Elizabeth Taylor: Tales from the Jewish Crypt [VIDEO]

It’s no surprise that after someone passes, many and various stories of their life begin to surface—stories that haven’t been uttered in ages, stories almost forgotten, if not for the moribund trigger that whisks them back into the light.

So yesterday, when I awoke to the news of Elizabeth Taylor’s death, I felt an almost greedy wish to learn how she lived. The headlines in the entertainment world spoke of her stunning beauty – that raven hair, alabaster skin, violet eyes – as much as they told of her fiery personality; she was fierce, passionate, otherworldly. Elizabeth Taylor was, in many ways, a mad woman. Mad to live, mad to love, desirous of the world and everything in it.

As Cleopatra, she was the natural fit to star in a film with the rare distinction of having nearly bankrupted a studio. According to imdb.com, the $194,800 budget for Taylor’s costumes in the film was the highest ever for a single actor. It paid for 65 costumes, including one dress made from 24-carat gold cloth. When she posed for her first Life Magazine cover in 1948, according to a lovely story written by Emma Forrest for The Telegraph, the photographer Phillipe Halsman asked her what color she wanted her dress to be: “The color of money,” Taylor famously replied. 

Taylor with Rabbi Hier and co-producer/director Arnold Schwartzman at the Genocide recording sessions in London. 1980. Photo courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center.

While Taylor couldn’t be accused of mastering relationships, she was wildly romantic. Married three times by the age of 25, her primal appetite for men who could match her went on throughout her life. Beginning in 1950, when she was a tender 18, Taylor leapt into a series of marriages with Conrad Hilton, Michael Wilding, Michael Todd, Eddie Fisher, Richard Burton, Richard Burton again, U.S. Senator John Warner and lastly, Larry Fortensky. As my friend Emma put it via text-message-eulogy, “She represented the triumph of hope over experience—which is also the Jewish story.” (That is a reference, by the way, to British author Samuel Johnson’s wry take on second marriages.) In between Todd and Fisher, Taylor converted to Judaism, finally calling her volatile and impassioned spirit what it really was: unrivaled chutzpah.

Though she never gave up diamonds and dressing gowns, her larger-than-life persona expanded to include significant largesse. She was a very early and very public champion for HIV/AIDS research, but she had a lesser known pet cause that brought her into the purview of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where she served on the board of trustees and eventually received the center’s highest honor, the Humanitarian Award in 1980. Taylor also served as a narrator for the center’s first documentary film, “Genocide,” about the Holocaust, and the center credits her participation with attracting Orson Welles as co-narrator. The film went on to win an Oscar.

But as experiences with Liz Taylor go, simple sentences do little justice. To capture the color and fire of postmortem Taylor tales, I asked Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to share his favorite Liz stories. And here they are, in his own words:

From left: At the world premiere “Genocide” are Simon Wiesenthal; Center Trustee, Abe Pollin; then-Chairman of the Center’s Board of Trustees, Sam Belzberg; Elizabeth Taylor (who along with Orson Welles narrated the film), Frank Sinatra and SWC Dean and Founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier. Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. January 17, 1982. Photo courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center.

On meeting Elizabeth Taylor for the first time:

I had the idea—we had a script, “Genocide: The Story of the Holocaust” – and to get this around the world, to get people to pay attention, we needed a narrator. And I thought, ‘How can we get Elizabeth Taylor?’

Now, we had done some work within the U.S. congress—we were involved on many issues regarding Germany, Nazi war criminals, statute of limitations, and we knew many senators and congressmen. One senator was her husband John Warner, at the time. So I made a call to Senator Warner and asked him if he could do me a favor. I said, ‘We have a script, we’d love her to be the narrator, it’s a documentary on the Holocaust’ and would he agree to getting the script to her? And he said, ‘Well you know I handle government affairs; my wife is in charge of entertainment. The only thing I can do, Rabbi, is give you head start; rather than going through her office, I’ll place this script on her night table. The rest is her decision.’

Soon after, she read the script and I was told she was crying. Senator Warner’s office called and said ‘You’re gonna get a call from her – she’s coming to L.A. This was in 1979. So I get a call from a Mrs. Warner, that’s who she called as, and I called her back, and on the telephone she said she was very affected by the script, very much wants to do it, and that she was doing a film in London and she’d have to record in London but before she says yes, why don’t we have lunch and discuss? And I was just a young rabbi then, so I said, ‘Where should we have lunch?’ And she said, ‘How about 1230 at The Polo Lounge?’ I was embarrassed to ask her—I had never heard of The Polo Lounge and I didn’t know where it was. So as soon as I hung up I asked my secretary, ‘Have you ever heard of The Polo Lounge?’ And she looked at me like I was crazy. Then I thought, what am I gonna have? It’s not kosher. So I called up the maitre d and said, I’m paying for the lunch, I don’t want any confusion about that, I just want to make sure you can serve me—if you can give me a fruit plate and maybe a coke (at the time I drank coke) and let her order whatever she wants. The day of, I show up there and I didn’t know she had a special table that she always ate in, which was in an alcove with windows all over the place and then she arrives, and I didn’t know that at that time, there was a business that when stars came into The Polo Lounge, bus drivers would inform people on tour buses who was in the restaurant and then the buses would drive by the windows and gaze in. [So the whole time we were having lunch] a group of people from a tour bus were staring into the window. She made it clear she would do the script, but we never explained in the letter [to her] that we weren’t in a position to pay, we would love if she could possibly do it as a public service. And she said, ‘Well that’s exactly what I had in mind. I have the greatest respect for Simon Wiesenthal, I know his stories, I love that man.’ She then was going to the dentist but she didn’t have a car, and I didn’t park at the valet because I had a lousy car, full of books and stuff, and so I had to run two blocks away to get the car, [clean it out], and then I drove her to her dentist on Beverly Boulevard. [Hier added that he did her a favor by going into the dentist’s office and making sure they were ‘ready’ for Taylor because she didn’t want to sit in the waiting room].

