x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Elizabeth Taylor: a life remembered through literature

New and old biographies of Elizabeth Taylor's life released following her death.

"Elizabeth Taylor will go down in history for making more turkeys than acclaimed films, for having an on-screen voice that more than frequently grates and for rarely maintaining the acting standards of her co-stars." That's the opening line of a new book about the screen icon, which was completed four years ago but has been held back until Taylor's death by the publishers Mainstream, due to fear of litigation (the star had previously sued fanzines and magazines for millions.)

David Bret's Elizabeth Taylor: The Lady, The Lover, The Legend - 1932-2011, was released on Thursday and is at the front line of the battle between publishers to rush new and re-released biographies of the actress into print. "Bret has stripped away the veneer to portray the star as she really was," a publicity statement from Mainstream reads. "Sometimes arrogant, attention-seeking, avaricious, reckless, monstrous towards her peers... even foolish at times."

Taylor publicly denounced the showbiz writer Bret in her lifetime, and Mainstream has admitted she probably would have tried to stop the book's publication had she been alive to see it. That's unsurprising: "She alone orchestrated the weapons of self-destruction throughout her entire life," Bret contends, "deliberately aggravating situations brought about by her own recklessness and folly, often solely for the purpose of contenting the media and keeping her name in the headlines. This she did better than anything witnessed on the screen."

Taylor's death on March 23 at the age of 79 has prompted celebrity tributes, countless articles praising her wit and beauty, and a re-examination of her films; it has also triggered a barrage of reissued books about her personal life.

She had scorned biographies about herself before, and has even quipped that she never read any of her own autobiographies.

The first of these, Nibbles and Me, was published when Taylor was just 14 and charts the adventures she had with her pet chipmunk. Of the others, My Love Affair with Jewelry has her gushing about diamonds and the men who gave them to her; Elizabeth Takes Off mostly deals with her diet and exercise regime and a short autobiography, Elizabeth, isn't much more revealing.

It was left to the unauthorised biographies to dig for dirt, and plenty are being republished in paperback and e-book form following Taylor's death, including Ellis Amburn's The Most Beautiful Woman in the World: The Obsessions, Passions and Courage of Elizabeth Taylor, which focuses on the scandal and gossip, from substance abuse to affairs and suicide attempts.

Another salacious account of the star's tempestuous private life is David C Heymann's Liz: An Intimate Biography of Elizabeth Taylor, which was pieced together from hundreds of magazine articles in 1996 and then dusted off and republished at the end of March. Among other revelations, it contains a long shopping list of the drugs prescribed to Taylor.

Although these books mention Taylor's devotion to Aids activism, her smouldering charisma and her lust for life, they are far more eager to talk about the car-crash allure of Taylor's stormy existence: but there are others that focus on the positives. Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger's Furious Love, which was out in paperback on Friday, takes a dreamy-eyed look at the relationship between Taylor and Richard Burton. It focuses on the passion between them during their two marriages, finishing with a love letter arriving in Taylor's hands from Burton days after his death: apparently she has kept it by her bedside ever since.

Taylor herself co-operated with the writing of Furious Love, allowing the writers access to previously unseen love letters from Burton, and she's quoted in the book's acknowledgements as saying: "I don't care what you write about me... just as long as you honour Richard." Unsurprisingly, Bret's The Lady, The Lover, The Legend is less respectful to the memory of Burton, recalling as many curses he slung at Taylor as tender words.

For readers who would prefer to remember Taylor at her luminous best, books of photographs have been released by the American magazines Time and People, showing why people considered the violet-eyed actress one of Hollywood's great beauties, and Vanity Fair is putting out an e-book of the magazine's interviews with Taylor throughout her career.

Or, of course, you could simply revisit her films: her performances in National Velvet, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer will surely outlast the gossip and scandal that has surrounded Taylor in death, as in life.