With her Oscars and her activism, her great loves and even greater roles, Elizabeth Taylor will always be a Hollywood icon. But in a new book, 700 Nimes Road, photographer Catherine Opie shines a light on the private world of the legend. Opie spent months shooting Taylor’s Bel Air, California, home, just before and after the star’s death in 2011.
“I never met her,” says Opie, who shares exclusive photos from her book (out on Oct. 6 from DelMonico Books•Prestel) and memories of her time at Taylor’s house in the new issue of PEOPLE. “But I got a sense of what an incredible human being she was by everything that was precious to her.” Some of the more surprising objects in Taylor’s possession include a collection of Buddha statuettes, many books about angels, and a shelf full of horses sculpted by her daughter Liza – oh, and the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond, gifted to her by then-husband Richard Burton in 1968. (Not even Liz’s biggest – that would be the 68-carat Taylor-Burton diamond the couple splurged on the following year.)
For the book, Opie was given access to some of Taylor’s most private spaces, including her dressing room, with its sunken tub and lavender carpets to match Taylor’s famous eyes. “That was a beautiful room,” recalls Opie. “The light in that room was just gorgeous,” showing off the stars pretty perfume bottles and fresh-picked orchids. “She had this beautiful little greenhouse that was just for orchids in her backyard,” adds the photographer.
Taylor’s home was also filled with reminders of her friends and family, mementoes of a life lived to its fullest. “There were lots of family photos,” says Opie, who captured a shot of Taylor’s bedside table with pictures of her longtime friend Michael Jackson among family photos. Pictures of Burton, whom Taylor married twice, were all around the house. “Richard Burton was in every room,” says Opie. “Yeah, pretty much. He was in every room.”
Another photo shows off how close Taylor was with Colin Farrell. The two were great friends, often chatting by phone late into the night. He left a note, “the quest for Japanese beef,” on Taylor’s dressing-room mirror, written in her own lipstick. “He was visiting her one day and then wrote that on her dressing mirror, that was going to take her out for Japanese beef,” explains Opie. After Taylor died, Farrell spoke lovingly of their friendship. “I was allowed in whatever way she would let me, as a friend,” he said at a benefit last year. “And it was a pretty extraordinary reality.”
For all that was extraordinary about Taylor, though, Opie says what struck her were the humble touches, from well-worn jewelry boxes to AIDS benefit ribbons from Taylor’s tireless activism to family objects kept for decades. Taylor even had the red Clarks shoes she wore as a child. “I would think that Elizabeth was honoring that her mom had kept them,” says Opie, whose photos will go on display at the MOCA Pacific Design Center in L.A. on Jan. 24, 2016. “Elizabeth’s mother saved her childhood chair and her childhood Clarks, and there is a kind of sentimentality in that.”
That personal touch was what made Taylor’s house a home instead of a mausoleum, says Tim Mendelson, co-trustee to the Elizabeth Taylor Trust, an officer at The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and one of Taylor’s closest friends. “Elizabeth was very proud of her home, however it was never about decor. Comfort and fun with family and friends always took center stage in her private world.”
• Reporting by LIZ McNEIL
For more photos from Elizabeth Taylor’s home, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.