Monday, July 25, 2011


Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Elizabeth Taylor, Black Widow

Elizabeth Taylor's death on March 23rd triggered massive waves of nostalgia.  She had so many husbands! She loved diamonds! She was an AIDS activist before it was popular to be one, she was friends with Michael Jackson, and, in her final years, she loved to hang out at a gay bar in her wheelchair! The stories of her relationship with Richard Burton were recited with particular care — the opulence, the fighting, the monstrous yacht that they sailed across the world in.

But I’ve heard that story before. Lots. So have you. I heard that story when I was a little girl and my mom told me that the lady in those black-and-white diamond commercials (“these have always brought me luck”) had had seven husbands, which, to a six-year-old, sounded like something biblical.

I heard that story when I first watched Cleopatra in junior high history (I mean, seriously, Idaho school systems, you’re killing me) and one of the girls in class announced that Cleopatra and Marc Antony had totally done it.

I heard that story when I went to Puerto Vallarta on Spring Break and there were plaques commemorating the time Taylor and Burton came to film Night of the Iguana, and the paparazzi put the town's name on the map.

I’ve heard that story in every Taylor profile, every Taylor book, and every Taylor obituary. And yes, it’s salacious. Yes, their relationship — and its coverage — essentially marked the beginning of paparazzi culture as we know it.  Yes, they married twice, and their passion does seem to be the very apotheosis of Taylor-ness.

BUT YOU GUYS, I AM GOING TO TELL YOU A SECRET. And that secret is that Taylor’s life was much juicier and more scandalous before Sir Burton, when Taylor wrote the book on gossip in the post-studio system Hollywood, and that book is, at least by members of our (approximate) generation, relatively unread. And it’s even more of a page-turner than Twilight the first time around, before you realized that [SPOILER!] Stephenie Meyer was going to have the baby eat its gross-disgusting-anti-choice way out of the heroine.

But let’s rewind.  The first thing you need to understand is that Elizabeth Taylor was a child star — as cute as the Olsen twins with the precociousness of a Fanning sister.

She was signed to MGM at an early age, starred in Lassie, somehow made the role of Helen in Jane Eyre bearable, played the lead in The Greatest Horse Movie of Our Time (National Velvet) and joined the long list of Actresses Who Have Played Annoying StupidFace Laurie-winning Amy in Little Women. (Hairpin girls are Jo girls, there is no doubt.)

At this point, Taylor could have gotten all awkward and freaked people out when she  played an adult, the way Shirley Temple did when she tried to play roles other than Asexual Child Tapdancer. But instead Taylor blossomed into adulthood, which is second thing to understand about her: She was exquisitely beautiful.

So beautiful that Time put her on its cover, calling her “a jewel of great price, a true star sapphire.” Beautiful Taylor then appeared in two moderate clunkers before starring in the film that would define the second stage of her career: Father of the Bride.

Now, for Hairpinners of a Certain Age, Father of the Bride summons images of Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, and that brunette girl who’s now married to country singer Brad Paisley. That remake was released in 1991, which is just about the time when I realized marriage was more than just something princesses and Aunts did, as well as the first time I understood that weddings could make people happy but also sad, especially dads.

In Father of the Bride, 1950s-style Elizabeth Taylor makes it clear that there are no other brides. And BIG COINCIDENCE, right around the time that the film was opening, Taylor also happened to be getting ready to marry Conrad “Nicky” Hilton, heir to the Hilton fortune, granduncle to Paris, and son of “Connie Hilton” as portrayed on Mad Men.

MGM designed the wedding dress, and the whole shebang was heavily documented by the fan magazines. But the union was primed for disaster: Taylor was 17 and trying to escape her overbearing mother, and Hilton, once on their honeymoon, drank incessantly and failed to consummate the marriage.  Taylor was a wreck, the marriage was a wreck, and the two divorced after nine months.

Which happened to coincide with the release of Taylor’s next film, A Place in the Sun.

Sun is an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and, like all Dreiser novels, it involves a sad-sack working-class character seduced by wealth to generalized destruction. To wit: Hot Hot Montgomery Clift is poor. He goes to work in his uncle’s factory, where he starts dating another factory worker. OH BUT WAIT, there’s Elizabeth Taylor, all beautiful and high-society-like, and she wants to hang out. OH BUT WAIT STILL, Factory Worker girlfriend is totally pregnant, and wants Clift to get married. What’s a Hot Poor Guy to do? Try to drown his pregnant girlfriend, obviously, and go on to a life with Rich Elizabeth Taylor. I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice to say that things do not go according to plan.

