January 25, 1988 12:00 PM

Good genes decreed her an incomparable beauty, the fates a fiery personality. As an actress she achieved fame, as a woman notoriety—and not a little envy. And then, about a dozen years ago, Elizabeth Taylor began to change. Gone was the voluptuous figure and in its place was a sorry caricature. Obese and insecure, Taylor became the subject of coarse jokes. In last week’s excerpt from her new book, Elizabeth Takes Off, the actress described that transformation and told how, in 1982, she resolved to take command of her life once more. In this concluding excerpt, which retraces her Hollywood childhood and her passions for Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher and Richard Burton, Taylor, now 55, also recounts the events that contributed to her increasing fondness for food, pills and bourbon—and describes her successful battle to shed nearly 60 lbs. and regain her self-confidence.

From the age of 9, I began to see myself as two separate people: Elizabeth Taylor the person and Elizabeth Taylor the commodity. I saw the difference between my image and my real self. After all, I was a person before I was in films, and whatever the public thought of me, I knew who I really was. Even at that young age I decided that my responsibility to the public began and ended with what I did before the camera.

On the screen, I ran around the moors looking for Lassie and raced in the Grand National in National Velvet. In reality, I never could kick up my heels like other kids; there were too many restraints. My life was overscheduled and overdisciplined. When I was shooting a picture I had to be on the set ready to go. And when I wasn’t before the camera, I had to go to school on the [movie] lot. It was an impossible way to grow up. But it did make me tough.

I always wanted to be a woman. I had a small waist which I’d squeeze even smaller, knowing that it accentuated my bust and hips. I flaunted an hourglass figure at a stage when most girls were still developing. The studio and my parents formed a conspiracy to protect my innocence. [Elizabeth’s father, Francis Taylor, was a Kansas-born art dealer; her mother, Sara Sothern, was an actress, also from Kansas.] I couldn’t go to the ladies’ room on the lot without my mother or the teacher accompanying me. They were convinced I’d be attacked. They meant well, but it was such an invasion of my sense of self, I felt as if I were living under a microscope. As soon as I was old enough I insisted on time alone, and as an adult I have been fanatically protective of my privacy.

At barely 17, I grew up for all America to see. I was cast in Conspirator opposite one of MGM’s biggest stars, Robert Taylor, who was 38, more than twice my age. In between playing passionate love scenes with a man old enough to be my father, I had to fit in three hours of lessons before 3 in the afternoon, otherwise production would be closed down for the day. I nearly went crazy. Some afternoons my teacher would walk out on the set, grab me out of Robert Taylor’s arms, and say, “Sorry, Elizabeth hasn’t finished her schoolwork.” Talk about humiliating.

As I learned how to perfect my screen image, I determined to find an area where I could comfortably move into independent adulthood. I soon realized the only way I could escape was through marriage. That seemed the only way I could experience life for myself and, perhaps most important of all, discover my own sexuality. Aside from the fact that I was constantly protected, my upbringing made it impossible in those days to contemplate an affair. Besides, I was then and am now an incurable romantic. I am sorry I did not fully understand the reasons driving me into early matrimony. At the time I just knew I ached to become a real woman, a wife.

I had dated a number of young men prior to my marriage, but all the relationships had been closely chaperoned. I liked playing the role of a young woman in love, and when I met Nicky Hilton, the handsome son of Conrad Hilton, the prominent hotelier, I was ripe to get married. [Taylor was 18, Hilton 23.] Dazzled by his charm and apparent sophistication, driven by feelings that could not be indulged outside of marriage, desperate to live a life independent of my parents and the studio, I closed my eyes to any problems and walked radiantly down the aisle on May 6, 1950.

Even as the couple sailed for the South of France aboard the Queen Mary, Elizabeth sensed that she’d made a tragic mistake. Unable to deal with Taylor’s celebrity, Hilton, she writes, “became sullen, angry and abusive, physically and mentally.” He began drinking and taunted her in public. “The honeymoon and the relationship were both over by the time we returned. I couldn’t bear to reveal that my marriage was a failure, and I kept quiet for months. Around Christmas, I could stand it no longer and moved out of our house. We were divorced in little more than half a year after our wedding.”

A year later Taylor recovered sufficiently to marry British actor and director Michael Wilding, 20 years her senior. At first the marriage seemed a happy one, and Taylor gave birth to two sons, Michael in 1953 and Christopher in 1955. On each occasion Elizabeth gained about 50 lbs., but quickly returned to her usual size six. After five years the couple began discussing a separation, but not until showbiz entrepreneur Mike Todd entered the scene did divorce become a reality.

