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Panic—Elizabeth Taylor

The booing began just sporadically as the woman in a pink, embroidered cotton dress walked out of the shadows that had darkened the aisle into the glaring lights that beat down on the canvas ring and the seats around ringside. She was alone. As she passed each new row of seats on her way to the first row, the people in those seats added their voices to the growing crescendo of hisses and jeers. She’d known there’d be a terrific mob at the Polo Grounds for the big fight, and that the noise there would be overwhelming. She pressed her hand to her head. She had a headache. But headache or no headache, she wasn’t going to back out at the last moment. She did not enjoy fights even if this one was for the championship of the world, but her husband had been given the honor of singing the National Anthem before the fight hg She had wanted to be there with him.

She had waited until the last possible second to make her appearance, hoping she could slip into her seat unnoticed and not divert attention from her husband. She hadn’t realized that the penetrating lights from the ring, more powerful than any klieg lights on a movie set, would be shining down upon her.

As she neared the apron of the ring, the boos, hisses and catcalls fused into a mighty roar of disapproval. Her body sagged as if to say, “I waited too long to come in.” She felt they were booing at her—or could they be booing Patterson, the challenger, coming down the aisle?

She slipped into her seat and waited for the fighters to climb into the ring. Ten seconds passed, then a minute, five minutes. There was movement in the ring, ex-champions and celebrities were introduced; but neither the champion nor the challenger appeared.

Then it began—the feeling she dreaded, the horrible, helpless feeling of panic. The feeling that always began before she was even aware of the reasons that in-spired it.

There was always a reason

She sat there helplessly as panic invaded her body. The tightness in her chest . . . The throbbing in her temples . . . The awful, loud sound of her own heartbeat that blotted out everything else—insistent, pounding, deafening—until she wanted to get up and run away from herself and the awful sound.

The reason, what was the reason for her panic? There was always a reason. There had to be a reason. But just as her mind seemed to be reaching out to grasp for one, she heard the bell clang just above her, and the sound of it, louder than the beating of her own heart, snapped her attention back to what was happening.

Her husband was introduced. She was aware that he had begun to sing. She and thousands of others stood quietly as he sang the National Anthem. His voice was strong, clear, in perfect control. As she looked up at him, the tightness inside her found release, the throbbing in her head seemed to lessen. The sound of the words he was singing seemed to smother the noise of her heart beating. When he hit the note of the high, difficult passage true and clear, without faltering, “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?” she felt only pride, and the thrill she always experienced when he was singing.

Now he climbed down from the ring and came over and sat next to her. The roar of the crowd as Patterson, the challenger, and Johansson, the champion, made their ways down the aisles, through the ropes, and into their corners, drowned out the words she whispered to him. But nothing could wipe out the pressure of her two hands as she closed them around one of his and leaned over and pressed her cheek against his hand.

The fight itself was fast, bloody, and brutal. She’d stare for a while hypnotically at what was going on in the ring, then she’d hide behind her husband’s shoulder.

The sports pages were as much a mystery to her as the fashion pages were to her husband. But from him, she’d learned that Patterson, the ex-champion, was the underdog, and that Johansson, the present champion, was a heavy favorite. She’d been told that many of the experts had written that Patterson, the American, didn’t belong in the same ring with Johansson, the Swedish title-holder; that he was “washed up,” a “has-been,” a “nothing-fighter,” and that Johansson, who had knocked him out before in winning the Title, was a cinch to do it again.

Even before the action had started she had felt a wave of sympathy for Patterson. She felt she knew what it was to be the underdog.

In the opening round, the experts’ predictions appeared to be coming true. Johansson seemed invincible; it looked as if he could pick the punch and the second to knock Patterson into oblivion. It was as much out of sympathy for Patterson, the underdog who was about to take another beating, as of disgust with the brutality of the fight, that she hid behind her husband’s shoulder.

She didn’t have to hide

But, as the second round began, the situation changed suddenly. The underdog, the ex-champion, began to strike back. The one they had said was “washed up” suddenly found dynamite in his fists; the one they had labeled a “failure” was throwing the word back in their mouths.