Taylor with Frank Sinatra, another early supporter of the SWC, at the Kennedy Center event. Photo courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center.

[When I met her that first time] I said to myself, ‘If I my mother, my father had heard this, they wouldn’t believe it.’ Growing up I did go to yeshiva but you did hear about Liz Taylor—everybody did. I thought, ‘Jeez if the rebbes in the yeshivas saw this, I don’t know what they’d do to me.’

[I asked Hier what it was like for a young rabbi to sit across the table from someone so stunningly beautiful and he said:]

Listen I’m an observant Jew, so I should observe.

She also called me when the film won the Oscar – because I thanked her and Orson Welles [in my speech], so she called me and said, ‘Rabbi I knew then at our luncheon at The Polo Lounge where this film was going.’

On Taylor’s kishkas:

She regarded herself as a Jew at that time, of course. And you’ll see she pronounces it on the videotape, her speech was very dramatic, she reads it very slowly. You’ll see her feelings about the Holocaust and her identity as a Jew. I did help her write that but she was not apologetic about identifying with Jews. She had this tremendous affinity for Simon Wisenthal, she regarded him as an authentic hero. She treated him deferentially, as if he were her mentor. She had enormous respect for him.

On their kosher meat adventure at the recording studio in London:

I met her in London and I had made all the arrangements. Arnold Schwartzman, the director of film, was at the studio waiting for her to arrive. I picked her up at The Savoy and took her to the recording studio—John Wood Studio – and I arrive and I say at the entrance ‘Ms. Taylor is here, what recording studio do we go to and the guard calls somebody and says, ‘You have Ms Elizabeth Taylor? There must be a mistake because there’s no booking. I said, ‘What are you talking about? We confirmed for 3 hours, 4 hours. The director is waiting for us here.’ And he called back and said, ‘Mr Schwartzman is not here neither.’ Now, I made one stop [before we got there]. I knew we’d be having lunch so I stopped at Bloom’s to pick up kosher corned beef for myself. Well, really it was salt beef. And what happened was, [we found out London has] two studios, John Wood and John Woods, and it would be at least a 40 minute car ride [to get to the right studio]. I took her to the wrong studio! And Elizabeth is in the back of the car and she takes out the salt beef and starts eating it. I was saved by the salt beef because she ate, as I did, from the bag in the back of the car. She loved the salt meat. She said, ‘Rabbi is this kosher?’ And when we got to the right studio I thought this whole thing might have ended in disaster.

On the rabbi playing Liz Taylor’s stylist:

The morning she was set to receive the humanitarian award, she called me at home at 715 in the morning (which I remember because minyan was at 8) and she said, ‘Rabbi, my husband forgot to bring all of my clothes [from Washington].’ And she was in tears, ‘Warner brought nothing, I thought I had already brought my clothes but I have nothing to wear—I don’t feel like coming.’ I said, ‘You have to come, you’re our guest of honor, a thousand people are coming to see you.’ So I got off the phone and called Bill Belzberg [a wealthy Canadian Jew who lived in Beverly Hills and was well connected around town] and I said, ‘Bill, you gotta help me out—this is not a question for a rabbi! What are we gonna do?’ So Bill called Fred Hayman who was the owner of Giorgio’s and who had just gone out to jogging somewhere in Rancho Park. So Belzberg and three other guys went to Rancho Park, looking in all different directions for Fred Hayman until they found him. Sure enough they did and Hayman opened the store, Elizabeth bought a dress and came that night. And if you see the whole tape of the banquet, I told that story to the thousand people that night. I said, ‘You know, they never quite prepare you in seminary for the rabbinate: How do you prepare a rabbi for this kind of a question?’

On the last time the rabbi met the movie star:

I saw her last year in London. I remember exactly, it was May 10. We were in London doing a film on Winston Churchill and she was staying at The Dorchester. And when I saw her, she was on a wheelchair and there was a huge smile. I went over, thanked her, and said, ‘Remember Elizabeth, when we filmed in London?’

Watch Liz Taylor’s speech at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s first Humanitarian Award presentation at the Century Plaza on November 9, 1980: