A Democracy of Glamour

Elizabeth Taylor is as fabulous and as undead as ever. Just this month on Page Six the megastar yielded two fresh items of vintage gossip. On Turner Classic Movies, she sizzled away as Maggie the Cat. And in “Becoming Jewish: Warhol’s Liz and Marilyn,” the Jewish Museum in New York kvells: Between wedding Mike Todd in 1957 and Eddie Fisher in 1959, Elizabeth converted and remained a lifelong Jew. It seems that every tribe is making a landgrab to claim Elizabeth (she hated being called “Liz”) as one of their own, and who wouldn’t want to identify with the legendary beauty, sassy dame, and world-class mensch? Now, in 700 Nimes Road (Prestel, $60), prominent queer photographer Catherine Opie frames her death-mask portrait of Elizabeth’s Bel Air pad with texts (by Hilton Als and Ingrid Sischy) saluting the actress and pioneering AIDS activist as a BFF of the gays.

With serendipitous access to the star through a shared accountant, Opie set out to “create a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor through her home and belongings,” inspired by William Eggleston’s photographs of Graceland. Shot between January and June 2011, the project was midway through when Elizabeth died, before Opie had a chance to meet her. There is an elegiac vibe to the book, which captures a time of transition between the space as it was inhabited by Elizabeth and then the packing up of her cherished objets for their journey to Christie’s after her death. (Fans of bling are still dazzled by the record-breaking 2011 auction of Elizabeth’s high-end hoard.)

So what was her place like? Perhaps you imagined something like the digs in HBO’s Liberace biopic, a bedazzled purple palace tricked out with disco balls and gay houseboys in ET livery. Au contraire, the house is gracious, comfortable, and not showy at all. A frontal glimpse of the living room establishes a stately tone: A white shag rug and pale-blue couches set off a wall of Post-Impressionist pictures, some from her art-dealer parents, and those craggy Chinese scholars’ rocks she collected. We get a peek at the quaint, rustic kitchen. And it’s fun to imagine Elizabeth selecting her purse and shoes from the shelves lining the large dressing room (with a hairdresser’s sink plunked down on the lavender shag).

As excited as one is to snoop around by proxy, Opie’s camera is discreet. There are no shots of Elizabeth’s medicine cabinet, nor any trace of her final decline. Instead, we close in on intimate still lifes of items cherished by the glamorous, beloved star. Luxe tchotchkes mingle with personal Hollywood relics: a handwritten note that reads “Dear Elizabeth Happy Birthday I am one also! BETTE”; a first edition of Nibbles and Me, penned by the fourteen-year-old MGM star about her pet chipmunk; a child’s drawing of a duck signed “With love, Your goddaughter Paris Jackson.” Snapshots in fancy frames cover the space with loved ones like kudzu: Richard Burton, Michael Jackson, Roddy McDowall, Sugar (her beloved Maltese), and family. The house was a cozy sanctuary filled with keepsakes, not a showplace.

Looky-loos will find their voyeurism soon gets complicated. Our attention is drawn to the dear pet cemetery in the garden, the old baby shoes, the pointy toes of blue satin pumps, glam hatboxes stacked on the immaculate lavender shag, even roses outside: All seem to ooze the senseless mystique of provenance. Yes, one thinks, Elizabeth was “spiritual” and a sentimental, fancy lady who took very good care of her things. Is it even possible to do a portrait of a person through her home and belongings?

Of course, the mementos of world-class fame are there: the Oscars, awards, and medals, the photos of Elizabeth with fellow Elizabeth (the Queen), with President Clinton, and . . . Wallis Simpson? (I looked up her connection to the socialite who snagged Nazi-friendly King Edward VIII—apparently they shared a taste for diamond brooches.) And there are lots of pics of the star herself, including Warhol’s famous Liz and his drawing of a big kiss “To Elizabeth.”

The legendary hoard of jewels is shot in what appears to be a clothes closet: Opie pans over boxes and boxes and boxes of the famous bling, from Van Cleef, from Sotheby’s, in velvet cases with frayed labels like “Krupp Diamond,” “Mike Todd Diamond Tiara,” the red Cartier boxes like a miniature army of tiny caskets, their worn edges exuding aura from all the miles they must have logged jet-setting. Photos of Liz and Dick nestle among the baubles, their love contextualizing the stash. A Vuitton suitcase (with Elizabeth’s lavender tag: “MINE!”) overflows with a pirate’s booty of sparklers and pearls. Emeralds and tiaras shot outside in sunlight glitter with transcendent, over-the-top brilliance.