At first it never occurred to me that Mike Todd would be the next man in my life. Michael and I were invited to join Todd for a weekend sail on a yacht that Todd had rented. Late in the afternoon, we were all on deck, drinking champagne and watching the sunset. I made some off-the-cuff remark as Mike filled the glasses. I can’t recall what I said, but I do remember Mike turned to me and observed, “Honey, you’re a latent intellectual.” Nobody had ever accused me of that before! I didn’t know what to answer.

Mike and I saw each other at a few social gatherings after that, but it was only after my husband flew off to Mexico for a divorce that Todd called and asked to see me. I thought he wanted to talk about making a picture and agreed to meet him the next day in his office at MGM. He sat me down on the sofa, took a chair opposite me and proceeded to tell me that he loved me. I never opened my mouth. I was dumbstruck. He told me he was going to marry me. He didn’t ask me, he told me. He was irresistible. I left the office knowing I soon would be Mrs. Michael Todd.

We were married on Feb. 2, 1957. He was 25 years my senior and eternally young. I could hardly keep up with him. He was the most energetic man I’ve ever known, and he made our brief period together one of the most intensely glorious times of my life. We sure packed a lot of living and loving into less than two years. Mike was a bit of a madman and, in his way, so was Richard Burton. (I truly believe I can be content only with a man who’s a bit crazy.) Richard, who had met Mike but didn’t really know him, told me that if Mike hadn’t died he still would have been married to me, which was a big thing for Richard to say.

Every woman should have a Mike Todd in her life. God, I loved him. My self-esteem, my image, everything soared under his exuberant, loving care. Alas, though my spirit soared my physical ills continued, and I had to have back surgery. I was scheduled to be hospitalized for two months. I must have gotten pregnant the day before I was admitted because I skipped my period during the first month. After the back operation, my pregnancy was confirmed, and a dozen doctors said I should have an abortion. I was shown a sketch of my back illustrating how my spine had been whittled away and replaced with little “match-sticks.” If the pressure of an embryo was put on that spot, it could cause a permanently curved spine. A back support could be worn but wouldn’t allow the embryo any room. I listened to everything that was said, but I knew from the start there was no way I would not have that baby. I told them everything would be fine.

I had to stay flat on my back most of the time, and because of the metal back brace I carried the baby up around my rib cage. She was in such a crazy position, my heart moved over. I hadn’t reached term when the doctors decided to do an emergency cesarean. At first, the baby appeared stillborn and was immediately placed in a resuscitator. My obstetrician gave Mike the sad news. He assured Mike I would be okay. However, the doctor felt it would be suicide for me to have more children and asked permission to do a tubal ligation. Mike said go ahead. After 14 minutes my daughter Liza took her first independent breath. Half an hour later, they told Mike both mother and child were doing fine.

In 1958, not long after Liza’s birth, I was slated for a new movie, the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Mike was very enthusiastic about this undertaking and was on the set a good deal of the time.

During the filming, I caught the flu. Mike had to fly to New York, where he was being honored by the Friars Club. It was written into my contract that I be given five days off for that period of time so I could accompany him. On Wednesday I came down with pneumonia. Mike put off leaving and waited till Friday. I still had a temperature of 102 degrees. Mike had to go. Three thousand people were planning to be at the ceremony, and he would not disappoint them. I couldn’t possibly travel, but I made him realize he had to go without me. It was the first time we would be separated. Mike came upstairs and said goodbye five times. I couldn’t go. I wanted to—I really wanted to.

In the end, my beloved husband flew off in his private plane, the Lucky Liz, with his friend and biographer, Art Cohn. On March 22, Mike, Art and the pilot crashed to their deaths.

At other times in my life, I’ve had premonitions of danger or tragedy. Once Michael Wilding and I had boarded a plane for Rome. We were waiting for the runway to clear when I turned ashen and started trembling. I reached out and grabbed Michael. “For God’s sake, we’ve got to get off this plane!” I cried. Michael saw the total panic in my face and called the stewardess. She was very solicitous, though I’m sure she thought I was crazy. We were permitted to get off and our luggage was retrieved from the hold. The next morning we read in the newspaper that the plane had crashed. Staring out from the front page was a smiling photograph of the stewardess who had been so kind to me.

