By Charles Leerhsen
March 04, 1996 12:00 PM

PRECIOUS OIL PAINTINGS USED to dominate the living room of Elizabeth Taylor’s house, high on a hill in Bel Air. Works by 19th-century masters still adorn the walls above her two buff-colored couches. But Larry Fortensky, her personal Fresh Prince, has lately this way come, and one legacy of his 52 months as Taylor’s seventh husband is a very large saltwater fish tank. The fluorescently lit, 125-gallon aquarium lords over the living room of the rustic manor, mesmerizing the cats, Sneakers, Mike Tyson and Fang, and their violet-eyed mistress. “Oh, look at that!” Taylor says, pointing to a softball-size clam suddenly yawning on the gravel bottom. “The man who does this all for me brought it from the South Seas. Isn’t it amazing?”

It is robust-looking and, like many clams, more or less her favorite color: purple. Yet what is amazing, to an outsider at least, is the innocence that Taylor, at age 64 and after so many husbands, lovers, scandals and illnesses, seems to exude. “Elizabeth truly has a childlike sense of wonder at the world,” says her friend, songwriter Carol Bayer Sager. “It’s hard to keep her down.” Indeed, if men once showered Taylor with diamonds and pearls and lately haven’t even brought her oysters—Taylor’s attitude is: So be it. “It’s like the character of my mother said in National Velvet,” she says. “There’s a time for everything. A time for winning and a time for losing.”

For Taylor, a relative recluse in recent years, this seems to be a time for coming out and starting over. On Feb. 5 she filed for divorce from Fortensky, claiming irreconcilable differences. Her new perfume, Black Pearls, is finally being introduced by Elizabeth Arden on March 7 after an abortive launch last September. She will soon be back on the stump for AIDS research, continuing the work she began even before her former daughter-in-law, Aileen Getty, now 36, contracted the virus through a blood transfusion in the early ’80s. And on Feb. 26, Taylor is set to make a sweep of four CBS sitcoms, popping up on The Nanny, Can’t Hurry Love, Murphy Brown and High Society—her first roles since playing Fred’s fearsome mother-in-law in the 1994 movie The Flintstones.

Taylor, of course, has had her ups and downs before—her Oscars (for 1960’s Butterfield 8 and ’66’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and her Eddie Fishers. But just now she is coming off, in the words of another friend, TV producer Bradley Anderson, “one real bitch of a year, baby.” If Taylor’s 1995 were a Taylor guy, in fact, it wouldn’t even be Fisher; it would be Henry Wynberg, the Dutch used-car salesman with the bad shades and the police record with whom she frolicked between marriages to Richard Burton.

Are you proud of your taste in men?

“Oh, yes! I wish I could bottle it like my perfume.”

Your mother, Sara, passed away recently at age 99. Did she ever stop saying to you, “C’mon, Elizabeth. What the heck are you doing with this or that guy?”

“We talked about that a little bit.”

Taylor’s marriage to Fortensky, 44, a twice-married construction worker she met while both were getting sober at the Betty Ford Center in 1988, ended, for all practical purposes, last August—”with a whimper,” says another source close to Taylor. At the time, Taylor had spoken of reconciliation. But now, sitting on the edge of her sofa and flicking a lint speck from the cuff of her aubergine chenille top, she says, “I wish Larry nothing but well. But we are proceeding with a divorce.”

Taylor says, sounding a bit upset now, that she was “quite surprised” that Fortensky hired publicity-friendly New York divorce lawyer Raoul Felder and announced he might contest their prenuptial agreement if she didn’t agree to more generous terms. “I don’t understand it,” she says. Under the current agreement, she maintains, “he would have been very comfortable for the rest of his life. But the last few years he was getting kind of strange. You know, I never asked for a nickel from any of my husbands for child support or alimony, and I never got any. I believe that in a marriage you give, you don’t worry about getting.”

But what went wrong with the marriage?

“Let’s call it a communications breakdown.”

And in the future?

“I will never get married again.”

You know you’ve said that before?


