Reveille was at 5:30 a.m., and John Warner, the proprietor of Virginia’s Atoka Farm, flipped off his black sleep mask, a relic of battlefield catnapping in the Korean war and a congenital restlessness. Ahead were three days in which the ambitious Warner and especially his new bride would feel out their political acceptability in the state’s backwaters. Also to be tested was Mrs. Warner’s tolerance for the indignities the American electorate inflicts in the name of democracy.
No sane director would ever have cast Liz Taylor for the part. For starters, a recent tumble at the chic Swiss ski redoubt of Gstaad had broken her middle finger in two places. Still, the notorious autograph-stiffer put on a splint and gamely pressed the flesh (“more than 2,000 hands in three days,” she estimated). Her husband could and did help her cut the turkey dished up at a high school cafeteria. But no one could fix her coif (which she’s doing herself now for the first time in memory) when a student put a hairnet cap on her head and dubbed her an honorary cafeteria maid of Emory and Henry College. And in any campaign, warned the state attorney general’s wife, Elizabeth could count on having to change wardrobes in drafty, stinking filling station rest-rooms. But when E and H President Dr. Thomas Chilcote said grace over lunch and asked a special blessing that their eight-week-old marriage would endure forever, Elizabeth said “Amen” loudest of all, then squeezed Chilcote’s hand and whispered, “It will—I promise.”
To be sure, this was Liz’s seventh such promise in perpetuity (counting Richard Burton twice). But the trouper deployed on the Virginia hustings bore no resemblance to the Taylor the world has read to death about. Gone was Old Spend-and-Sparkle Plenty, the retinues and hauteurs, the days of Wynberg and roses. “I’m very happy and contented being out to pasture as the wife of a country squire,” she exults. “I’ve never felt so much at home, and I just know my long search for roots is over.”
Besides, adds Elizabeth, “He’s the only man I’ve ever let call me Liz. We’ve got the most gorgeous thing going between us. I don’t think of him as husband No. 7. He’s No. 1 all the way. He has an honesty and integrity that I’ve never seen in any man I’ve ever known before.” Finally, she winks: “He’s the best lover I’ve ever had.”
“If you were a fly on the wall of our house,” picks up Warner, “you’d know we were behaving just like teenagers. We have pillow fights at night, and we’re like a comedy team from the time we get up. I tell her she’s got to read the editorial pages along with the funnies, but she’ll tell me when my veterans’ pension checks arrive that I have enough to buy her a new diamond. I make it quite clear I need the money because I pay all the bills. Neither of us can believe we are so good with each other.”
The Warner who seems to have saved his Liz at 45 (Feb. 27) is no kin to the famed Hollywood Brothers and their ilk responsible for her previous incarnation. A Virginian for generations, John, 49, is Episcopalian, Republican, clubby, a U. Va. lawyer, a veteran of World War II and Korea. Even friends, when pressed about his personality, draw boxes in the air. Warner is not a monied playboy, though after his 16-year marriage to heiress Catherine Mellon busted, he made the Washington circuit with both of the Super-Barbaras, Walters and Howar. Professionally, no one has called him derelict in duty—detractors say rather that he can be dully compulsive.
Appointments as Secretary of the Navy and then director of the Bicentennial Administration were rewards for dogged loyalty to Richard Nixon. Warner’s new wife, by contrast, was enchanted by Carter. But whether or not Warner runs in Virginia for lieutenant governor this year or for a U.S. Senate seat in 78, he has the support of his nonvoting delegate—though she admits, “I couldn’t vote for him anyway. I’m still a British citizen.” She adds: “We’ve made a deal to go everywhere together. He can make me do whatever he wants—except make me pregnant. I don’t have the tubes.” “We’re going to find a way around that problem too,” Warner laughs, with a well-placed pinch. “You don’t own me like your cattle,” Liz spars. “Oh yes I do,” says John. “I’m a Virginia farmer to the hilt—you’re my property!”
Their canvassing in the Virginia hinterlands seemed to make John’s point. He and Liz were driven through Marion, Va. in the town’s only limo—on loan from a local funeral parlor. (“When we have a distinguished guest,” crowed Mayor W.W. Scott unselfconsciously, “we like to go all out and shoot the works!”) At a lunch in their honor, Liz did a double take at the table decorations—”official” Elizabeth Taylor dolls. “They’re illegal,” she protested. “Who cares?” wondered John, the country courtier. “Liz is the real living doll.” Weather grounded planes two days later, so they boarded a beat-up bus like just-folks for the two-hour ride to Richmond (“Why not?” said Liz. “I never rode one before”). At a benefit gala that night, she was manhandled by autograph and snapshot seekers, bombarded with questions about Richard Burton and finally whisked out muttering, “I just love Virginia, but right now I want to go to the bathroom.”
Off the trail, John and Liz are hardly sharecroppers. The great stone Warner manse sits a mile from the front gate of their 2,700-acre cattle spread, and the stable holds five horses that Liz will ride again “even if people think I’m accident-prone.” Two tennis courts and a pool flank the main house—and concessions are being made to Liz’s old life-style: a disco is being installed over the stablehouse, not to mention screening rooms at both Atoka and Warner’s elegant townhouse in Georgetown (next door to his ex-wife, so their three kids can shuttle back and forth).
If Taylor’s seventh marriage lasts as promised, her claim on superstardom cannot. Today she often does her own marketing in nearby Middleburg (to decidedly mixed reception by both the horsey and redneck social axes in town), and she’s committed to charity work, teaching seminars to drama students around the state—and accepting only cameo roles in films. “Life is too short now,” she says. “The champagne-and-caviar life is there anytime we want it, but we prefer enjoying ourselves at home alone.” At night she lets the household help go and cooks dinner herself. “She’d win first prize in any fried-chicken contest,” says John. “Yes, the razzle-dazzle is slowly coming to an end. She’s had a troubled life—filled with a lot of bad luck. I’m doing all in my power so she has the best from now on. I promised her I was the man to do it.”
Last week Elizabeth was scheduled to fly to L.A. for a role in Winter Kills without dialogue. It was their first separation since marriage—and “We agreed to talk on the phone every night,” she says, “until both of us got sleepy.” This week Warner will accompany her to Harvard, where she will be crowned the Hasty Pudding woman of the year. “I might take a crack at directing,” she says. “I’d be just like Barbra Streisand—I’d want involvement with everything. It’s the one dream left.” But she’s finished with being “hounded as a celebrity. I never got used to it. In this new life as Mrs. Elizabeth Taylor Warner,” says Liz, “I’m finding the peace and tranquillity I need. I’ve finally come to earth.”