General, Women

In the orbit of a goddess

THE GUARDIAN – Saturday June 24, 2000
Ginny Dougary

When the writer Ginny Dougary was mistaken for the young Elizabeth Taylor, she was flattered. Inevitably, she began to feel an affinity with the movie star and took a special interest in her sometimes turbulent life. Then she came to realise that she was not alone – everyone feels they own a part of icons such as Taylor.

The first time it happened was in 1983. I know the year because it was one of the rare times in my adult life when I’ve been slim. I was living in a hot country and had discovered, to my surprise, that I enjoyed exercise. When I wasn’t working in my part-time job at a vintage clothing store, I was working out in a gym or running or swimming. I lived on fruit shakes, cheap champagne and nuts. I was 26 years old. I had a tan. I had cheekbones. I wore 50s frocks with boat necks and shoes with pointy toes and my hair was cut in a sort of choppy bob.
One evening, I was sitting on the balcony of a friend’s flat, listening to the clinking of the boats in the marina below, when she turned to me and said, “Do you know who you look like?” “No,” I said, not at all sure that I wanted to hear the answer.

“Liz Taylor.”

I thought it was a cruel joke and told her so. But she insisted that she was serious.

“It’s something to do with the end of your nose – the way it tilts up – and the shape of your face,” she tried to explain.

Not long after, I was given a postcard by someone in my office. It is possible that he had a crush on me. The photograph was of Liz with a suntan, a slightly rosy nose and a spray of tiny freckles on the sides of her cheeks. Her black hair is scraped back in a pink towel tied in a turban. She is in full maquillage – eyebrows darkened, eyeliner, mascara, and salmon lip-gloss. She is 33, but looks younger. My husband pinned it on the noticeboard in our kitchen. Friends would come in and do a double take. At first they assumed that it was me. Only after peering at it quite hard did they realise that they were mistaken.

In an old diary, I keep some photographs of myself that were taken at that time. I look at them when I am feeling middle-aged and sad, to remind myself that I wasn’t always this way. But, in truth, what they show is as unreal and duplicitous as a movie still. Most of them were taken at parties, with me wearing dresses from a more glamorous era: off-the-shoulder taffeta and chiffon and satin, diamanté earrings dangling, eyes widened in surprise or half-closed, flirting with the camera. I can see, far more now than I did then, a faint resemblance to Liz – which is more to do with the retro look and the confidence of youth, which can pass for allure, than anything real.

The last time it happened, I was interviewing a don on the banks of the Cam. I was 33 – the same age as the Liz on that postcard – with a two-year-old son, and was back living in a cold country. The don was a classicist who had written a book about surfing. We sat on the grass, drinking cups of tea, eating fragile cucumber sandwiches and talking about the mythology of the waves. I remember that I was wearing inappropriate shoes – black and spiky – and large sunglasses. Later, I was told that a colleague had asked him what he was doing on the lawn with Liz Taylor. I decided to take it as a compliment. Now that I’m 42, and closer to Liz in her kaftan years, no one says that I look like her any more.

When I was eight, I saw Liz close up. My parents and I were staying in Cap Ferrat in the south of France, in a darkly lush winding road. Somerset Maugham lived in a neighbouring Gothic-looking mansion, and every time we passed it my mother would tell me that he had lived there with his male companion.

I can’t summon the names of any of the other hotels we stayed in when I was young and my parents used to travel in style. Villa de la Robia was different. There was a garden with lots of tangled undergrowth and chipped, mossy statues lurking in the gloom. I had a room to myself, which you reached from some crumbling steps that led up from the shadows of the garden. I used to lie in my bed with its odd, sausage-shaped pillow, the shutters closed, and imagine what it would be like to kiss my favourite handsome waiter.

One lunchtime, the usual placid hush in the restaurant was disturbed by the arrival of a family. Heads studiously did not swivel, but there was a sudden brightness, a subtle animated charge in the muted chatter. I can still see Liz clearly. She was wearing Capri pants and a dark headscarf. There were two teenagers with her – a boy and a girl, who were strikingly good-looking with their black hair and violet-blue eyes framed by thick eyebrows – and a rather grey, craggy man who must have been Richard Burton.

They were sitting at the next table, and my mother – who had her own movie-star glamour – was determinedly unimpressed. After lunch, over coffee on the veranda, she turned to my father and said, “Rather a dumpy little thing, didn’t you think?”

“My God, darling,” he replied, “she’s not a patch on you.”

