BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
My very brief encounter with Elizabeth Taylor occurred late on a Saturday afternoon in May 1983 on a busy street in midtown Manhattan. A mounted New York City policeman was barking orders to the small crowd of about 30 waiting outside the stage door of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on West 46th Street: “Everybody keep to the sidewalk and stay behind the barricades!”
Why all the fuss? Taylor and her former husband, Richard Burton, were appearing in their first play together on Broadway. It was 5:00 p.m. and the famous couple were expected to emerge from the afternoon matinee of Noël Coward’s Private Lives at any moment. A limo driver in dark blue suit sipped coffee from a plastic cup and looked bored. He told me he was waiting for “somebody” but wouldn’t say whom.
Moments later, the stage door opened and the excitement built. Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of Liz, although they’d settle for Dick if she wasn’t available.
A heavyset man, bald, with black moustache, pushed a path through the crowd toward the open limo door. A tiny woman casually dressed in slacks and sweater emerged. (Burton took another exit.) “It’s her! Hey, Liz! Welcome back to New York.”
She smiled and waved. It was the Instamatic flashbulb popping event of the season.
Then a bonus for the Liz-watchers: She decided she didn’t want to ride in the limo after all. “It’s a lovely afternoon, I think I’ll walk.” There was momentary confusion among the dark-suited types who expected her to take the vehicle.
It was less than two blocks to Barbetta, an expensive Italian restaurant that served customers in an outdoor mock Roman dining garden. By the time Taylor and her entourage reached the end of the first block, the crowd of 30 had grown into the hundreds. It was like a scene from “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.”
A man in a pink shirt told me he saw Taylor 11 times in The Little Foxes, the last show she did on Broadway. “I’m going to see her four times in Private Lives,” he said. He had paid $180, the top price, for his four tickets.
The procession paused for the lights to change at the corner of Eighth Avenue and West 46th. Cars were pulling to a halt and people were staring out the windows in disbelief. “It can’t be. Hey, it’s really her!” Taylor seemed surprisingly blasé about all this adulation.
The lights changed and the crowd moved on, keeping a respectful two or three paces behind Taylor. Before descending the steps to the front door of the restaurant, she hesitated, turned to the crowd and waved again. The man in the pink shirt shouted out: “Bon appetite, Liz!” She smiled and said, “Thank you very much.” The man was in seventh heaven. “You know, that’s the second time she spoke to me.”
Nobody followed her into the restaurant. The crowd dispersed happily like successful autograph hunters. “Wait until I tell them at home about this. They’ll never believe me.”
The mood was much the same inside the theatre that evening. People were not there for the wit and elegance of Noël Coward. They wanted to see The Liz and Dick Show. The couple had been married twice, the first time after starring together in the movie Cleopatra. Would romance blossom again during their appearance together in Private Lives? Taylor had recently divorced Senator John Warner and Burton had divorced model Suzy Hunt. The rumours were already flying. The off-stage Liz and Dick Show was surely going to have a third act.
Taylor on stage was everything the fans could have hoped for. At 51, in her Theoni Aldredge costumes and Michael Kriston wigs, she looked vibrant and stunning. Burton, by contrast, appeared appeared hollow-eyed and gloomy. There were suggestions in the New York newspapers that Taylor, who co-produced the show, had given the role to Burton as a gift because heavy drinking was destroying his film career. During the first act, before Taylor made her appearance, Burton looked as if he’d really prefer to be somewhere else. As Frank Rich reported in The New York Times, “his face is a taut mask, frozen in an expression of less-than-exquisite pain, and there’s no bounce as he walks about on his stacked boots.” (Part of the reason for the stiff gait, to be fair, may have been the fact that Burton had recently undergone back surgery.)
Finally, they emerged together, Burton and Taylor, in the first and what was to be last show they would ever do on Broadway. The electricity between them created sparks that could be felt in every corner of the house.
Coward had urged the couple as far back as the 1960s to do a production of this play about a divorced couple, Elyot and Amanda, who rekindle their old passion after meeting by chance on their second honeymoons. “Noel used to tell us all the time that we totally fit in his play,” Taylor told New York magazine. When she as Amanda uttered the Coward line, “I feel rather scared of marriage, really,” Burton smiled knowingly and the audience murmured its approval. “It’s just like watching their real lives,” whispered the woman in the seat beside me.
The reviews were mostly negative. “From the start, the production never even pretends to be anything other than a calculated business venture,” wrote Rich in the Times. “Alas and for shame,” lamented Douglas Watt in the New York Daily News. “It even had flashes of mediocrity, but it was not good,” echoed Clive Barnes in the New York Post.
But the reviews were really irrelevant. So was the fact that Burton had no flair for light comedy, or that Taylor had no feeling for English elegance and sophistication. Private Lives afforded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Liz and Dick together again, if only on stage. And that, for the New York fans at least, was all that counted. As Dan Sullivan of the Los Angeles Times put it, “The world’s former love-champions are still battling it out up there, still giving us a show.”
As for the rumours about the romance between the twice-married couple having a third act, Burton put paid to those during the run of the play by marrying for the fifth time, taking 35-year-old make-up artist Sally Hay as his bride. Taylor, according to the Daily Mirror, was devastated. Burton died the following year, of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 58. Taylor married for the eight time in 1991, to a construction worker she met at the Betty Ford Clinic and divorced after five years. She died in 2011 at age 79.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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