Elizabeth Taylor has been named one of history’s greatest female screen legends by the American Film Institute. She transformed from a child actress to a bona fide movie star in the 1950s. She won two Academy Awards for her parts in Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Yet the public obsessed over her personal life.
For one thing, Taylor had alluring looks – she had nearly violet eyes and a double set of natural eyelashes, which only added to her sultry appearance. As such, the actress fielded a slew of suitors, seven of whom would become her husband at some point in her life. The public didn’t respond kindly to all Taylor’s personal relationships, though.
One in particular left the world calling Taylor a homewrecker, as her affair with a married man made her one player in a highly publicized love triangle. From there, she and the other woman – a famous actress herself – maintained their feud for nearly a decade, before a chance encounter forced them to face the past.
Two-time Academy Award-winning actress Elizabeth Taylor had talent and star power on screen, but it was often her personal life that turned heads. Indeed, she had signed a contract with MGM in 1942, when she was just 10 years old. She grew up in the spotlight, so she grew up quickly.
Plus Taylor had plenty of suitors interested in her as soon as she became a star. In 1948 she went on a date with football player Glenn Davis, a meet-up orchestrated by her film studio: MGM. After that, she briefly called William Pawley Jr. her fiancé. And the ingénue also caught the eye of Howard Hughes – he offered her parents a six-figure dowry for her hand in marriage.
Taylor rejected Hughes’ proposal, but she did dream of getting married young. Indeed, she pointed to her religious upbringing as the cause for her fixation with walking down the aisle. Her vision would become a reality in 1950, when Taylor and Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr. exchanged vows. She and the Hilton Hotels heir had a spectacle of a wedding that caused a media frenzy.
But the union between Taylor and Hilton wouldn’t last long. The teenage actress quickly realized that she and her new husband had little in common. Plus he drank heavily, and he became abusive with her. So, a mere eight months after their lavish nuptials, Taylor obtained a divorce.
Less than two years later, Taylor had found love again – this time with a British actor two decades older than her. The actress had met Michael Wilding in 1948 while she filmed The Conspirator in England, but their romance didn’t blossom until 1951. In that year, Taylor traveled back to the U.K. for another movie and reconnected with Wilding.
Both Taylor and Wilding had different motives for entering into a relationship with someone so much older and younger, respectively. She craved the security and companionship that he provided. Wilding, on the other hand, hoped that a partnership with a popular young actress would stoke his career.
Although such beginnings didn’t bode well for the couple, Taylor and Wilding got married on February 21, 1952, and quickly started their family together. First she gave birth to a son named Michael Howard in 1953. Then, two years later, the couple welcomed another boy: Christopher Edward.
In the midst of all of this, Taylor started to mature – and she began gaining more confidence in who she was. Her husband, meanwhile, still struggled to keep his career afloat, which also put a strain on the couple. It all came to a head in 1955, when a tabloid called Confidential alleged that Wilding had strippers over while Taylor was away shooting her 1956 movie Giant.
By the summer of 1956, Taylor and Wilding had called it quits. They separated at that time and finalized their divorce the next year. It wouldn’t be long before Taylor walked down the aisle on a third occasion. This time, film producer Mike Todd wooed the famous actress, with whom he had some close friends in common.
At the start of Taylor’s career with MGM, she not only filmed at the studio but attended school on the lot between shoots. In the 1950s, those classes connected her to actress Debbie Reynolds. At that point, Reynolds hadn’t had her breakout role, but that didn’t stop her from connecting to bona fide star Taylor.
As Reynolds told People in 2015, “I was just a beginner, and [Taylor] and I were not in any manner alike, but we got along very well because I was in awe of going to school with Elizabeth Taylor. And if anyone said they weren’t, then they were lying. Or going blind.”
Soon, though, Reynolds would join Taylor’s ranks as a Hollywood star herself, thanks to the release of Singin’ in the Rain in 1952. The actress’ personal life also took off after she starred in the movie. In 1955 she wed crooner Eddie Fisher, whose popularity at the time mirrored that of Frank Sinatra.
And not only was Taylor close with the bride, but Todd had a great friendship with Reynolds’ groom, Fisher. This led Taylor and Todd to include the couple in their 1957 wedding ceremony. Reynolds told the Daily Mail in 2010, “Eddie had been best man at their wedding, and I had been a bridesmaid. We saw a lot of each other.”
In fact, some consider the Taylor-Todd and Reynolds-Fisher pairings to be a couple of Hollywood’s first so-called power couples. Little did any of them know, none of it would last. Within a year of saying “I do” to Taylor – and welcoming their first child, a daughter named Liza – Todd perished in a plane crash.
Understandably, the unexpected loss of her husband left Taylor devastated. The actress resumed working just three weeks after his death to distract herself and pay off some of her late husband’s debts. Still, she needed someone to lean on – and she found him in Todd’s best friend: Fisher.
What started as a platonic consolation became a full-fledged affair between Taylor and Fisher. And, as Reynolds recalled, she was in the dark about her husband’s secret relationship with her friend. “I was the last to find out about the affair,” she said, although she acknowledged, “There had been hints in the papers.”
But it wouldn’t be the papers that broke the news to Reynolds – it happened over a fateful phone call. The Singin’ in the Rain star sat at home alone while her singer husband, Fisher, traveled around on a concert tour. Consequently, she felt lonely and rang Taylor to catch up.
