‘Elizabeth Taylor: A Passion for Life’ by Joseph Papa

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Big Daddy Pollitt says, “I’ve got the guts to die. What I want to know is, have you got the guts to live?” Elizabeth Taylor answers yes, again and again. Author Joseph Papa captures her fierce life force in Elizabeth Taylor, A Passion for Life, The Wit and Wisdom of a Legend.

Her answer to a film character aligns tightly with her personal life. For all her celebrity status — she created paparazzi riots and then became famous for being famous — Taylor was a fiercely private person. Her family held a private memorial when she died March 23 at the age of 79.

Papa is a publicist and writer living in New York City. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he is a former society page columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This is his first book. Not knowing the extent of Elizabeth Taylor’s career, Papa watched all of her movies chronologically. He read all of her interviews and then spent two years, seven months preparing his manuscript.

Even with more than 50 films, three Academy Awards, including a special one for her humanitarian work, Taylor’s defining role, and one that lasted long past her movie-making days, was simply being “Elizabeth Taylor”. She married and divorced, was in and out of hospitals with life threatening illnesses, she gained and lost weight, stood by Michael Jackson at his lowest hour, remained loyal to Rock Hudson when he revealed he had AIDS when HIV was still a stigma in Hollywood and beyond. She acquired a jewelry collection that seemed to rival Tiffany’s.

While a blinding star, she brought intense reactions from fellow actors. When Taylor won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Butterfield 8, most critics praised her performance, but many people believed it to be a sympathy win because of a recent brush with death. Fellow nominee (The Apartment) Shirley MacLaine joked: “I lost to a tracheotomy!”

Grouped by topic Taylor’s quotes plus short timeline pieces punctuate her life. Together with a filmography and bibliography Papa’s extensive research shores up readers with gaps in their knowledge and reminds readers who grew up with Taylor why they loved her. More than trivia, and most revealing, are the plausible insights gleaned from pouring over the assembled tidbits.

“My biggest shock was that her marriages started to make sense,” Papa said, referring to her seven infamous walks down the aisle – one husband she married and divorced twice (Richard Burton), one she stole from Debbie Reynolds (Eddie Fisher), and one died. One senses that Taylor didn’t like, or know how to, have an affair. Her quotes reveal a woman different on the inside than she was a master at portraying on the outside.

Yet her life ruled majestic over tabloid news for about 15 years, she and Burton predecessors to Brangelina and TomKat hysteria. Her whirlwind affair with Burton brought condemnation from the Vatican, and knowing what we know now about that hypocritical bastion of self-loathing sexuality it could have been a compliment. Parallel to today’s raging same-sex marriage debate, her words remain relevant: “Nobody tells me who to love, or not to love, who to be seen with and who not to be seen with.” Papa says “She married like an old fashioned girl and divorced like a feminist.”

Taylor’s fiddled with her public-private roller coaster as early as age 9 when she first began to see herself “as two separate people,” the person and the commodity. Her career began at age 4 when she performed with several other children in a benefit dance recital for the Duchess of York (wife of George VI and future queen mother), and her two daughters, the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. Future royalty curtseyed before the court.

“It was not a normal life, of course. The demands, particularly on the emotional level, were killing,” Taylor reflected. But she also thought a success as “a great deodorant. It takes away all your past smells.
The Wit and Wisdom of a Legend
By Joseph Papa
Harper Design
Hardcover, 9780062008398, 240pp.
April 2011