In the early 2000s, William Pawley Jr. reached out to Elizabeth Taylor. More than 50 years earlier, he had been the celebrated actress’ first great love and fiancé. “I never got over Elizabeth,” confessed the man she called Bill about their 1949 whirlwind courtship, engagement and breakup.
At 17, Elizabeth met Bill, a dashing former Air Force pilot, at the elegant Miami home of his father, U.S. Ambassador to Brazil William Pawley Sr. The couple quickly fell head-over-heels for each other. “I’ve never known this kind of love before — it’s so perfect and complete — and mature,” gushed Elizabeth in one of the more than 60 letters she would write to the handsome 28-year-old during their long-distance love affair.
Equally smitten, Bill proposed marriage to Elizabeth, the already famous star of 1944’s National Velvet. She accepted his diamond ring three months after their first meeting and spoke of giving up her career. “For I won’t be giving anything up — but I will be gaining the greatest gift that God bestows on man — love, marriage, a family — and you my Darling,” she wrote.
Even as Elizabeth pledged her love, Hollywood got in the way. To keep her in the public eye, Elizabeth’s publicist arranged “dates” for her with football star Glenn Davis. Bill saw the photos and became jealous, prompting Elizabeth to try to put his mind at ease. “You silly Little Billy,” she wrote. “I trust you completely; why don’t you me?”
In addition to daily letters, the pair burned up the phone lines — one long call cost a whopping $145! Bill also visited, teaching Elizabeth to drive and escorting her to parties. In June, he presented her with a diamond engagement ring and her mother, Sara, announced their intention to marry.
But Elizabeth’s life remained in Hollywood, and eventually her passion began to cool. “I’m sorry I didn’t answer your letter before this,” she wrote in October 1949, while working on A Place in the Sun. “But I’m so tired. Bill, I know you understand.”
The end came a month later when he came to California to be Elizabeth’s date for the wedding of actress Jane Powell — and accidentally learned that his fiancée had extended her contract with MGM for an additional two years. A bitter argument ensued and their engagement was called off. A little while later, Elizabeth’s mother wrote a note asking Bill not to contact her daughter again.
Elizabeth wed Nicky Hilton six months later, while Bill became a devout Christian. At age 50, he finally married and became a father of two. He didn’t contact Elizabeth until after his wife passed away in 2002.
However, when Elizabeth and Bill reconnected later in life, they found they didn’t have very much in common other than their shared memories of their young love. Still, Elizabeth was thrilled to have heard from Bill. “If I love someone,” she said, “I love them always.”