Some years ago, rather more than 15, a friend and I decided to install, among the New York social curriculum, a series of surprise-guest lunch parties; the idea seemed amusing enough for February, the dreariest month in New York, so my friend and I invited four other friends to join us for lunch at a private apartment. The idea was that the six of us would, individually, supply an additional guest, a “mystery” guest – preferably someone interesting and well-known and yet not known personally to any or at least all of us. My choice was Dr J Robert Oppenheimer, but he wasn’t available that day; now I can’t remember who I brought.
But I do remember the selection made by Lady Keith, who was then Mrs Leland Hayward. Lady Keith, whom her friends call Slim, is a tall, coltish, California-bred aristocrat (northern California, need one add) with the most beautiful legs, ankles and feet extant. Her “surprise”, Elizabeth Taylor, was rather a runt by comparison – like Mrs Onassis, her legs are too short for the torso, the head too bulky for the figure in toto; but the face, with those lilac eyes, is a prisoner’s dream, a secretary’s self-fantasy; unreal, non-obtainable, at the same time shy, overly vulnerable, very human, with the flicker of suspicion constantly flaring behind the lilac eyes.
We had met once before – one summer afternoon on the farm of a mutual friend in Connecticut. At the time, her third husband, the tough and short and sexy Mike Todd, still had his plane crash ahead of him, was still alive and married to this beautiful child who seemed besotted by him.
Often, when couples make oozing displays of themselves, always kissing, gripping, groping – well, often one imagines their romance must be in serious difficulties. Not so with these two. I remember them, that afternoon, sprawled in the sun in a field of grass and daisies holding hands and kissing while a litter of six or eight fat Newfoundland puppies tumbled over their stomachs, tangled in their hair.
But it was not until I encountered her as Slim Hayward’s guest that Elizabeth Taylor made an impression on me, at least as a person; as an actress I’d always liked her – from National Velvet straight on, but especially as the rich girl in A Place in the Sun.