When Naomi deLuce Wilding was young, she loved watching movies in bed with her grandmother Elizabeth Taylor. “We used to watch a lot of horror movies together,” she tells Closer exclusively. “We liked to get scared.”
Naomi jokes to Closer that watching scary movies might not sound like “the most responsible, grandmotherly thing to do,” but after growing up on movie sets, Elizabeth had a great understanding of the difference between make-believe monsters and real-world horror. “I’m like a living example of what people can go through and survive,” she said.
Elizabeth reported to her first film set at age 9. “In a lot of ways, she had a very charmed life,” Kate Andersen Brower, whose biography Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon, was recently released in soft cover, tells Closer. “The flip side is that she had a very sheltered existence; she couldn’t be a normal kid, she didn’t have many friends her age.”
In fact, young Elizabeth was quite lonely, and her mother, Sara, and the studio ruled her life. “My sister related a story about watching National Velvet with my grandmother,” Naomi recalls. “[Elizabeth] said, ‘I remember this part. My mom said we had to reshoot it because my hands looked too fat,’ Imagine what that feels like when you’re 12!”
At 18, Elizabeth left her mother’s control by marrying Conrad “Nicky” Hilton, but it was a tragic mistake. “He was an alcoholic and abusive,” says Brower. “She was pregnant, and he kicked her, and she had a miscarriage. Elizabeth talks about seeing the baby in the toilet. It was awful.” Her second marriage, to Michael Wilding, brought stability and two sons; but their 20-year age gap drove a wedge between them.
They divorced amicably after five years, in 1957, the same year Elizabeth married Mike Todd, one of the great loves of her life. “God, I loved him. My self-esteem, my image, everything soared under his exuberant, loving care,” wrote Elizabeth, who had daughter Liza with the film producer. Adds Brower: “If he had lived, I think they would have stayed together.”
Michael’s sudden death in a 1958 plane crash upended Elizabeth’s world, but public sympathy turned to scorn when she ran off with Eddie Fisher 14 months later. “She had nightmares about nuns staring and laughing and pointing at her,” says Brower.
Being blamed for the breakup of Eddie’s marriage to Debbie Reynolds was bad, but Eddie’s unhinged attempts to keep Elizabeth were worse. “When she was shooting Cleopatra, he was so jealous about her relationship with Richard Burton that he held a gun to her head,” says Brower. But nothing could stop Elizabeth’s determination to be with Richard. “It was the most chaotic period of my life,” said the star, who married and divorced the Welsh actor twice. “But I also fell madly in love, so it couldn’t have been all bad.” Their final breakup, in 1976, destroyed her. “I know Elizabeth would have tried a third time,” says Brower. “I’ve wondered if she was more dedicated to him than he was to her.”
By her own admission, Elizabeth also almost died four times. “Once I didn’t breathe for five minutes, which must be a record,” joked the woman who was treated for more than 70 serious illnesses and injuries. Over the years, she survived an appendectomy, an emergency tracheotomy, dysentery, skin cancer and more, as well as addictions to alcohol and drugs. “I became a drunk and a junkie with great determination,” said Elizabeth, who became the first celebrity to publicly discuss her rehab experience at the Betty Ford Center.
Her many troubles helped make Elizabeth empathetic to the plight of others. In the 1980s, she used her celebrity to draw attention and better understanding to the plight of AIDS victims. She established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) in 1991. “She was acutely aware of her own frailty as a human,” says Naomi. “She understood that we all suffer, and the best way to ease that suffering is to reach out and touch each other.”
Elizabeth packed a lot into her life before her death at 79, in 2011. “I think that her relationship with her mother, who was very dominant, pushed her into doing things that were difficult,” says Naomi. “She learned her own strength from a young age. That’s how she was able to push through tragedy and illness. She believed you just keep going.”