Plain to see that Liz and Nick Hilton still are “that way” about each other. You only have to look at the news pictures of them to see that the soft lovelight is still in Elizabeth Taylor’s big violet eyes, just as it was last May when Evie and I saw her married. So much publicity surrounded the wedding, so much stress was placed on her glamorous bride’s gown, the bridesmaids’ dresses, the important guests, the flowers, the whole magnificent, colorful spectacle, that the eager, youthful naiveté of the bride herself was overlooked.
But, as I watched her that evening, I was embarrassed at the great big catch in my throat. The years had gone by so fast. I could remember so well. . . .
I was waiting in Lillian Burns’s office that day when the little girl came in. She was a dainty child in middy blouse and pleated skirt, with long dark hair, a clipped British accent, and eyes, ye gods! those great violet eyes. I stared after her as she disappeared into the dramatic coach’s office. How dared anybody look like that! As soon as she was out of earshot, I asked who she was.
“Why, she’s the little English girl who’ll play the lead in ‘National Velvet.’ Her name is Elizabeth Taylor.”
Elizabeth Taylor! I think I was a fan of hers from that day.
Several times out at the Riviera Country Club, a group of us from the studio saw her ride. They were shooting the steeplechase and that kid took her big horse over the barriers so beautifully, without the slightest fear.
Once he almost got away from her. Director Clarence Brown, the crew—all of us—stood there terrified; but I don’t think she knew what fear was. Five minutes later, the scene over, she was brushing King Charles, talking to him, feeding him a carrot. When “National Velvet” was released, I saw it three times and went around insisting that she should be given the horse she loved so well.
Once we met at a party in the M-G-M administration building. Elizabeth was at the animal-loving stage then.
You should have seen the faces of some of the guests at that party watching a chipmunk named Nibbles running up and down her arm while she ate ice cream. She had just written a book about him named “Nibbles and Me.” I bought a copy and had her autograph it.
That seems such a short while ago. Then one day at the studio, I was through work early and ran a picture in one of the projection rooms: “A Date with Judy.” Out on the screen walked an exquisite girl with violet eyes. It was unbelievable! Little Elizabeth had grown up overnight and she was so beautiful the picture was half over before you realized what a good actress she is. I came home in a daze. “Evie,” I said, “this girl is terrific. I’m going to call her up and tell her so. Tonight.”
So about nine o’clock I called Malibu where the Taylors were living. It was her mother, Sara, who answered the phone. Elizabeth was asleep. And maybe that was better because I could never have really told Elizabeth what I told her mother. It’s impossible to tell Elizabeth because she’s so young and so unaware.
But I told Sara and the next Saturday I ran “A Date with Judy” for Evie and the boys. They were as excited as I had been. The following Sunday, Sara invited us to come up to Malibu.
Francis Taylor was barbecuing the “red-hots” when we got there, Sara began opening the soft drinks, and Elizabeth took to the kids like a duck to water. I shot movies of the three of them playing with the big beach ball and in swimming.
Liz is essentially an outdoor girl; she always has been. She rides and swims and isn’t a bit afraid of sun or salt water. What’s more, she loves children. I’ve watched her for years, for my dressing-room at the studio overlooks the schoolyard, and at noon, eating my lunch, I’ve watched them play ball. Elizabeth was never too big nor too old to play, and the younger kids accepted her—Butch Jenkins and Margaret O’Brien among them.
After the Sunday at Malibu, I didn’t see her again, except from my window, until she walked on the set of “The Big Hangover,” as my leading lady. It was a hard part for her to play. Here she was, at that time only seventeen, supposed to portray a twenty-five-year-old psychiatrist’s assistant.
It was even harder for her because we started shooting the day after Elizabeth had broken her engagement to Bill Pawley. You know what the newspapers did with that. Poor little kid, she came on the set trying to be brave and bright and, while the lights were being set, some of the people started making jokes about it.
I waved “hello” because I didn’t know what to say to her. When we wa ked into the lights, I saw her chin shaking. “Listen,” I said, “I understand, baby, believe me, I understand.” Those eyes of hers filled with tears but the chin stone wobbling. She blew me a kiss and went into the scene like a trouper.
A few days after this, I was out at Lana Turner’s when some outside people started talking about Elizabeth. They’d read all that guff about her breaking men’s hearts, not knowing what she felt about romance and the rest of it. Someone asked Lana what advice she would give Elizabeth.
Lana just looked at them. “I have no advice to give her,” she said. But the questioner was persistent. What he meant, he said, was that Taylor was getting the same sort of publicity, her name linked with men and romance, that Lana has had. That did it. Lana let him have it.
“I think all the gossips should be strung up,” she said. “Here is the nicest, cleanest youngster you can imagine and, if anything happens to her reputation, it’s not her fault but the fault of outsiders who love to build up heroes and then tear, them down. I’m betting that Elizabeth can: override this petty, silly talk, that she’ll never lose her balance and she’ll be a ere star.”