Taylor’s purpose in giving interviews these days is to publicize Black Pearls. She instantly warms to the subject of how she developed the scent over the last two years, mixing company-supplied samples in her bedroom, applying the compounds to her skin, sniffing, remixing, reapplying, and then calling the chemists to say, “More smokiness, please!” When asked, though, if the scent in any way reflects her mood during the development period, she falls quiet, then sighs, “Oh, God, no.” Black Pearls “is tropical, sensual, but light.” No one would want, she says, “to create a sad perfume—or a painful one.”

Not all of Taylor’s pain lately has been emotional. There will be more on What Went Wrong with Larry in a moment, gentle Liz-watchers, but here we must talk about hips. Although Taylor has only two, like the rest of us, she has in fact had three hip operations in the past two years. The first two were to address a disintegration of the hip joints that made it difficult for her to walk. But something went wrong during the second surgery last June, and Taylor awoke with one leg a quarter of an inch longer than it had been. The result was more pain and less mobility than she had before the first replacement. “She would get out to small gatherings at a friend’s house,” says Sandy Gallin, manager of Dolly Parton and Taylor’s friend for 15 years. “You’d open the door, and she would be there with her walker.”

There was no guarantee, she says, that a third operation would do anything other than cause more pain. It was, says Taylor, “a dismal decision,” even for a woman so accident-and illness-prone that she has already had some 40 major surgeries. Taylor says proudly that she has been declared dead on several occasions. (She has twice had pneumonia and once required a tracheotomy after a bout with Asian flu caused her to collapse while in London shooting Cleopatra in 1961.) But her hip problems ranked up there with her most serious maladies. “I was a cripple,” she says. “It was hard on me. It was hard on Larry. It was hard on our marriage.”

Taylor had her third hip operation last October, a month after she was rushed to the hospital for what was later diagnosed as a benign heart arrhythmia. Her legs are of equal length again, and with two hours of physical therapy every night for her hips and her congenitally bad back, she is able to walk on her own. Her recovery didn’t help her marriage, though. “The end had been coming,” says Sager, “for a very long time.”

People close to Taylor say that she is no more open with them about matters of the heart than she is with the press. “She’s like Ava Gardner in that she doesn’t complain and she doesn’t explain,” says actor Roddy McDowall. “I’ve known her for 54 years, and while she’s always willing to hear your problems, she won’t talk about hers.”

Yet there does seem to be a consensus among her friends about why this last marriage didn’t work. While her illness was a factor, they say, the main problem was that Fortensky never felt comfortable in Lizland, a magical place where there is always staff around to serve one’s needs, and glamor can come in absurd doses. Consider that at his 1991 wedding to Taylor, held at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch, a tabloid photographer parachuted out of a sky blackened with helicopters—and nearly landed on Gregory Peck and Barry Diller. Quiet and shy, Fortensky was the sort who craved simplicity and has continued to work intermittently as a heavy-equipment operator. Taylor says she “tried and tried” to take steps in his direction. “I know Elizabeth cut back on the help and the people coming over,” says Sager. “She even sometimes put on an apron and went into the kitchen to cook him dinner. But, after all, this is Elizabeth Taylor.”

One might think, though, that it would be good to be Elizabeth Taylor during a divorce—practice making perfect in most earthly matters. But the actress says no; severing seven marriages—in her case, to hotel heir Conrad (Nicky) Hilton Jr., actor Michael Wilding, singer Fisher, actor Richard Burton (twice) and Sen. John Warner (her third husband, producer Mike Todd, was killed in a 1958 plane crash)—does not tone the tear ducts nor harden the heart. “You don’t get over men like the flu,” says Taylor, an expert on both. “Every divorce is like a little death.”

Almost nothing went right for Taylor in late ’95. Her first two perfume launches—Passion in 1987 and White Diamonds in ’91—had been models of marketing; together they still generate $200 million in annual sales. But as the introduction date for Black Pearls grew near, Taylor found herself troubled. One problem was Elizabeth Arden’s failure to get the fragrance into high-end stores; Taylor didn’t want to lend her name to the product only to have Bloomingdale’s salespeople saying, “Black Pearls? Sorry, no, but you’ll find it stacked next to the Power Ranger pj’s at Kmart.” She also disliked what she calls “the cheap-looking bottle they were planning to use.” Ultimately, Taylor felt compelled, she says, “to remind people that I have the final say.” Arden’s president, Kim Delsing, subsequently resigned, a costlier bottle was substituted, and the launch was rescheduled.

