The problem of being a living legend is that the legend can get in the way of the living. Elizabeth Taylor would be on anybody's short list of the most famous women on Earth. The trials and triumphs of her life and career, illuminated variously by Klieg lights and flashbulbs, are as familiar in Karachi as in Kankakee.
Only recently, as herself, she bobbed in and out of four successive sitcoms one Monday night on CBS, pursuing a supremely thin and silly subplot about a lost string of black pearls. There were ritualistic oohs and ahs from each cast at her presence, and it is probably true that few celebrities would have merited such a necklace of cameos, although invention seemed to flag as the evening went on, and only a hand was seen and a voice heard to signify her whereabouts on the fourth show. Inasmuch as she is about to launch a new series of perfume products--her third, called Black Pearls, from Elizabeth Arden--one critic noted unsympathetically that it was the longest plug in television history.
Exactly, she said cheerfully at her home in Bel-Air a few days before the telecasts. A network executive had proposed the idea and Taylor, who as well as the lavender eyes has a diamond-hard native shrewdness, seized the concept. "They offered me a theme, four shows about a jewel theft. I said, let's make it black pearls. I was only allowed to say 'Black Pearls perfume' once, but it's alluded to several times. I wasn't paid a cent," she explained, "but I was pretty crass about asking for money for ETAF [the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation]." The foundation now primarily supports hospices for AIDS patients worldwide, each rigorously checked by her people to be sure the money isn't going for expensive overhead.
The living room, where visitors are entertained, looks across a pleasant terrace to the mist-shrouded slopes of Bel-Air below. A cluster of paintings on the way includes a handsome Rouault. A large cocktail table holds an assortment of natural crystals, and a fish tank gurgles happily at one side of the room. "It's a reef tank," Taylor says, "and the symbiotic relationships among the fish are absolutely amazing. I can watch it for hours, and I do.
"It was heartbreaking for me to be a cripple for two years and not be able to get up and do anything. I hustled on the telephone, but it's not the same thing. You have to create events, at which I pay for everything, so that everything they make goes to patient care."
She has been active in the AIDS cause since 1984. Do the research labs she helps support suggest there is new light at the end of the tunnel? "It's a long tunnel," she says. "But I think what's happened with Magic Johnson is such a ray of hope. The fact that he's gone back into the sport is so positive. He's taken such care of his body and soul."
The television viewers saw an Elizabeth Taylor who qualifies as zaftig, that splendid word for full-blown. The weight is a consequence of many months of immobility caused by her back troubles and then hip replacements.
"In the shows, I make fun of myself"--referring to the references to her multiple marriages--"because if I don't, everybody else does anyway, so I might as well join in. If you can't make fun of yourself, who can . . . and they do."
She remembered that when she did "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" with Richard Burton for Mike Nichols, "Mike and I really wanted me to look like an old drunken sot, so I put on 20 pounds. And in those days it was easy to shake 20 pounds. It was even hard to put it on. Those days are gone forever. Everybody worries about my weight so much these days, it's like a national . . . I don't know why people care about how much I weigh. It's really nobody's business. But I'm dieting. I hate it. I sometimes wonder, why am I dieting? It's so vain. But I suppose it's better for my back. My hips, too."
The replacement surgery went well, but she walks carefully and a bit stiffly. "I saw a clip from one of the shows I did last week, and to me it looks like a penguin walking. But what can you expect from titanium?"
Feeling better right along, she will later this spring do a seven-city tour of department stores in aid of Black Pearls. On previous tours, she has drawn crowds in the thousands, peaking at 15,000 in Chicago.
"I've loved doing it," she says. "It's a way of meeting people I've never had before, kind of like doing a comic turn. I open myself to questions and it can be very funny, very off the wall."