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Remembering Elizabeth Taylor: Our Columnist's Chance Encounter with the Movie Star

On the eve of a blind date, Elizabeth Taylor partied at a chateau – and revealed her anxieties.

The publisher and millionaire Malcolm Forbes used to throw some pretty good parties, and there was one shindig in particular that became an annual celebration: hot air ballooning at his chateau in Normandy.

One year I was lucky enough to get an invite. My dad, also an editor and publisher (granted of a more humble ilk) invited me but I wanted to go on my own merits as a journalist. I got an assignment from Jann Wenner to write about the star studded event for his Us Weekly magazine.

It wasn’t hard to find stars. Jay Leno and his wife were staying at the chateau as was the designer Hubert de Givenchy (I even helped him find his room, practicing my French along the way). There was various European royalty and, of course, the fabulous Forbes family.

Elizabeth Taylor was an extremely close friend of Malcolm’s and she flew in for the weekend. He was protective of her, especially as she battled chronic back pain, but they really seemed to enjoy each other’s company. I’d seen them in New York just a week before when I happened to take in the same performance of The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. The couple received a standing ovation when they walked into the theatre.

The second day, I heard I would be seated with Ms. Taylor at lunch and was excited to meet the star and hopefully get some good quotes for my story. Even though I identified myself as a member of the press, she was very kind and irreverently down to earth. I mentioned seeing her at the Phantom evening.

She lit up. “I know every trick in show business and on the stage but that show delighted me. I was totally drawn in and lost in the story.” She seemed so pleased that there was theatre that could still do that for her.

She told me she would be leaving after the weekend for London where she had a blind date set up. She rolled her eyes saying that the gentleman was “thrilled to meet her.” Her problem was that she was always too famous for these guys and they couldn’t handle it. She said she hoped to find “someone who can stand the heat!”

As we chatted, I thought about my little one bedroom apartment back in Brooklyn Heights where the kitty litter would definitely need to be changed when I got back, and how neat it was to be sitting here with this iconic star.

There was hot air ballooning by day out on the rolling property of this ancient chateau and a carnival set up on the grounds that stayed open all night long. Jay Leno treated everyone to bumper cars and French fries, the champagne flowed, the balloon teams partied heartily.

As even 17th century chateaus have a limited number of rooms, I was sharing a small bedroom at the top of the castle with Ms. Taylor’s personal assistant, a raucous girl named Lizzie, who had been a lady in waiting to one of the British royal family.

The weekend was fairly wild but no one was wilder than Ms. Lizzie. When I got back after quite a night of frolicking with the rich and famous, she still wasn’t home. She came in at some ungodly hour and collapsed on the twin bed across the small room.

I remember smiling at her tenacity for staying out, then rolled over and went back to sleep.

A short time later I hear d the voice. It was sort of a shouted whisper far away. “Liz-zie! Liz-zie!” It couldn’t be. But it was. Elizabeth Taylor was looking for her assistant in the middle of the night. She was on the floor below calling up to our level. She probably had no idea where we were because how many bosses check out the accommodations of their assistants?

Some footsteps receded and the calling stopped. But only for a few minutes. They came back and the calling resumed. “Liz-zie!”

Then the steps started quietly up the stairs. “Liz-zie.”

I kicked Lizzie’s bed. “Lizzie, your boss wants you.” She was out cold.

“Liz-zie!” the steps were coming nearer. A light went on in the hallway under the door. “Liz-zie!”

The handle turned. The door slowly opened -- and there she was. That famous spikey haired silhouette stood in the doorway in a lavender negligee. I pretended to be asleep as the star approached my bed. “Lizzie?” She was bending over, looking right into my face from an inch or two away trying to discern if I was Lizzie or not. I froze.

Finally, she walked to the other bed and spotted her helper. “Lizzie,” she said, shaking her slightly. “Lizzie, I need you.”

Lizzie began to moan. “Right, right,” she said, but didn’t move.

“Lizzie, I think I’m having an anxiety attack. Can you come? I need you.”

“Right, right, coming,” said Lizzie, with some conviction but still not moving.

The star receded from our room. Lizzie returned to unconsciousness.

I jumped up and went over to shake her. “Lizzie, Ms. Taylor needs you. She’s looking for you.”

“Right. I’m going.” Then nothing.

From the bottom of the stairs again, it came: “Liz-zie! Liz-zie!”

I was torn. I wanted to help -- to go and say, “Would you like me to sit with you for a while, Ms. Taylor?” But she knew I was there as a reporter and it might have made her more uncomfortable if a stranger intruded on a private moment in the middle of the night.

Reluctantly, I stayed put with my comatose roommate.

The next morning, most guests were leaving early. I went down to breakfast and saw that Malcolm Forbes, the King and Queen of Romania and my dad were at the breakfast table. The crowds that had required tents for every meal were gone.

I ran back upstairs for my notebook and, on the way down, saw Elizabeth Taylor peeking out of the grand doorway of her room. “Hello,” I said, in a friendly way. “Can I help you with something?”

She hesitated and said, “I think Lizzie’s gone to get me some tea.” She looked over the railing. “Who’s down there?”

“Well, most of the guests have gone and it’s only Malcolm and my dad and the King and Queen at breakfast. Would you like to come down? It’s very quiet.”

In her lavender negligee and robe, the movie legend descended the stairs with the girl reporter from Brooklyn. As we entered the dining room, I led her to the head of the table opposite, Malcolm.

“Good morning, Elizabeth,” he said.

My father was busy staring at me and trying to figure out what the heck had happened the night before. A waiter came and I said, “Would you please bring Ms. Taylor some tea.” Then she bummed a cigarette off me and we sat there enjoying the morning. The King and Queen didn’t say anything.

Later on, a helicopter sat out front on the gravel, waiting to take Elizabeth to London for her blind date.

As we left for New York with our host Malcolm, she stood in the doorway of the castle, still in her nightclothes. “Goodbye, my dear,” said Malcolm. “Take your time. And watch the house for me,” he laughed.

She waved, and the weekend came to an end.

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Christine Loughran March 24, 2011 at 02:06 AM
This is SO great! :)
Judith Anderson March 24, 2011 at 06:04 PM
No one combines the sublime and the ridiculous like Susan Konig! A great column with personal insights into the beautiful Hollywood legend and beloved HIV-AIDS activist. I still love to watch most of her movies - Cleopatra, no. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, An American Tragedy for two, exceptional. Thanks for this, Susan.
napier March 25, 2011 at 11:21 AM
A true SUPERSTAR and special person who stood up for those when it certainly wasn't popular. Thanks for sharing your memories with us.

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