Liz hasn’t had a major role in a film for years. Unlike Katharine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall, age has withered her acting career. There have been no grand matriarch roles or twilight-year romances. No Golden Ponds. And because we have not grown accustomed to seeing her grow old in Technicolor celluloid, we still think of her as a screen goddess, frozen in the past. We are constantly reminded that she is alive – if only because of her frequent brushes with death: the brain tumour three years ago, the fall the following year – but the Liz who has worked so hard at raising funds for and the profile of Aids charities, who once said that Michael Jackson was the least weird man she knew, is someone quite separate from her youthful screen persona. In that sense, she occupies a unique space: one in which she is both alive and dead.

There are not many actors, of either sex, who have become so iconic in their lifetime. Warhol favoured the dead over the living in his prints – JFK, Mao, Marilyn, Elvis. But he also placed Liz in this pantheon, as if acknowledging her not-of-this-world lustre, and fixed on her image, circa 1960, with the tousled hooker’s hairdo she wore in Butterfield 8.

She was always a star rather than an actress. A lot of her films were B-movies, which were somehow redeemed by her luminous sheen. It feels like I’ve always loved her, even though there’s something unconcrete and dreamlike about the way I conjure her in my imagination. She is not like other actors I admire, in that I cannot point to this or that role to illustrate precisely what it is about her that I find so appealing. She doesn’t have a set of mannerisms that help you to place her. There is no equivalent to the Clint glint or the Marilyn wiggle. But for me, it was enough that when she was in a film she had some quality that made it impossible for me to take my eyes off her. She seemed to fill the screen, eclipsing everyone around her.

I always saw her films retrospectively, and this may partly explain why I view her through a special lens. She seems always to have been there in my childhood and adolescence, although I never actively sought her out. I saw her by chance: a Sunday movie on a rainy afternoon, or late at night when I was a student, or as part of some film festival of 50s kitsch. Like most people, I have absorbed the soap opera of her life – the multiple marriages, the accidents, the illnesses, the addictions, the sojourns in the Betty Ford clinic – but, in my case, as an unwilling participant. I’d rather not know about these details, since they detract from the image of her in my mind’s eye.

I haven’t retained much of an impression of her in National Velvet, although if I blink I can see her in jodhpurs, her hair tied up with a bow, the beauty spot on her cheek – already too sophisticated to look like a real little girl who loved horses. I can visualise her more clearly in Jane Eyre, although she had a tiny part. She played Helen, the angelic child who befriends Jane in the orphanage and dies beautifully. I remember her dark eyes gazing out of an unearthly white face. She was, of course, too good to be true – and probably would have been better cast as one of Jane’s nasty, spoiled relatives. But I loved her satiny voice and believed in her sweetness.

The films that stand out for me are the ones in which she was a poor little rich girl. Or, sometimes, the beautiful rich bitch. They were all made between the early 50s and the mid-60s, when she was at her swooning loveliest. Watching her was like basking in the reflected glory of her shimmering youthfulness. When I look back at those films now, as a body of work, I am struck by how dark they were. There was often the suggestion of something corrupt about her beauty, that it was both damaged and damaging; a hint of moral decay behind the succulent peachiness. She is a siren of doom, driving the men around her to murder or self-destruction. I rather think it was this sickness behind the bloom that I liked.

There was also a frisson – a sort of fag-haggy appeal – in acknowledging the relationship between her status as a gay icon and her friendships with her leading men, who tended to be homosexual: Montgomery Clift in A Place In The Sun and Suddenly Last Summer; Rock Hudson and James Dean in Giant. But I don’t think I would have responded to Liz so viscerally if she had been merely camp. There is a dangerous undertow to these films; a sense in which some sort of malign energy, which both emanates from her and is beyond her control, is propelling the protagonists to their downfall. Her kind of brittle shallowness can kill.

The film that sums up this quality for me is, oddly, not A Place In The Sun – in which the rich girl’s new boyfriend drowns his discarded pregnant girlfriend, which might seem to fit the bill more neatly – but Suddenly Last Summer. It still strikes me as astonishing that such an overtly homosexual theme could have been tackled on the screen as early as 1959. Here, the sickness is almost tangible. Young Liz in her white bathing suit – the fleshy bait to lure penniless young beach boys into the arms of her homosexual cousin; his harridan mother (Katharine Hepburn) in her throne-like chair on the veranda ordering a lobotomy for her hysterical niece in order to obliterate the memory of what happened on the day her son died; the ending – even now it makes me shiver to recall it: the boys who had been preyed upon by the cousin chasing him up the hill, joined by other children on the way to the top, tearing his immaculate white suit to shreds, and then his flesh.

