Elizabeth Taylor’s Dress
Sometimes we see our craziness only in retrospect. Ah, hell, not sometimes. Pretty much always; I mean, if we realized how off kilter we were at the time, we’d probably tame our wilder impulses.
My most recent crazy decision occurred in mid-December, when I agreed to teach a class this upcoming semester that is entirely new to my pedagogical repertoire: English Literature: 18th Century to the Present. Sure, it trips off the tongue nicely and all–but the truth is that I haven’t even thought about this stuff (things like the Romantic poets, the Victorians, the poets of World War I) for 22 years, since I was a freshman in college. And even then? When I was still impressionable and unformed and sopping up the world?
I didn’t so much like it. In fact, I trace my longstanding poetry ambivalence to that year, when I found myself worn out with trying to parse meaning out of meter. In the intervening years, I’ve amused myself by reading everything but Good English Major works.
So now I find myself, crazily, spending my winter break between semesters trying to reteach myself a ton of material that I never mastered, even way back when Reagan was president. Hence, I’m in a tizzy. A panic. A whirlwind of lyrical ballads and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and writings about the abolition of the slave trade and Marxist manifestos and me pulling my armhairs out with a tweezers.
In short, even though a part of me is glad that I get to meet all of these authors again from a point of more maturity, I’m gasping a bit.
And isn’t it at just such moments that friends kick in? As I plot how to stay just one damn day ahead of my students this semester, I find relief: my pal Jim (known in the comments section of this blog as iJim) has stepped up as guest blogger for me this week so that I can begin to ferret out the mysteries of the attraction between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Although the jury is out on the Brownings, I yuv Jim.
While he lived in Duluth for the last three years (serving as my dean, no less!), he now has moved to hotter, drier, sexier (if a culture NOT based on fleece clothing can ever be sexy) climes in Southern California. His two guest posts, starting with the one below, give us a peek into his current Gilded Age:
“Elizabeth Taylor’s Dress”
I have been a fan of Elizabeth Taylor for about 20 years. That’s a comparatively short time for a gay man in his forties. But when I was growing up, Elizabeth Taylor was an old woman with her best work behind her. Who’s this and what’s all the fuss about? I wondered. After all, I was born in 1964, and ET is two years older than my mother.
My views changed around 1985 when I saw the film of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer. I thought the movie was dreadful, but ET was gorgeous. I understood her appeal then. Later, I saw ET’s other major Williams screen role, as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and I was hooked.
By 1990, I was a graduate student, studying Williams’s plays, and I wanted to write a paper about ET and her relationship to the gay community. The paper would note her friendships with Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson but would focus on ET’s identification with Williams’s screen heroines. I would focus on imagery and iconography, and there was no image more powerful to me than Elizabeth Taylor wearing a white dress with Paul Newman in the background. It wasn’t the slip she sauntered around in, by the way. I never wrote the paper, but I did come up with a good title: “Elizabeth Taylor’s Dress.”
My fascination has ebbed and flowed over the years as ET has limited her film and television appearances, introduced fragrances and jewelry, and become the first lady of AIDS fundraising and activism. For her 75th birthday last year (February 27), I threw a party at my home in Duluth, asking guests to contribute money to AmFar, which ET helped found in 1985. (Okay, so the birthday and fundraising were tie-ins; the party was for me and my friends.)
Then I moved to southern California, and I figured it was only a matter of time before I was able to meet Elizabeth in person. After all, I’d been visiting LA for years and had a social network there. I had met or at least seen many celebrities on my visits. (Assistant Director Skinner IS hot. Who knew?)
So I wasn’t particularly surprised when I was offered a ticket to see Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones in a one-time-only performance of Love Letters on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2007. A friend of a friend—okay, a fabulously wealthy friend of a very thoughtful friend—had an extra ticket: Tom invited Chris, and Chris deferred to me. Score!
Next: “The Night Elizabeth Taylor Didn’t Kiss Me”
This is Jim, our guest blogger. He took this photo with his cell phone after he got a new haircut and I begged him for a glimpse. I am glad he lives in California now, or else he’d come to my house right now for posting this photo and shove his cell phone down my throat. And then he’d have the temerity to ask me to make him a martini.