Welcome back to the Gossip Reading Club.
For the past four issues, I’ve focused mostly on celebrity stories of the ‘90s onward. This is mostly because those articles are easier to find online and don’t require subscriptions or massive amounts of transcribing. There’s a lot to be mined from modern history and believe me, there will be more in the future, but obviously, it’s only part of the story. So, today we’re going old school with one of the true icons of Hollywood, a woman who was oft-imitated but never bettered.
The eight marriages of Elizabeth Taylor are an indelible part of her public image, as iconic as her love of jewels, her violet eyes, and that moment in BUtterfield 8 where she scrawls “No sale” across the mirror in her lover’s home. Few stars encapsulate the sheer variety and freneticism of old-school celebrity like she did. Who else could make that much money, release a diet book, win two Oscars, fight for healthcare for AIDS sufferers, pioneer the celebrity perfume business, make astoundingly bonkers films like Boom!, AND romance Colin Farrell in her Winter years? We could probably compile an entire book’s worth of Gossip Reading Club entries on profiles of the star over seven decades (remember when she was interviewed by Kim Kardashian?!) Today, however, I thought we would start near the beginning, at a time when Taylor was a star but not the volcanic force she’d become. You couldn’t make someone like Liz Taylor, but MGM sure did try.
From an early age, Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was told she was made for the movies. After arriving in California as a child at the beginning of the Second World War, the pre-teen Liz was singled out as a startling beauty. Both Universal and MGM wanted her when she auditioned in 1941, but her mother chose to accept Universal's offer. That didn't work out, so she moved to MGM the following year. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the studio of stars, renowned for how it fostered its stable of stars and made them appealing to the public. The studio even billed itself during the Golden Age as having "more stars than there are in heaven."
It didn't take long for them to start remoulding Taylor. They made her wear braces to correct her teeth and even had two of her baby ones pulled out. Her mother rejected suggestions that Liz dye her hair and change her name to Virginia. Following the success of National Velvet, Taylor became MGM's latest bankable child star, following in the footsteps of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Things changed, however, as she entered adolescence. MGM chose to sell Taylor as a mature beauty with real acting chops. She could do it all, from playing Amy March in 1949's Little Women to the sultry bad girl in A Date with Judy to the comedy dame in The Big Hangover. Life Magazine called her "Hollywood's most accomplished junior actress," which was no mean feat given the presence of Garland, among others, on the MGM lot. The studio had a lot banking on Taylor, who was beautiful, talented, reliable, and profitable. They'd had a hand in every aspect of her life since she was a child.
It only made sense to Louis B. Mayer that they should play the puppet master to her own wedding.
In 1950, the 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor married Conrad "Nicky" Hilton Jr., a headlines-grabbing socialite and heir to the Hilton Hotels fortune. It was the kind of pairing that most publicists would kill for: the blossoming beauty of MGM meets the handsome young man from one of the most iconic American dynasties of the time. Coincidentally, that same year, MGM would release Father of the Bride, a comedy starring Taylor as the blushing young woman preparing for married life as her father, played by Spencer Tracy, works to let his little girl grow up. Two birds, one stone, right?
MGM made no secret of the fact that they had organized the entire Taylor-Hilton wedding. It seemed to be a major selling point. Helen Rose, head studio designer, made the wedding gown (they also made her wedding night lingerie, but that's not mentioned here.) All the MGM executives were there, as were the studio's biggest stars. They even arranged so that the actors who had previously played Liz's parents on-screen would be present. The studio "gave her away" in this aspect, a passing of the baton from Hollywood to the "real world."
Their active involvement in the planning is mentioned in the first paragraph of the Photoplay piece, written by gossip maven Louella Parsons. If you're following the wonderful new season of You Must Remember This, centred on Parsons and gossip rival Hedda Hopper, then you'll know all about how figures like Parsons worked. They cozied up to the studios, played the game, and created the illusion of behind-the-scenes salaciousness, even though the studios retained total control over the narrative. Parsons was seen as the kinder writer than the proudly crass Hopper, but she was no pushover. She liked that casual touch, punctuated by moments of near-saccharine sweetness. All the better to sell the Hollywood dream (she was also a moralizing a**hole who launched a press campaign against Ingrid Bergman for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy and bragged about the role she played in making The Birth of a Nation a hit.)
The Photoplay piece positions Parsons as the best person to report on the wedding because she "has known Liz most of her short, exciting life." Curiously, it was Hedda Hopper who probably had a better claim to that since she had supported Taylor's father in the opening of a Beverly Hills art gallery. Parsons isn't just selling a fairytale of Liz: She's selling a dream to readers, one where Taylor is their friend, a part of the family. That was a major selling point for a lot of these child stars. You grew up with them, you saw them go on dates and attend studio-monitored events and read the books about their pet chipmunk that they definitely wrote themselves (yes, this happened with Taylor.) The first image we see in the piece is of a young Taylor in Lassie Come Home, then in National Velvet. If Father of the Bride was a means for MGM to refashion Taylor into an all-grown-up adult star, a literal wedding was a mere extension of that brand strengthening.
Before we get to the rest of the piece, it's worth noting that, on the next page, we don't see more of Parsons's glowing PR or Taylor's wedding. Instead, we get a double-page spread on wedding gowns. Subtle marketing there, Photoplay!
