I have taken very little notice of Elizabeth Taylor during
her lifetime and have seen, from memory, just one of her 50-odd films (National
Velvet, the one that launched her movie career) but it seems obligatory on a
family blog to say something about, possibly, the most married film star ever. Dame
Elizabeth died on March 23rd of congestive heart failure at the age of 79.

It is tempting to view her marital career as a farce — “Eight
weddings, seven husbands (she married Richard Burton twice) and two funerals (she was widowed once)” — but
unfortunately it was all too real. Liz herself (according to the epitaph she
devised for herself, “She hated being called Liz.”) tried to inject a little
virtue into it by explaining that she just couldn’t bring herself to have
“affairs”. If she was romantically involved with someone it had to “lead to the
altar”, she once said.

The “altar”? More likely the registry office. And it took
her a while to arrive there at times — about three years in the case of the already
married Richard Burton. The scandal of that affair drew a denunciation from the
Vatican.

One biographer reckons that Taylor and Burton “made married
love sexy, and created the prototypes for future tabloid celebrities”, to quote
a
Telegraph journalist
. The truth is that the couple showed how sexiness and
general intemperance unmade marriages — including their own. It is said that their
roles as a bitter, verbally abusive couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, were
painfully true to life.

In her favour, Elizabeth was the mother of three birth
children — two sons by her second husband Michael Wilding and a daughter by
Mike Todd — as well as a handicapped German girl whom she adopted with Richard
Burton. (Must find out more about that.) Those children gave her 10
grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. That is quite a good record for
Hollywood, I guess. Her son Michael Wilding has called her “an extraordinary
woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humour and love.” All
her children were with her at the end.

The superstar also deserves credit for her Aids charity work
and for loyalty to fellow celebrities who fell on hard times — notably Rock
Hudson, when he was dying of Aids, and Michael Jackson during his trial for
sexual abuse of children. Whatever one thinks of her friends, it shows some
character that she stood by them.

She was, of course, a very beautiful young woman, although
that was not her work.

Hollywood exacts a heavy price for the celebrity it confers
on film stars, and Elizabeth was a trail-blazer in that respect. The daughter
of an art dealer and an actress, she made her stage debut at the age of three,
dancing in a recital before members of the British Royal family in London (she
was born there, and Britain gave her a title in 1999). Encouraged, if not
pushed by her parents, she made her film debut at the age of 10 and lived in
the overheated atmosphere of Hollywood ever after.

A Telegraph
article
describes the mounting toll:

In later life she moved into television and cameo roles,
barely needing to act. Her mere presence at a party or at one of her multiple
weddings was sufficient to command attention. She was renowned for gaining
weight, for losing it, for alcoholism, drug dependency, detoxification and —
throughout her life — for a succession of often life-threatening ailments.
Ulcers, amoebic dysentery, bursitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, brain tumours — she
had them all. And survived, every time — until now. She underwent more than 30
operations, once after nearly choking on a chicken bone.

She married her eighth husband in 1991 while in rehab for
alcoholism.

Beauty fades, and sexiness. Mediocre acting talent is no
longer overlooked and the world begins to snigger as an ageing star agrees to
keep living in the limelight. If only it had withheld its applause much earlier,
when she failed so patently in the most important role of all, that of a
married woman, it would have helped her. Perhaps it was all a desperate bid for true love, but a much less married, less sexy Elizabeth
Taylor would be so much easier to admire.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet