Elizabeth Taylor's Glorious Excess

Elizabeth Taylor flanked by Eddie Fisher and Tennessee Williams, 1959. Image courtesy Herald-Examiner Collection/LAPL
"One time Elizabeth Taylor had a surprise party here for her husband, and I walked into the kitchen and saw Elizabeth eating out of the pots. She was stealing a piece of chicken and she looked at me and said, 'You didn't see that.'" -- actress Betty Jones

"Someone told me that Debbie Reynolds kept a photograph of me taken during my fattest period on her refrigerator door. She said it reminded her of what could happen if she charged into the icebox. During the initial stage of my diet I thought, well, if it works for Debbie, maybe it will work for me ... If you think a picture of me as Miss Lard will inspire you, go ahead and put it on your refrigerator. I have no objection." -- "Elizabeth Takes Off: On Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self Image and Self-Esteem"

Elizabeth Taylor was one hell of a beautiful broad. She was a child star turned international super star, a serial wife, a survivor of over 100 surgeries, an addict, a mother, a fierce AIDS activist, and the first voice of Maggie Simpson. She lived a life of excess and drama, but almost always with a wink and a smile. In the words of her friend, the designer Vicky Tiel:

"Did she like being holed up in an enormous hotel suite with all her favorite food and wine and her favorite people flown in from all over the world? She loved it!...The things that mattered most to Elizabeth were being Earth Mother to her loved ones, sex, food and drink, helping the unfortunate ... Her generosity was her foremost quality."

Taylor at Chasen's. Image courtesy UCLA Library Digital CollectionsThis gusto for life was never more evident than in her love of food. Liz liked rich foods, foods with character and taste. According to one biographer, "She loved not only beluga caviar and champagne but American fare like cheeseburgers, French fries, and of course, chili from Chasen's." Her obsession with Chasen's chili knew no bounds, and she had it flown to her all over the world, most famously to her palatial Roman villa during the filming of Cleopatra. She and her third husband, the producer Mike Todd, had been regulars at Chasen's during the '50s, where they regularly ate with their best friends -- Debbie Reynolds and the crooner Eddie Fisher.

Mike Todd died in a plane crash in 1958, and a year later Liz and Eddie Fisher were married. This foolish marriage soon gave way for the love of Elizabeth's -- and the 20th century tabloid media's -- life. In 1961, on the set of the movie Cleopatra, Liz met her match in the great Richard Burton. They quickly forged a vagabonding, jet-setting life: one night having pork sausages from London's Fortnum and Mason sent to Paris, another feasting on Elizabeth's homemade specialty of grilled chicken breast with a cream, avocado, and cognac sauce. In his delightfully frank diaries, Burton reported:

Both E and I went mad last night and started eating Callard and Bowsers Licorice Fingers. I must have eaten a pound or so and E somewhat less.

and...

E's just given me a graphic description of the delight of over-eating kippers and the particular joy of their repeating. She is the only woman who will tell you details of the internal workings of her body. She knows it appalls me, which is why, perversely, she enjoys telling me.

Of course, they were binging on something else: copious amounts of booze. Elizabeth liked alcohol in many forms -- Jack Daniels, mimosas, Bloody Marys ... No snob, she claimed that the best drink she ever tasted was a combination of Hershey's Chocolate Syrup, vodka, and Kahlua. Not surprisingly, the couple's weight ballooned, leading Liz to quip, "Richard and I went on 'The Drinking Man's Diet'...It worked for awhile, and then we dropped the 'diet' and just continued drinking."

The Cellar in Fullerton, where Burton proposed to Taylor a second time. The restaurant was made by the same craftsmen who designed Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride.They were divorced in 1974. Legend has it that a year later he re-proposed to her in the grotto at The Cellar in Fullerton, where they often dined on escargot, steak with hollandaise, and chocolate mousse. This stab at marriage busted up in 1976, and Elizabeth married Senator John Warner on the rebound that same year. Alone and unhappy in D.C., she turned to booze, pills, and food. She ballooned to 180 pounds. "I was searching for a replacement for all the things that were making me lonely," she later explained. After divorcing Warner and a stint in rehab, she began dieting, and experienced a surge in popularity.

In 1988, a slimmed-down and shimmering Liz wrote a hilariously contradictory dieting book, "Elizabeth Takes Off." In it, she suggested eating dry toast for breakfast; veggie dips of yogurt, Roquefort cheese and spices; swordfish with lime; steak and peanut butter sandwiches; and a combination of sour cream and cottage cheese poured over fruit. Her hedonistic side also led her to advocate one "pig out day" each week. When asked what she ate on those days, she replied, ''Fried chicken. Mashed potatoes. With lots of gravy. Lima beans. Corn. Chocolate cake of some kind. But then the next two days you really have to watch it.'' She hoped the book would help people, but she didn't leave them with any illusion. She joked to a reporter; "Maintaining your weight is the pits!"

Over the decades, Liz was a patron of many local LA restaurants. She enjoyed Canter's, El Cholo, and Pink's. In the last few years of her life, she was a beloved regular at The Abbey in West Hollywood. She would arrive in rhinestone sunglasses, sometimes in a wheel chair, with her dog Daisy. Then she would sit in her favorite booth, drinking apple martinis as she chatted with the employees and clientele of the famous gay bar.

How wonderful is that? Elizabeth Taylor was a lot of things, but complacent was never one of them. To the end of her life, she liked a strong drink, great food and new friends. As she once told a reporter, "I feel very adventurous. There are so many doors to be opened, and I'm not afraid to look behind them."

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About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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