When Queen Elizabeth II travelled to Washington DC on her 1976 tour of America, she decided to host a 1,500-person reception at the British Embassy. All night long, a fleet of television crews shadowed Her Majesty as she moved around the embassy’s velvet-soft green lawn, shaking hands with her many guests – until, suddenly, the cameramen up and disappeared in a frenzy. It turned out that Elizabeth Taylor had made her long-overdue grand entrance, and MGM royalty trumped actual royalty in terms of TV ratings – a fact the Queen found deeply amusing.
No one, but no one, commanded a room like Elizabeth Taylor – a Hollywood legend celebrated as much for her diva-like behaviour as her Oscar-winning performances. This is someone who built her outfits around her megawatt Van Cleef & Arpels diamonds, and who once flounced out of a 1965 Beverly Hills dinner before Princess Margaret, the guest of honour, had even arrived, after taking objection to the seating plan. (Taylor felt strongly that she and her then-husband Richard Burton should have been at Margaret and Lord Snowdon’s own VIP table.)
Naturally, the fashion world loved her, for all her mad antics. Perhaps her most memorable incarnation in Vogue came courtesy of Burton, who wrote a personal essay about life with Taylor for a ’70s issue, titled “Travelling With Elizabeth, By Her Husband Who Loves Her In Spite Of It”. “I love Elizabeth to the point of idolatry but – let’s repeat that ‘but’ – she will unquestionably be, as David Jones once wrote of a man from Bethesda, late for the last bloody judgment,” he began. “And, infuriatingly, she is always breathtakingly on time. She actually misses no train or plane or boat but, of course, misses the fact that her husband has had several minor heart attacks waiting for her while he shifts a shivering Scotch from his trembling hand to his quivering mouth to his abandoned liver, waiting, waiting, waiting for her to come out of the lavatory.”
The magazine photographed her on a number of occasions, too, of course – with Norman Parkinson taking her 40th-birthday portraits, at Burton’s request. (The Welsh actor’s gift to his partner on that occasion? A diamond once presented by Emperor Shah Jahan to his wife, whose death inspired the construction of the Taj Mahal.) Cecil Beaton, meanwhile, captured the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof actor in fancy dress as Ballets Russes legend Isa Rubenstein in 1971.
Dozens of equally brilliant images fill the pages of Forever Elizabeth: Iconic Photographers On A Legendary Star (ACC Books), a compilation of eight leading photographers’ work with Taylor through the years. There are Milton H Greene’s portraits of the star reclining on Peter the Great’s throne while shooting The Blue Bird, and Douglas Kirkland’s photographs of her with Burton shortly before Cleopatra’s wildly scandalous release – not to mention Terry O’Neill’s captures of the exact moment she first met David Bowie at an LA party. In honour of what would have been Taylor’s 85th birthday on 27 February, enjoy nine of our favourite shots from the volume, below.
- Norman Parkinson1/9Taylor captured in 1953, the year she starred in The Girl Who Had Everything.
- Douglas Kirkland2/9On her way to the opera in Paris in 1963.
- Milton H Greene3/9Taylor on the MGM lot in 1954 with her 16-month-old son, Michael Wilding Jr.
- Terry O’Neill4/9Dressed in a leopard-print outfit by Olga di Grésy for Mirsa, which she wore in 1972’s X, Y, and Zee.
- Milton H Greene5/9Taylor and Burton by the Houses of Parliament in 1963, a year before their first marriage to each other.
- Terry O’Neill6/9Wearing full-look Valentino to shoot The Night Watch (1972).
- Gered Mankowitz7/9Taylor on set while filming Boom! in Sardinia.
- Norman Parkinson8/9Decked out in mink and a Van Cleef & Arpels pendant for a shoot with Burton in Budapest in 1972.
- Terry O’Neill9/9Wrapped in a kimono under a gingko tree in 1976.