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Hershey Bars & Nylons.  The Art of Baron Donald von Wiedenmen

Close Personal Friends
Donald von Wiedenman

 Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton

I was separated from Elizabeth Taylor by a large round, marble bathtub half filled with tepid water, the once-abundant, luxurious bubbles now as flat as day-old champagne.  The atmosphere around the two of us in the ornately tiled bathroom was tense and hushed.  There was a feeling in the air that something uncontrollable might happen at any moment.

Elizabeth had a drink in one hand, and although outwardly she appeared calm, her violet eyes were flashing impatiently.  I smiled in her direction, wanting to comfort her, to know her better.  She was standing alone in a soft shimmering pool of light and was dressed only in a loose-fitting terrycloth robe and a towel wrapped around her head as if it were a turban.  She was incredibly and impossibly beautiful, so perfect and flawless that every time I looked at her, I had to look again, not believing my own eyes.

For two hours, the technicians on the set of Secret Ceremony had been trying to fix the leak in the bathtub so that the scene with Elizabeth and Mia Farrow bathing together could continue.  Mia had fled to her dressing room in boredom.  Miss Taylor, as everyone within earshot addressed her, was nervous about the incestuous and Lesbian overtones to the scene and was hovering nervously on the sidelines, anxious to finish filming.

 I was young and I was fearless.  I hadn’t yet learned that there are certain boundaries in life that one does not cross without first being asked.  I had succeeded so far by instinctively doing what felt right.  I was a writer.  I figured that gave me the freedom to go where mere mortals often feared to tread. 

I moved purposefully to the woman in the terrycloth robe, bowed slightly from the waist as if it were somehow expected of me, and introduced myself.  

“I’m writing a story on Joseph Losey for The Daily Telegraph Magazine.”  I said quietly, so that only she could hear me.  

Miss Taylor nodded but said nothing.  She looked directly into my eyes.  My heart was beating wildly. 

“You’ll forgive me for saying this,” I continued, knowing as I spoke that what I was about to say could be taken the wrong way, “but you remind me of my mother…”  

She continued to look at me, a smile forming on her face. 

“…when she was much younger, of course.” 

Many things may be said about Elizabeth Taylor.  A lack of composure is not one of them. 

Her eyes flashed seductively.  Time seemed to freeze.  Even among all the other people on the set, I was somehow alone with Elizabeth Taylor.

“You must have a very beautiful mother,” she replied finally, smiling for an instant like the Mona Lisa.  “You’re a very lucky young man.”  

She was so sincere.  I couldn’t help but laugh.

 It was at that precise moment that I became a close, personal friend of Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton.  It was a friendship that would endure until the disparity between fame and anonymity eventually took its toll.

It was also the exact moment that two burly men appeared from nowhere, gently lifted me by the elbows and moved me three feet away from Miss Taylor.

“It’s alright Dick,” Miss Taylor said to the handsome, grey-haired man who was obviously the leader of the pack.  “He was just telling me that I reminded him of his mother.”

Dick Hanley, Miss Taylor’s secretary, confidant, father figure and close, personal friend since her days as a contract player with MGM, looked at me with a mixture of awe and disbelief.

 “No one,”  he hissed, half under his breath, but audible enough to be heard by everyone on the set, “approaches Miss Taylor without asking me first.”

 Miss Taylor continued to smile.  The two men on either side of me relaxed their grip.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Dick Hanley.  “I wanted to ask Miss Taylor about Joseph Losey for the article I’m writing, but when I got close to her, I…”

My voice trailed off.

 “You needn’t explain,” Miss Taylor said breezily.  “I have that effect on just about everyone.”

She put her arm in mine and guided me away from the set.  “Now come back to my dressing room and we’ll talk all day about Joe if you want to.  And I’m just dying to hear more about that mother of yours.”

It was 1967 and Elizabeth Taylor was in London starring with Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum in the film Secret Ceremony, a darkly obscure movie directed by Joseph Losey, the American director that had been blacklisted during the McCarthy Era.

Only the year before, Losey had directed Elizabeth and Richard Burton in Boom!   (“Thud,” one reviewer wrote), the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.  She and Losey were good, if not close friends.

I had just turned 23, but I still looked like a teenager, a blessing and a curse.  Elizabeth was 35.  She was at the peak of her beauty and fame.  Happily married to Richard Burton (still for the first time), she was the toast of London, and although Secret Ceremony would go down in film annals as one of her more forgettable films, that prospect did not faze her in the least.  After Le Scandale of Cleopatra, she was the biggest box office draw in the world and she was getting paid a million dollars to star in Losey’s latest film, the first actress or actor to ever reach that financial pinnacle.  Her popularity, on screen and off, was at an all-time, unheard-of high.

