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From the Vault of Art Shay: Sleeping With Elizabeth Taylor

By Staff in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 5, 2011 5:00PM

Anyone who skitters on the tube past candle-lit pornographic movies of pretty, hard-breathing women displaying their enhanced breasts, knows that the guileless but about-to-be lucky photographer with his motorized Nikon or Canon has replaced the pizza delivery boy and the muscular masseuse as an American fuck hero. "Now for this shot, Honey. Here, let me put the camera down for a minute..."

So before I tell you how this simple non-pornographic photographer ended up sleeping with Elizabeth Taylor, I'd better set the scene to prevent you from thinking it obscene. (Or that I am.)

So there I was in 1960, covering Liz Taylor for Life magazine at the Ambassador East. She was otherworldly gorgeous in her purple-eyed, curvaceous prime, still sexy as her Maggie the Cat role of two years prior when she couldn't get Paul Newman to fuck her, (at least on camera).

The Life event? Kicking off her late husband Mike Todd's preposterous “Smell-O-Vision.” When a movie couple walked through an orange grove scene, an expensive chemistry set in the basement farted the theater full of a mixture of, say, H2SO4 and KCLO3 or some orangey simulacrum thereof, that lasted until the lady plucked a gardenia. Then the expensive farting machine blew gardenia. Smell-O-Vision was a ten-million buck flop that Liz and her stepson, Mike Todd Jr. inherited, but gamely played out, loving widow and grieving son that they were. With Liz was satyriasist Eddie Fisher standing by erect, waiting to serve now that he'd shed Debbie Reynolds.

Fisher and one of her ex-husbands, Conrad Hilton, Jr., and even Peter Lorre (with two busty six-foot chorines in tow) were on hand. They danced inattention on ludicrous Lorre as he kissed their hands pre-war Berlin Cabaret style, when and where he flourished as the skinny child murderer in M. The men treated Liz like the royalty she was. Then one Jewish-accented lady gaper with an autograph book, blurted, "Lizinkeh, Paul Newman treated you like dirt even though his schmuck didn't work in ‘Pussycat Cat on de Hot Tin Roof.’" Liz replied in flawless New Yawkese, "He vas a redneck schmuck. Eet voss 1958- Vat could I do? - you zie gezunt dearie." She signed the lady's book. The woman said, "You ain't Jewish, are you?" Said Liz, "Not exactly. Only thanks to God and Mike Todd, by injection."

I fell in love with Liz right there. I told her she sounded like one of my mother's across-our-alley friends from the Bronx, Mrs. Levy, who used to undress for my camera some nights. Liz laughed. "Denks, you yungel you," she said. Eddie Fisher and before him Mike Todd had taught her the Yiddish showbiz gutter argot of the time - since replaced, I imagine, by darker Michael Jackson and Kanye slang. I later heard on the set of Cleopatra, she used the Yiddish accent to infuriate upper clahss Richard Burton in arguments. She signed my leather camera case in black marking crayon and kissed my cheek goodbye. This picture appeared in the Des Plaines Journal.

Suddenly, three weeks went by and I was sitting in the very back compartment of a crowded TWA Constellation, going back to Chicago from a golf shoot for Sports Illustrated. My one fashion job for them! We suddenly ceased taxiing, the plane stopped, a ladder contrivance wheeled up, the doors opened- and Liz Taylor got on! The only empty seat was next to me in that rear compartment. I held my camera case up, showing her autograph. She remembered me and sat down next to me in a cloud of Chanel-Cinq triggering a Proustian-Madeleine memory that I had scored some Cinq in Paris six weeks after VE day at the Scribe Hotel (a press hangout) in Paris. This was also the hotel in which Simone de Beauvoir, reminiscing for Nelson Algren, told him that Ernest Hemingway tried to fuck her, but couldn't because he was an alcohol impotent. (All the pictures you miss by being elsewhere!) What was I doing in Paris just then? Navigating an unprepossessing C-47 from the grape vineyards of Wiesbaden, Germany, back to Paris and London- carrying the first full plane-load of postwar champion for our champagne-parched Officer's Clubs. It was so early in the Peace- that would last a month or so- that the champagne corks hadn't arrived in Germany from Portugal yet, and the ingenious Germans used Coca-Cola bottle caps for the time being. What did we vulgar victors know from champagne corks and their ambience?

If you can tear yourself away from my shocking, tatterdemalion history of transporting WW2 booze, I'd like to bring you back on the Surreal Photo-Journalistic Express to LA, a scant 15 or so year later: as I said, there was Liz boarding my plane late. She was wearing some kind of white mink fur. Maybe faux ermine or polar bear? She nodded affably to everyone, settled in, then whispered, "Art I was partying all night. So, if you don't mind, please- no conversation. Let's just sleep all the way to Chicago." So we did, our bodies separated only by a cruelly effective plastic seat divider and six inches of indeterminate fur , our undergarments, outerwear , and normal body heat, mostly mine.

Over Utah, I think, Liz's lovely head slumped onto my shoulder then back up. She mumbled, "Sorry, Paul," fluttering those sleepy purple eyes. Years earlier, I'd heard from a Life photog who'd been a friend of Robert Capa's - the photojournalist whom Ingrid Bergman loved -but who turned furious when Ingrid once woke up next to Capa and sleepily whispered : "Ingmar, min älskling." A photo journalist- even one as great as Capa- gets used to hearing and being called all sorts of names by movie stars. But it's the picture that counts.

God knows the snapshots poor Capa carried in his famous suitcase or capacious mind- but I'll always bear the mental image of Liz and me flying high, overhead lights dimmed, eschewing additional Continental blankets, peanuts, or even coffee, with appreciable heat and Chanel Cinq emanating from our area, one of us warmed by exotic fur or plastic, sleeping together until we bounced awake on runway ten at O'Hare. On bursting awake, she didn't whisper my name, alas, or that of her last director. But simply, "Oh shit," as if a dream of her own had come to an abrupt end by landing in Chicago. We said goodbye and have so far never met again.

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Nelson Algren's Chicago, is also available at Amazon.