MEMORY ~ E.T. and Me

This one is for Vickie

“I bet nether one of you know about Parma Violets. Well, they are very delicate, and they are what people give when they want to give something really special,  when they’re in love, or someone dies….”  Zee Blakely ~ X, Y, and Zee 1972

There is no such thing as true violet eyes. What seems to be violet is made up of the deepest dark blue and flecks of green. I was surprised when I found that out. But despite that truth there was a myth that was in fact a greater truth and reality.  Her eyes were violet. Like violets of Parma, violet of legend when I finally saw them in person they were the kindest eyes I had ever seen.

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When I was thirteen years old and Marilyn was gone nearly a year I was doing very badly in math at school.

“If you get a B on your next report card, your step-father and I will take you into Hollywood to see “How The West Was Won.”

“In Cinerama?” I had never seen a movie in Cinerama. The mere prospect of a night out, dinner at Musso and Frank’s, reserved seats AND a glossy program all about the movie caused my voice to reach and octave higher than Jane Powell’s.  I worked harder for that B than I ever had in school and forced my brain to embrace problems and figures that were like poison ivy to my grey cells.

Three months later I was sitting in Musso and Frank’s too excited to eat. Dinner half in me and threatening to not stay there I asked to be excused to go to the bathroom. I was excited about the movie yes. But what had my stomach riding the roller coaster at Pacific Ocean Park was what I had seen from the car as we drove down Hollywood Boulevard, the Pantages Theater all decked out for the arrival of the Queen of Everything! I slipped out the front door of the restaurant into the rare night air that only movie stars breathe and ran the six blocks from Las Palmas to Vine just to see the outer lobby of the Pantages. It was covered in photographs of the movie that was to open later that week. The movie everyone in the world had been waiting for over two years to see.  “The most anticipated movie event of all time” the adds read….and up until then it was.

The splendors of Egypt seared my eyes in gold and sapphire, the might and grandeur of a plaster of Paris ancient Rome engulfed me, and everywhere HER. I only had a minute to look and it was almost too much to bear. How could Debbie Reynolds, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Carol Baker, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, George Peppard and Carolyn Jones compete with this?  Was the West being won from the Indians more important that the ancient Near East being lost to the Romans? I had two choices, pass out on the star strewn sidewalk or run back to Musso and Franks. I turned to run and instantly I saw the most incredible thing my thirteen year old eyes had ever beheld.  High up on the side of the Hollywood Taft building right next door to the Pantages soaring up into the starless inky smoggy night was a painting of HER.  It was seventy; no it must have been a hundred feet high. She was seated on a replica of Tutankhamen’s throne in a green and gold crown, dressed in plunging neckline purple Irene Sharaff gown and holding the emblems of Upper and Lower Egypt across her bosom. Her violet eyes looking down upon me not with imperious hauteur, but with a kind of understanding as if she were the mother of the lost boys.

“We are going to be late….” A hand took mine. It was my step-father. He had known exactly where to find me.

(Painting by Howard Terpning that was on the side of the Hollywood Taft Building.)

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“There are never enough hours in the days of a Queen, and her nights have too many…so I fill them with memories of what might have been.”  Cleopatra 1963

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At seventeen I had my own movie studio. It was a super-8 movie studio named after the father of movies David Wark Griffith,  D.W.G. Studios it was called. I had saved up money from baby sitting and stripping and waxing kitchen floors for the women in the neighborhood to buy my movie editor, my fist step to running a studio. Why the editor first? At fifty bucks it was the cheapest of the necessities I would need. Camera cost eighty dollars and the projector a whopping one hundred and twenty five so I figured if I had the editor first I would be forced to save up the money to get the rest of the equipment. My step-dad and mom took pity on me and got the camera and projector for my birthday and Christmas that December.