Taylor is now losing weight—again—in preparation for the promotional campaign, or at least she’s trying to, by cutting back on fat and by staying faithful to the exercise regimen that is part of her physical therapy. But “it’s horrible!” she says. “Food is one of life’s great pleasures—I hate dieting!” The actress, who is about 5’2″, appears to be nowhere near the high of 180 pounds she reached in 1979, during her marriage to Warner. Still, she is scheduled to make a seven-city tour of department stores starting in New York City in April, and she worries about being scrutinized.

Witnesses who have watched Taylor promote her previous scents say her department-store turns can be a bizarre but riveting spectacle. Somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 people usually show up. They often ask brutally direct questions about her sex life and dress size, and she provides charming nonanswers. Then everyone goes home happy—and, hopefully, smelling tropical…sensual…light.

Do you ever, at those appearances, gaze out upon that sea of women in the audience and say, “Why me? Why did I get the fame, the heartbreak, the…”

“There are a lot of men there too.”

Okay. But do you ever look at the kind of people who’ve never had to rush back into the ladies’ room because they left the Krupp diamond on the toilet tank—and say, “I wish I was them.”

“No. I don’t look at anyone else with envy. Because I believe too strongly in God. I believe too strongly that I have some purpose here that is more convoluted and involved than I know. Listen, lately I’ve been interviewing for a new chef, and I ask every one to make my favorite meal: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy. I’ve had this meal I can’t tell you how many times this week. But because I’m on a diet I have to take just a few bites and then push it away. It’s awful! When I see fried chicken, let me tell you, that’s when I ask myself”—she turns her face and her palms to the heavens—” ‘Why me?!’ ”

It is a long and rather lovely arc that takes a woman from the ingenue part in 1950’s Father of the Bride to her current role as grandmother of nine. At 1 p.m. each Sunday, a loose-knit group of family and friends gathers at Taylor’s home for an all-day pool party and picnic. Occasionally the guests include former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who lives a few doors away, or, rarely, Michael Jackson—about whom Taylor has “no comment,” other than to laugh loudly when told that the National Enquirer reported that the singer asked her to be his new wife.

Usually, though, the gathering is less star-studded. On any given Sunday it might include Taylor’s son Michael Wilding Jr., 45, a cafe-owner in Albuquerque, and his wife, Brooke; Taylor’s son Christopher Wilding, 41, a film editor in Los Angeles, and his wife, Margi; Taylor’s daughter Liza Todd Tivey, 38, a sculptor, and her husband, Hap; and Taylor’s daughter Maria Burton Carson, 35, who with her husband, Steve, runs a talent agency in Manhattan. “The kids run all around—there are lots of laughs,” says producer Anderson—though the absence of Aileen Getty, who is too sick to make the trip from her home in nearby Beverly Hills, can make the atmosphere bittersweet.

Taylor says she feels content with her life—and in sync with the century. “When I think about the ’60s and I think about the ’90s, I am glad that I knew the wildness, glamor and excitement when I was in my prime,” she says. “The parties, the yachts and the private jets and the jewelry—the whole thing was so exciting. It was a great time to be young, alive and attractive and to have all those goodies. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t want to do it today. It would be totally inappropriate.” Yet if Taylor is mellowing out, she is not packing it in. “I’m not going to join a nunnery,” she says. “I said I’m through with marriage, but I’m not through with men—that wouldn’t be realistic. I expect to fall in love again.”

But how does Elizabeth Taylor meet men?

“Ha! Maybe I’ll go down to Sunset Boulevard and hike up my skirt! Maybe I will take out an ad in your magazine!”

Okay, then, here’s your chance. What would you like to say to the men of America?

“My new favorite stone is the opal.”