The revelation of the film, however, was not that Clift was handsome, or that social climbing is impossible. It was that Taylor was a full-fledged man-eating Siren.

Actress-turned-gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, invited by the studio to view the filming, was so astonished by Taylor’s powers of seduction that she called the actress over, exclaiming “Elizabeth, where on earth did you ever learn how to make love like that?”

Indeed. The precocious child star had amassed some unnamable power to make men do what she wanted, both on and off the screen.

Taylor applied this power to Michael Wilding, Husband No. 2, a hot-tempered Brit 20 years her senior.  They had two children, but divorced in January 1957 after five years of marriage.  Taylor, however, had another Michael waiting in the wings — the sophisticated and wealthy film producer Michael Todd.

Todd was a 1950s mash of Mark Cuban and Justin Timberlake: confident, entrepreneurial, and a bit bombastic, topped with a dash of sex appeal. He and Taylor were, by all accounts, deliriously happy. They fought like cats and dogs, but their passion endured — Taylor herself listed Todd, Burton, and diamonds as the three true loves of her life.  Look at this video of them on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person.

Just listen to that voice, describing all the houses they own, all the places they’ve been, how very tired they are from all their leisuring. It reeks of privilege, but oh god it’s perfect. She’s such a spoiled bitch, and I love her.

During this period, Taylor also appeared in a series of films that further ratified her image as a voluptuous man-eater: as a socialite turned ranch-wife in Giant (1956), this time attracting the affection of both Rock Hudson and James Dean, and as a wealthy, tempestuous Southern belle in Raintree Country (1957), tricking an impressionable young man (Clift again) into leaving his very blonde high school sweetheart (Eva Marie Saint). The common theme: sultry, sexual Taylor attracts man, drives plot.

But then tragedy struck, when, in March 1958, Todd’s private plane crashed en route to New York, killing all on board. Taylor was devastated. Fast-forward to September, when “The Widow Todd” was photographed spending late evenings in New York night clubs with one Eddie Fisher.

AND HERE IS WHERE IT GETS REALLY GOOD. Because Fisher was not just some new Michael, nor was he simply a bandleader with a fading but formerly popular television show.  He had been Michael Todd’s BEST FRIEND, and he was married to the perennially pig-tailed Debbie Reynolds, a.k.a. Miss “Good morning, Good MORN-ing” from Singin’ in the Rain, a.k.a. the woman whose mother had embroidered “N.N.” (No Necker) on her high school sweaters, a.k.a. do-not-cheat-on-this-woman-unless-you-want-the-world-to-hate-your-everloving-guts.

Reynolds and Fisher’s courtship had been fully documented by the fan magazines, from their first kiss all the way to their marriage in an enchanted f-ing castle in the Catskills. They had two young children (including Carrie Fisher!). They had all double-dated.

(Todd, Taylor, Fisher, and Reynolds)

This. Was. Huge.

MGM’s morality clauses and studio fixers had prevented transgression of this magnitude in the past, papering over Clark Gable’s manwhoring and covering up Joan Crawford’s various dalliances.  But Taylor’s relationship with Fisher had already gone too public for any amount of crafty PR to conceal.

Plus it was the late ‘50s, and as the studios slowly jettisoned their massive star-making apparatuses, stars were increasingly left to their own devices.  (Unless, of course, you’re talking about Big Gay Rock Hudson, who was still doing things like marrying his agent’s secretary, but that’s another post.) Plus, there was the possibility — somewhat untested — that even “bad” publicity could make people want to watch a star’s movies, especially when it involved sex, intrigue, and Elizabeth Taylor.

At first, both Fisher and Taylor denied that anything was going on — we’re just going to nightclubs to cry on each others’ shoulders! Obviously! A gullible Hedda Hopper, Taylor’s advocate since childhood, repeatedly defended the star in her gossip column.

But the affair went public on September 10th, 1958, with Taylor issuing a statement declaring “Eddie is not in love with Debbie and never has been [. . .] You can’t break up a happy marriage. Debbie and Eddie’s never has been.” Hopper, super pissed that Taylor had deceived her, penned a blistering critique, including a misquote of Taylor that would be reprinted hundreds of times over the next decade: “Mike is dead, and I am alive.”

The next day, the front page of the Los Angeles Times announced that “Debbie Will Seek Divorce from Eddie.”  Soon after, Fisher made an official statement declaring that his marriage “was headed for break-up long before he even knew [. . .] Taylor.”

