Elizabeth – J. Randy Taraborrelli (2006) – A Real Life Review

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This is the fifth showbiz biography I have read by J. Randy Taraborrelli. Around this time last year I was enjoying his 2015 publication “Becoming Beyonce” knowing that I had this earlier work on my shelves.

Taraborrelli’s study of the life and work of Elizabeth Taylor was published five years before her death at the age of 79 in 2011. Reading this confirmed something I’d always felt about her- it was amazing that she lasted as long as she did. There were so many health scares throughout her life, so many times it was reported that she was teetering on the edge, the first time fifty years before her demise when in London she collapsed from pneumonia and according to the author “thousands gathered in the streets in front of the hospital to hold vigil for her.” She bounced back (until the next major health crisis), a true survivor.

I realised when I started this book that I didn’t know a huge amount about Elizabeth Taylor, I just thought I did because of the amount of publicity she stirred up in her lifetime. Born in England (which was why in 2000 she could be made a Dame) I never knew her American heritage, that both of her parents were American and who returned home with their young daughter as war was breaking out. I have seen a number of her films over the years. I of course knew about her relationship with Richard Burton (recently re-watching the involving “Burton & Taylor” TV dramatization with Helena Bonham-Carter and Dominic West piqued my interest enough to pick up this book). I also knew about her AIDS work, her jewellery, her perfumes all of which gave her greater celebrity at an age when most actresses would be finding leading roles harder to come by, but to me she was always one of those larger-than-life people who do not seem to function in the real world. I needed Taraborrelli’s work to give me a grounding of her reality, what it really meant to be Elizabeth Taylor.

I never fully appreciated how devoted her fans were towards her, especially in America. In a lengthy film career her movies nearly always made money, no matter how patchy they were (even if it took years to turn a profit like the expensive “Cleopatra”). She was forgiven for breaking up the marriage of sweetheart showbiz couple Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher despite this being a huge scandal at the time. Taylor was still reeling from husband Mike Todd’s death in a plane crash turning to Eddie, his best friend, with him too rapidly becoming husband number 4 (and the one she had so little positive to say about in subsequent years).

The relationship with Richard Burton was central to Taylor’s life and career in the public eye. Everyone knew of their passion, their turmoil and manipulations of one another during their two marriages. He was the man Taylor could not let go. The section in the book which focuses on their marriage is perhaps the least absorbing. It was the time before, in-between and after the marriages which makes for a far more fascinating depiction of two people who just couldn’t stay away from each other and for whom the other person was both essential and toxic. Taraborrelli is too awe-struck by his subject to really join in with the tabloid frenzy some of Elizabeth’s actions stirred up, her friendship with Michael Jackson is played down as two kindred spirits with troubled childhoods and husband #8 (I’m counting Burton twice) Larry Fortensky, a younger construction worker she met in rehab which provoked an avalanche of sneering is handled sensitively and Fortensky (who died aged 64 in 2016) certainly does not get the ridicule he got at the time.

In fact, Taylor crammed in so much into her life that it’s hard to keep up and this book could easily have been twice its length. There’s a whole section on references and acknowledgements which goes on for 40 pages where Taraborrelli cites his sources. Elizabeth Taylor certainly generated a phenomenal amount of copy in her lifetime and we will never see anyone quite like this unique woman again.

four-star

“Elizabeth” was published by Sidgwick and Jackson in the UK in 2006.

Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

 

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I chose this when “read a book with a female’s name in the title” was pulled out of the hat as part of Sandown Library’s Russian Roulette Reading Challenge.  I’ve never read Elizabeth Taylor before but had my eye on her for some time.  She came to mind on a previous challenge when I had to read a book with a main character aged over 60.  This book wasn’t available on the shelves then so I opted for “Elizabeth Is Missing” instead but I was pleased to be able to select “Mrs Palfrey” for this new challenge.

 I know that Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) was an exquisite writer of short stories, a format I choose to read less of than I should, but I always suspected she would be able to win me over.  This is the 11th out of her 12 novels in a career which dated from her 1945 debut “At Mrs Lippincote’s” (which would also have sufficed for this particular challenge). Virago Modern Classics have done a great job in bringing the works of this author to a new generation and I am sure more or less everyone who reads her will turn into at least a bit of a fan.  In his introduction to this book, Paul Bailey states;

 “I envy those readers who are coming to her work for the first time.  Theirs will be an unexpected pleasure, and they will, if they read her as she wanted to be read, learn much that will surprise them.”

 As one of those to be envied readers I can certainly confirm that I got a lot of pleasure out of this short novel, which I read quickly but which is likely to remain with me for some time.

 

One of these Elizabeth Taylor’s is a giftes British writer and the other is a Hollywood Icon.  Can you work out which is which? !!

Mrs Laura Palfrey moves into the Claremont Hotel in London at the beginning of the novel.  Widowed and finding her house in Rottingdean has become too much for her she up sticks to this slightly down-at-heel establishment feeling she should still remain at the centre of things.  The hotel is a stop-gap for an elderly group of residents, just tolerated by the management, most likely to end in a final move to a nursing home should nothing turn up.  And nothing much turns up for them, even visitors are thin on the ground.

 This is a delightful bitter-sweet comedy of manners where everyone is keen to say the right thing but which is often delivered barbed with hidden meaning.  The residents range from the arthritic Mrs Arbuthnot whose pain is used to explain her spite; the flirty and fun loving Mrs Burton; the out of his depth solitary man Mr Osmond and Mrs Palfrey herself, described as looking like “a famous general in drag.”  When Mrs Palfrey has a fall on the streets of London she starts a friendship with a young writer who comes to her rescue and in an attempt not to look like the lonely widow she is she passes him off amongst the other residents as her grandson.  Other than that, not a vast amount happens, there are quite a few agonising social situations, indifferent hotel meals, a few fadings away and a proposal of marriage and I lapped it all up. 

 This came so close to being a 5* read but I think it ended too soon and left me with the impression that it lacked a little of the depth I would look for in my search for the very best.  This is a great introduction to a new author.

 fourstars 

Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont was first published in 1971.  The Virago Modern Classics reprint first appeared in 1982.