There was a time, at the height of her stardom, when Liz’s fans – in their eagerness to steal a part of her lustre for themselves – were in danger of ripping her apart. They would grab at her hair, her mink coats, her fabulous jewels. There was something about her appeal that was as universal as the strange kinship the public felt for Princess Diana. When Liz was taken to hospital with pneumonia in 1961 and was reported as being close to death, fans pulled their cars to the side of the road and prayed for her recovery. If Liz had died then, she would have become a Marilyn or a Princess Di. Like them, she was a goddess who could pull us into her orbit. Her battle with weight, her weaknesses for a bad man and a good frock, were our own little lives writ large. You could even forgive her ostentatious displays of wealth and her excessive habits, since they so evidently did not bring her happiness. It is a peculiar quirk of fame that such an untypical woman can also, at some level, be an Everywoman.

When I started to write this piece, I was concerned that it might sound deranged to be exploring the idea that I felt a personal connection with Liz because someone once said that I bore a passing resemblance to her. I reminded myself of the old bag in a film I once saw, who thrust a photograph of Princess Diana in front of her hairdresser and announced, “I want to look like that.” But I have come across other women who also have been told that they look like Liz – and none of them looks like me. My children’s middle-aged nanny – one of the old guard in a tweed skirt and sensible shoes – used to tell me that people said she had Liz Taylor’s eyes. A former colleague, an alluring scruff with unkempt hair, was often persuaded – particularly by men who wanted to kiss them – that she had Liz Taylor’s lips. And I have the tip of her nose. Perhaps this is how we divide Liz up for ourselves, so that we all own a bit of her.

A few months ago, I was sent a postcard by an acquaintance. It is split into two halves. On one side is Liz in the pink towelling turban, the one when she was 33. On the other is Liz in the same headgear, at 60. Her eyes look as though they have been widened; her lips seem to be puffed up by silicone. Her oval face has lost its definition. I’m not sure whether any message was intended – but, anyway, she still looks wonderful to me. This won’t, however, be going on any noticeboards. That moment has passed.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

Elizabeth the first

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – October 10 1999
Ginny Dougary

There’s never been a film star quite like Elizabeth Taylor: the eyes, the diamonds, the men, the myth. And at 67 she still reigns supreme in despite her self-imposed celluloid exile. Ginny Dougary of The Times (London) is granted a rare audience.

The Russian taxi driver is the first to see her. “Look, there she is. OmiGod. I cannot believe it. Elizabeth Taylor! Today is my birthday. I will never forget this.” We had left behind the Great Gatsby mansions, gleaming white against the lime-green lawns, the pseudo-gothic and baronial mishmash of architectural styles favoured by the millionaires of Bel Air, and driven up a vertiginous road, all lush undergrowth and garlands of bougainvillaea, to reach Miss Taylor’s residence.

The gates open silently and almost immediately we are in a courtyard, with half a dozen cars, and an L-shaped complex of buildings which consists of a long low bungalow and a garage. My initial thought is that these are the servants’ quarters and the star must be in some whopping great palace beyond our view. But no, there she is in the doorway, a tiny figure in black, that famous face with the dark eyebrows, framed by its halo of spun white hair, white pooch at her heels, smiling and walking towards us. “Hello,” she breathes, “I’m Elizabeth.”

As if we didn’t know. This interview was the culmination of three years of letters, phone calls and faxes, during which time she had suffered numerous health set-backs, including an operation to remove a brain tumour the size of a golf ball, her hair had turned from black to white and for a while an elfin crop replaced the trademark bouffe; her long-term New York agents and management had been replaced by a firm in Los Angeles, so we had to embark on the process all over again; she had come out of a period of reclusiveness; she had won a BAFTA award for lifetime achievement; I had written an essay about her which seemed to me to be, in part, an acknowledgement that I was never going to get to meet her. And yet, here, finally, we are. Was it worth the wait? Oh, yes.

Firstly, she is still astonishingly beautiful. She fixes you with those dazzling eyes of hers and it can be quite hard to concentrate on what she is saying. She hates being called a legend or an icon – since, as she rightly says, they are labels which are usually reserved for the dead. “And I’m not dead,” she pouts. “I’m very full of life.”

But part of the undoubted frisson of sitting face to face with her is that there are very few actors of either sex who have become so shrouded with mystique as she has in their own lifetime. Unlike Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn, age has withered her acting career. She hasn’t had a major film role in years, and because we have not grown accustomed to seeing her grow old in Technicolor, there is a sense in which we can still think of her as a screen goddess, frozen in the past.