Reynolds fought back, taking the I-love-my-kids high road:

“It seems unbelievable [. . .] to say that you can live happily with a man and not know that he doesn’t love you. That, as God is my witness, is the truth [. . .] I now realize when you are deeply in love how blind you can be. Obviously I was. I will endeavor to use all my strength to survive and understand for the benefit of my two children.”

From that point on, it was the Black Widow Liz vs. No Necking Debbie, and the fan magazines had a FIELD DAY. I cannot adequately relate my cackling glee as I looked through issues on the microfilm machine in the basement of the library while researching my dissertation. (The weird guy looking at ship’s logs from the 18th century definitely thought I was crazy.)

The best is Photoplay’s defense of Debbie, which basically tries to make it clear that Debbie liked boring things, while Fisher like exciting things, like, oh, I dunno, busty widows named Liz.

Debbie “prefers her own home, two infant babies, her garden and her constant reading of novels and scripts nightly in front of the fire,” while Eddie “loves all this dearly but must also get out with people, travel, shake hands, listen, talk, and make friends.” (Emphasis mine.)

The article also uses a PRICELESS structuring metaphor — the kind you only see in freshman creative writing and bad celebrity profiles — of a massive chair that the estranged couple bought in order to allow the entire family to sit together.  “A few months ago, Debbie had sat there with Eddie and both their babies,” yet “now, on this cold night, she was learning another way to sit in the chair — alone.”


To make matters worse, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was in theaters, in which Taylor, playing Maggie “The Cat,” spends the film wearing a skin-tight white slip, yelling at Hottest of All Hot Paul Newman, trying to convince him to have sex with her, and conniving to get the family fortune.  It’s a semi-hysterical performance, but when Taylor yells “Maggie the cat is alive! I’M ALIVE!” it’s hard to fault her for using that aliveness on Eddie Fisher.

Things eventually calmed down.  Fisher and Taylor married, and Reynolds started dating, allowing the fan magazines a second gossip cycle.

Taylor was then nominated for three Oscars in as many years: for Cat (1958), for excellent beach writhing in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and for revisiting the white slip as a call girl in BUtterfield 8 (1960).

And here’s where the story gets ridiculously good: Taylor signs an unprecedented million dollar contract to appear in Cleopatra.  She heads overseas, contracts pneumonia while filming, and is literally on her deathbed.  Like about to die.  Fisher runs to her side; the papers go crazy.  But she miraculously recovers — JUST IN TIME FOR OSCAR BALLOTING.  She wins Best Actress for BUtterfield, but, still recovering, accepts the Oscar from her hospital bed, her tracheotomy scar shining like a diamond necklace.  Shirley MacLaine, nominated for her clearly much superior performance in The Apartment, declared “I lost to a tracheotomy!”

The Evil Husband-Stealer isn’t just talented, she’s vulnerable and wounded, and it’s impossible to not root for her, even when she’s playing a call girl, is on her fourth husband, and makes so much more money than you do.  So does this sound at all familiar?  Just a liiittle bit?

If you’re not picking up what I’m putting down, let me suggest you revisit 80% of Life & Style and Us Weekly covers from the last five years, in which there is a beautiful, sunny-haired girl-next-door whose husband is stolen by a dark-haired, full-lipped, over-sexed vixen with a better body, better film roles, and a clearly more interesting life.


Clearly, we tell the same stories — the dark, sultry woman steals from the light, innocent one — to explain why relationships end the way that they do.  And we (by “we” I mean gossip columnists, PR reps, and gossip consumers) tell these stories because, in reality, we have zero idea what actually happened, and we never will.

We try to make sense of the break-up of unions that have, in whatever way, become meaningful to us.  We turn certain figures into villains and others into victims, usually according to the extent to which sexuality and deviance are manifest in their images and on their bodies.

In this way, someone like Taylor, who wasn't even that trampy — she pretty much married everyone she had sex with, which is, in many ways, quite conservative — was cast as the evil temptress, while the woman who still looked like a little girl became the victim.  As for the man caught between, he, like Brad Pitt, just sort of slides to the side, and the real issue becomes which woman seems to represent the best sort of lifestyle, not what the man did or did not do, or what responsibility he does or does not have.

With that said, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have written the book on how to rectify bad publicity. They have adopted beautiful babies and given birth to other beautiful babies, all while basically doing every good thing and speaking up for every worthy cause in the universe. Taylor may not have played the publicity game with nearly as much panache as The Brange, but she did know how to keep people talking about her, and went from one scandal to the next, following her heart in a way that kept people endlessly fascinated, even if they didn’t necessarily like her. That’s the allure of the bitch: You kinda hate her, but damn if you can’t take your eyes off her.

Reynolds, on the other hand, eventually married an old dude who swindled away all of his money and hers, leaving her to scrap for gigs through the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Earlier this month, she gave up her lifelong dream of starting a Hollywood memorabilia museum, and auctioned off the bits and pieces of classic Hollywood she'd hoarded over the years. Which seems awfully tragic, especially since Taylor was off hanging with the gays and chatting on Twitter.

Once a victim, always a victim.  Once a winner, always a winner.  Which brings me to the third and final thing to understand about Elizabeth Taylor and the stars, past and present, who've been cast in similar gossip roles: They will always make mincemeat out of the Debbie Reynoldses.

Previously: Marlon Brando's Dirty Dungarees.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.

111 Comments / Post A Comment


Yes!!! Love these! Going to read it now...


@shenannies I'm back (like anyone cares). Taylor is mouth-wateringly hot in some of those pictures. My only point of contention is that Angelina does NOT have a better body than Aniston. Have you seen her legs? Ooofa.

raised amongst catalogs

@shenannies YES. Thank you.


@shenannies But, speaking as a dude, Jennifer Aniston is bland like watered-down room-temp oatmeal. Sure, she is pretty (in a dull and unchallenging way) but she isn't interesting to watch. Angelina Jolie, on the other hand (at least before she lost too much weight and got stringy), puts fish-hooks into your eyes and DARES you to look away. Hottt.

Much, to bring this back around to the article in question, like Elizabeth Taylor is so much more fun (and sexy) to watch than Debbie Reynolds.

Mark Benson@facebook

@shenannies Unfuhging believable..http://fur.ly/9xgk


i will always be a jo girl! jo should have let amy drown with her skates on. brat.


I bet no one ever told Liz that she "looked tired".


@QuiteAimable "Hey, Liz, why aren't you smiling? Let me take you to a nightclub."


(Hairpin girls are Jo girls, there is no doubt.) >>> YUSSSSSSSSS!!!


i want a sweater with a giant N. hello good kissers of boston! i'm a necker. team taylor, all the way.

science is sexy@twitter

@becky@twitter I kiss like a champ but I probably won't marry you.


@science is sexy@twitter who said anything about marriage? i'm talkin bout lip sluttin with dudes.

fondue with cheddar

@becky@twitter "lip sluttin" LOVE THIS.


@jen325 it's the name of my new album, dropping fall 2011, y'all!

fondue with cheddar

@becky@twitter PLEASE tell me there will be a title track.


@jen325 my first single will be called, "i was a hand-holdin ho at the CYO."

fondue with cheddar

@becky@twitter :D


My favorite part of Liz's Oscar win is the audience's response - they are literally shrieking with delight!


Also, if you look closely, you can see the bandage (artfully hidden with make-up) covering her tracheotomy!


Just want to take a moment to defend the weird guys [and ladies] looking at ship’s logs from the 18th century of the world.

Ok, now back to looking at photos of a young Paul Newman.

Anne Helen Petersen

@bearpope don't get me wrong, i love those guys. i also love the dudes looking at Radio Electronics Monthly from the 1910s. I love all microfilmers, young and old.


@Anne Helen Petersen Dark library basement solidarity!

Anne Helen Petersen

@bearpope We're all pale and into esoterica, so why not?

Lily Rowan

I still love Debbie Reynolds, I'm not going to lie. She's Unsinkable!

Not to take anything away from La Liz.


@Lily Rowan at the next hairpin meetup, remind me to tell you my 'good mornin' story. debbie reynolds caused me to have knee surgery.

Lily Rowan

@becky@twitter I will!


@Lily Rowan As do I! Though I still harbor a bit of resentment that she got to dance with Gene Kelly and I never did.


What, you're jealous a man in a toupee never made you break down in tears on set?


Nope, just the dancing part.



There's a lot more to Gene Kelly than being the kind of perfectionist you often find at the higher levels of dance and other performing arts.

Blacklisted and exiled US director Jules Dassin (Naked City, Rififi) was at Cannes during the McCarthy era and saw all of his good friends from Hollywood turn their backs and refuse to shake his hand because it would put them in danger back home--until Dassin started to save them the trouble by pretending not to see them first.

"…Now, as we proceeded down the receiving line, backs were nimbly turned, the Hollywood stars held up champagne glasses to cover their faces…Things like that happened all the time at Cannes. I remember once going up to the Palais, where they were projecting one of my films, and seeing Gene Kelly approach the entrance. I kind of ducked away so that he wouldn’t be embarrassed by fleeing from me. He saw this. And I shall always appreciate him coming after me and saying, “What the hell are you doing? Are you avoiding me?” He took me by the arm and led me up the steps of the Palais. He was the only one I knew willing at that time to be photographed with me."


@Lily Rowan Just when I thought I couldn't possibly love Gene Kelly more... Thanks for this.

Valley Girl

Eyebrow inspiration forever. Also: VIOLET EYES. Obviously a diva for the ages.

Lily Rowan

@Valley Girl -- Seriously, the EYEBROWS.


@Valley Girl LILY I knew you'd be all over this too! I came down to the comments before even reading the whole thing to say OMG I WANT HER EYEBROWS. Okay now shh everyone while I finish reading.

Lily Rowan

@rayray -- You would think I would actually fill in my brows and shit...


"Once a victim, always a victim. Once a winner, always a winner."

for some reason this makes me sad/frowny.

Anne Helen Petersen

@teenie I don't mean to say that this is the case in real life -- obviously victims become winners all the time. But when we're talking popular images, it's super hard to change the narrative, as so clearly evidenced by the trajectory of Jennifer Aniston (the image, not the actual living-breathing person.


I was with you until the part about union busting:

"We try to make sense of the break-up of unions . . . ." Please keep politics out of my gossip (unless it's political gossip, obvs).


@Kneetoe Also, I loved this. Thanks


The only better explanation of the crazy Liz-Eddie-Debbie drama is Carrie Fisher's blackboard in "Wishful Drinking", but she has a clear advantage in that she LIVED it, so really, a tie. But really, watch that.


@BethH Yeah, I came here to say this! Debbie R. was actually one of Liz Taylor's bridesmaids and washed her hair before the wedding; later, she told Carrie "I should have washed it with Nair."

Also, the impetus for the blackboard is Carrie Fisher recounting how her daughter wanted to go on a date with Liz Taylor's grandson but asked if the two of them were related somehow. (Final conclusion: "Not by blood, but by scandal.") Go see Wishful Drinking a million times, is what I'm saying.


@jfruh But it would have done no good, for bald Liz would still have been twenty billion times sexier than hairy-headed Debbie Reynolds. SORRY DEBBIE I am not debating the ethics of husband-stealing but the truth is the truth.


@BethH Carrie's description was the best, as was her fond remembrance of how strong her mom was to get through it and keep her head up. Eddie F did not come across as much of a prize in her retelling.


My favorite thing about the Eddie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds/Elizabeth Taylor scandal? When Carrie Fisher said that 'my father consoled her. With his penis'.


Here is the possibly totally apocryphal story I heard about how the Liz-Dick Burton romance started, by the way: Apparently on the set of Cleopatra Liz showed up on time and prepared every day, because she was a pro, while Dick Burton would be hours late and not know his lines, because he was a drunk, and this caused some animosity. But then one day she arrived and he had made an effort to be there on time, and was trying to perk himself up with some coffee but having trouble drinking it because his hands were shaking, because he was a drunk. She came over and put her hands on his to still them, and the rest was amazingly codependent history.

Speaking of cake, I have cake

That Ed McMurrow interview cracked me up - Mike Todd kinda keeps wandering off, and Ed has to call him back to ask him about the fabulously expensive painting or whatever. Not enough Liz-talking though, though she is brilliant when Mike is talking about how great her performance is in some movie, and she has this big smug smile on her face, like 'Yes, I AM fabulous!'

Anne Helen Petersen

@skyandgorse I know, right? Hey readers, go watch, seriously, it's the best.


These are fantastic. Celebrity gossip stories are so moralistic, and the moral is always What a deliciously sick person I am to enjoy knowing what a deliciously sick person I am to enjoy reading this, which somehow is delicious. Also, PS, the weird guy reading the ships' logs from the XVIII, that was me.


I love Liz Taylor, she's fantastic! Just absolutely gorgeous.
On the other hand, I fucking HATE microfiche!


@ReginaSavage Me too I get motion sickness with all the flipping. I like the smell though...


"I cannot adequately relate my cackling glee as I looked through issues on the microfilm machine in the basement of the library while researching my dissertation."

I love this. Also, now I might fully realize why my grandmother always tried to make me like Debbie Reynolds.


Those magazines! Let me tell you about how I went to this estate sale of this theater couple who had this big old house with lots of film/theater memorabilia laying around. They had an ENTIRE PURPLE ROOM filled with framed pictures of Elizabeth Taylor. Magazine covers, photographic prints, you name it. Also a smattering of Princess Diana because I mean why not? Plus it was right by their closet so I could just imagine them getting dressed and then wandering through the Elizabeth Taylor room and thinking, "Hmmm, I look pretty great but like, do I look Elizabeth Taylor great?"

