An hour before I found out that Elizabeth Taylor died, I was deep in conversation about her with my daughter India. It was odd, we had never talked about her before. I found myself going over all the times that our paths had intersected. India asked me why she was considered such an icon in her day and wondered if her type of beauty would be appreciated as much by current day standards. I always remembered her violet eyes, her mellifluous voice and her wicked sense of humor. She was one of the funniest, shrewdest women I ever met, and I was always struck by how earthy and straightforward she was. I had recently found out that she had converted to Judaism.
The first time I met Elizabeth, I was 7-years-old and was I was missing my two front teeth. I was in Gstaad, Switzerland for Xmas vacation with my parents, and my sister Christina. I always wondered about this vacation, because my parents had already been divorced for several years, so why we were all together, posing as a happy family, was bizarre. We arrived to have drinks at Elizabeth and her husband Richard Burton’s chalet. I was too young too realize that they were famous, but somehow I’ll always remember her silhouette by the fire, with a glass in her hand. My sister and I were ushered downstairs to her sons’ room. I was immediately smitten by her two teenage boys, Chris and Michael Wilding. The lack of teeth was agony as I dared not grin, and I was desperate to grin, I was in love! I had never met a more thrilling dangerous duo. Their room was peppered by bullet holes. They showed us their guns and we jumped on their giant unmade beds. This was the life! This was the childhood that I wanted: The Wild West for kids, a free for all, bullets and mess! What more could a kid want?! Not anything like the proper English upbringing that beckoned for me… And I wondered, “Who were these fantastical parents who let their children behave like this?” In my assessment, these children had hit the jackpot of parents!
And I believe this was the evening when the seed of Wonderland was planted deep in my sub-conscious.
So, it was very ironic when my mother became engaged to Richard Burton, 6 years later. He and Elizabeth were divorced in June 1974, Richard became engaged to my mother, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, in September 1974. Then he remarried Elizabeth Taylor in 1975. The whole story is a little convoluted and I had no idea, until much later, that Elizabeth T. was not so happy about the interlude with my mother.
It was Richard’s influence that fanned that magical seed that led me later to explore the shores of Hollywood. He wasn’t in my life for very long but he left a lasting impression. Between his bouts of alcoholism, that ultimately drove my mother away, he was he sweetest, most loving, attentive father figure in my life.
He taught me Shakespeare and together we composed 6-foot long crossword puzzles. We went gambling in a casino, and as I was underage, he hid me behind a screen. He let me make the bets and came back his shirt filled with chips, proudly announcing me the winner. He let me drive his Mercedes on the freeway, propped up on pillows. He breathed magic into life.
The last time I saw him, I was 16. He was performing Equus on Broadway. There was seating on stage and I was in the front row. At the end of the performance, in the midst of taking his bows, he came over and grabbed my hand and dragged me out to center stage, making me take a bow with him. I was mortified at the time, but in retrospect, I love the symbolism of his gesture. He was passing a torch to me. Although I could never presume to have reached his mastery, or to be the great actor that he was, I still feel that it was he that set the stage for my future; it was he that pointed me towards my destiny.
I did not see Elizabeth until I was living in LA, many years later. She came up to me and announced, “There was a time when I hated your mother, but I don’t hate her anymore! Please send her my love!”
“Well, dearest Elizabeth, almost step-mother of mine, you are finally free. I send you my love I and pray that you and Richard are reunited in heaven.”