Her dressing room at Elstree Studios was lavish.  Actually, three dressing rooms had been knocked into one huge suite for her.  The sitting room, dressing room, bedroom and kitchen were all covered with the same vine-and-trellis wallpaper that Miss Taylor had personally selected.  Dick Hanley (who was always referred to by his full name in order to avoid confusion with Richard Burton) busied himself in the kitchen, finishing up the homemade chili he had started preparing earlier that day.  Chili, as I was soon to learn, was one of Miss Taylor’s favorite foods.  Often, she had it flown in from Chasen’s in Beverly Hills on a private jet.

Dick was a distinguished man in his early sixties.  Thin, suave, sophisticated and protective, he looked after Miss Taylor with an obsessive, kindly zeal.  In addition to attending to his employer, arguably the most famous movie star in the world, it was obvious that he loved and adored her, and that feeling was returned with much bantering and affection.  His lover, John Lee, however, was a rather portly old queen with the gruff disposition of an aging gossip columnist.  He was ostensibly Miss Taylor’s official press agent, but in reality the title had been bestowed upon him only to give him a raison d’être in the Taylor entourage.  I would get to know these men well and would come to care for both of them for the same reason.  They absolutely idolized Elizabeth.

That afternoon, there was nothing but good humor in the rarified air of the dressing room.  Dick served his famous chili, Dom Perignon was consumed in great quantities by everyone except Miss Taylor, who drank Jack Daniels with a splash on the rocks, and the afternoon floated by without even a mention of Joseph Losey, who was presumably somewhere on the set trying to get that damn bathtub fixed and filled with bubbles befitting his queen.

As professionally aggressive as I was and as socially blasé as I appeared to be, I was vaguely aware that I was moving in circles that most people would never have a chance to even glimpse.  I knew instinctively that I would never be one of these people, that it was unlikely that I would ever achieve the same level of fame and wealth, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the experience.  The moment was all that mattered.  How long it lasted was not important.

I savored the chili and the champagne, and at the end of the day, I told Elizabeth (I never called her Miss Taylor again) that my mother once said that she was the only movie star she would walk across the street to see in person.  Coming from the young American expatriate from Santa Barbara, Elizabeth said she thought it was the sweetest compliment she had ever received.

If Elizabeth and I came from two different worlds, we bonded because of that difference.

In Elizabeth’s case, she was true movie star royalty.  At one point in our conversation, when we were talking about our respective childhoods, she told me that she could not remember when she wasn’t famous.  I couldn’t begin to imagine what that would be like.  To her fans (to me), her lifestyle was the epitome of glamour.  She palled around with queens and kings, she went to parties all over the world, she wore different diamonds every evening, and she had the most beautifully violet eyes that anyone had ever seen.

And, as is often the case with people who are constantly in the public eye, Elizabeth was exactly the same offstage as she was in front of the cameras.  When the director yelled “Cut!” and the film stopped rolling, her own camera began to whirr and her own spotlight found her and placed her in the middle of the stage.  And she knew it.  She knew that her private life was as much a role as the characters she portrayed on film.  She tiptoed through her life in a series of award-winning roles, and befriending the young American reporter who said she reminded him of his mother was yet one more role for her to embrace.

I, on the other hand, was set apart from the masses in an entirely different manner.  Although I was intelligent, ambitious and rather naively sophisticated, those qualities in themselves did not set me apart from the others.  What people noticed about me most was that I seemed desperately interested in what they had to say, and because I was a writer and was constantly asking questions, I gave the impression - and an accurate one - that I cared very much for that person.  Even though they might be complete strangers.  I had the ability to pigeonhole my feelings, so that I could be a different person to different people.  Instead of this tearing me apart, it allowed me to play innumerable roles, both in public and in private.  That day I was playing the role of a reporter.  I was also playing the part of an adoring fan.  And I was also playing the part of newly found confidant.  The result was that I was a young man who people wanted to confide in.  It didn’t matter if it were the taxi driver or Elizabeth Taylor, people told me things when they first met me that they would never dream of telling anyone else.  

