In 1977, I was on the Virginia Beach Neptune Festival Committee and thus earned a seat at the table that hosted the famous actress Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, John Warner, a former Secretary of the Navy, who was then running for a Virginia US Senate seat. As the Grand Celebrity Marshall of the month-long festivities, Elizabeth Taylor would crown King Neptune IV on his arrival from the sea.
That late September, Elizabeth Taylor was still amazingly beautiful at age 45. And yes, as I can personally attest from close-range observation, her violet eyes were mesmerizing. Her major movie career triumphs, including Academy Awards for Butterfield 8 (1960), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1965), were behind her, but she was still a major world-class celebrity. Why she decided to marry John Warner and seek Washington society as a junior US Senator’s wife was an enigma to her fans. Nevertheless, there she was on the campaign trail doing her best to get Warner elected.
Prior to the memorable close-contact Neptune Festival Committee dinner party, I was invited as a magazine journalist to a Republican fund-raiser reception featuring Elizabeth Taylor as the ultimate attraction. Prominent Republicans and their best dressed and bejeweled women paid big bucks to potentially socialize with the once Cleopatra (1963), and the hotel ballroom was overcrowded, with all eyes focused on the doors where the gorgeous one would make her entrance. After an hour of disappointed expectation, it was rumored that Elizabeth (we were all on a first-name basis with her by now) was having problems with her hair and that she was screaming at a local hairdresser who was obviously unworthy of her trust. That, at least, was the unconfirmed rumor sweeping the ballroom.
When queen Elizabeth finally entered the end of the ballroom, there was a mad stampede of women toward her. They ran recklessly head on with flailing arms and handbags. From my view among their stunned and discarded men, the women appeared to have lost all sense of decorum in their determined dash to gaze into the star’s famous eyes. Their behavior was shameful and embarrassing, and I wondered then how the women at our upcoming Neptune Festival dinner might react in their close proximity to the star.
When we were seated at the table for ten at the Neptune party, I arranged for my then-wife Theresa to sit next to Elizabeth Taylor, while I took an opposite seat. From the very beginning of the dinner, socially prominent women approached the seated celebrity and leaned in on her with excessive attempts to engage her. My wife was rudely pushed aside as these women wedged themselves between her and Taylor. Theresa reported to me that some of these star-struck ladies who were smoking cigarettes actually spilled ashes into Elizabeth Taylor’s hair.
Throughout the ordeal of the interruptions, Elizabeth Taylor kept her composure, but she did not eat her dinner, and she left the event as soon as she reasonably could. Theresa apologized for the bad behavior of her peers, and Elizabeth hugged her for the sincerity of it in parting.
As a witness to the outrageous conduct of celebrity fans, I wonder if fame is worth the abuse. Elizabeth Taylor endured all and thus helped John Warner win the Virginia Senate seat in 1978. She had married him late in 1976 as her 6th husband, but they were divorced in 1982. The role of a senator’s wife, as many had predicted, was a miscasting of Elizabeth Taylor. Then, too, how many Washington society dinner parties could she have endured with rude women leaning on her and spilling cigarette ashes into her hair?