Anne Helen Petersen

@Dani I have dozens and dozens of those magazine in my home, and let me tell you three things: 1.) They are the best; 2.) They smell like Grandparents (which is to say they smell like smoke); 3.) They are preposterously expensive on eBay, so if you ever find them for cheap at an estate sale, buy them, either for your personal use or to make the big bucks eBay-style.


@Anne Helen Petersen I am kicking myself for not doing #3. I have seen those pictures & magazines at antique stores all over town lately at a crazy mark-up.

And yes smoky old grandparents smell is the best, I know what you mean.


@Anne Helen Petersen When I was but a young lass I assisted in cleaning out an elderly lady's house. Her entire garage was filled floor to celing with old mags. Photoplay, Life, even Seventeen. She told me I could have some if I wanted as the rest were going in the trash. I turned my entire bedroom into a massive collage of fab ladies. Eartha Kitt, Audrey Hepburn, Dorthy Dandrige and Adverts of LaLiz shilling for Lux soap. My Mom hated it. She said the eyes watched you and I now hate myself because if I'd wrapped those magazines in plastic it would pay for my child's college education.


GUYS, is this my long awaited moment to break out the REAL LIFE BLACK WIDOW story from my VERY OWN FAMILY? Like, full-on, Addams-Family-Values style, murderous rampage, had-our-own-DATELINE-EPISODE black widow? Because it is so delicious.


@Diana obviously, yes.


@Diana YES! Spill it.


@Diana Tell us already!!!


@Diana do tell!


@Diana yes yes yes yes yes!


@Diana OKAY! It took me a minute to track down a news article (for proof, y'all) but here we go.

A few years ago, my mom got a phone call out of nowhere from a reporter asking questions about her long-dead Uncle David. He had killed himself when my mom was in her twenties, which was quite upsetting because she had been fond of him. He had been living in Dallas with his wife and kids, my mom lived in Fort Worth at the time and remembers being shocked that he would commit suicide. He'd been having problems with his marriage, but he had filed for divorce and seemed to be turning a corner. As she got older, suspicions began to arise - namely, after the coroner's report was released. His wrists were slashed and he had a bullet in his head - but apparently the bullet came FIRST. Cue the question "How does anybody with a bullet to the head have the ability to slit their own wrists?!" But he was dead by then, and my family was busy trying to take care of Uncle David's family. Eventually his wife moved away, but only after collecting on David's life insurance and selling the house. Uncle David was the blood relative, she was the in-law, and my mom's family is not exactly close 'n cuddly, so people lost track of her and the kids. Everything was written off as a sad chapter of family history and relegated to the mists of time.

THIRTY YEARS LATER! Cue phone call to my mom. The phone call is from a reporter asking if it's possible her great uncle was murdered. Naturally, this stirs up my mom's old suspicions. It turns out, the reporter in question is calling from DATELINE! Dateline is doing a story on her ex-great aunt Sandra, who has just been arrested for fraud but who was being investigated for murdering a whole string of rich men, including Uncle David! It turned out Sandra Camille Powers, who had married my mom's uncle to become Sandra Stegall, then went on to become Sandra Bridewell, then finally Sandra Rehrig - leaving behind not a single living ex-husband. When her second husband, Mr. Bridewell, was dying of cancer, Sandra became friends with his doctor's wife, Betsy. After Mr. Bridewell died, Sandra moved in on her late husband's oncologist, Betsy's husband. Alarmed, they tried to distance themselves from her - until Betsy drove off mysteriously one day and was found shot to death in a parking lot. This is the same way her third husband, Mr. Rehrig was found - an event which resulted in another $100,000 life insurance payout to Sandra. Her favorite scheme of entrapment was to tell men she was pregnant until they married her, at which point she mysteriously lost the baby. Eventually, she got too old for that story to be plausible, so she had to find a new target. Finally she became a con-woman preying on churches and the elderly until she was arrested. In 2008, she plead guilty to fraud and various other crimes committed during her last con, but she has never been charged with any murders.

If you would like the whole juicy story (OF COURSE YOU DO, IT'S SO GOOD) here's the ten plus page story from the Dallas Observer:

Here's the insanely cheesy transcript of the Dateline episode, which ran on August 6, 2007. My friends call me up every time it's on, and once it came on when I was at the gym which was REALLY weird.