The bathtub was not fixed that day.  Instead, Elizabeth entertained me, first with interesting, amusing stories, then with sillier stories as the Jack Daniels worked its magic and it became apparent that there would be no more filming that afternoon.  Joseph Losey, looking wan and overworked, made a brief appearance in the dressing room.  He was cordial, but he could not mask his feelings that he was working and Elizabeth was not.  He said he had seen the rushes from the day before in which Elizabeth was lying in bed, writhing in her sleep.

“Unfortunately,” Losey confided to all of us, “your breasts look like two large puppies fighting with each other under a blanket.”

There was a brief, awkward silence before Elizabeth laughed, then I joined in as did the others.  Elizabeth stood up and put her hand on her hip.  “That Liz Taylor!  What are we going to do with her?”

Losey said he would reshoot the scene the next day, using another angle that would be more flattering to Elizabeth’s amble bosom.  I thought Losey’s comment was not in very good taste, but of course I said nothing.  Even by that time, my loyalty to Elizabeth was already so strong that I resented anyone criticizing her.  Although my friendship would continue with Losey for many years, I would always remember the remark he made about Elizabeth’s breasts.  His attitude – his lack of respect – was unforgivable.             

After Losey was gone, the smile left Elizabeth’s face.  “I told him that before we shot the scene.”

It was time to leave the studio.  I had taken the train down from London.  Elizabeth insisted that I accompany her back to the Dorchester in her new white Rolls Royce, a gift from producer John Heyman.  In addition to producing Secret Ceremony, he had also produced Boom! and had given Elizabeth the Rolls as a present for finishing the picture on time.  At a million dollars a film, giving Elizabeth, who was chronically late and generally did not finish a film on time, a Rolls Royce was a lot less expensive than if she had gone even one day over schedule.  Dick Hanley and John Lee took their own blue Rolls back to the hotel, while Gaston, the chauffeur, drove Elizabeth and me with the deliberateness of a man who had the world’s most precious cargo in the back seat.

Finally Elizabeth rapped on the window and shouted, “Gaston, would you step on it, please!  I’m dying to see Richard!”

 When the Burtons stayed in London, they stayed in the penthouse suite of the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane.  At that time, it was one of the most luxurious hotels in the the world, catering to both old and new money, European aristocracy and glitzy American movie stars.  Situated across from Hyde Park, the Burtons’ suite had a spectacular view north towards Marble Arch and south towards Mayfair.  Buckingham Palace was just a stone’s throw away.

I stood with a drink in my hand on the balcony overlooking the park.  Although I was drinking Scotch, I was also drinking in the headiness of the moment, sipping Chivas Regal on the balcony of Elizabeth’s suite while she changed clothes in the bedroom.  I wondered idly if the two queens, both named Elizabeth, ever came out onto their balconies at the same time and waved to each other.  The thought of it brought a smile to my lips.

While Elizabeth changed – assisted by her hairdresser, her maid and the wardrobe mistress from the film – I assessed my situation.  If I had chosen, this could have been an opportunistic moment.  I could have used it to further my career as a writer, or even as an actor, something I hadn’t even discussed with Elizabeth yet.  I could have used this opportunity to further my social ambitions, to help guide my lifestyle to new and higher ground.  In fact, I could have exploited this trust, this closeness in a number of calculated ways.  A few hours before, I had been merely a fan.  Now I had been promoted to friendly acquaintance.  Perhaps I was out of my league, but I was too young and too naive to really understand what that meant.  I knew Elizabeth genuinely liked me.  As she said in the back of the white Rolls Royce, anyone who thinks his mother is as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor can’t be all bad.

The penthouse of the Dorchester, when occupied by less godlike inhabitants, was a rather pompous, formal suite of rooms.  It still had some of that quality, but because the Burtons stayed there so often, the hotel had decorated the suite to Elizabeth’s specifications before she arrived.  Draperies were replaced, furniture was recovered and table lamps were added to create a softer, more home-like feeling.  The effect was that of coziness and warmth.  I would always remember the feeling of that room, although the details would soon be lost to memory.  It was the feeling that very rich, very famous people lived here.  It was different from anything I had ever known.

The sitting room was abuzz with activity when I came in from the balcony.  There were three blond young men from room service setting out an impressive array of hors d’oeuvres — shrimp cold cuts, crab, cheese, meatballs, caviar.  Dick and John arrived, both freshly dressed in expensive, perfectly pressed suits.  Dick was clearly in charge, supervising the arrangement of the food, checking on how the bar was being set up in one corner of the room, making small talk with the servers, easing their nervousness at being in the Burton suite.  Elizabeth, Dick told me, was always late, yet he always fretted when she was.