My fist epic was an eighteen minute version of “Antony and Cleopatra”. Surprise! The cast was made up of all the kids I baby sat. Cleopatra was eight years old and her brother at nine played Antony. The love scene was a little uncomfortable to say the very least. Unlike Elizabeth’s version my Cleopatra and her Antony came in under budget after two weeks in production at seventy five dollars. And, I had to make that money back or the studio was sunk! So I put on my post production, marketing and advertising hat and got to work.

I planned to run the film for three weekend showings on Friday and Saturday nights in our garage. I painted a huge reclining Cleo and put it on the roof of the garage with Christmas lights and papered the double car garage door with a sign. “Opening in three weeks the film the entire neighborhood has been waiting for!” I didn’t name it…Cleo on the roof said it all.  I sent out invitations to every person I had ever met. Then, almost as an after thought I sent one to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in care of Merto-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. M.G.M. had been Elizabeth’s home studio for eighteen years. She was no longer under contract to the studio, but maybe they still forwarded her mail.

Three months later I came home from school to be met by my mother at the front door.

“What did you write in that invitation you sent to Elizabeth Taylor?”

“Oh I don’t know…I told her about myself. I just wrote to her like she was anybody. Why?”

“This came today.”  She produced from behind her back an robin egg blue envelope. On the back were three words. Elizabeth Taylor Burton. Mom had to turn the hose on me to calm me down.

Thus began a on again off again correspondence that lasted four years. The Burtons got an invitation to every film that came out of D.W.G. and lots of drawings. They never did make it to my premieres but she always supported my artistic endeavors with a kind note.

 

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“I’m an artist, I paint. Nobody buys. Then I turn out watercolors when I need grocery money.” Laura Reynolds ! The Sandpiper 1965

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At nineteen I was a Theater Arts Major in Junior College. By twenty one I came to the realization that I hadn’t the talent to be a good actor, let alone a movie star, I was smart enough to know that Hollywood was sure to break my heart.  But I could paint. So after six months as an English major where spelling proved to be my downfall I became an Art Major.

When I found out in 1971 that I was going to summer school in Guadalajara Mexico and that I would get to spend a weekend in Puerto Vallarta I got an idea. I wrote to Elizabeth allowing the usual three months for the letter to find her where ever she was in the world and told her I wanted to give her a thank you gift for all her support. Would she send me her favorite photograph of her with Richard?

She sent the photo taken when they appeared in Doctor Faustus at Oxford. I painted a very large portrait from that photo of them in costume, he as Doctor Faustus and she Helen of Troy.  It hung in an English Pub in town until it was time to take the train from Mexicali to Guadalajara. The train left at night and there waiting on the platform for the three day trip stood I with my suitcase and the Burtons all boxed up. I was towering at six feet three like mount Popocatépetl above a sea of Mexicans none taller than 5’6″. Everyone was looking at the giant gringo with the long hair and beard. I came to understand during my entire visit to Mexico what it must be like to be famous! Everywhere I went the locals were fascinated by me. Children called me “El Barbo” and ran up to me to tap me for luck.

(The Photo she sent when I asked for her favorite photograph with Richard Burton. grey silk caftan by Vicky Tiel.)

I shared my little private Pullman room on the train with the Burtons. When the bed was made up the only place for them was in the bed with me. The first night crossing the Senora Desert was fine. But on the second night in the mountains it was insanity. Every time the train turned and twisted though the Sierra Madre mountains the Burtons would fall over on me. They kept me up all night.

I stayed with the Ramirez family in Guadalajara. They spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish. Senora Ramirez loved the painting so it hung over her dining table for three weeks, until it was time to fly to Puerto Vallarta and surprise the Burtons. My American roommates translated so consequently I never learned any Spanish, except how to ask for scrambled eggs and even that I got wrong. Seems I was asking for “revolting eggs’.  The house maids loved me.

