PEOPLE keep referring to Elizabeth Taylor's forthcoming performance in "The Little Foxes" as her "Broadway debut."
It's no such thing.
For the record, that worthy event took place on June 21, 1964, a Sunday evening at the Lunt-Fontaine Theater. The place was packed at a $100 top and there were 50 cops surrounding the theater's 46th Street entrance to control gawkers at the Beautiful People.
From his front-row seat, this palpitating observer could look around and see such notables as Mayor John and Mary Lindsay, Eunice Kennedy Shirver, Jean Kennedy Smith, Montgomery Clift, Carol Channing, Anita Loos, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Lady Beatrice Lillie Peel, Mrs. Walter Huston, Carrol Baker, Jack Gleber, Lawton Campbell, Kitty Carlisle, Emlyn Williams, Leonard Pennario and Walter Wanger.
The off-track betting had been that Taylor would be inaudible, that she'd shrivel up in fright and rush from the stage. Christians being thrown to the lions in Rome's Coliseum had it easy compared to Miss Taylor's challenge that first night of summer.
But, as the waving, hugging, back-patting flossy audience settled down, it developed into what could have been a passel of Midwest neighbors gathered at the Grange Hall to cheer on a local girl who's been studying elocution with the high school's popular drama coach.
And, in a sense, that was what it was. Despite all that's muttered about jealousies, back-biting and snide sneers, there's a camaraderie about the theater's people, who close ranks when one of their own is about to take a dangerous plunge. Of course -- since they were only human -- there was also an undercurrent of "Well, let's see if she can do it."
The occasion itself was, in fact, a family act on stage of the theater where Richard Burton, Taylor's then husband, was acting Hamlet. Philip Burton, Richard Burton's foster-father, was then heading New York's American Musical and Dramatic Academy. In his honor, the Burtons had offered to do a fund-raiser. So, it was a family trio on the Grange platform and the neighbors turned out as good neighbors are wont to do.
The elder Burton set the informal tone immediately, stepping forward in black tie to sound the rich, deep voice which had had so strong an effect on a young Welsh boy's life. As a teacher, Philip had quickly seen the promise in coal miner Richard Walter Jenkins' young son and it had been through him that Richard had gotten his first professional stage opportunities as well as his foster-father's name.
One hardly glanced at Richard Burton. All were waiting for Taylor. She didn't disappoint. She was wearing a blue off-the-shoulder Grecian gown and from her ears dangled rings of emeralds and diamonds.
But it was Burton who began this evening of poetry excerpts his father had titled "World Enough and Time." He started with Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress," rolled through D.H. Lawrence, Welsh poet Davy Jones, Dorothy Parker, Alfred Tennyson and W. Shakespeare, winding up with the St. Crispian Day speech of "Henry V."
Then it was Taylor's turn. She was wholly at her ease. Her choices were shrewdly chosen for a performer used to the relatively short takes of film, but lyrics from Elinor Wylie, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Frost and Dorothy Parker allowed for an expressive variety of dialects, accents and humors. And the hushed, silent house had no trouble hearing her -- sans mikes.
Later there were dialogues between the two, an antiphonal reading of the 23rd Psalm and an Act II scene from "The Lady's Not for Burning." There were some false starts. "So sorry," Taylor said. "Let me begin again. I sure screwed that one up." Her cheerful ovations prompted Burton to crack -- referring to the acclaimed Polonius in his production of "Hamlet" -- "If it isn't Hume Cronyn, it's Elizabeth Taylor."
Beatrice Lillie hit the perfect comment on how the audience was reacting. During the intermission, she shouted over from her seat on one end of the aisle to Carol Channing at the other: "If she doesn't get bad pretty soon, people are going to start leaving."
It was, in short, a lovely evening in the Grange Hall and though the record books don't even have a footnote about it, it was Elizabeth Taylor's Broadway bow.
It could even be that with so jam-packed a life, Elizabeth Taylor doesn't remember it any more than she recalls being in Washington in 1947. That was when she did a U.S. Steel-Theatre Guild broadcast from Constitution Hall. There was a party before that one hosted by the Motion Picture Association's Eric Johnson at which my old friend, Debbie Reynolds, introduced me to her new chum, Elizabeth Taylor.
All that, of course, was some years before Walter Wanger, seated in Row C, had signed Miss Taylor to play Cleopatra in Rome, as eventful a summer as any in the lives of Debbie, Eddie, Richard, Sybil and herself.
Every time I see the wife of Virginia's junior senator, surrounded by staring, gaping, pulling hordes in ballrooms, theaters, concert halls and hotels, I marvel that she can remember a thing. She's been surrounded by mobs since childhood, pulled this way, pulled that, volunteering to lecture in colleges from Virginia to Isreal, to front for benefits for politicians or performers. I know a lot of people who've worked with her and never have I heard anything but praise for her geniality and generosity.
So, when Tallulah Bankhead looks down from Heaven or up from wherever she might temporarily be -- I hope she will give one of her "bless you, dahlings" to her latest successor in the role of Lillian Hellman's grasping, wicked Regina Giddens.