National Commentary

Elizabeth Taylor & Tennessee Williams

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The death of actress Elizabeth Taylor yesterday at age 79 profoundly punctuates and adds a somber edge to the Georgetown University commemoration of the 100th birthday of America’s greatest playwright, Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), at the top of my list amid a pantheon including Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, who’s a participant in this week’s events.

The death of actress Elizabeth Taylor yesterday at age 79 profoundly punctuates and adds a somber edge to the Georgetown University commemoration of the 100th birthday of America’s greatest playwright, Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), at the top of my list amid a pantheon including Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, who’s a participant in this week’s events.

Taylor (1932-2011), who Williams knew as “a very dear person,” was an early, outspoken advocate on behalf of victims of the raging AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when doing so was a lonely and unpopular proposition. While she gained her stardom with some of Hollywood’s most grandiose productions, she was particularly drawn to key roles when some of Tennessee Williams’ most provocative and socially-important plays were made into films.

She played in Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Suddenly, Last Summer,” “Boom!” (the film version of “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”), and “Sweet Bird of Youth” in the 1950s and 1960s, and was also unforgettable in Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff” in 1966.

Tonight, Albee kicks off a weekend of activities in Georgetown’s Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival with a talk about Williams’ works. It will be an historic event, one great American playwright speaking about another on such an occasion, no matter the merits of the presentation, itself.

Albee, born in 1928 and 17 years Williams junior, did not know Williams well personally, apparently, unmentioned in Williams’ Memoirs or his voluminous Notebooks, despite the celebrity of both in the same discipline and their shared homosexual orientations.

But Williams wrote to his friend Donald Windham of one encounter in 1965, when Albee invited him to a late supper in Greenwich Village, commenting how “meticulously dressed” Albee and his guests all were (by contrast to the casually-dressed Williams and his cousin, who showed up late after a few martinis).

There’s no mistaking, however, that Williams was duly impressed with Albee’s work, commenting in a 1965 interview with John Greun, “I have great feeling for Edward Albee. I’ve never seen any play of his that I didn’t think was absolutely thrilling. He’s truly a major playwright, America’s major playwright.” He held the same view 14 years later, when in 1979 he said in an Orlando Sentinel interview that Albee “is indisputably the best present day American playwright.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s passing means as much, if not more, to the cause of gay equality as earlier deaths of great celebrity symbols of sympathy and support like Judy Garland. It was the night of Garland’s funeral in June 1969 that the riots outside the New York’s Stonewall Inn were sparked, marking the launch of the modern gay movement.

Undoubtedly, an outpouring of gratitude for Elizabeth Taylor’s life, legacy and pioneering role in the fight against AIDS will become overwhelming in the next days.

Tennessee Williams wrote of Taylor in his Memoirs in the 1960s as “excessively beauteous” and a “marvelous female star.” In a Paris Review interview with Dotson Rader in the Fall of 1981, Williams spoke of Taylor in the context of her intimate relationships with Hollywood leading men Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson, both closeted gay men who died prematurely, and Michael Jackson, too.

While Hudson died from AIDS in 1985, Clift died in 1966 at age 45 from heart failure many believe was associated with depression and drug abuse. Taylor probably saved his life 10 years earlier when, on May 12, 1956, she witnessed him crash his car into a tree after a Hollywood party. She ran to him, and manually extricated a tooth from his throat that he was choking on.

In his 1981 interview, Williams said, “Monty Clift was one of the great tragedies among actors, even more than Marilyn Monroe, I believe. One of the loveliest things about Elizabeth Taylor was her exceptional kindness to him. Many women were very kind to him. Katharine Hepburn. But Elizabeth particularly. She’s a very dear person. She’s the opposite of her public image. She’s not a bitch, even though her life has been a very hell. Thirty-one operations, I believe. Pain and pain. She’s so delicate, fragile really.”


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]