My mom's family history is INSANE and full of delicious stories (like the time Jack Daniels [!!!!] proposed to my great-great aunt, who must have been quite a catch because she turned him down to marry an oil man from New Mexico, who moved them there just in time for the government to take over the industry, leaving them penniless - OOPSIE DAISY) but this is one of the weirdest ones for sure.

Edith Zimmerman

@Diana HO. LY. SHIT!


@Diana Wow. This story is...wow!


@Diana Whoa! I wish my family was crazy in a Dateline kind of way.


@QuiteAimable I think people with families in the mob have the most insane stories, but seven generations of Texans come really close, trust.


@Diana So everything we watched on Dallas is true?! :)

Anne Helen Petersen

@Diana Ahhhh! Scandals of Classic Texas! NEW SERIES.


@Anne Helen Petersen Yesssssss


@Diana Oh shit! I've watched the Bio Channel special on her a couple of times!


@Diana I'm pretty sure I've seen this Dateline. Awesome!


@Anne Helen Petersen I am totally on board with this. While my long-suffering Texas family doesn't have stories quite as insane as the black widow, I'm mining my memory for good tales. Oh, Texas!


@Diana Whoa, I scanned photos and did research for Glenna when she was working on updates on this story in 2007. Small world.


I don't know the entire torrid Elizabeth Taylor / Richard Burton story! I mean, I know the vague, shadowy outlines of it, but I hope that your next article will be Elizabeth Taylor, Part II: The Burton Years.


@wee_ramekin Vanity Fair had a fantastic article about them, but now it's bundled with several other articles into an e-book. If you feel like spending the money, it's probably going to be worth it.


But what of Fabian? "IN COLOR" even!?

I love this series so much, I believe I shall marry it. Twice.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

@kayjay Fabian was kind of a throwaway celebrity since no one's all like !!! over him in their nostalgia, and he was no Dion DiMucci, that's for sure. BUT HE HAD FLUFFY HAIR.

Christina Tina

i am enjoying this so much.


One of the first high-rise hotels Conrad Hilton Sr. built was in El Paso, Tx (which is where I am from), and Nicky Hilton and Liz Taylor lived in it's penthouse! The building's been vacant for years, which is a shame because you could probably make it into the Liz Taylor memorial room and charge people even more money to stay in it. I'd do it!



Plane Crash! Frankie Avalon Sobs: "Why did they die? Why?"

Oh tee hee. Tee hee!

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@wee_ramekin Frankie, they died because planes are up high in the sky, so when they crash they hit the ground really hard.


This story was fascinating. And I usually hate reading about celebrities/celeb gossip. But this was great! (I may have had to Google a few times....)


Aww, I don't know how I feel about that denouement! Like, from all accounts, Debbie and Elizabeth became best friends in the end.

Once a victim, always a victim. Once a winner, always a winner. Which brings me to the third and final thing to understand about Elizabeth Taylor and the stars, past and present, who've been cast in similar gossip roles: They will always make mincemeat out of the Debbie Reynoldses.

I think it's a little disingenuous to frame it like Debbie or Liz had much control over the framing of their narrative
there's a weird "brought it on herself!" backhanded vibe, re: Debbie, that I don't understand.

I just don't understand how in the same breath of critiquing the unfair framing the media puts on two women as always in competition with each other, you then do the same exact thing by declaring a winner. I don't really get why.

Anne Helen Petersen

@destro This is an excellent point, and one that I don't think I made clear enough in the actual article (especially since someone else brought it up/read it the same way as you did -- see above). When it comes to star images/gossip, I actually think that the stars themselves have *incredibly little* agency over how their own narratives are framed -- sure, they can do one thing or another (date a new man, divorce another, have a child) but the action itself has to be mediated through gossip channels and, accordingly, becomes part of a greater narrative about the star and what he/she means. Once Elizabeth Taylor was framed as a "winner," she was always a winner; once Debbie Reynolds was framed as a victim, there was very little she could do -- however non-victimy -- that wouldn't be interpreted as such. Same for Brangelina and Jennifer Aniston.

As for women pitted against women -- something feminist media scholar Angela McRobbie calls "romantic individualism" -- that shit totally pisses me off. In pitting women against women in competition for a man, it makes it even more difficult for women to form coalitions and get shit done. (When we're too busy slut-shaming each other, it's difficult to do things like advocate for better healthcare for women, or equal pay).

But again, I didn't make it clear enough that although this is the way that gossip works....it still fucking sucks.

