by Meredith O'Brien
When Elizabeth Taylor died this past week, I was dazzled by the old photos of her that appeared in newspapers and web sites alongside tributes to the famed actress. In the 1950s and 1960s, she was not only considered gorgeous but she was most definitely viewed as box office gold.
In 1961 when she was just 29, Taylor was the country’s top movie star, besting major film actors such as John Wayne, Cary Grant and Doris Day when it came to box office receipts. She was also a working mother with three young children – she’d later adopt a girl – and the breadwinner for her family in an era when an actress who got pregnant was routinely suspended by her movie company and placed on unpaid leave.
As I read about Taylor’s accomplishments in the many articles about her published in the days after her death – 54 films, two Oscars, five Academy Award nominations, a leader in the fight against AIDS, married eight times – I kept wondering, amidst all the discussion about her violet eyes, her vivaciousness, her sensuality and her passion for romantic love, what about Taylor as a mother? I was surprised to learn that she had had four children and, when she died, had 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Sure, during the 80s and 90s I knew all about her unusual friendship with Michael Jackson, and saw her personal commercials on TV, but didn’t know anything about her as a mother.
So I went on a quest to learn more about Taylor, the superstar working mom. I spent loads of time reading archived news articles online about her, watched a number of TV segments about her and perused three Taylor biographies. What did I glean from all of that? That not much ink was used writing about Elizabeth Taylor the mother, certainly not as compared to the amount of time the media spends today in dissecting, say, Angelina Jolie’s life with her kids. I did learn that by the time Taylor had her second child, she had plenty of money to hire nannies and that she had a habit of taking her kids with her on movie sets until they got old enough to send to boarding school. There were also people who were sharply critical of Taylor and how her children dealt with Taylor’s frequent change of husbands.
Some writers, I discovered, concluded that Taylor was a fiercely protective, loving mother.
In 1953, after the 21-year-old Taylor gave birth to her first child, author Brenda Maddox described Taylor  as someone who “threw herself into the little mother part well.” The woman whose image news photographers loved to capture while wearing sumptuous dresses began appearing in photos with her children. I found photographs of her lounging in the grass while wearing a gorgeous red dress while holding a toddler and a baby  and one of looking as though she’d just stepped off the set of her 1951 film, Father’s Little Dividend , a movie about a newlywed who has a baby, while she cradled her own baby . As was expected of a superstar like Taylor who had a certain image to maintain, she also mixed maternity with sex appeal, appearing in one photo wearing a leopard print bathing suit -- to demonstrate that she’d lost the baby weight -- while her toddler son  wore matching bathing trunks with the same print.
During one of the most tumultuous periods in her life, when she was filming the movie Cleopatra in Rome in 1962 and was married to singer Eddie Fisher, she commenced a scandalous affair with her leading man, Richard Burton yet she continued to keep her children in close proximity to her. There are several photos  that were run in news publications of Taylor on the Cleopatra movie set with her children. Author Maddox says that despite everything that was swirling around her, “Her passion for mothering is fierce, constant, unstoppable; she is a matriarch out of anthropology textbooks . . . All during Cleopatra, as on most of her films, she had her children with her. She rushed home at the end of work to be with them.”
However there were plenty of folks who were quite disapproving of how Taylor attempted to do her work as a film star while she and her staff of nannies were raising her kids. When the married Taylor took her three young children out on a date in Rome with her co-star Burton, who was also married to someone else and had small children, many were appalled, including officials at the Vatican  who decried Taylor’s lack of morals and said she wasn’t “fit” to be the mother of three, never mind adopt a fourth child. There were also the likes of syndicated newspaper columnist George Sokolsky  who called what she was doing with Burton in Rome “exhibitionism.” “. . . [W]hat of the children of these smashed homes?” Sokolsky asked of the Taylor and Burton children. “What will become of them?”
Biographer Donald Spoto described  Taylor’s four young children’s lives in the 1960s as kind of a mixed bag: “Unfortunately, the children endured a time of benign neglect. Elizabeth adored them, and if they were ill she went to them or flew them to herself at once. Their anxieties were hers, their pleasures made her proud.” However he also quoted a household staffer as saying, “Elizabeth loved her children, but she wasn’t like an ordinary mother. She wasn’t that closely involved with their lives.”
Spoto’s book attempted to explain how matter-of-factly the Taylor children reacted to Taylor’s changing roster of spouses by including a quote from Taylor’s then-6-year-old daughter Liza who reportedly said, “Did you see Around the World in 80 Days? My first daddy made that. My second daddy made a movie too, and Richard [Burton] makes movies and my only mommy makes movies.”
Taylor herself wrote an article  in July 1966 in which she said she adored her children: “Throughout everything, my children have been the one consistently bright spot in my life. I’ve always loved kids. I don’t mean I love all kids . . . To my kids I’m not Elizabeth Taylor at all: I’m not anybody other than ‘Mommie.’”
To be fair, I don’t think that, after reading the volume of material I consumed over a handful of days that I really got an accurate picture of what Taylor was like as a mom, as her role as mother, apart from her scandalous love life, wasn’t a big focus of the media’s coverage of her. Her romantic and energetic social life sucked the oxygen out of the news stories about her. However while reading one particular scene in a biography of her – where Taylor’s kids were allowed to run about the house while she and her then-husband Richard Burton would frequently drink to excess – I couldn’t stop thinking about similar scenes that played out in the fictional AMC show Mad Men, which is set in the 1960s and dramatizes the fact that what was considered routine parental behavior during that decade is substantially different than what people consider to be okay today. All I could think of when I read about Taylor and Burton drinking while their kids kept to themselves was one Mad Men episode where the then-married Don and Betty Draper spent a whole Sunday drinking and listening to music and forgot to feed their two young kids dinner.
I found it difficult to judge Taylor’s big, superstar life by 21st century maternal standards. All I know is that when I read some of her final tweets on Twitter , she mentioned her daughter: “Spending time with my daughter Liza in my beautiful gardens. Hope the gardenias bloom soon.” And in announcing her passing, her eldest son, Michael Wilding Jr. said , “My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love. Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world . . . We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it. Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts.” And in the end, I suppose, that’s what matters.