No, Joan Rivers wasn’t invited. But her name was on everybody’s mind, including the guest of honor’s.
“Oh, is she here?” Elizabeth Taylor coyly asked Dinah Shore, mistress of ceremonies during the star-studded Friars Club dinner at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria honoring Taylor as “Woman of the Year.”
“Why, no,” replied Shore in mock surprise.
But Taylor seemed intent on finally getting back at the acid-tongued comedienne. While her escort-of-the-moment, Mexican lawyer Victor Gonzalez Luna Jr., and 1,100 well-manicured guests looked on, Taylor rose from her dais seat, planted ringless (for once) hands on her ample hips and continued, “Because I was going to say Joan Rivers, if you’re here, eat your hear-r-r-r-t out.” Touched
As it turned out, the evening was far from your typically tangy Friars roast (“They would need two spits to roast her,” sniped one onlooker); in fact, the event was calculatedly touted as a toast and not a roast, and had all the bitchiness of a PTA meeting. Perhaps that was all to the good, considering that Taylor and Richard Burton (a no-show) had been fried by critics two weeks earlier when they opened on Broadway in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. (The New York Times said the play had “all the gaiety of a tax audit.”) Rumor had it that Taylor herself had ordered that there be no fat jokes and no marriage jokes, but a spokesman insisted, “There were no ground rules.” Or maybe Taylor was worried the evening might stir unhappy memories. In 1958 her third husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash on his way to a Friars roast where he was to be honored as “Man of the Year.”
In any case, toasters such as Robert Klein, Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore, Red Buttons and Cicely Tyson went easy on Taylor’s tender ego. (Other dais mates included Jackie Bissett, Alexander Godunov, Dina Merrill, Cheryl Tiegs, Janet Leigh and Brooke Shields.) Spilling out of the white, off-the-shoulder Theoni V. Aldredge design she had worn to her Broadway opening-night party, Taylor gamely smiled, pecked well-wishers on the cheek, nodded to friends, and only nibbled at the rack of lamb. (Tickets went as high as $1,000.) Depending on whom you talked to, she looked (a) ravishing, (b) tired or (c) chunko.
As the marathon four-hour-long fete wore on, Taylor alternately giggled, whispered into Luna’s ready ear and sparred with her toasters. “Elizabeth and I have a lot in common,” joked Shore. “We both like jewelry. It’s just a question of size.” Pausing briefly, Burt Reynolds’ former love added: “We also both have this thing about actors. And again, it’s just a question of size.” Buddy Hackett celebrated Taylor’s sex appeal: “Any man who has never fantasized about our guest of honor is either a fag or an agent.” Rod McKuen read a syrupy poem, titled Elizabeth (“I fantasize, I dream you up”), and singer Joe Williams crooned Just the Way You Are. But Ella Fitzgerald owned the evening with a Cole Porter-Duke Ellington medley. (Taylor mouthed the words right along with Fitzgerald.)
With the guest of honor seemingly off limits, the toasters turned their insults on each other—or Rivers. Roger Moore, who confessed to playing “kneesies” with Brooke Shields on the dais, called Rivers “a depressed area’s Don Rickles—only not as pretty.” Red Buttons ribbed pal Buddy Hackett as “a man who willed his body to science, and science is contesting the will.” Turning to Sinatra, Buttons jabbed: “Talk about heart, he’s it. Here’s a man who last Christmas gave Sammy Davis Jr. a half bottle of Murine.”
Ole Blue Eyes was no slouch at the podium either. “It is my pleasure to give Elizabeth Taylor what every member of the Friars wants to give her,” Sinatra said. “Can I be first?” bellowed Hackett. “No, we’re gonna draw straws,” Frank deadpanned. He then presented her with a $39,000, 18-karat gold-and-diamond Piaget watch which drew the loudest ooohs and aaaahs of the evening. “Look, it says here ‘pee-ah-jay,’ ” Sinatra smirked, reading the phonetic spelling of the watchmaker’s name on his cue card. “I need this? Like I don’t know French? Like I’m some shmuck?”
Taylor, only the fourth woman (after Dinah Shore, Carol Burnett and Barbra Streisand) to be honored by the Friars in their 79-year history, used a short, sweet and simple thank-you spiel to suggest that the all-male club’s next Abbot be a woman: “Dinah, or maybe Carol, but not me, I’m a flake.” With one final gushy “I love you and thank you,” Taylor welcomed her second and final standing ovation of the evening.
Eat your heart out, Joan.