We are constantly reminded that she is alive, if only because of her frequent brushes with death. But the woman who was Malcolm Forbes’s best friend, who has worked so hard at raising funds for and the profile of Aids charities, who once said that Michael Jackson was the least-weird man she knew, who bottles her allure in a top-selling scent, is someone quite separate from her youthful screen persona. And this is the curious excitement of being with her; that you are, at once, abruptly in the present with one of this century’s most celebrated women, but also, intermittently in your own past, as a child and an adolescent, watching the peachy Elizabeth Taylor, on the small TV screen with your parents, playing opposite Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, all of them dead. It is dreamlike, listening to her satiny voice telling stories of Bogey and Coop and Monty and Marilyn and JFK – one’s mental screen flickering with Hollywood’s ghosts.

She is a beguiling mixture of kittenish femininity and bar-room broad, with her salty language and a thrillingly vulgar laugh. She is flirtatious, conspiratorial, funny, down-to-earth with occasional, slightly worrying lapses into la la land – when she closes her eyes or looks up to the heavens, circles the air with her hands, and talks in a frankly batty way about some experience or another. Occasionally she freezes – when she doesn’t like the line of inquiry – and one is left in no doubt that the charm is underpinned by steel.

Most striking of all is her willingness to talk openly about all sorts of subjects that one might have thought were taboo. On plastic surgery: “It is an impertinent question, but I will answer it. I have had a chin tuck.” On sex: “I think it’s very important… and it’s such F-U-U-N!” delivered with a great gleeful whoop. On drinking: “Loved it. Loved it. And I loved drinking the boys (including epic topers Burton and O’Toole) under the table.” On taking recreational drugs: “I did it for a bit… oh, I had a ball being bad!” On up-keep: “I think beauty products are a bunch of… I use hand cream on my face, and always have!” Her weight: “Everybody tells me I’m fat, but I don’t care. I’m 67 years old! I have the right to do what I want to do.” On the joys of the elasticated waistband: “Baby… it’s here!” thwacking her trousers to demonstrate.

The modest facade of the bungalow masks an opulent interior. We walk through the hall past a huge portrait, circa 1951, of Liz – or Bessie, as she prefers to be known. Monty’s name for her was Bessie-Mae which she particularly liked: “I think it’s sweet and country.” Actually, she says, she cannot stand Liz. When she was a little girl, her brother used to tease the living daylights out of her, chasing her around the garden, dangling lizards in her face and calling her Lizzie the Lizard. Lizzie became Liz and it was all associated with stuff way back then and, as it happens, she doesn’t think it’s a very pretty abbreviation anyway.

Into the living room, white carpet and chairs, a wall of important Impressionist paintings, french windows opening on to a pretty terrace, which leads down to the swimming pool. The tables are laden with great rocks of amethyst and pyramids of crystal and luminous amber obelisks – a collection so vast and impressive it would not look out of place in a museum of natural history. We look at a piece of shimmering violet on the table between us, which both contains and sheds a rainbow of colour. “Michael gave that to me,” she says. “It’s a major piece of crystal. That’s what a pure diamond does. Reflects all the colours.”

Ah, Elizabeth, and her diamonds. When did you first start liking jewellery? I ask. “When I first started opening my eyes,” she says. Later Tim, who has been Taylor’s personal assistant for the past seven or eight years, takes me on a tour of the house and standing in the loo, in front of an etching of a pair of lips (To Elizabeth – a big kiss Andy Warhol) he opens a box and shows me a ring on which is mounted the biggest, purest diamond I have ever seen. Shall I try it on? I ask. “Go ahead,” he says – so I do. Fortunately, it does nothing for me.

The star’s new management had warned me that on no account should I ask Miss Taylor about her jewels, but the first thing she says when we sit down is “Do you like my earrings?” She designed them herself and is inordinately proud of her efforts, drawing attention to them several times during the interview. They are very Liz – or Bessie, as I must now think of her, which sounds plain wrong somehow (Bessie Bunter? Bessie Smith? Queen Bessie?) – dangly, large and far from understated. They look like a string of daisies weighted down by a bell, and they do most definitely suit her. I think we can safely say that the diamonds and pearls are the real thing, I jest. “My dear. Who do you think you are talking to?” she breaks into her crazy laugh. “This is white coral (pointing to the flowers). These are white diamonds (the anthers), yellow sapphires and little pearls. I love the way they swing. They feel like they’re in the breeze.”

In her speech at the BAFTA awards earlier this year, Taylor said that she had never really considered herself as an actress. Even at the height of her acting fame, when she had received Oscars for Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (her favourite performance), she always maintained that she felt more like a movie star than a serious thespian. “I know I am an actress, and that I’ve been paid as an actress,” she says, “but when I listen to actors who are so taken away by the whole thing, I look at them and I think, get a life!” This is music to my ears. “Now I don’t mean to be rude,” she joins in the laughter, “but there are other things… and maybe living in Washington DC helped my perspective on that.”