Now she found she did not have to hide. She watched what was happening in the ring as if it were a charade of her own life.

When Johansson lay beaten on the canvas and the referee raised Patterson’s hand in victory and the announcer a. “The winner and again champion of world, Floyd Patterson,” tears filled her eyes. It was as if she, in that second, had triumphed, too.

As the lights went on all over the Polo Grounds, she was still in a daze. It seemed as if as many photographers were milling around her and her husband as were swarming about in the ring, but she didn’t care. A cordon of policemen tried to lead the two of them down the main aisle to the exit. But the crowd was whooping and hollering, and they couldn’t get through.

Finally, they took another path that led back close to the fighters’ dressing rooms. On the way, she heard people screaming and shouting at her. But she couldn’t make out the words.

Near the exit, she found herself on a raised ramp. She was in the center of a tight circle of policemen around which the mob surged and howled. Suddenly, her husband was no longer next to her; he’d been pushed or pulled out of the circle by the crowd, the screaming, mauling crowd.

Then the face of one woman jumped out at her. A pretty face, she thought. But it was contorted in rage, distorted by anger. The words that came spewing out of the woman’s mouth were even uglier.

Mean words. Vile words. Disgusting words. Vicious words. Malicious, lying, horrible words. And all the woman’s venom was directed at her.

The members of the mob were repeating what the woman was saying, as if she were their cheerleader and they were taking their cues from her. Except the cheers were jeers—and worse than jeers.

Whenever the woman would stop for breath, the crowd would join in a chorus of boos and hisses and catcalls. And as her confusion and pain quickened to panic, she suddenly knew now the reason she had panicked before when she’d been walking down the aisle to the ring. It was for the same reason that she was panicking now. The crowd in the Polo Grounds hadn’t been booing and hissing because one of the fighters was about to enter the ring, or because the fight was being delayed: they’d been booing her! Nobody else but her!

She felt, actually felt, her face flush and grow hot. She gasped for breath, as if she were the one, instead of Patterson, who’d been poked in the stomach by one of Johansson’s rights in the first round. Except she knew now that, unlike Patterson, she couldn’t win the crowd over. She knew, and the knowledge seemed to claw at her heart, that the mob actually hated her.

A hand reached over a policeman’s shoulder and jerked an earring from her ear. She quickly took her bracelet off her wrist and shoved it into her pocketbook, a small satin clutchbag. Someone grabbed for the jeweled brooch she wore on her shoulder strap. She held her pocketbook tightly, then raised it to ward off any further attack. The voice of the jeer-leader cut through the din, and the woman’s voice was the voice of the entire crowd: “You’re rotten . . . rotten . . . rotten!”

They closed in on her

The woman’s face and the other faces in the mob closed in upon her. The circle of policemen buckled and flattened as the screaming, clawing crowd pressed in closer and closer.

She dropped her arm helplessly. Patterson could hit back, but she was only a woman. A woman could take just so much, a woman could stand just so much, and then.

The faces blurred and she shut her eyes as if her knees were about to buckle. She felt a strong arm on her shoulders, then a calm, steady voice—the most comforting, familiar voice iv the world—said, “It’s all right now. Everything’s going to be all right.”

She opened her eyes and looked up at her husband. Additional policemen were around them, more than fifty policemen altogether. The mob broke and backed away as the officers guided them down the ramp and out the gate. The crowd, pushing its way out of the Polo Grounds into the dark streets, gave way and parted as they made their way through to their waiting car.

In the limousine at last, she leaned back against her husband’s strong, protecting arm. Luckily, he had recovered her diamond drop earring and tenderly he put it back in place. Then he kissed her gently on her forehead.

Secure with her husband, Eddie Fisher, Elizabeth Taylor sat motionless and tried to block out that feeling of helplessness. Then the driver started the car and they disappeared into the night. . . .



See Liz and Eddie in M-G-M’s “Butterfield 8.” Watch for Liz in 20th’s “Cleopatra.” Hear Eddie record on the Ramrod label.



1 Comment
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