Another time I was in Yugoslavia, where Richard Burton was making a film about President Tito. The filming was done at many original battle sites, some of which were way up in the mountains. Every morning the actors would be transported up into the hills by helicopters. One day I accompanied Richard to the helicopter pad and watched as he, Ron Berkeley, the makeup man, and another assistant climbed into one of the helicopters. Suddenly something came over me. “Guys,” I pleaded, “get out of there.” They just looked at me. “Richard, get out of there, just get out,” I repeated firmly. Richard didn’t argue with me. He never did when I got like that. The three men climbed down and boarded another helicopter. I returned to the house. About an hour later Richard and Ron returned, visibly shaken. The helicopter they had left had crashed into the mountain, killing all on board.

When Mike left, I didn’t sleep all night. Something was wrong, something I couldn’t explain. Mike had promised to call me at 6 in the morning when they stopped In Albuquerque to refuel. Six came, 6:30, 7, 7:30, and I hadn’t heard from him. I knew. And when the door opened and my secretary, Dick Hanley, and the doctor walked into the room, I screamed, “No, he’s not?” even before they spoke. I almost lost my mind with grief, but this is not the place for me to dwell on the despair, the agony of that awful time. I honestly didn’t think I would survive and didn’t much care if I did not. I came through because I had to, but I remained totally dependent on Mike’s memory for many years after his death. I couldn’t let him go. I had his ring, which was salvaged from the wreck, melted down and reshaped for my finger. I wore it every day until someone else who loved me told me to take it off. I have had two great loves in my life. Mike Todd was the first.

When I came back from the funeral I was so distraught I couldn’t think, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. I lost 12 pounds in one week. My family and friends supported me but I was almost beyond help. [MGM hairdresser] Sidney Guilaroff actually slept on the couch in my bedroom. He was afraid to leave me alone.

After awhile, Sidney began talking about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and how Mike had wanted me to do it, and how proud he was of my performance. Then in a gentle, loving way, Sidney suggested that if I went back and finished the film it would justify Mike’s pride in me. Sidney was right. I knew Mike would want me to go on living. It was three weeks after the funeral. Without calling the studio, I got dressed one morning and drove over to MGM. Someone got the director, Richard Brooks, and he came over to the car. “I’m going crazy,” I said. “I don’t know what to do all day. Mike said he thought the picture was going to be pretty good. Is it okay if I come back?” Richard asked when I wanted to start, and I answered, “Right now.” And I went into wardrobe, had my hair done, put on my makeup, and reported to the set.

Cat was a big success. I’m proud of my performance, and I feel it helped me to recover gradually from Mike’s death instead of drowning in my sorrow. The picture was nominated for six Oscars but didn’t get any awards. Typical for Hollywood, I won the Academy Award for Best Actress two years later in Butterfield 8, a movie I loathed.

I could not bear the loneliness of being without the man I really loved. I could not sleep, and as the weeks went by my insomnia grew worse. As a result, I began to take sleeping pills. It was the only way I knew to get up at 5 a.m. and not be a zombie. It was during this vulnerable period that I had begun my relationship with Eddie Fisher. He and Mike had been good friends and it seemed natural we should try to comfort each other. We sat and drank and talked about Mike for hours. My intense loneliness, combined with the nearness of someone who had been so close to my beloved, made me susceptible. In hindsight, I know I wasn’t thinking straight. At the time I thought he needed me and I needed him.

The press made much of Eddie’s leaving his wife, Debbie Reynolds, but their marriage was in trouble long before I hit the scene. Still, it was distressing to open the papers day after day and see captions under my photographs referring to me as a home wrecker.

Taylor married Fisher in May 1959. Then, in 1961, on the set of Cleopatra, she confronted the swaggering, fiery Welsh actor Richard Burton. Bernard Shaw—not to mention Shakespeare—could scarcely have envisioned the passionate courtship of this Mark Antony and his paramour. Sure enough, that affair led, in March 1964, to Taylor’s divorce from Fisher and her marriage to Burton nine days later.

Despite what the press wrote at the beginning of our affair, I never regretted a moment of it. I believe in taking life in both hands and squeezing the most out of it. My 55 years have known great happiness and great tragedy, but I have tried not to run from any of it. I’ve always admitted that I’m ruled by my passions, and I can’t pretend I didn’t know what I was doing when I became involved with Richard. In fact, I thought about it plenty, and it sure was news.

When I saw him on the set of Cleopatra, I fell in love and I have loved him ever since, practically my whole adult life. Even when we could no longer live together we continued to love each other. To this day, my feelings for him are so strong I cannot speak about him without being overcome with emotion. A few months ago, I turned on the television to find a showing of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In the years since Richard’s death [in 1984], I had avoided watching his movies because it was too painful. That night I decided I couldn’t hide forever and started watching. As the movie progressed, I was overcome with such a sense of joy and pride. We did something okay, something we’ll always have, and how lucky I was to have been a part of it. I had been foolish shutting out those memories and I was so very glad I made myself watch the film. God, we were good together.

What can I say about my life with Richard Burton other than that it was full of transcendent joy? He expanded my horizons in so many ways. He taught me poetry and literature and introduced me to a jubilant lifestyle that actually looked a great deal more hedonistic to the public than it actually was. He was generous and not to a fault, but rather to a glorious degree. I love beautiful things, and Richard responded by showering me with glittering tokens of love. The Krupp diamond, the most publicized of his gifts, was only one of many splendors. I adore wearing gems, but not because they are mine. You can’t possess radiance, you can only admire it. Indeed, I’ve always felt that I am merely a caretaker for the extraordinary objects I’ve received.

Richard and I lived life to the fullest, but we also paid our dues. Cleopatra was just the beginning and it was not easy for either of us, knowing we were hurting so many people we cared about. In the end our attraction was so powerful we were unable even to try and stop it.

What larks we had, but we tried not to let our fun interfere with our professional lives. Our credo might have been, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we report to work.” Even though there were rough times, I wouldn’t give up one minute of my time with Richard Burton. Not a moment of the ecstatic roller-coaster years of our first marriage, nor the ill-starred attempt at a second go-round. We were like magnets, alternately pulling toward each other and, inexorably, pushing away. Creating a life with him was far more interesting than interpreting somebody else’s life on the screen, but then I’ve always lived my life with too much relish to be a mere interpreter of dreams. With Richard Burton, I was living my own fabulous, passionate fantasy. In time it became too difficult to sustain and we physically parted, but those years will never be forgotten.

The tempestuous years with Burton ended with their second divorce in 1976. It was in that year that the star met Virginia gentleman farmer John Warner, who had just finished his duties as head of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. Five months after their first date Taylor became Mrs. John Warner. When her husband decided to campaign for the U.S. Senate, Elizabeth was at his side, eating her way down the political trail. Overweight, bored and unhappy after Warner won his Senate seat, she finally decided to shed some pounds. The impetus was the chance to make her Broadway debut in a revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play The Little Foxes. After several trips to a health spa, Taylor dropped 40 pounds.

The Little Foxes opened in New York on May 7,1981, to a cheering public and pretty successful reviews. I loved performing for a live audience. When I look back at the photographs taken toward the end of the run, it’s patently obvious I had been gaining weight. At the outset I managed to discipline myself, but by the time Little Foxes closed I was heavy again. One of the reasons had to do with my return to snacking. My dressing room doubled as a dining room. I’d nibble on this, chew on that.

I recently came across one picture taken at my 50th-birthday party during the London engagement of the play. It made me shiver. I’m dressed all in white and my eyes have disappeared into suet. I’m still wearing stage makeup, and I look for all the world like a drag queen. I did my best to deny the truth, but my self-image suffered badly and I knew the time had come to take action again.

My marriage to John Warner did not survive the run of Little Foxes. Even before I decided to do the play, John and I were aware of our problems, and I think it was clear to us both when I went to New York that we would eventually split. The straw that broke the camel’s back came the day he told me he’d sold our Georgetown house and bought an apartment at Watergate. He said I had to get rid of my pets. That was the coup de grace. I felt I deserved more consideration. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t contributed to our lives, for Pete’s sake. I’d even sold the diamond engagement ring Mike Todd gave me and the pear-shaped Taylor-Burton diamond to keep up with our expenses. And now I wasn’t even allowed to keep my pets.

When I returned from London, I decided to move to Los Angeles. Despite my weight gain, I was determined to keep busy and take control of my future. Since my track record was good, I went into another theatrical project, a project that reunited me, professionally, with one of the most important persons in my life: Richard Burton. We decided to do Noël Coward’s Private Lives, a play that began with great hope and ended in great sorrow.