After the BAFTA hoopla, there had been numerous reports that Taylor was so thrilled by the tributes that she had decided to relaunch her acting career. Her name had been linked, as they say, with Rod Steiger and various projects he supposedly had in mind for her. He’s a boy and a friend is how she describes him, and no, she squawks, she is not going to get hitched to him. In fact, after seven husbands, she is through with marriage altogether. “I am not going to marry anybody who is on the face of this earth or any other planet!” she says robustly.

As for the comeback, she seems decidedly half-hearted about it. I ask her about her rumoured role as Lady Bracknell. “The Importance of Being Earnest?” she asks. “That’s the first I’ve ever heard of it.” Do you want to act again or do you think you should because everyone else thinks you ought to? I ask – I can’t make it out. “I can’t quite either,” she says, truthfully. “It’ll happen when it happens. I’ll just let it flow.” The reason she gives for not making a major film for the past 20 years is that most of the scripts she has been sent have been dreck – “a good Jewish word. Let the reader figure it out”. She continues: “If I go back, I want to go back in something worthwhile – not just because it’s something to do. And the most important thing in my life is Aids.”

It is Elizabeth Taylor, more than any other celebrity, politician, activist or world leader, who was responsible for turning around public opinion towards Aids, certainly in the United States and probably beyond. Her involvement came at a time when little was known about the virus and any association with it was the social kiss of death. She wheedled, coaxed and badgered her powerful, wealthy friends to support her first big fundraising event – drawing in the likes of Sammy Davis Jnr and Frank Sinatra, and making front-page news. “Here they all were attending this dinner for Aids? What’s Aids?” she recalls. “Let’s turn on to the inside pages to find out. So it was an enormous coup and a way of letting people know what this thing was.” Since then she has raised millions of dollars for research and medical care, through her own self-funded Aids foundation as well as helping others, and she has stuck with the cause despite receiving a number of death threats. She acknowledges her position as a leader in the Aids fight, saying, “I am very proud of it, and I’ll take any flak they want to give me.”

In the early days, before anyone in the film community – including Elizabeth Taylor – knew that Rock Hudson had contracted the virus, she would be incensed by the kind of attitudes she encountered over the dinner table. “Well, it serves them bloody well right,” she affects a pompous swagger. “They should be wiped off the face of the earth and this is God’s way of doing it.”

When the news got out about Hudson, Hollywood was suddenly convulsed by the implications. “My God. It’s hit one of our own. It’s one of the family,” Taylor recalls. “And everybody loved Rock. He was one of the most enchanting, funny – ach, just so adorable. He was so cuddly and he loved to cuddle back.”

For all Taylor’s emotionalism on the subject, which is perfectly understandable to me, what impresses is her ruthless pragmatism about keeping the organisation lean and cost-efficient, so that every cent raised goes directly tothe Aids patients, whether in Nairobi or New York. Acting is only interpreting other people’s words and work, she says, but what she wants to do is make some contribution of her own. “This is not mimicking something else. It’s real tragedy. There’s no Greek chorus. We’re living it.”

It is not the first time in her life that Taylor has drawn flak from America’s Moral Majority. When she and Richard Burton became a couple, while they were both still married, there were more death threats and even attempts, she tells me, to run them off the road. “Oh yeah,” she says, “we had been evil and broken commandments. All the religious zealots came out and wanted to hang us. The Pope – who is not a religious zealot but, er,” she giggles and adopts a hokey accent, “He mighty big up there. He one of the big boys. He wrote a letter in the Vatican newspaper saying that my children should be taken away from me. Those were not easy times. I was sickened, maddened, saddened and heartbroken that those kinds of thoughts would be in people’s minds to such a degree of vehemence. Isn’t the Pope supposed to be like a descendant of Jesus? And didn’t Jesus forgive Mary Magdalene? Where is the love in that?”

I ask her whether she had a favourite husband, and her response is so theatrical I am tempted to see if the cameras are rolling. “I have had two great loves in my life. I have been doubly blessed. And I consider myself soohh lucky. Some people never find that kind of love that I’m talking of… I had it twice,” this delivered in a stage whisper. I do hope one of them was Richard Burton. “Of course… and Michael Wilding. I loved him with my life. We had 13 months together and our daughter, Eliza, was six months old when he was killed in a plane crash over the mountains of Albuquerque.” Taylor was left a widow at 26, a mother of three, with a film to finish – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

And did she consider that any of her husbands were a complete waste of time? She yodels with laughter “Yesss. But I’m not going to tell you. I’ll let you guess. I’m a gentleman.” Listening to this exchange afterwards, we sound – and not for the first time – like a couple of tipsy molls painting the town red. And yet Taylor, after years on the razzle, is now teetotal (she still indulges her taste for beer, but these days it’s non-alcoholic) and I am on the mineral water. For the most part, I get the impression that she enjoys being a bit risque and bawdy and that is why, unlike many reformed drunks, she is a lot of fun to be with.

