Even at 17, dazzling MGM star Elizabeth Taylor was fully aware of her effect on men.
“Up until that point, whoever she set her eyes on, she could get,” says Charles Casillo, author of Elizabeth and Monty: The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship, excerpted in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.
“Of course, we all want what we can’t have,” says Casillo.
What Taylor couldn’t have — or rather who — was Montgomery Clift, her devastatingly handsome co-star in the 1951 drama, A Place in the Sun.
In a riveting new book that brings Hollywood’s golden age to life with colorful, well-researched details and interviews with stars who knew Taylor and Clift, Casillo explores the intense bond the two shared that endured until his death in 1966 at age 45.
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“They were soulmates,” he says.
When the breathtakingly beautiful star and the serious 29-year-old actor with the chiseled good looks met in 1949 before filming the now-iconic drama, she fell hard for him — and he had strong feelings for her, as well, Casillo says.
Their attraction was so strong — their smoldering dance scene in A Place in the Sun is considered one of the most sensual in movie history — that co-star Shelley Winters “actually thought there was an affair going on,” says Casillo.
“It’s almost like you’re seeing them fall in love during that dance,” he says.
Though the two were attracted to each other and were even seen smooching in the back of limousines, says Casillo, at that point, “Monty couldn’t bring himself to tell her that he was gay.”
As a result, he kept their relationship platonic, which only made Taylor want him more.
“I think that was a part of the first interest on her part,” he says.
She would invite him to her room to rehearse, where she would undress in front of him and talk to him while she was bathing, says the author.
“He sat on the edge of the bathtub — and actually rehearsed,” says Casillo.
“This was intriguing to her because men were interested in her for her physicality,” he says. “Now she had a man who was sitting there, talking about movies and books that she liked, her plans for her future and the roles she wanted to play. I really do think he’s the first one who saw interest in her as a person.”
As their relationship progressed, says Casillo, “Monty felt more comfortable in letting her know he was gay — and talking about it.”
In time, “Elizabeth even started trying to think of other gay men she could fix him up with,” he says.
Taylor, of course, would famously go on to wed 8 times. She married British actor Richard Burton twice, and was gifted some of the biggest diamonds in history by him, including the $8.8 million, 33-carat Krupp Diamond later renamed The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond.
Over the years, the two close friends were there for each other during various times of crisis and tragedy, including the 1956 car crash that left Clift’s famous face permanently marred.
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After leaving a party at Taylor’s house high in the Hollywood Hills and drowsy from two “downers” he’d taken before he left to help him sleep when he got home, Clift crashed into a telephone pole.
He would have likely choked to death if Taylor hadn’t reached into his throat and pulled out broken teeth that got stuck in his windpipe, says Casillo.
“Everyone on the scene said that she saved his life,” he says. Otherwise “he would have died right there.”
As the years went on, they starred in two more movies together: the 1957 Civil War epic Raintree County and the 1959 Tennessee Williams drama, Suddenly, Last Summer. The projects marked the first time Taylor used her power in Hollywood to get Clift cast, says Casillo.
When Clift’s addiction to drugs and alcohol made for an erratic performance, he nearly got fired from the film. “Elizabeth said, ‘If he goes, I go,'” Casillo says.
“If Elizabeth Taylor was your friend, she was your friend to the end,” he adds.
After he died, Clift remained in Taylor’s heart as she fought against homophobia and the emerging HIV/AIDS epidemic by co-founding amfAR (The Foundation for AIDS research) in 1985 and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991.
One of the main reasons she became involved in AIDS activism was because of her close friend, actor Rock Hudson, who was the first celebrity known to have died of AIDS-related complications in 1985.
“Monty could very well have been one of the fatalities of AIDS,” says Casillo. “I believe she got involved with it in part because she was always trying to do for Monty, even years after his death.”
He adds: “They loved each other.”