And Lana was so right. The world expected too much of Elizabeth. They forgot that she was barely eighteen. Remember what you were like yourself when you were that age? If a girl isn’t in love then, she’s not normal. And this kid, instead of just having the guys in high school to choose from, had the world. She was so anxious to grow up! While we were working, she’d say wistfully, “What are you and Evie doing tonight, Van? Are you going somewhere?” and I’d laugh and tell her the truth—we were going to have dinner on trays, read, play with the kids and hit the hay. She was dying to go dancing instead of getting to bed early so she could be up early to get to the studio!
Well, it’s different now. She’s met and married Nick Hilton, and all the warmth at her young affections is centered or him.
To outsiders, she’s still a glamour girl and they expect a sophistication that would enormous appetite and during the whole time we worked together, she always managed to eat half my lunch. I brought the most terrific lunches with me from home. I usually ate half at lunchtime and hall about four o’clock. During “The Big Hangover,” I never got that four o’clock feeding. Liz loved food and lots of it.
And she needed it, for she worked hard. There were many long speeches in the picture, and I personally am dead on those longies. I get self-conscious hearing my own voice and try to hurry it. There was one scene we did on a park bench. First I had to talk a long time, then Elizabeth then I again. She just looked me right in the eye, speaking so quietly and naturally her words didn’t seem like lines at all. You have to work with her to realize what a good actress she is, and that she’s still very young. I found that out in the love scenes.
We went into the first of these, the scene where I’m “high” and she has steered me away from the banquet to save my face. When I took her in my arms, could feel her little heart pounding—not for me but with embarrassment at all the dozens of people watching. Then I kissed her, and when I rehearse, I play the scene the way I hope to do it for the cameras. So I gave Elizabeth a real kiss and found myself kissing a statue with folded lips.
“Hey!” I yelled, “don’t tell me that’s the way you’re going to do it.” I was so astonished and looked so funny, she broke right, out laughing and couldn’t stop. When she rehearsed with Bob Taylor, she said, why they had just faked it.
“Well, we’re not going to do it that way,” I said. “We’re going to do it just like this.” And that time she was relaxed from laughing, so it was easy.
Elizabeth is so natural. There’s nothing small, petulant or conceited about the girl. One night while we were working, I invited her home to dinner. She wasn’t going out much then and I thought it would be fun and that spending an evening with Evie would be swell for her. So we invited Liz and Morgan Hudgins, the publicity man who was working on our picture, and Janet Leigh and Arthur Loew.
You know how it is when you’re entertaining other than your intimate friends. It could be fun—or it could be awful—and I arrived home from the studio shouting to Evie, asking what she’d bought for dinner and were the candles lit and was the fire going and did she have plenty of peanuts and stuff?
The minute Elizabeth got there she flounced down on the floor and started gobbling all the peanuts and candy in sight. Of course, the evening turned out to be fun.
She has such a gift of gab. Just before Christmas, I went over to the Sawtelle hospital where I often drop in to chat with the fellows.
Well, this night, instead of letting me go to the wards, they ushered me into the big auditorium and my heart began to sink. I smelled a microphone. Those are the moments when I’d give a lot to be a Bob Hope or a Sonny Tufts. I walked onto the platform and there, sitting all alone, was Elizabeth looking like she looks. I was so delighted to see her, I forgot where I was, grabbed her and gave her a big kiss, and the fellows loved it.
I said my say into the mike and then Elizabeth got up and I listened. It’s an art in itself, this radiant, friendly manner, as if she were speaking to one person instead of to a packed auditorium. The boys ate it to the last comma. This was two days before Christmas. We played bingo and raffled off prizes, and as we were leaving late that night, they asked Elizabeth if she would be over on Christmas Day to deliver the presents. Why, of course she would!
Because she takes that as a matter of course. She does it the way she does everything, the way she stands in line for her lunch when we’re on location. That’s the way she was brought up, without any undue emphasis on celebrity.
She was still going to school when we were making the picture, getting ready for the final high school exams. One day when I passed her dressing room, there she was with a school book in her hand, but gazing at the ceiling with a tragic look.
“Hey, Sugar,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, Van, I’m depressed,” she sighed. “I just feel as if I’d like to die today.”
You couldn’t laugh, you remember too well how it was when you were having growing pains yourself. “Do me a favor, will you, honey? Just get up and take a look in the mirror, will you?”
I don’t know, even then, if she could see in that mirror what is evident to those of us who know her. Beauty, yes, but so much more than beauty. There is girlhood with every facet on tap and there is the promise of womanhood, a wonderful womanhood with all the instinct, emotion and intellect to assure it. Nick Hilton is a lucky guy.
—BY VAN JOHNSON
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE SEPTEMBER 1954