Photoplay was one of the first American film fan magazines, founded in 1911 and read by millions during its peak. During the early days of film, the magazine was considered highly influential and is one of the first true markers of the birth of modern celebrity culture. They didn't just talk about the stars. They promoted them and had a symbiotic relationship with the studios that ensured a mutually beneficial agreement for decades. One of the big hooks of Photoplay was the illusion of the confessional. In their pages, they promised a chance for stars to talk directly to their fans, so you, the die-hard fan of Mary Pickford, could hear about her incredible life straight from the horse's mouth. These pieces weren't actually written by the stars. The studios wielded total control over the images they helped to create. But the fantasy they moulded endured and could help to alleviate issues of concern. As the Hays Code took effect and Hollywood clamped down on its supposed moral deviances, Photoplay could allow a sexy femme fatale or big-screen bad boy the chance to "admit" that all they wanted was marriage, kids, and the good life like any other American. Not every star was shielded in such a manner. Read all the reporting on Lana Turner’s colourful love life and it’s kind of startling how close they come to straight-up calling her a floozy. For someone like Liz Taylor, however, the stakes were too high to leave her without their stern protection.
The piece is as much about Taylor's maturation as her marriage. Parsons seems practically giddy over how Taylor "blossomed from little girlhood to an eighteen-year-old charmer", rhetoric that feels all too familiar to anyone who's ever seen a Daily Mail headline about an “all-grown-up” teenage girl. Yet Taylor seems so incredibly young in this piece, naive about matrimony and all it entails. She's more enthusiastic about the wedding part, which is positioned as its own production, another excuse for Taylor to glam up and play pretend. Universal's casting director infamously said that Taylor didn't "have the face of a child", and MGM certainly sold her as a more mature young woman than, say, Judy. Perhaps that's why the Photoplay piece is eager to push her as a fully formed adult in a way that no 18-year-old ever could be. Parsons may be working overtime to sell the story as one of Taylor calling the shots but it's hard for the modern reader, one who is aware of the tricks on display, to buy it when you know everything else going on around her.
Taylor asks Parsons if it was Hilton's father who spilled the beans to her about their engagement, to which Parsons responds, "He really didn't tell me. When I sort of guessed the right date, he just didn't deny it because he says he loves you and is happy you are to be his daughter-in-law." It’s a curious detail to keep into a profile like this, although the casual reader in 1950 probably didn’t know that this interview wasn’t exactly an exclusive. The chances are that MGM told Parsons, but they had to keep up the illusion of Liz having her own life free of studio machinations.
The reinforcement of Taylor as a woman with a sturdy future ahead of her obviously doesn’t line up with what happened in terms of her love life. Yet it didn’t line up with how it was at the time either. While he is not mentioned by name, Taylor's first fiancé, William Pawley Jr., son of US ambassador William D. Pawley, is alluded to when Taylor herself laments, "I just couldn't stand those 'Another engagement for Elizabeth Taylor' stories." Parsons even mentions that, as she started dating Hilton, Taylor “still had a date now and then with another beau.” As Alexander Walker, one of Taylor's biographers, put it, "Whether she liked it or not [...] marriage is the matrix of the myth that began surrounding Elizabeth Taylor from [when she was sixteen]" and MGM helped to craft that legacy. As many studios did, they set Taylor up on dates with people like football player Glenn Davis. Photoplay tried to hint at sparks flying between her and Montgomery Clift (the pair were dear friends and Taylor was one of his biggest supporters as his career began to decline.) She was positioned as both a staggering beauty and the girl next door, the one her fans could relate to. Within the smothering and conservative boundaries of MGM, Hollywood, and her own upbringing, marriage was always going to be the endgame. The last line of Parsons's piece describes "Mr. and Mrs." as "the two most sacred and lovely words in the world." It also, as Taylor herself would admit, would offer her a smidgen of freedom from the studio and her parents. So she had naively thought.
Taylor's marriage to Hilton lasted eight months. He abused her, drank excessively, and reportedly had affairs behind her back. Taylor would marry her second husband in 1952, with whom she had two sons. Her many marriages would bring her much in the way of public attention, although she remained remarkably untouched by scorn until she shacked up with Eddie Fisher. Nowadays, I think Taylor’s tempestuous love life is viewed more sympathetically. There’s a sense of admiration for the woman who really did it all, gave no f**ks, and acquired one hell of a jewellery collection along the way. We don’t make stars like Liz anymore. That may be for the best. Who could ever hope to live up to her?
Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments below, or feel free to hit me up on Twitter at @Ceilidhann for a chat about books, gossip, and my panting efforts to return to regular exercise. If you like this newsletter, please share it online and recommend it to everyone who you think would enjoy some vintage gossip analysis. If you have any feedback or recommendations for future issues, please get in touch through email.
You can find my work on Pajiba.com as well as sites like SYFY, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, and many other places. If you like esoteric vampire pop culture, you can listen to my latest podcast Fangthology! This past fortnight, I wrote about the evolution of Zooey Deschanel, my weird affection for the tackiness of Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly's celeb romance, and I looked back at a horrifying 2007 piece by Maxim on the "unsexiest women alive."
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