The more cheeky the question, the better she seems to like it. She is homely rather than high-handed, without a trace of grande-damery. At one point, she offers to refill my glass of water herself, unlike most of the bigwigs I have encountered who simply yell or ring a bell for a servant. Standing up, she loses her balance, and apologises for her clumsiness, saying that since the brain surgery she has been left unsteady on her feet. Several weeks after our meeting, Taylor has another of her falls and is obliged to recuperate at the Cedars-Sinai hospital, a place with which she is so familiar that Burton once referred to it as her second home.

High on the list of dud husbands, I suspect, was the last one, Larry Fortensky (that hair!), the construction worker she met in rehab. Later when we talk about how she would still like to live with a man – “I like to cuddle and the companionship and all that, but not that blasted piece of paper” – I ask her why, in that case, she had not forgone marriage sooner. “Well, first of all, John (Warner) was running for Senate, so that explains that one. Fortensky? God only knows. His mother was dying of cancer, and she wanted us to get married so badly… and I got carried away in a moment of sentimentality.”

She suddenly breaks off and shrieks: “Shhhugggarr! You just come here to your mother!” The miniature dog, which resembles a bedraggled Slinky, comes into the room and Taylor leans down to cuddle her, making a series of mewing, infantile bleats including, stomach-turningly, “Has Sugar done a poo-poo?” You really love your dog, I say redundantly. “Oh I worship my dog,” she replies, “she’s an extension of me.” Looking at their fluffy white hair, together, I am struck by the fanciful notion that perhaps Taylor’s new hairdo has been modelled on her dog’s. Sugar is not simply a canine accessory but part of a double act – she is featured with her owner in the perfume ads, for instance, and is in Taylor’s arms at press conferences. It’s only later that I realise how rude my question sounds, but fortunately Taylor does not take it that way.

The only time she does get cranky with me is when I ask her about being beaten. I reviewed a couple of trashy biographies of Taylor some years ago, which left me with the impression that she had been physically abused by several husbands. When I raise the matter, she says, stony-faced, “Not plural. That’s all I’m going to say. I have never been beaten or abused by more than one man, and if someone out there wants to say, ‘Oh God, it must have been blah, blah, blah,’ I will say, ‘No it was not blah, blah, blah. It was Nick Hilton, who drank himself to death by the age of 33. And alcohol was a great part of this behaviour.” So you wouldn’t consider lending your support to a refuge or anything to help other battered women? “No. Because it makes me sound like a battered woman,” she replies. “I had a very unfortunate marriage and part of it was being beaten up. I’m not going to make that one of my crusades.” (It emerged in a recent American interview that Hilton had once kicked her in the stomach, causing her to have a miscarriage.

Her reluctance to discuss this period of her life may well be that it summons memories that Taylor would rather were not revived, but I think something else was going on as well. The uplifting message of our interview – and one which the star seemed keen, in an unforced way, to promote – is that despite all her adversities, the illnesses, the addictions, the tragedies and deaths, Taylor has not only survived, but in her late sixties, she is on top form. “With age, if you set your mind on the positive,” she says, “you can have more fun. You can be more in control and you can make things happen.” So let’s not spoil it all by focusing on a time when she was a victim of something out of her control.

And while we are on the subject of rejuvenescence, Taylor’s libido, she informs me, is as lively as ever. I ask her whether it’s important to her to have a good sex life and she exclaims: “Yesss. God! Yes! I have some girlfriends who are my age and they say, ‘Oh Elizabeth, (breathy dowager voice) sex isn’t important at our age.’ And I say, ‘Bull-shee-ut.’ Well, each to his own, but I have as much desire as I did in my twenties and thirties.”

She is tight-lipped about Michael Jackson presumably because they are the best of friends and perhaps something more. By which I do not mean anything romantic, although there is a framed poster of the singer, in one of the rooms, with the inscription: “To Elizabeth, my true love, yours eternally”. What they seem to share, more than anything, is a sense of communality, of being kindred spirits. I put it to her that perhaps the reason she said Jackson was the least weird man she knows is that her own upbringing was so weird.

“Oh my childhood and Michael’s childhood are so similar and so strange,” she agrees. “We had no chums our own age. I, thank God, adored horse riding and had that for my release and I loved my horse, King – the one they used in National Velvet – with a total passion. But Michael had nothing! The rest of the kids – the Jackson Five – would, um, I shouldn’t be talking…” I say that if we look at what he has done to himself – a perfectly attractive young black man who has disfigured himself in his desire to be something other than he is – well, it’s sad, at the very least, isn’t it? “It is,” she agrees. Does he see himself that way? “I can’t talk about him,” she says. “It’s not my prerogative, other than to say that there are reasons that would explain to you and the public… why he looks this way, or whatever. But it’s not my position.”