The project was doomed from the start. I was not in good shape and neither was Richard. Worse yet, we were both miscast. We should have done a drama, not an English drawing-room comedy. The experience was devastating, certainly for me, and I’m sure for Richard. Richard got married [to British TV producer Sally Hay] during the play’s run, adding to the strain. I began to crack. My worst habits surfaced. I began overeating, drinking and taking pills. I never touched a drop before the show; I was too professional for that, but the minute the curtain went down, bourbon was waiting in the wings.

After the performance Richard and I would go out—separately—he with his wife and friends, and I with my gang, usually culled from the cast and crew. Whatever city we were playing—Boston, Philadelphia, Washington—we’d find a late-night restaurant and settle in, sometimes until 4 in the morning. It became a 24-hour nightmare. It didn’t matter that we didn’t get good reviews. We still played to packed houses. No one was coming to see the English drawing-room comedy anyway. Everyone bought tickets to watch high-camp “Liz and Dick.” And we gave them what they wanted. I wanted to stop, to put an end to this torture, but the contract had to be fulfilled.

Private Lives closed on Nov. 6, 1983, and one month later, on December 5,1 entered the Betty Ford Center. This was the result of a family intervention. My children, my brother, a few intimate friends made me face the facts. I was assured of their love while at the same time I was told how my behavior had affected them and of their real fears that I was killing myself. I listened in total silence. I remember being shocked. I couldn’t believe what I had become. At the end, they said reservations had been made for me at the Betty Ford Center and they wanted me to go. I listened and then asked them to leave me alone for a couple of hours. I knew myself well enough to realize I wouldn’t have the determination to follow through unless the decision was mine. After much deliberation, I thought, okay, it’s time. I said I was ready.

While in the Center, the staff advised us not to diet, because they don’t want you to take on too many things at once, but I actually lost 11 pounds of bloat simply because I stopped drinking. When I got back home, my body craved sugar, but I wouldn’t supply it with alcohol. Well, I became a chocoholic and put on 15 pounds of pure, solid fat! There was sugar to burn. Fortunately, I was able to pull myself out of this mess. I may have been fat but I was mentally and emotionally fit, thanks to my Betty Ford Center stay. I didn’t need to drink and I felt so good about that, I began to think, well, why shouldn’t my outward appearance match all the good feelings inside?

This time Taylor strove for a permanent change in her habits. She consulted doctors and a chef and worked out a high protein-low fat diet that permitted the occasional small serving of rice or potatoes. She also learned to “think thin” and sublimate her urges: “This means that instead of sitting around and mooning about banana splits,” she writes, “why not read a book, go to the zoo, visit a museum, go dancing?” Determined not to slide back, she also followed an exercise program and urged her friends to support her in her efforts. If Taylor did “pig out” now and then, she quickly returned to her regime by reassuring herself that “a lapse is not a landslide.”

In general, life in the last few years has been good to me. I work when I want to, spend a good deal of time promoting my favorite charities and enjoy socializing. Given the public nature of my life, the last activity hasn’t always been easy. I don’t think any man can help but know about my passionate marriages to Mike Todd and Richard Burton. Those are powerful names for anyone to contend with. I know. They were for me. And quite aside from the past, going out with a celebrity can be pretty traumatic. A man has to be damned sure of himself to be able to handle the commotion.

In February 1987, to celebrate my 55th birthday, Carole Bayer Sager and Burt Bacharach hosted a party for me at their Bel-Air home. One hundred and fifty people were there and it was one of the most incredible events I’ve ever attended. My escort for the evening was George Hamilton, a very special person in my life.

The theme of the party was diamonds. At the entrance to the Bacharachs’ house stood a life-size cardboard figure of myself at 12, holding up a sign announcing “Valet Parking.” Diamonds (okay, rhinestones)were festooned around my neck and a giant stone was placed on my ring finger. Every place card had a huge gleaming fake diamond in the center, and diamondlike lights sparkled at the top of the clear tent that covered the courtyard where the tables were set up. At the end of the party, each woman was given a ring, a cut-glass Cartier reproduction of the Taylor-Burton diamond, inscribed “E.T. 2/27/87.” Can you imagine all of us flashing those gigantic “diamonds?” “Camp,” yes, but I loved it!

I also loved it because that evening I could show off my 22-inch waist in a low-cut white silk dress designed by Nolan Miller. I wondered how many of those friends could have believed I would fit into that dress just a few short years ago. “Hey,” I smiled, looking at my reflection, “that’s not bad for a 55-year-old woman.”

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