Brand building through storytelling

Photoplay, Liz Taylor and me

Back when Elizabeth Taylor was the world’s most scandalous woman, I followed her adventures on the pretext of shopping with my mother. Every supermarket sold Photoplay, and every issue exuded the forbidden scent of lust as only home-wrecking, violet-eyed Liz could inspire it. While my mother filled her cart with egg noodles and cream of mushroom soup, I hung out at the newsstand, drinking in the gossip. I had to read fast. At our house we didn’t waste money on anything as crass and common as a movie magazine. But my mother still wanted the latest on Liz, and I was proud to share it on the drive home.

I was still wearing Mary Janes and ankle socks when Liz stole Eddie Fisher from perky, sweet-faced Debbie Reynolds who had been–horrors!–her friend. What Liz saw in Eddie I couldn’t imagine. He looked to me like a guy who smelled of cigar smoke and sweat. If this was what grownups meant by a grand passion, I wanted none of it. But I couldn’t resist the breathless coverage in Photoplay and its rival, Modern Screen. When they ran short of facts to publish, they’d resort to creative embellishment. Even at 10, I suspected no reporter could possibly have witnessed a pregnant, abandoned Debbie patting her belly and murmuring gallantly, “Grow up, little baby, grow up, kick out!” How my mother chortled over that.

I’ve remembered “Grow up, little baby” for more than 50 years. And meanwhile entire Shakespearean plays have fallen, plot and all, through the cracks in my brain. But perhaps that isn’t so surprising. Movie magazines were the keyhole through which I studied adult love. They left a deep impression because I’d been looking for the seamy truths they uncovered. Fairy tales hadn’t told me what happened after the princess rides off into the sunset with her prince. My mother made it all sound so bland: children and a mortgage. Photoplay and Modern Screen delivered the goods. In Liz they found the most bewitching sort of heroine–one to root for and deplore at the same time.

What drives every story, lived or written, is somebody’s desire for something. Cinderella wanted to go to the ball; the Little Mermaid wanted legs so she could walk alongside a human love. Without wanting, there is no story. I’d never seen a heroine want anything the way Liz wanted perfect love. Convention couldn’t possibly stop her. She committed to her romantic quest the way 12-year-old Velvet Brown, whom she had played in her screen debut, committed to riding her horse in the Grand National Steeplechase. National Velvet was the only Elizabeth Taylor movie I had seen, and it revealed her to me, child to child, in the blazing force of her wanting.

As a child watching the adult Liz, I was enthralled and appalled in equal measure. While Debbie Reynolds tried to play the 50s marital game, Liz broke the rules. Pointlessly, I thought. Eddie Fisher was a frog, not a prince. I pretty much forgot about Eddie, but not about the increasingly urgent matter of what a man needed to qualify as prince material. The year I turned 13, princes were much on my mind, if not anywhere in my life. When Liz fell in love with Richard Burton while filming Cleopatra in Rome, I suddenly realized that a prince should have a glorious Welsh voice and a passion for poetry surpassed only by his passion for me. Wife, what wife? (Of course Burton had one.) The wife was just a detail.

At the supermarket newsstand, I pored over the titillating news from Rome. I’m not sure whether Photoplay or Modern Screen deserves credit for this sentence, which I quote from memory and which riveted my mother: “Came the day Burton made such violent screen love to Liz that her plunging neckline snapped and her breasts popped out.”

He would later be known as Dick, one half of the brawling, boozing, money-strewing tragicomedy act “Liz and Dick,” who traveled the world with an entourage worthy of a Roman emperor and a froth of headlines in their wake. But by that time I had lost interest. I had better things to do than go to supermarkets with my mother. My role models were fighting for civil rights, not for ownership of the world’s biggest diamonds. When movie magazines withered and died, I didn’t even notice.

It’s been ages since a girl had to hang around a supermarket newsstand to learn the latest on the stars. The red-carpet frippery, the drug-addled meltdowns, the courtroom humiliations…she can get the scoop online, with unsparing colour photos. What I doubt if she’ll find is a narrative propelled by a character as vivid as Liz. Who can say what Lindsay Lohan wants? Attention? Approval? Call me a slave to nostalgia, but to paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, they had stories then.

Along with a vast yearning, a story demands conflict, a near-insurmountable obstacle between the hero and the goal. In Liz’s case the obstacle appeared to be convention. I had to grow up to see the underlying issue. A needy drinker who for years could more or less hold her liquor, she chose an epic drinker who could not hold his. Burton’s legendary drinking didn’t signify the soul of a wild Welsh poet. It became the third partner in his tortuous love affair with Liz, and in the end it undid them both.

They are on my mind today because I’ve just read the painfully moving post-mortem of the bond their two divorces could not sever– Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century. The book left me wanting to call my mother, who had more in common with Liz than I knew at 13 because she too had married an alcoholic. Like Liz and her great love, my mother is dead. That’s how it goes with the most compelling stories. Just when you think you know them, you discover a layer you missed.

Click here to read a related post about shopping for bargains with my mother in Filene’s legendary basement.

Posted by Rona

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