The more time I talk to Taylor, the more struck I am by the thought that she could have been a formidable force, had she been born in a different era. She has the courage of her convictions, a hatred of injustice, and the ability to apply her considerable will to get what she wants: qualities that have been amply demonstrated in her Aids work. Party politics don’t interest her, but issues do. She was an active pro-choice supporter and of the Equal Rights Amendment, for instance, despite being married to a Republican senator. She says that it would be fascinating to be a politician… but being a politician’s wife was not.

“It was one of the most boring experiences I’ve ever had,” she recalls. “You are told what to think, when to say what you’re supposed to think, and you have no opinions of your own, supposedly. If you cut out of the cradle and blurt something out, you’re looked down on – ‘Naughty, naughty.’ Having been very verbal all my life and independent – even before it was fashionable – I found it soooh difficult to keep my mouth shut.” Did Warner ever get cross with you, if you were indiscreet? “He’d give me a look that could kill a cat,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Never anything out loud, but I could get the vibes across the room.”

Taylor was born at a time when a woman’s power tended to reside in her ability to manipulate her sexuality. She has no qualms about using a little charm or flirtation for the sake of a good cause, saying that’s it’s no more dangerous or obnoxious than taking off your bra; shorthand, one takes it, for bra-burning Women’s Lib. Then she examines her poitrine with a quizzical look and says: “Maybe if I…? Well, I did have pretty good tits in my day.” Another cackle of laughter.

As a young woman, at least into her thirties, Taylor was dismissed by her directors and fellow actors, particularly those who had come from Shakespearean backgrounds. If you were pretty, naturally, you couldn’t have any brains. “And that hurt me enormously,” she recalls. “Because I don’t think what you look like has anything to do with what you are. But I rode right over it, because I know who I am. I know what I’m capable of and all I have to do is go out there and prove it.”

She was not always blessed with this unshakeable sense of self-belief. I had imagined, partly because of the luminous sheen of her screen presence, and the precocity which goes along with being a child star, that Taylor had always been confident about her allure. So it is a surprise to hear that she was once such a passive little woman that Humphrey Bogart, no less, felt obliged to take her to task. “I’ve been watching you,” he told her. “All you do is follow Michael (Wilding) around like a puppy dog. Don’t you realise that you are your own being? You’re a very beautiful woman. And when you get up the nerve and open your mouth and make a remark, you’re a very funny woman.” Bogart insisted that she go off and sit on her own and within ten minutes, he predicted, she would be surrounded by a crowd of men. “Oh Bogey,” she said, “don’t make me do that. I’m too shy. I love listening to Michael talk.” He threatened that if she didn’t, he would never invite her round to his house again: “This is a lesson. It’s a test. Treat it that way.”

“So I got up, walked over, smoked a cigarette, smiled…” Elizabeth Taylor is performing for me “…and eventually somebody came over – a very attractive somebody – and in five minutes there were about five men around and Bogey walked by and went…” she winks at me. She would often think back on that moment with Bogey – the teacher with his pupil done up in Christian Dior – and it would make her laugh inside. She would test it out and the more it worked, the more confidence it gave her… “and all I did was just sit there.”

While we’re in the past – and they certainly did do things differently there – I ask about her relationship with Montgomery Clift. She says that although they were attracted to each other – “We would kiss and stuff” – she knew that they were not meant for each other: “I loved Monty so much, he was beautiful, and he loved me so much, but one night I looked at him – and this was before I knew what gay was or anything about closets – and I thought, my God, he should be with a man, not a woman, and I know who.” Who? I ask, of course. But, alas, she won’t say. So did you matchmake them? “Yeah, and they were together for about three years,” she says.

David Heymann, in his biography, Liz, had interviewed a man who had claimed to have slept with Taylor’s art-dealer father. But when I ask her about this, she goes mad: “Whhh-aa-a-t? My father was g-a-a-y? Bull-sh-it! I know he wasn’t. He was my father. And especially since I seem to have a sixth sense about this…” She says she didn’t read the Heymann biography, or any of the others, including Kitty Kelley’s, but that if her father had been gay, “My answer would be, yes, and that’s why I think I learnt to understand homosexual men. But it isn’t true, so don’t put something on the man that isn’t true.” And then, in a low, confidential voice: “But I know he had an affair with his girl secretary.”

