in an era when glamorous excess really meant something, and she has lived her histrionic, tempestuous, overindulged, extraordinary life accordingly. She enthralls us because, beneath the garish purple eye shadow and the giant jewelry, we can see a remnant of the old Hollywood fantasy that, thanks to dispassionately nosy books like Liz, has been shot to hell. Today, any one-trick, three-movie-deal, twentysomething actor can throw together a million bucks and a dirty addiction to something or other. Are we any better off, or even wiser about the true toll stardom exacts, for knowing the sordid details? Liz demonstrates that we are not, and that all the dished dirt in the world does not describe a life. C-