About the Author
Donald Bogle is a film historian and author of six books concerning African Americans in film and on television. He won the 1973 Theatre Library Association Award for Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, which identified the five basic stereotypical Black film roles. Several of his other books have been the basis for documentaries & feature films. He is an instructor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and the University of Pennsylvania.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Michael Early has worked extensively Off-Broadway, in regional theatre, and on television. He received an Audio Publishers Association Award for Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices by Walter Dean Myers and can be heard on numerous audiobooks.
Elizabeth and Michael Chapter 1
ELIZABETH TAYLOR’S CHILDHOOD reads like something of a fairy tale, albeit with its requisite dark side. The second child of a dreamy-looking American couple living abroad, she was born on February 27, 1932, in London. Her mother, Sara Viola Warmbrodt, born in 1896 in Arkansas City, Kansas, was the daughter of an engineer. Ambitious, lively, and outgoing, with large eyes and a friendly smile, Sara met a handsome young dark-haired man with piercing blue eyes named Francis Lenn Taylor, who had been born in 1897 in Springfield, Illinois, and whose family lived in Arkansas City. From the very start, girls were all over Francis, falling into a swoon within minutes after seeing him. One classmate recalled that “he was the first boy I was ever aware of. I could have eaten him like ice cream on a stick.”
Not only were there those striking looks, but there was also his background and his breeding. This was no naïve, unpolished local lad unaware of the world. Though his father managed a general-goods store and had a modest income, Francis was the favorite of his wealthy uncle, Howard Young. Living in Saint Louis and married to Francis’s aunt Mabel, Howard was a prosperous art dealer with galleries in St. Louis and eventually New York and London, with beautiful homes in those cities as well as in Connecticut, Florida, and Wisconsin. Howard and his wife had no children, and though he was known as a man who did not show his feelings, he doted on Francis and was keenly aware of his nephew’s potential. When Francis turned nineteen, Uncle Howard brought him to St. Louis and later to New York and tutored him in the world of high art. Selling paintings was not just knowing the artistic merits of a piece of work. One also had to know the market for it—or how to create a market—and how to mix and mingle with the wealthy, the influential, the powerful. Also important was the image of the dealer. Young Francis—innately elegant and increasingly more and more sophisticated—soon dressed in splendidly tailored suits with the appropriate shirts and ties and shoes. He spoke in an eloquently thoughtful, knowledgeable manner. People took one look at him or heard him speak and instantly assumed he was somebody.
Certainly that was how Sara Warmbrodt felt upon meeting him. But it wasn’t love at first sight. Too many other things were then going on in her life. Mainly, Sara was hell-bent on building a career for herself. Her ambition? To be an actress; to conquer the world from the stage. Under the name Sara Sothern, she appeared in the stock company of actor Edward Everett Horton, then made her way to Los Angeles, where she debuted playing a lame girl in the drama The Fool. She reportedly made a screen test for MGM but nothing came of it. Then, at age twenty-six, Sara appeared in The Fool on Broadway. Two years later, she went to London with the drama. Afterward, Sara was back in the States in a small role in another Broadway show: The Little Spitfire. But that play closed quickly, no other roles came her way, and Sara, at loose ends, realized she might never have the stage career of her dreams. Then and there, she met up with Francis again. Now an ambitious young man of the world, he was like a knight in shining armor who made her envision another life for herself. About a year later—with permission from Howard Young—they married. Then came their world travels. Uncle Howard paid for their European honeymoon. Then Francis became his uncle’s purchasing agent in Europe and traveled the continent, meeting artists and assessing their work. He proved quite adept at his job and prospered. By 1929, Howard had installed thirty-one-year-old Francis as the head of his London gallery at 35 Old Bond Street.
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In London, Francis and Sara were a magnetic, young American couple, looking like something out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel: boldly attractive and stylish as they shrewdly maneuvered their way through the city’s tony social set. Though Sara was considered a social climber and perhaps too brash, she was balanced by her sedate, rather serious, and cultivated husband. They may not have reached the very top of the British social ladder, but they certainly did all right for themselves. In their circle were Victor Cazalet and his sister, Thelma Cazalet-Keir. Victor was a conservative member of Parliament, lively, aggressive, never at a loss for words, and always impeccably dressed and something of a snob. Thelma Cazalet-Keir became one of the first female members of Parliament. With a sharp sense of the ins and outs of British social decorum, each Cazalet had an array of connections that helped Francis professionally. As for Sara, she loved the luncheons, dinners, receptions, parties, and gala openings that she was now attending.
Sara and Francis’s first child, a son named Howard, after Francis’s uncle, was born in late 1929. In early 1932, their daughter, Elizabeth Rosemond—named after Sara’s mother, Elizabeth, and Howard Young’s wife, Mabel, whose middle name was Rosemond—was born. Theirs was a picture-postcard family. Victor Cazalet and his sister, Thelma, became unofficial godparents to young Elizabeth. Francis and Sara moved into a comfortable home called Heathwood in the Hampstead section of London—it had “six bedrooms, three baths, a living room, a sitting room, a large kitchen, and living quarters for a family of servants.” Later they also had a small country home outside the city, thanks to Victor. “I remembered seeing the four-room cottage—simple to the point where water had to be heated on the kitchen stove,” recalled Hollywood’s gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. “ ‘Little Swallows’ was its name, and it sat in the woods of her godfather, Victor Cazelet [sic]; his English estate, Great Swifts, was in Kent.” Hopper first met Elizabeth during a trip to England, since she was friends with the Cazalets. The country home didn’t remain a simple four-room cottage for long. Francis and Sara completely redid Little Swallows, turning it into a charming showplace. Weekends with the children and friends were often spent there.
Howard and Elizabeth were showered with attention—night and day. A nanny, Gladys, cared for them. A cook prepared meals. A part-time chauffeur drove Sara and the children to their various appointments. Both children were enrolled in private schools.
Elizabeth quickly developed into an angelic-looking girl with dark, almost jet-black hair, flawless skin with a distinct beauty mark, a mole on her cheek—which Sara later emphasized with mascara—and dark blue or violet eyes, as many believed they were, with thick, luxurious brows and lashes. “The doctor told us that she had a mutation,” recalled Sara. “Well, that sounded just awful—a mutation. But, when he explained that her eyes had double rows of eyelashes, I thought, well, now, that doesn’t sound so terrible at all.”
Extremely shy, sometimes hiding behind her nanny, she was paradoxically also adventurous and independent. Yet from the day of her birth, she was also delicate. Her health was fragile, with a more serious problem that Sara preferred not to discuss. Elizabeth suffered from a glandular condition known as hypertrichosis, which caused a thin growth of hair all over her body. Doctors assured Sara that the condition was temporary. Indeed, the excess hair soon disappeared. But Elizabeth’s condition would reoccur at other times, then quickly vanish again. She was also born with scoliosis—a curvature of the spine—that contributed to endless back problems throughout her life. And she was very soon plagued by accidents. “My earliest memory is of pain,” Taylor once recalled. “In the house in London where I was born, there was one of those electric fires that coils and curls. I was still crawling and I remember looking at its marvelous orangey-red color and thinking, Should I or shouldn’t I? I did. Thank you very much! Half a finger almost burned off!” At age three, she was stricken with a painful infection of her ear canals; both ears had to be lanced. “For three weeks, she was running a high fever and couldn’t lie down,” Sara recalled. “She had to sit up in bed. And I was with her all the time, day and night. For about three weeks, I didn’t have a night’s sleep. She never whimpered and never cried. Her one concern was that I wasn’t getting to sleep. She was worried that Daddy and I were up all the time. She never cried. It’s just something . . . the only way that I know how to describe it is an inner strength.” Sara Taylor recalled that as she sat by her daughter’s bedside, the girl asked to see Victor. Sitting on the bed, he held Elizabeth and also read to her. Young Elizabeth soon recovered.
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One bond between Victor and Sara was their faith. Each was a Christian Scientist. Sara’s mother claimed to hold a belief in Christian Science, but others believed that it was Victor who introduced Sara to the complex new religion, which was based on the teachings of the Bible and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy. One aspect of the religion held that health care and healing were possible not through medication or surgery but through a specific form of prayer. Christian Science would be more important to the Taylor household than most realized. On any given opportunity, Sara touted and praised the dogma of her faith. Meetings for Christian Scientists were held in her home. Both Howard and Elizabeth were given lessons in the religion. The Christian Science prayer book was consulted in the Taylor home—for years. If a difficult problem troubled Elizabeth, especially later during her career, Sara sat with her daughter, the prayer book in their hands. Since Sara believed in prayer over medicine, and though her daughter would be treated by an army of physicians throughout her life, Elizabeth learned to live with pain, to seek treatment but also both to fight and to stoically accept physical suffering, especially while going about her various professional and personal obligations, often until the pain became overpowering or unbearable. That ability to cope with pain would, in a sense, enable her to survive. Yet, publicly, she said almost nothing about Christian Science.