Everyone was waiting for Richard Burton to arrive.  He was filming Laughter in the Dark and it was not going well.  The English papers were full of stories about the feuds between him and director Tony Richardson.  Dick Hanley called the studio to see when Richard would be finished shooting.  He was told that he had already left and was on his way back to the hotel.

Without Elizabeth in the sitting room, the suite was an empty stage waiting for the curtain to go up.  Everything was in place, but Act I had not yet begun.  I wondered briefly if Elizabeth and Richard made this much of a production every evening.  Well of course they did.  What seemed like a production to me was nothing more than a way of life to them.

The phone rang.  Dick Hanley answered it and said, “Yes, yes, let them up.”  He screened all incoming calls and decided the fate of all would-be visitors.  “No one comes up here,” he said to me in the same voice he first used when he greeted me at the studio, “without my permission.  And I mean no one.  Not even Elizabeth’s mother.” 

John opened the door to the suite and greeted two women.  The first was Norma Heyman, a slightly thinner, coarser version of Elizabeth herself.  She was dressed in a leather maxi-skirt, a blouse made from Moroccan scarves and an abundance of gold jewelry on her hands and around her neck.  The other woman, dark and petite and similar in appearance to Norma, was introduced to me rather formally as Elizabeth, Princess of Yugoslavia.  She did not look like I thought a princess should look, but that could have been because she hadn’t seen the inside of a palace in years.  She was living, as they say, in exile.  She was pretty and vacant and would achieve notoriety years later as Richard’s mistress between his marriages to Elizabeth.  And many years after that, she would become known to another generation as the mother of Catherine Oxenberg, the actress who played - of all things - a princess on the prime-time soap opera Dynasty.

After shaking the princess’ offered hand, I thought, a princess and a queen in one room.  Now this should be something to write home about.

Dick Hanley mixed cocktails, the blonde young men served hors d’oeuvres

Norma told me that she was Elizabeth’s best friend in the whole world.  “We do everything together,” she proclaimed.  From someone else, the statement might have seemed boastful.  From Norma, it sounded sincere, or at the very least, that she believed it herself.  “Elizabeth goes through friends very fast,” she continued.  “Very fast indeed.  Only a few of us manage to survive.  Everyone seems to want something from her.  I’m sure you know what I mean, don’t you?”  She sighed.  “So when did you meet her?”

     Princess Elizabeth looked at me anxiously as I answered.  “I met her this afternoon at the studio.”  

Norma suppressed a giggle.  “This afternoon?  At the studio?  My goodness, you are new to all this, aren’t you?”

Princess Elizabeth leaned forward.  “That’s how I met her, too.  At the studio.”

 “Well, isn’t this cozy?”  Norma said to me, giving me a winning smile.  “I’m the only one who’s an actress and I did not meet her at the studio.”

"You were an actress,” Princess Elizabeth said.

“How did you meet her?”  I asked Norma.  

“I really can’t remember.  I think it was at a party.  Yes, that’s it.  I met her through John.  John is my husband.  He produced two of Elizabeth’s films.”

“Really?”  

“I’d rather not discuss it,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “I find talking about film rather boring.”

“Especially talking about the ones John made,” Princess Elizabeth added.

At that moment, Elizabeth Taylor, the most beautiful movie star in the world, appeared magically at the door of the bedroom.  She was dressed in a light yellow, swirling caftan, her hair in gentle ringlets around her flawless face. The stage was now obviously set, for within seconds of her entrance, Richard Burton burst through the front door.  He was drunk and on the verge of being charmingly disorderly. 

“Elizabeth!” he boomed (and I mean boomed!)  “You fabulous wench!  Give us a kiss!”

Elizabeth flew into his arms, playing Juliette to his Romeo.  It was obvious to me - and to everyone else in the room- that they were very much in love.

Breaking away reluctantly from their embrace, the two of them began to dart around the room.  They were constantly in motion.  She brought him a cocktail.  He took it from her, graciously raising it in a silent toast to his beloved.  She whispered something in his ear; he listened attentively, then moved swiftly to the writing desk to look briefly at his messages.  They were engaged in an exaggerated mating ritual, a parry and thrust that was somewhere between a dance and a duel.

Elizabeth introduced me.  Richard’s eyes were ablaze.  He did not spare me the courtesy of unfamiliarity.  After staring at me for a long moment, he demanded of Elizabeth, “Where did you find him?”

Elizabeth’s voice was soothing.  She stroked Richard’s brow.  “At the studio, dear.”  She winked at me.  “He told me that I reminded him of his mother.”