Irma Vep

As a new Hairpinner, I just went back and read all of the Scandals of Classic Hollywood series, SO EXCITING OMFG. I already loved this site and now you're telling me you have a regular series of dishy (YET CRITICAL) gossip about old Hollywood stars?? Somebody hold me!

I have so many requests! Louise Brooks! Marlene Dietrich! Joan Crawford! Rudy Valentino!




UGH. I couldn't agree more about Amy in Little Women. Something about her and Lydia in Pride and Prejudice... I don't care if they're not real, they're good characters dah dah dah, I Loathe them!


I'm so happy to see this post because I went on a Liz Taylor marathon and watched Natl Velvet, Little Women, Cleopatra, Suddenly last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (LOVE interlibrary loan). I have become utterly fascinated with the woman. Cleopatra is one of the best movies I have ever seen. She was born for that role. I highly recommend.


I am just going to put some old timey unsubstantiated everyone-in-Hollywood-is-gay gossip here.
1. Elizabeth Taylor's father was gay and having an affair with the MGM costume designer Adrian. Mrs. Taylor's stage mother tendencies were encouraged to keep her occupied and out of the way. Which would explain her close friendship with Montgomery Clift and her dedication to AIDS charities.
2. The Reynolds/Fisher marriage was one of convenience as Ms. Reynolds was involved with Agnes Moorehead.

In any event Deb must have gotten over the whole thing because she had a lot of Liz's and Dick's costumes at her auction.


@kitten_witawip Debbie Reynolds and Endora? Endora? 30 year age gap? Whoa. That's pretty crazy even for unsubstantiated Hollywood gossip. Fascinating.


@Melusina Eddie was going to write about it in his bio but Debbie threatened to sue him. So he claimed out of respect for his children he left it out. It is entirely possible that they were just good friends and Eddie was trying to capitalize on the gossip to pump up the publicity for his book.

This is an article from Photoplay in 1966 on their friendship. http://www.harpiesbizarre.com/agnesdebbie.htm

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@kitten_witawip Totally unrelated to your comment: HERB ALPERT LOVE!


Photos like those above make it clear that a lot of people have forgotten how to dress.
Liz or Debbie in a skirt suit is even hotter than Megan Fox in a bikini. Trooth.


I have nothing of substance to add. I just want to say how much I enjoyed this. All of the scandal pieces, really. And also how weird it is to think about Marshall Matt Dillon talking to the gossip rags about his divorce.


@SpaceKace Me too. This is one of my favorite series on the internet. I e-mail a link to a half-dozen people every time a new one comes out.


. . . i created an account just to post how much I enjoy these Hollywood stories.

bookmarked and waiting for the next one.

Lorraine S. McLean@facebook

I just want to point out a fact to Anne Helen Petersen.
I'm very surprised other viewers did not pick up on this, or made a comment. I jumped on it right away.
Elizabeth Taylor DID show up to receive her 'Oscar' for "Butterfield 8". La Liz was recouperating from her tracheotomy, and her near-death illness of double pneumonia - in London, England....but managed to be present for the awards ceremony, in L.A.
Eddie walked Elizabeth down the aisle - up until she went on stage....then he said "you're on your own kid"....(or something like that)...and she made a very breathy, yet short thankyou speech.
I have read all E.T. biographies, and followed all news magazine articles, since I was a child.
It was from reading all those articles from a tender age of seven - onwards, that instilled my life-long passion for writing.
Miss Petersen, your article is brilliantly bitchy - yet delightful.
A fine team of Hedda and Louella - competing for the scoop!!

Laureen Zed@facebook

Wonderful article but comparing Debbie Reynolds to Jennifer Aniston is a hideous insult. Jennifer Aniston's acting ability would best be compared to Joan Crawford's in "Trog"


Wonderful article. I love La Liz. I think she was the most beautiful actress to ever appear on screen and it is unfortunate that her personal life and personna is remembered more than her talent. Seriously love her in Cat on a Hot Tin roof(and OMG Paul Newman was a god) and she is terrific in Whose Afraid of Virgina Woolf? Whta I love most about her was her boldness, her willingness to take risks and live life on her own terms.
When I was a teenager, I was totally obsessed with this era in Hollywood and Liz Taylor more specifically. Her presence in incredible on screen and when you watch interviews with her. And they way her lovers always adored her and she seemed like a Queen conferring favours on lesser mortals- amazing!


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I actually think that the stars themselves have *incredibly little* agency over how their own narratives are framed -- sure, they can do one thing or another (date a new man, divorce another, have a child) but the action itself has to be mediated through gossip channels and, accordingly, becomes part of a greater narrative about the star and what he/she means


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