Elizabeth Taylor sounded like a woman in love the day she married John Warner— but then, the serial monogamist was always in love.
“The sun came out and smiled on us,” she said after their sunset wedding at Warner’s Virginia farm on Dec. 4, 1976. The bride wore a lavender cashmere dress and matching coat trimmed in silver fox; the groom — her sixth husband, seventh marriage — wore . . . oh, who cares?
Because when the legendary movie star landed in town, all eyes were on her. Taylor, 44, was even more beautiful in person; her eyes really were that mesmerizing violet color. “Everyone was dazzled,” said journalist/author Sally Quinn, who moved in Washington’s elite social circles with the celebrity bride and groom.
Their whirlwind romance — five months from first date to marriage — was probably the highlight of Taylor’s five years in the nation’s capital. She was a creature of Hollywood — Washington was smaller and even more politically focused back then — and Taylor wasn’t prepared for the long, tough life of a senator’s wife. Ultimately, she was bored and lonely, and the couple divorced in 1982.
“We were always friends – to the end,” Warner said in a statement Wednesday. “She was my ‘partner’ in laying the foundation for 30 years of public service in the U.S. Senate, representing Virginia, a state she dearly loved, as it reminded her of her heritage in England. I shall remember her as a woman whose heart and soul were as beautiful as her classic face and majestic eyes.” Warner said his children remained close to Taylor’s and would be at the services in California. (Warner is not expected to attend.)
Taylor’s sixth marriage (and second to Richard Burton) was ending in 1976 when she was seen with Ardeshir Zahedi, Iran’s glamorous ambassador in Washington. The two were cozy but denied a romance, despite their public outings: “Monday they dined on caviar at the Iranian embassy. Tuesday he escorted her to the world premiere of her new film, “The Blue Bird.” Wednesday he took her to the harness races in Maryland, where they held hands and she sat in his lap,” reported People magazine in June, 1976.
But the Shah was reportedly less than thrilled over his ambassador’s public dalliances, and the following month Taylor was looking for an escort to the Queen’s bicentennial dinner at the British Embassy. Warner, 49, the dashing former Navy secretary, was tapped as her date. Her divorce from Burton was final in late July; by October, they were engaged.
She was fiercely devoted to her new husband, who had announced plans to run for senate in Virginia. At a Georgetown dinner party, she beelined for then-Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee to complain about the coverage: “Bradlee!” she said playfully. “Get off Warner’s ass.”
Naturally, she was the star attraction of his 18-month campaign, but the movie star wasn’t much interested in politics and found the life of a senator’s wife less than she bargained for. “There she was — Elizabeth Taylor — and these two guys would be talking over her about the latest missile crisis,” said Quinn, recalling one Georgetown dinner party. “She was bored out of her mind.”
Taylor retreated to Warner’s Virginia farm, where she tried to live the country life, entertaining guests and cooking for her husband. “Fried chicken is her specialty,” he told People in 1980. Shoppers in Middleburg would see her on the street or shopping at Safeway.
The junior senator worked long, late hours, so there were few opportunities for play; sometimes, Taylor would insist they watch one of her old films. “I’m dead tired because I get up at 6:15 in the morning, but she says, ‘We’re watching,’ and one by one I’m seeing all her movies,” he said.
It was not destined to last. After the marriage ended, Taylor rarely returned to Washington except to fight for HIV-AIDS funding. (Her last big appearance was the 2002 Kennedy Center Honors.)
As an early activist for the cause — her dear friend Rock Hudson died of the disease — Taylor took on Ronald Reagan and an unresponsive public. She testified on Capitol Hill, raised money and lent her name to the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center at the Whitman-Walker Clinic near Logan Circle. Now-D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham approached Taylor and asked if she would help the local clinic. “She was someone who carried deeply about people in distress who were likely to be ignored,” he said.
On the day of the 1993 opening, Taylor not only spent the day at the clinic but surprised everyone by pulling a $50,000 personal check from her pocket. “It was magic,” recalled David Chalfant, director of development. “To meet her and see her as a humble, elegant, graceful person committed to a cause — it really took your breath away,” he said. “One look in those violet eyes and you’re changed forever.”