Armed with a friend who spoke Spanish and English I found the Burton house on Calle Zaragoza in Gringo Gulch.  A pink bridge crossed the street connecting the two parts of the house and under the bridge was the front gate. No door bell…just a rope with cowbells hanging down for any one to pull. I was as nervous as a cat on a….you know the rest. I pulled on the cow bells and nothing. My friend yanked on them and again nothing. We were about to leave when a voice came from the bridge above us.

 

“¿qué es lo que quieres?” We looked up to see a handsome young Mexican man who looked to me to be a dead ringer for one of Ava Gardner’s beach boys in “The Night of the Iguana.”

My friend explained in Spanish my story. He must have done a good job because the beach boy told us to wait and disappeared across the bridge into the main house. Moments later he appeared at the iron gate with two maids in tow.

He demanded to see the painting. I pulled it out of its travel worn box.

“aye qué hermoso!” the maids exclaimed and grabbed the painting and ran up the stairs into the house.

My friend translated to me as the beach boy spoke.

“I will see that Mr. and Mrs. Burton get the painting. They just left yesterday for London for the birth of Mrs. Burton’s first grandchild.”  He thanked me and shut the gate. I missed them by only a day.  I never saw the painting again.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the Burtons were in trouble and in a few years they would be divorced. The letters from Elizabeth  stopped and I understood why.

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“The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.”  Elizabeth Taylor

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Many years and three husbands later for Elizabeth I was working in the collections department at Macy’s in San Francisco. The big news was that Elizabeth Taylor was coming to promote her perfume “Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion”.  It was announced that for two hundred and fifty dollars you could have tea with Miss Taylor and about two hundred other people in the Macy’s cafeteria on the eighth floor. My card was maxed out and I had to work that day so there was no way I could see her, let alone meet her.  What would I say? “You don’t remember me but….” I didn’t want to be that guy.

When the hour arrived that she was due on the main floor I blacked out.  The next thing I remember is that I came out of my blackout very close to the stage and she was walking on to it. Everyone was screaming!

Over my lifetime I leaned many things from Elizabeth Taylor. I learned how to face life straight on and survive the hard times. I learned that it was a blessing to be different. I learned that kindness and honesty and being the real you brings unexpected rewards. I learned by watching her with Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and Rock Hudson that loyalty is the hallmark of being a real friend. I learned how to use my eyes to speak when the world was too loud for words.

The day Elizabeth died she gave me her last gift. Just a month before I had so angered the love of my life, Bryant Lanier so much that he had cut me off and ended our relationship. It was so final that I knew I would never again speak to the man I had waited a lifetime for. As time crept onward I took on each day and climbed over it knowing from experience that I would survive …. And then Elizabeth died.

I heard the news getting ready for work.  No tears like for Marilyn when I was 10. Too much had happened for tears now. I went to work. Everyone I met that day said “Elizabeth Taylor died today, why are you here?”  There was nothing else to do but live that day through and go on. I learned that from her, you just keep going on.

The following Sunday there was an email from Bryant.

I haven’t thought about anything in the wake of Liz’s death but you,,,in fact I just made myself LOL. Wondering how long you’ll wear black!

They’re playing a nice tribute to her on the CBS Sunday morning show and ,,if u get up in time..(9 AM ) I’m sure you’d love to see it ….

There may someday be plenty to say,,,and some things may go unsaid thank god…

Have a good day..

I love you

B

 

PS Call me when you get this.”

In an odd way, Elizabeth’s death gave me a second chance with him. I used to tell Bryant how much he reminded me of Burton because of their shared acting talents and personal demons.  I had Bryant in my life for nine more months before he went to join Elizabeth in the place where there are more stars than there are in the heavens. Three days before he died he said. “You are my Elizabeth.”

As Elizabeth Taylor walked on to the stage that day at Macy’s back in the 80’s she was radiant. She waved out to the packed store. Then she turned and she saw me.  She smiled, and then she winked. That was enough.

Her eyes were like Parma violets, the very flowers I used to send to Bryant on his birthday.

(Bryant Lanier ~ Actor, Singer, Director )

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