But Taylor didn’t pick up the phone. Instead, it was Reynolds’ husband, Fisher, on the line. “Suddenly, a lot of things clicked into place. I could hear her voice asking him who was calling – they were obviously in bed together. I yelled at him, ‘Roll over, darling, and let me speak to Elizabeth,’” Reynolds recalled.
In response, Fisher hung up on Reynolds and immediately came home. But he hadn’t returned to beg for his wife’s forgiveness. As she remembered it, the singer said, “I’m sorry. Elizabeth and I are in love, and I want a divorce.” He got his wish in 1959, and, in that same year, he and Taylor wed in Las Vegas.
The whole thing left Reynolds shocked and devastated for multiple reasons. First, she said, she had been a virgin when she had married Fisher. She felt sad for her children, whose parents would split up. And she added, “I was very religious. so I didn’t believe in divorce, but they laid guilt on me that I was keeping them and true love apart. So I finally let Eddie off the hook.”
Ultimately, though, Reynolds came to understand her husband’s affair and request for a divorce, considering that he had fallen for Tayor. “Who would pass by Elizabeth? No woman living was as beautiful as her. And Eddie had even tried to act like Mike Todd, smoking big cigars,” she explained.
In parting from her estranged husband, though, Reynolds recalled issuing Fisher a warning about the temptress Taylor. She remembered herself saying, “If you marry her, she will throw you out within 18 months.” It turned out that Reynolds’ prediction would become reality, although not as quickly as she had thought.
Just after her marriage to Fisher, Taylor landed a lucrative deal to star in 20th Century-Fox’s Cleopatra. In fact, she became the first actress to earn $1 million for her part in a film. Plus studio executives promised her 10 percent of the movie’s profits on top of her seven-figure paycheck.
But production for Cleopatra didn’t go smoothly. Taylor almost died of pneumonia during the first shoot in England, which began in 1960. So producers decided to start over with a new filming location in Rome, Italy. Then they brought in a new leading man to play Mark Antony: Welsh actor Richard Burton.
The chemistry between Taylor and Burton bubbled over from filming and into their real lives. Although both Cleopatra stars had spouses at home, they embarked on an affair. And after the paparazzi snapped pictures of them together on a yacht in Italy, the world knew about the co-stars’ secret relationship.
In spite of the tabloid scandal that swirled afterward, Taylor and Burton remained an item. She divorced Fisher in 1964 and, nine days later, married her Cleopatra co-star. “Liz and Dick,” as the media referred to the couple, went on to act in 11 movies together and lead a luxurious, jet-setting lifestyle together.
Taylor and Burton’s marriage lasted for a decade before they divorced in 1974 – and remarried in 1975. Their second go-round ended a year later, but Burton was perhaps the love of her life, according to the 2010 book Furious Love. In it, Taylor said, “After Richard, the men in my life were just there to hold the coat, to open the door. All the men after Richard were really just company.”
Even so, Taylor did remarry twice more after she and Burton called it quits. First came Republican politician John Warner, who came along as Taylor’s career in movies slid into decline. She left the spotlight behind to help him campaign for a Senate seat, which he went on to win.
Washington, D.C., proved an improper place for a movie star such as Taylor to live. She started using prescription drugs and alcohol to deal with her boredom, loneliness and depression. Eventually, she and the senator divorced at the end of 1982 after almost six years of marriage. And nearly a decade later, she would marry for the last time.
In 1983 Taylor checked herself into the Betty Ford Center for her addictions to alcohol and painkillers. She stood as the first celebrity to openly do so. She returned to the clinic five years later for further treatment. Little did she know, she’d meet her future husband, Larry Fortensky, during her second session.
Taylor and construction worker Fortensky wed at the Neverland Ranch, the home of Taylor’s close friend Michael Jackson. As usual, a media frenzy ensued around the actress’ nuptials – a paparazzo even parachuted onto the property to try and snap pictures of the event. Even with all of the fanfare, though, the relationship lasted only until 1996.
In the meantime, Taylor’s former friend Reynolds had two remarriages of her own. First, she wed Harry Karl, a businessman worth millions, in 1960. After they had divorced in 1973, she stayed single until 1984. That year, she married Richard Hamlett, and she stayed with the real estate developer until 1996.
Something else had happened since Reynolds’ divorce from Fisher – and Taylor’s subsequent marriage to him. The women spent seven years avoiding one another, but they had a chance encounter on board the London-bound Queen Elizabeth. Both women had new men in their lives: Taylor had married Burton by then, and Reynolds was wed to Karl.
As Reynolds told the Daily Mail, “Liz was with Richard Burton and her whole family, all the children and the nannies. I sent a little note to her, saying, ‘Let’s get together to have dinner. It’s silly to carry on this fight now that we’ve both remarried, and it’s all just sort of ridiculous, isn’t it?’”
It turned out that Taylor had the same idea. Reynolds went on, “She’d sent [a note] to me at the same time, so they criss-crossed. We had dinner that night in the main dining room. Heads turned. Cameras were everywhere. People were hiding behind plants taking pictures.”
With that, Reynolds and Taylor let their rough past go and restored the friendship that they had started on the MGM lot in the 1950s. Reynolds said the pair found it easy to reconcile because both had moved on. By then, also, she had realized that her ex-husband Fisher deserved blame for what happened too.
After their ship-based reconciliation, Reynolds and Taylor maintained their friendship for decades to come. In 2001 they starred in These Old Broads, a film written by Reynolds’ daughter, Carrie Fisher. And, just before Taylor passed away in 2011, Reynolds told People that the pair had chatted one last time, “like two girls would.”