At Elizabeth Taylor's Official Memorial Service

Posted November 29, 2011 10:54 PM

“She did not expect perfection in others because she knew she herself was not perfect.”

So recalled Elton John of his friend Elizabeth Taylor at the intimate memorial held for the late actress and AIDS crusader in the Stephen Ross Theater at Warner Bros. Studio, on the afternoon of Oct. 16.

And so it has really happened. Elizabeth died, was buried and eulogized months ago, but having a memorial service somehow made Elizabeth’s passing “official”—at once terribly sad, but in the manner of memorials, invigorated and enlivened by the memory of her.  It began with her grandson Rhys Tivey appearing onstage, thanking his grandmother for always encouraging his interest in music, and then launching into a trumpet solo of “Amazing Grace.”  Believe me, the tears were already flowing.

The happening was more representative of the “real” Elizabeth Taylor, rather than the one she enjoyed often playing—the haughty movie queen. In his touching remarks, Elton also said:  “She could ‘play’ the star but she never behaved like one.” This sentiment was repeated by those others who took the stage.  

The fairly brief program, which included film clips, was hosted gracefully and eloquently by Colin Farrell. The young actor and the star of stars became unlikely friends in the last two years of her life. Farrell, who was clearly moved throughout the tribute, said that his relationship with Elizabeth was the “most interesting, unusual, inquisitive friendship of his life.”  Despite the ravages of her illness, Farrell described himself as “seduced” by Elizabeth’s humor, intelligence and tenderness.  He said he never felt that he was “young” and she was “old.” She remained girlish and flirtatious to the end, but it was her keen interest in everything going on that appealed to and surprised Colin. He said, laughing, “I did have some thoughts of becoming number nine! Maybe you think that sounds creepy, but it really isn’t.  And if you knew her, you’d know it wasn’t.”

Kate Burton, Elizabeth’s stepdaughter, spoke: “I met her for the first time in the dark bar of the Regency Hotel. I mean, I literally met Elizabeth Taylor for the first time in a dark bar!”  Kate also recalled her last conversation with her stepmother, shortly before her death. Elizabeth expressed again her deep love for Richard, and how very much she still missed him. Kate then read Shakepeare’s exquisite lines from “Anthony and Cleopatra” which begin—“Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have immortal longings in me.”

Michael Caine remembered “crapping his pants” in fearful anticipation of meeting her on the set of “X, Y and Zee.” Of course, she was nothing at all what he expected—the terrible diva. She was…Elizabeth.  

Magazine publisher Martha Nelson spelled out why Elizabeth was always a “hot story” no matter her scandals, rehabs, re-inventions, marriages, weight, age or illness.  “People sensed she was real, and living her life honestly.”

Her close friend, hairdresser Jose Eber, stressed her qualities of “unconditional love” and her welcoming bounty of friendship to the families, partners, friends of those she loved.  He wept in memory of her devotion.

Kathy Ireland—who wore something skintight, hot pink, and lowcut—spoke of Elizabeth’s spirituality.  

But the high point had to be the appearance of two more Taylor grandchildren, Quinn Tivey and Tarquin Wilding. Both were quite emotional, but still funny.  One of the boys recalled watching movies with Elizabeth—“One night we watched about ten minutes of ‘Twilight’ and Elizabeth said, “Oh, come on, let’s turn on ‘True Blood’ for some real sex and violence!’”  The boys also thanked her for being “a true matriarch in our family, and keeping us all very close.”

Director Mike Nichols sent a filmed tribute, recalling her on the set of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”—how after a sleeping, loudly snoring crewmember had ruined her perfect take of a big scene she had worried over, her instant first reaction was to Nichols: “Please don’t fire him!”

There was very little talk of the movie star Elizabeth Taylor, or even of her fabled beauty. Elizabeth’s fame and her physical assets were the least of her, really, and everyone wanted to present a palpable sense of her humor, wisdom and generosity. And her love of four-letter words!
Others on hand in the audience of several hundred included Robert Wagner (a new first-time grandfather)…Jackie Collins…designer Nolan Miller…Jaclyn Smith…photographer Douglas Kirkland, who first snapped Elizabeth in Las Vegas in 1960, during the Eddie Fisher marriage (“Nothing can adequately describe how beautiful she was!”)…Ron Berkley, Elizabeth and Richard’s makeup man from their jet-setting heyday…Maury Hopson, who did her hair and makeup in the 70’s and 80’s, and traveled with her to a spa in 1979. That spa visit resulted in some adorable snapshots of the star. Hopson said the reaction to one shot--just showing Elizabeth’s shapely legs in an inexpensive pair of Candie’s heels—had some people thinking Candie’s should use Miss Taylor in their advertising!…producer Howard Rosenman…Burt Bachrach…Bob and Carol Daly…her ex-husband Larry Fortensky and some of his feuding family…Sherry Lansing…lots of just plain folks who knew Elizabeth, and the star’s enormous family of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, cousins, etc.—even Michael Jackson’s children were there!   As were the daughters of former Sen. John Warner (another ex). To say it was terribly en famille would be a major understatement.
Following the program, everybody was invited to eat, drink and mingle. And what food! If any part of the event was a real tribute to La Liz it was what was served—luscious crab-cakes, chicken tenders, mac and cheese, mini-pizzas, little potato, bacon and sour cream delicacies, beef sliders, warm sugared donuts, gigantic strawberries dipped in chocolate.  And it never ended!  Even after the desserts started coming, the other stuff was hauled out, tray after tray.  It was divine excess---just like the goddess herself.
After the reception at Warner Bros., Sally Morrison—Elizabeth’s press rep and a brilliant ally from the early days of the AIDS fight--led a select group of family and friends over to the Pacific Design Center, where Christie’s is showing off part of Elizabeth’s collection of jewels and gowns and art. This show moves to NYC in December, and her effects will then be auctioned.  Kate Burton said, “It’s so funny to view the jewelry like this.  Because growing up, it was perfectly ordinary to see this fabulous stuff just lying around, along with us kids and the dogs!”
One person who did not speak, but who had a large part in the memorial, and spent almost twenty years of his life with Elizabeth, is her assistant Tim Mendleson. Tim said something to us not long ago, during one of Elizabeth increasingly perilous hospital stays. It bears repeating because it goes to the spirit of the memorial—though no such thing was imagined at the time: “She was extraordinary when I met her—funny and generous and earthy and human.  But in recent years with her mobility so challenged, she has had to become a more ‘inward’ and an even more thoughtful person. Her suffering hasn’t made her bitter, in fact it has somehow enlarged her sense of the suffering of others—and that quality was already enormous.  People shouldn’t ‘feel bad’ for Elizabeth.  Believe me, she doesn’t.”  
Liz Smith is a native born Texan who used to go to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies during the Depression and yearn for the bright lights of Broadway. She arrived in New York in 1949 with $50 to her name and no ticket home.  She had finally found the center of things, and had no choice but to succeed.  In 1976, as the star columnist of the then big and healthy New York "Daily News," she created an overnight sensation. She became an ornament of that paper and a new kind of gossip columnist – one known for wit, humor and a sense of fair play. Before her success as a columnist, Liz was a proofreader for "Newsweek," a press agent on Broadway, a producer for Mike Wallace on CBS radio, and a producer for live TV at NBC. Then there was her concurrent 11-year stint on NBC-TV’s "Live  At  Five." Her daily column can now be read on, in “Daily Variety” and in syndication.
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