W. C. Fields described Mae West as "a plumber's dream of Cleopatra." It was Elizabeth Taylor, though, who became the most famous, and the silliest, Cleopatra, long ago in the early '60s, in an awful movie that was, at the time, the most expensive ever made much of the expense being run up in the care and feeding of Elizabeth Taylor and her dipsomaniacal Welsh Antony, Richard Burton.
The story has been told often. Ellis Amburn tells it again in "The Most Beautiful Woman in the World: The Obsessions, Passions, and Courage of Elizabeth Taylor" (Cliff Street Books/HarperCollins, 352 pages, $25). It is still sort of riveting, in an epically trashy way.
In the actuality of Egyptian history, the Queen of the Nile was never so violet-eyed and opulently creamy. And American popular culture, just emerging from the Eisenhower '50s, had rarely staged such shamelessly excessive scandal. Taylor evicted her husband Eddie Fisher, and Burton cashiered his wife Sybil. Cleopatra and Hamlet fell into each other's boozy, lascivious arms, and set off on a saga of extravagant narcissism that became a celebrity contribution to '60s excess except that it had no redeeming social value. As the civil rights movement marched, and Vietnam tore America apart, and presidents were assassinated or driven from office, Richard and Elizabeth traveled with retinues, like royalty. They made memorable scenes and drank one another into stupors and blackouts. They dined with Rothschilds or Windsors. If Richard belted Elizabeth and felt contrite the next morning, he might make up by buying her, say, the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond.
High-spirited decadence, a conspicuous consumption of beauty and talent. Elizabeth and Richard were Scott and Zelda. They divorced, remarried one another, divorced again. Burton made a procession of increasingly awful movies and finally died, at 58, of his exhaustingly bad habits.
God does not always protect fools and drunks. He almost never protects the beautiful. But Elizabeth Taylor survived. Taylor turned her life into America's longest-running one-woman soap opera. Her tacky misadventures seem to have been going on since the beginning of time. She has passed through so many addictions (to booze and painkillers), through so many rehabs, and subsequent relapses, and re-rehabs, and through so many medical crises (brain tumor, broken back), all chronicled by the tabloids, that she comes to seem, at last, to be a gloriously vulgar principle of unsinkability. Each brush with mortality makes her more immortal. Famous in the supermarket racks for being famous famous for being fat, or for getting thinner, famous for death and resurrection.
There's comfort in the reliability, the seeming permanence of her presence. Taylor had eight marriages the doggedly repeated triumph of hope over experience. The great beauty went from man to man like Mr. Toad in his short-lived passions for boats, for the gypsy caravan, for motorcars.
It's comforting, it's even sometimes hilarious, to have these lives of old Hollywood stars (especially Taylor's) to carry with us into the new millennium. Esther Williams recently published an unexpectedly spirited memoir in which she revealed, among other things, that she did not marry the ripple-jawed Jeff Chandler in the '50s because he liked to dress up in women's clothes ("You're too big to wear polka dots," she told him).
My favorite is the autobiography of Lana Turner, published some years ago. It is a strangely affecting work eerily clueless and humorless in which a certain southern California/film noir/'40s bleakness persuades the reader, after a hundred pages, that in a former life, Lana Turner and Richard Nixon may have been the same person. It is a spooky experience.