She tells me about Jack Kennedy – “I went out with him when he was a young congressman and I was 17, doing A Place in the Sun. All he could talk about was politics, it was one of the more boring dinners of my life.” And Marilyn Monroe – “I adored her. I felt very protective towards her and there was no way of protecting her… she had brought this net of negativity and self-destructiveness around her that anyone could put their Machiavellian fingers through. She drank and took too many pills.” You’ve done that and survived. “But she didn’t have the grit.” And Edward and Mrs Simpson who used to entertain the Burtons on Sundays in their house in Paris. I could listen to her talk like this for hours more, but our time is up and she is flagging.

The previous day, Taylor had cancelled our interview because of an urgent dental appointment. I was not particularly convinced by the excuse, and suspected her of prima-donna malingering. But when we meet she is still suffering – she clutches her jaw every so often, and gives a ladylike moan – and I half-wondered, whenever there was the odd slurred word or glassy look, whether she might not be a little high on medication. But gone are the days, she says, when irresponsible doctors would hand out as many pills as she wanted. This lot keep her in line, and admonish: “A little pain won’t kill you.”

She signs an autograph – “It was fun!” – pecks me on the cheek, and retires for a rest. I wait in her office for a taxi, and look at all the old photographs on the walls and tables. There she is with Jack Lang, who thanks her for “un jour lumineux”, with Michael Jackson, and with Michael Caine. The years peel back, and there she is in National Velvet, her hair tied up in a bow, beauty spot on cheek, already too sophisticated to look like a real little girl who loves horses. On one wall, there is a safari series of her with Burton, black eyeliner and Jackie O specs on her long dark hair, him grinning craggily into the camera, the two of them cuddling up to a baby leopard. On the table, there’s a photograph of her squashed on a sofa alongside all her hippy offspring and their babies, in which she looks so young you could mistake her for one of the children. And then I see a picture of her that I am unlikely to see again – it is a recent one of Taylor sitting in her hospital bed, cuddling Sugar, with no make-up and no hair, none at all. What a woman. If there were any evidence of her lack of vanity, this is it.

I had seen her at close quarters once before. It was when I was about ten, 30 years ago, and she must have been about the same age I am now. My parents and I were staying in a hotel in St Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and one lunchtime Taylor and Burton and a couple of teenage children – a boy and a girl, with the same tar-black hair and lavender eyes as their mother – walked into the dining room. They sat at the next-door table and my mother, who had her own movie-star glamour, was determinedly unimpressed. Sitting on the verandah afterwards, she turned to my father and said, “Rather a dumpy little thing, didn’t you think?”

“Well, Dougie,” he said on cue, “She’s not a patch on you.”

I love Taylor’s old movies, particularly A Place in the Sun and Suddenly Last Summer: the suggestion of something corrupt in her beauty, that it was both damaged and damaging; the hint of moral decay behind her succulent bloom. Now that both my parents are dead and a huge span of my life resides in memory, being with her in some odd way reminded me of them. Her face is different now; her features have coarsened, but she looks fresher and somehow cleaner with her freckles and minimal make-up. My friends warned me that she was bound to be a disappointment. I would discover that the goddess had feet of clay. But it was her very ordinariness, if anything, which was captivating. The idea that she would be happy to let herself go, if it weren’t for all those darned well-wishers in her entourage, constantly nagging her to dye her hair and lose weight, even to have a breast reduction to ease her back problems: “But I’m fond of my old boobs,” she said, mock-forlornly. Still, as a journalist, I know that the fan interview does not always make for the most satisfactory read. So, perhaps, it is just as well there was a sting in this tale.

When I got back to my hotel, still glowing with pleasure from the encounter, I received a phone call from Tim, the friendly assistant. He was wanting to finalise the paperwork, and wondered why I hadn’t left a particular document. “You didn’t leave it, you dog,” he said. I’m sorry? “You dog.” Well that’s not a very nice thing to say, I say, and since it was your job to deal with it, if anyone’s the “dog”, it’s you.

Dog insults out of the way – an odd way of doing business, one might think, even in Los Angeles – I take the opportunity to check on a few details. When was Taylor’s last interview published, and when is the next scheduled to appear in an American magazine? Bam! Another gratuitous swipe, along the lines that the other bunch are much more thorough and professional than The Times. “Oh, ha, ha,” I say, assuming this is some kind of off-joke. At which point, a new purring voice comes on the line: “Ginnyeee.” My hairs stand on end as I realise that Taylor has been listening to this conversation all along, quite unannounced, tacitly or explicitly egging her assistant on.

In an instant, the heroine of my imagination has become a horrid hybrid of Gloria Swanson in Hollywood Boulevard and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

It was a mistake to think we were on the same planet. Whatever Elizabeth Taylor says, she is a great actress.