“Bloody hell!”  Richard bellowed (and I mean bellowed!), making a sound that could surely be heard by the other Elizabeth just up the street.   “You brought him here after he told you that his mother looked like a fat tart of a movie star!”

Elizabeth looked genuinely hurt. “Richard!”

Richard turned away and downed his drink.  “Richard!” he mimicked in her high, little-girl voice.  “Richard! Richard!”

Elizabeth ran to him again, putting her arm around the man she loved.  “Now luv, let’s show our guests a good time tonight, shall we?  We don’t want them to think that we are uncivilized.”  She said the word as if it were the worst insult she could imagine.

Emotional outbursts always caught me off guard.  I was not really very good at hiding my embarrassment.  I looked at Norma, then at Princess Elizabeth.  Both of them seemed to be oblivious to what was taking place.  They had seen it before and they knew - or thought they knew - that it was a game.  Richard and Elizabeth were at it again, getting ready to resurrect the more predictable qualities of George and Martha at a moment’s notice.

Elizabeth turned on the portable radio on the table next to the sofa.  All she got was static.  She handed the small radio to me and said, “Be a dear, will you, and find us some soothing music.”

“A little Beethoven perhaps,” bellowed Richard.  “Or maybe a little Brahms!  You do know who Brahms is, don’t you?  He’s a bloody great composer, that’s what he is.”

I couldn’t get any station very clearly.  Richard grabbed the radio away from me.  “Here, you need to take it out on the balcony so you can get better reception.”  He moved unsteadily towards the outside patio, twisted the knob a few times but still got nothing but static.

“Bloody fucking radio!” he roared at Elizabeth.  He turned away from her and hurled it off the balcony.  Elizabeth rushed to the edge.

“You could kill someone!”  She screamed.  “If it landed on somebody’s head, you could kill them!”

“Serve them bloody well right!”

Elizabeth glared at him.  He glared back.  Suddenly the tension in the room disappeared as quickly and as inexplicably as it had begun.  Richard turned towards me, shrugged away the mantle of his discontent and shook my hand with a fine, sincere grip.

“Glad to meet you, old boy,” he boomed.  “You were ringside at the fight of the night and you didn’t even flinch.  You’ll fit in nicely with this group.”

I smiled back at him, trying to see in his eyes what he really thought of me.  Everything he did and said seemed purposeful and rehearsed.  His most idle comment was profound because of that voice, that incredible, omnipotent voice.  His voice was to language what Elizabeth’s eyes were to beauty:  They were the standards by which everything else would be measured.

Of course Elizabeth knew this.  She was never one to underestimate her worth.  Often, when she and Richard would quarrel, when she would begin to lose the verbal battle, she would become silent and coquettish, fighting the battle with the intensity of her beauty.  She was doing that now, fluttering her eyes ever so slightly as Richard dominated the room with his voice.  It was a war of voices and eyes, and each of them knew they possessed the winning weapon.  If Elizabeth was the embodiment of feminine guile, Richard was the embodiment of man personified as a god.  They were both larger than life.  Theirs was a world of grandness and elegance, of fantasy and play.  Their passion for each other was so intense it consumed all other facets of their personalities.

When Richard turned away for a moment to fix himself another drink, Elizabeth said, “I can’t call him Dick. It excites me too much.” She would say that again and again, even years later after he died. I believed her. Her breathlessness in his presence was staggering.

Richard grabbed my arm and pulled me out onto the balcony.  He had his drink in one hand and a bottle of Chivas Regal in the other.  He poured me a drink, demanded I down it, then poured me another.  He talked about rugby for a few minutes, then turned the conversation to writing.

“I try to write.  All the time.  I try to write important things, but I finally give up.  I admire writers.  Even reporters.  You create something from nothing.  I know how hard it is.”  Then he talked about rugby again.  He stopped in midsentence and went back into the suite.  I followed and had another drink.

Norma, Princess Elizabeth and I left soon after.  We all knew it was time to go.  Richard and Elizabeth needed time to themselves.  As we left, Richard proclaimed to the multitude, “I like you, young man.  Your mother - tart though she might be - did a fine job of raising you.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I?”  Elizabeth commanded as I was leaving.  “Come to the studio for lunch.”

I went out into the cold London night.  I wanted to walk, to come back to reality for a while.  Having  spent an evening with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, I felt like an alien on a strange and unexplored planet.  I didn’t know it then but that night marked the beginning of a social life in London that would change my perspective about life forever.