But it isn’t the jewels that best evoke the frisson of being close to Elizabeth. Oddly, it’s banalities like the photocopier (against a wall of snapshots of Liz cavorting with Richard Burton) or the dog-eared remote manual on the nightstand (near a portrait of her close friend Michael Jackson) that make you think: This is Elizabeth Taylor’s house! You imagine her kicking back after a long day, taking off the caftan and flicking on the TV. I was surprised to spot a shelf of books on angels (“Prozac for poor people,” quipped Paul Rudnick), the occasional stuffed animal, and a sweet painting of deer in a snowy wood signed “Elizabeth Taylor.”

Catherine Opie, Fang and Sugar, 2010–11, ink-jet print. © Catherine Opie, courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Her fashion archive becomes fodder for abstract compositions. A rainbow of couture shmattes limp on hangers, shelf after shelf of purses and shoes arranged by color (so many festive lady-cowboy boots)—Opie shoots it all in series: blue, red, pink, flowered, beaded, etc. While at auction, individual pieces were played up by Christie’s spectacular marketing for maximum aura as relics of the star; here in their native habitat, a lifetime of garments, each boasting its unique moment in Elizabeth Taylor History, is an inscrutable accumulation. By shooting these treasures in bulk, Opie creates a leveling effect. Schmancy sleeves stripe pages and pages: sequins, brocades, velvet, feathers, furs. The non-specificity of each garment is like a harbinger of oblivion, a kind of death of context that emphasizes the transitory nature of ownership itself, as Elizabeth herself has passed on. We can’t help but think about death when we look at these photos. They have zing because of Elizabeth’s star power. But on a more basic level, we are looking at the items of a dead woman. You can’t take it with you—even if you are Elizabeth Taylor! And we, too, will leave our things behind. What could they say about us? Would they compose a portrait we’d recognize?

“I think it helped that I don’t know that much about fashion or jewelry,” Opie told Sischy, “I wasn’t gaga over it . . . I wanted to capture a kind of democracy of glamour.” Her approach gives us the stuff of glamour minus the fantasy, which the viewer may supply on his or her own—or not.

The same approach Opie has taken to imagemaking in the past—shooting clinically and relying on the subject for oomph—is unsettling here. You eagerly dive in to check out Elizabeth Taylor’s sanctum. But then “it feels like insurance photos,” as a photographer friend put it: “like here’s all the stuff, here’s the appraisal.” This peek into the megastar’s home reminded me of what a Proust fan said when she visited Illiers, the real-life model for Combray, the childhood kernel of his great imaginary oeuvre. She was shocked: “It was just a dull little village!” There was no evidence of the genius that had enchanted it. Everything that’s animated by inner experience is not available to us through these images—we are left with impassive observation of the things left behind by an unusually full life, illuminated by the radiant light that still streams through Elizabeth’s home—in her absence.

Sandwiching the pics are texts by Als, Opie, and Sischy and a charming memoir by Tim Mendelson, Elizabeth’s “right hand” for twenty-plus years. Als’s lofty intro quickly dispenses with any campy spirit: This will be no fun romp through a dead movie star’s house! Conjuring the star in a pietà of gays, he describes the fiercely protective Elizabeth shielding her mangled pal Montgomery Clift from prying paps on the bloody scene of his grisly car crash. He invokes “Opie’s camera, that ever sensitive eye . . . having a powerful feeling for queer memories, too.” In her longer afterword, Sischy teases out a connection between Opie’s membership in ACT UP and the actress/activist who stood up at a crucial moment in the history of AIDS, when Elizabeth famously observed: “If it weren’t for homosexuals, there would be no culture.”

Sischy contextualizes Taylor (whom she also knew) and meditates on “looking at the pictures [in] Taylor’s physical absence but constant emotional presence.” (Adding to the poignancy of her remarks on this glamorous memento mori is the untimely death of Sischy herself, before the book was published.) Opie “does not create a hierarchy among the objects, which is true to how Taylor felt about them,” Sischy writes. “All of it had meaning to Taylor, and all of it tells the story of her life.” Indeed.

Like Taylor herself, these photos are a magnet for our projections. They tell us a bit about the legendary star, but not all. She mingled rare beauty and gifts (often upstaged by her spectacular fame) with larger-than-life appetites for bling, booze, fried chicken, and drama of all kinds. Any candid account of Elizabeth Taylor describes a brave spirit with a great sense of humor about herself. Would you know that from these images? Our things are unreliable narrators.

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer in New York.