Of her early years in England, Taylor said, “I had the most idyllic childhood.” “She had a pony there and grew to love animals,” recalled Hedda Hopper. Elizabeth herself remembered: “My happiest moments as a child were riding my Newfoundland pony, Betty, in the woods on 3,000 acres of my godfather’s estate.” The pony—given to her when she was three—was a gift from Victor. “The very first time I got on her back, she threw me into a patch of stinging nettles. But I soon became an accomplished horsewoman. I’d ride bareback for hours all over the property.” She also recalled, “My brother and I made pets of all the animals—pet rabbits, pet turtles, pet goats, pet chickens. It was my ideal of bliss.” Decades later she would learn that Michael—and just about all of his family—also loved animals.
“You couldn’t have wished for a sweeter child,” said Hopper. “She would certainly have been happier leading that simple life close to woods and wild things to be tamed, maybe through all her years. But her mother had been bitten by the Broadway bug, and few women recover from that.”
From the start, Sara devoted much of her attention to Elizabeth, all the more so when she saw the reaction of others to her daughter. People encountering the impeccably dressed child with the woman’s face could not forget her. Not only were there the girl’s angelic looks but also her charm and charisma. Howard’s handsome looks were also commented on. But although both children were trained to be well mannered and well spoken with the tones and inflections of the English aristocracy, Elizabeth accepted the growing attention in a way that apparently Howard did not. Even as a boy, Howard was his own person. No one would ever tell him what to do or be. Elizabeth was then more malleable. As soon as she could walk, Sara enrolled her in classes at the prestigious Vacani School of Dance. Told that the daughters of the royal family, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, studied there, Sara wasted no time. Never did the princesses come to the school itself. Instead, instructors from the school gave them private lessons at their home. Regardless, Sara loved the connection that she boasted of then and in the years to come.
With the other young dancers, Elizabeth performed at a benefit for the school that was attended by the princesses and their mother, the Duchess of York (the future Queen Mother). “I peeked up through the curtain of my hair and began casing the joint,” recalled Taylor. “I loved it. I wouldn’t leave the stage,” she remembered. “It was a marvelous feeling on that stage—the isolation, the hugeness, the feeling of space and no end to space, the lights, the music—and then the applause bringing you back into focus . . .” Because she wouldn’t leave the stage, she recalled that the curtain was finally lowered on her. Elizabeth never forgot the experience. Nor did Sara. Much was later made of this benefit by MGM. It became a part of the studio’s official biography of her. Already both Elizabeth and her mother had stars in their eyes about the future.
But behind the idyllic facade of life in the Taylor household, a marriage was in trouble. With vastly different perspectives and interests, Sara and Francis often clashed and quarreled. Some believed the marriage became sexless. Francis drank heavily, a fact about which the two apparently argued. Mild-mannered and considered weak, Francis appeared overpowered by Sara’s demanding and domineering personality. For a man who, although social, preferred spending some quiet nights reading, he was learning to live with an unending round of social activities—the dinner parties and the nights on the town that Sara seemed to thrive on.
Francis also believed—even then—that he didn’t have enough private time with Elizabeth, time when the two of them could do things together and come to know each other better. He must have felt he was being kept away from his own child. With his son, Howard, he appeared to have a good relationship, but Sara seemed unwilling to share Elizabeth.
At the same time, Francis could have a short temper. When the children misbehaved, he struck both Howard and Elizabeth, to the point where, years later, Elizabeth referred to her father as having been abusive.
The arguments and the recriminations between Sara and Francis continued. “Sara and Francis’s marriage didn’t strike me as a particularly happy one,” recalled an art dealer who knew the Taylors in the 1930s. “The couple argued a great deal. Francis had a drinking problem. He drank too much, and his alcoholism became a major source of contention between husband and wife.” Their fractious relationship may even have been similar to that of Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the film that would come to mean so much to Elizabeth. The domestic discord was not lost on Elizabeth. She would always be attracted to strong, independent, tough-minded men who represented what she may have always wanted her father to be. Still, she loved Francis deeply, and in the years to come she understood him better and sympathized with him. She would also always have an affinity for seemingly softer, more sensitive, talented men in need of a special kind of nurturing.
Aside from Sara, Francis had to contend with another demanding personality, his uncle, Howard. Because he and his family had become financially dependent on Howard, Francis had to live by Howard’s rules. Rumors also circulated about conflict in the Taylor household because of the close friendships of both Sa...
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