By B. Harlan Böll
About the author: Esther Williams once defined B. Harlan Böll as the voice of her generation. A unique twist of fate ushered him through an unusual back-door to the industry and into the heart or hearts of Hollywood. His love for an era and its pioneers, that is all too often forgotten by younger generations, has garnered him a reputation as it’s trusted guardian. From the silver screens of tinsel town to the boards of the Great White Way as well as the Smithsonian Institute and even The White House, Harlan has become an outspoken advocate for a peer group of entertainers that brought America through some of its darkest hours.
I hate these days! I am the first to admit that I have been richly blessed with the opportunity to enjoy the unique warmth that comes from standing in a very specific kind of shadow. I’ve heard all of the jokes that I work with the geriatric set of Hollywood, but the reality of being able to refer to these truly remarkable icons, pioneers, legends and trailblazers as colleagues and often friends is something I thank God for everyday. Sadly, it comes with a rude reality that I will be outliving many of these remarkable individuals whose support and encouragement have contributed so greatly to the foundation called me.
Today, we lost Dame Elizabeth Taylor. I wouldn’t dare call myself a close friend, but can claim without any hesitation, that her influence both in person and from a far have greatly influenced my life. Having recently lost dear friends like Betty Garrett and Jane Russell, I find myself feeling a little bitter having lost yet another at, in my opinion, such an early age. In my world, where Carol (Channing) is 90, Phyllis (Diller) is 94, and even Dolores (Hope) is almost 102, 79 seems incredibly young to be taken from us.
I’ve heard so many people share their memories of Dame Taylor (the respect I hold for her, would never allow me to personally call her Elizabeth), that when asked to share my own, they seem so insignificant next to the influence she has had on others. However, they are uniquely mine and I treasure them. I will always be extremely grateful for her support over the years and especially for her part in the book I did with a brilliant photographer named Joan Lauren, entitled Portraits of Life: With Love. It would never have been as successful as it was without Ms Taylor’s participation. I remember being so very excited when I received the call saying that she would be honored to help our, then, little project to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. We planned to meet at the UCLA Medical Center, where the image (Above: with an infant also named Elizabeth) was to be taken for the book, which benefited children and their families living with HIV/AIDS. It had been arranged that I would meet them outside the hospital, but as the moment arrived a crowd, unrelated to her arrival, had gathered and I decided to walk to the end of the drive, in order to circumvent the possibility of an admiring audience delaying her already hectic schedule. Knowing that she hadn’t actually seen me is a couple of years I had told them I would be wearing my Stetson and boots, in order for them to recognize me quickly. It wasn’t long before I saw her assistant’s car approach, with that highly recognizable face in the passengers seat. The car slowed to the curb, her window rolled down and she asked tentatively … “Harlan?” I nodded yes, and she said, “Well, get in.” As I hopped in the back seat, I over heard her say “I can see the rag headlines tomorrow – “Liz Taylor picks up cowboy on corner.” I don’t know what I had been expecting or hoping for, with regard to the photo shoot. However, I do remember thinking that her casual slacks and plain white T-shirt style top wasn’t as glamorous as I had envision this fashion icon to be wearing, but OMG! The camera LOVED her! Every shot was a winner. She simply couldn’t take a bad photo.
Some time later, a good friend, Sydney Guilaroff (Senior hairdresser at MGM for years), reintroduced me to her at a party. He had only told me that he was expecting a few friends (among them, Angela Lansbury, Esther Williams, Shirley MacLaine, Ann-Margret and Roddy McDowall – A few friends!?). This re-introduction sealed a lifetime of charitable support with auction items and appearances for years to come. I remember once in, what was supposed to be an express elevator, the doors opened and a young man stepped inside. He took one look at Ms. Taylor and visually started to tremble, while backing out before the doors closed. Ms. Taylor took in the stunned look on my face and remarked, “Oh, it happens all the time.”
As with many of my colleagues, autograph collectors were always on the prowl for her. I recall an incident, when a young man, who clearly had been tipped off that she was in the building, was waiting for her in the parking structure. The mere thought that just one person could be actively stocking you would play havoc with ones mind, but the idea of having literally thousands tracking you moves would drive someone nuts. However, Ms. Taylor simply grinned, looked at the stack of photos and politely greeted him saying, “not too many please?”
I’ve been speaking to mutual friends all day today, while getting quotes for the purpose of servicing to the media, but sharing so much more. Rip (Taylor) remarked, “I was on Broadway with ‘Sugar Babies’ simultaneously while Elizabeth was appearing in ‘Little Foxes.’ We would meet occasionally after shows. I will never forget those eyes or that laugh.” This morning, Esther (Williams) commented on her fellow MGM colleague, “How very sad for us all. She was a marker of our time, my time. It seems like yesterday that I taught a beautiful 14-year-old Elizabeth how to swim at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, more beautiful, more voluptuous than Miss America. I will miss her.” Fellow thespian, Carol (Channing) mentioned to me this morning, that “I loved her. She hosted a huge party when ‘Hello Dolly!’ first opened in Los Angeles. I remember the lavender roses and the aura of her personality. She said when you find the particular love of your life, it is never forgotten. Everyone loved her too.” While speaking with Florence (Henderson), she caught essence of how American’s as a whole feel about Ms. Taylor when she said, “Like so many, I grew up with her. As a poor child, her movies like ‘Lassie’ and ‘National Velvet’ gave me hope. I had the good fortune to meet Elizabeth and thought she was just a lovely person.” Margaret O’Brien, whose history with Ms. Taylor is so long and extensive that to share her experiences would fill a book, added “The world is sadden today, but it is a very personal sadness for me, due to our 60+ years of friendship. We will all remain forever in debt to Elizabeth for her immense contributions as an actress, the efforts to fight AIDS and the countless charities she gave to so selflessly. Life loved Elizabeth and and Elizabeth loved life.” I recall that a photo from “Little Women” that I asked both to sign, pulled one of the largest bids I had ever seen in a charity silent auction.
Dame Elizabeth Taylor belonged to the world, and yet she made everyone feel like they were something special. I still have the note she sent me regarding a friend suggesting “She will live forever if you always hold her close to your heart.” The same will be said of you, Ms. Taylor.