It seemed yet another offbeat twist in the fascinating life of Elizabeth Taylor. After a series of tempestuous marriages – and divorces – came the mid-’70s she wed, for the seventh time, a staid and handsome former U.S. Secretary of the Navy and an aspiring U.S. Senatorial candidate from Virginia, John Warner.
Yet, as was the case with most everything involving the star, even their meeting was larger-than-life, prompted by a visit to Washington, D.C., by the Queen of England, who hosted a dinner at the British Embassy. Taylor was on the guest list, and Warner was asked by the British ambassador to escort her.
“So, I drive up to the hotel where she’s staying and gave the doorman $5 and said I need to go pick up somebody and I need to leave the car here,” Warner, now, 84, fondly recalled for PEOPLE this week, after Taylor’s death on Wednesday. Greeted by Taylor’s personal secretary, he said, “Hi, I’m John Warner. I’m here to pick up Ms. Taylor.”
Once he and the star went downstairs, she inquired about his car. “It’s here right out in front,” Warner informed her. Taylor, accustomed to limos, asked, “Well, where is your driver?” Replied Warner: “You’re looking at him.” Gasped Taylor: “What?”
Following his instructions, Taylor got into the front seat, though she did ask en route to the embassy, “Do you drive yourself often?” “All the time,” said Warner. “Well,” responded Taylor, “that’s nice.”
So was the time they had together, Warner remembered. They shared their Queen’s dinner with President Gerald Ford, Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, entertainer Bob Hope and others. Afterwards, said Warner, “I plopped her in a car and drove back by the hotel, and she was all full of it. She really liked the evening.”
And, apparently, she liked Warner, too – especially when he told her he owned a horse farm. “Riding is my passion,” she told him, adding, “I’m going to be around for day or two, and if I were to drive there could I stop and see you?”
She did just that – arriving in a chauffeur-driven limousine. “And we spent a nice afternoon and had tea and everything,” remembers Warner. She then visited again. “This time she had a suitcase, and that was the beginning. I think she fell in love with the farm, and I guess I came along with the horses,” he jokes.
There was another visit, as well, “and then all of the sudden we decided we would bond, and the rest is history. That September, we got engaged in Austria, where she was making a film” – A Little Night Music. They married Dec. 4, 1976.
Life Together, And Apart
“I found her very interesting, fascinating. She is a great conversationalist, and she is just a lot of fun,” he says. He recalls her enjoying the other senators’ wives – Warner was first elected in 1978, thanks in large part to Taylor’s campaign presence, and he served five terms, beyond even the couple’s 1982 divorce – and the two remained not only friendly but in regular contact in the years that followed.
“We never had any real infractions between us – it was just that I became so absorbed in the Senate,” he says. Taylor also went to Broadway in 1981, in a well-received revival of Lillian Hellman’s Southern family drama, The Little Foxes.
“I’d go up every weekend to see her in New York,” says Warner “For a while we just managed married life. Then she started plays in London and that became a little more difficult, and finally we just said, ‘Hey, let’s always remain good friends but let’s take the legal part and … go our separate ways. And that’s how it happened.”
After their separation, they continued to visit, and several times Warner escorted Taylor to events. After she re-married (construction worker Larry Fortensky), Warner and Taylor slowly drifted apart, but still talked, albeit less frequently. “We always used to sign off, ‘Hey man, till we talk again.’ ” he says. “She was always very informal.”
Summing up Taylor, former Sen. John Warner, now happily married since 2003 to small-business owner Jeanne Vander Myde, says: “She really was in her heart and soul every bit as beautiful as that classic face and majestic eyes. I always called her ‘Majestic Eyes.’ She used to wink at me and she’d say, ‘Do you see a little color in my eyeshade that tends to reflect?’ She was a fox, I tell you.”