The $50,000 to $75,000 presale estimate of Elizabeth Taylor's dressing room trailer — used on the set of Cleopatra and set to be auctioned at Profiles in History's upcoming “Icons of Hollywood” auction of memorabilia Dec. 15-17 — seems low to M.G. Lord, author of the new book The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness, and We Were Too Distracted By Her Beauty to Notice. Especially since it cost that much for 20th Century Fox to build it. Lord has also perused the many items from the late actress's estate set to be auctioned off at Christie's in New York starting Dec. 13, and, as if an old friend of Taylor's, can rattle off the strange and interesting stories behind them.
In a conversation over coffee with Lord (who, in full disclosure, is this writer's teacher and mentor), she led us through the Christie's catalog and shared her insights into the most intriguing items being auctioned. We learned why a movie studio that nearly went bankrupt might pony up so much cash to keep its star comfortable, how Taylor's most famous diamond ring may have been a glamorous consolation prize and why much of Taylor's wardrobe is only fit for midget drag queens.
Here are the 6 most interesting items of Taylor's up for sale next month:
6. Taylor's Trailer
Lord explained that although $75,000 was a lot to spend on a star's digs, especially in the early 1960s when Cleopatra was shot, it was a drop in the $44 million bucket that was the film's price tag — a sum that nearly tore the production company asunder when the movie brought in only half that at the box office.
Still, Lord says no expense would have been spared for Taylor. “Elizabeth and Marilyn [Monroe] were dueling for which movie star could be the biggest pain in the ass. Just as the Egyptian rulers were supposed to be gods — Cleopatra was supposedly the incarnation of Isis — in the same way, movie stars back then had to be temperamental pains in the ass.”
But beyond Taylor's right to diva-hood, Lord explains in her book that the film needed Taylor for her ability to portray a powerful, layered woman — as she had in films like National Velvet, A Place in the Sun, Suddenly, Last Summer and BUtterfield 8 — in an era typically uncomfortable with such an archetype. They also needed her star power to remain competitive against the rising enemy of television.
And as it turned out, Taylor's comfort was of the utmost importance during the filming of Cleopatra, though much of her rest happened in a hospital bed as opposed to the opulent trailer.
Cleopatra began filming in London — Taylor insisted it be shot there for tax purposes. But doing so created very serious problems, not the least of which was that everyone got sick. “Trying to create the climate of Egypt and the Mediterranean during a London winter was kind of preposterous,” Lord quipped.
Lord details in her book that Taylor's health in particular took a mighty turn. Between chronic back problems and pneumonia, shots of Demerol and infection, Taylor fell into a coma. After a tracheotomy, Taylor eventually came out of it, and filming resumed in Rome, which made more sense for setting and for Taylor's health. But due to the change in location and several changes in the cast, all the London footage had to be thrown out. “It was an extraordinarily expensive nightmare,” Lord said.
But Taylor's high demands were tolerated. Defended, even. Lord says in her book that Cleopatra producer Walter Wanger “understood stardom and its crushing pressure to appear capricious. He deflected Taylor's critics with a quote from director Billy Wilder: “I have a healthy aunt in Vienna who would come on set on time, know her lines, and always be ready. But no one would pay to see her at the box office.”
As it turns out, Lord says the iconic diamond was somewhat of an extravagant crutch. “Richard Burton gave it to her in 1968, right as their movies were getting worse and worse. She fell off the 10 most highly-paid actresses list — it was devastating — and did some really crappy movies.”
“It's a book she wrote about her pet chipmunk. It has her own little drawings in it. She loved animals,” Lord says. Taylor wrote the book at age 14 when Nibbles was her childhood pet.
3. Tiara from husband Mike Todd “That's pretty funny, because everyone needs a tiara,” Lord says. In the Christie's catalog, Taylor's quoted as saying, “When he gave me this tiara, he said, 'You're my queen, and I think you should have a tiara.' I wore the tiara for the first time when we went to the Academy Awards.” Lord added, “This was when Mike Todd's Around the World in 80 Days won for Best Picture.” Todd died in a plane crash almost exactly one year later.
“Boom! is John Waters' favorite movie — this really bizarre adaptation of This Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore,” Lord explains. “[Taylor] plays a woman, but basically it's a woman who's a gay man. The character's name is Sissy Goforth and she's dying, and she wears this weird kabuki drag. It's so wild. I just hope there are enough midget drag queens in the world…Elizabeth was only 5' 2″. They're drag queen clothes but you'd have to be a little drag queen. You need a very wealthy munchkin drag queen to buy these clothes.”
Worn by Taylor to Grace Kelly's 40th birthday party. “She's a Scorpio, and she had a Scorpion Ball to which she only invited Scorpios,” Lord says. “Now, Elizabeth was not a Scorpio, but Richard [Burton] was, so Richard escorted her to the Scorpion Ball in Monaco. It was this fabulous velvet cape with a hood and this huge scorpion in, I assume, rhinestones, this big glittering scorpion on it. As a Scorpio myself, I coveted that.”
The “Icons of Hollywood” auction will be held at the Paley Center from Dec. 15-17; the auction at Christie's in New York will be held from Dec. 13-16 with both live and online components. M.G. Lord's Taylor biography, The Accidental Feminist, will be released on Feb. 27, 2012.