In the best show-biz tradition, Elizabeth Taylor gets sick. In the best show-biz tradition, her doctor says, early in the week, that if she plays the matinee he'll walk. She cancels the matinee. But she stays in the show. Bronchitis, sinusitus, she stays. Forty-nine, feverish, she makes her Broadway debut. And she's fantastic. In the best show-biz tradition, the critics cheer. Good for Liz Taylor. Ol' Violet Eyes is back.
Ol' Violet Eyes. Great, raven-haired, MGM Technicolor legend. Ol' cinematic, high-dramatic, perhaps one of the last of the geniune all-time stars, along with Sinatra, but never made it to the New York stage until now.
This week, all that changed. She made her Broadway debut Thursday night in "The Little Foxes" -- or "Foxes as the New York theater crowd refers to it. She got raves. "It may have taken a long time for her to get to Broadway, but she has arrived in high style," began The Times in its make-or-break review. She received standing ovations at the theater from a black-tie audience that included Rock Hudson, Joan Fontaine, Bill Blass, Lee Radziwill, Liza Minnelli, and Taylor's husband the Senator, who, rushed to her dressing room between acts. Even Lillian Hellman, with whom Taylor had reportedly been spatting, could not contain a dry compliment as she came out with Taylor in a final curtain call. "Elizabeth, you were really quite good," she said. Taylor herself, draped in a low-cut Halston, seemed both delighted and amazed.
"I thought they'd clobber me," she said.
She said this at Xenon, her second party of the evening, after Sardi's. Xenon, a discotheque, was the B party of the evening, further divided, a publicist confirmed, into a A and B floors. A's got to sit down, beneath canopies of lavender ribbons, and be served supper; B's had to watch the proceedings from the balcony and balance their plates on their laps. "Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minnelli, Halston, Sammy Davis Jr., Jerome Robbins, Hermione Gingold," a hostess had enumerated, listing some A-level guests expected to arrive on the first floor. In fact, nearly half of them did not show, and those who did arrived very late, so that the regning celebrity of the evening, for much of the night, was actress Jean Marsh of "Upstairs, Downstairs, who had been brought to the party by her hairdresser, who, she explained, also "does Elizabeth's hair."
"I thought it would be a spectacle," explained Marsh, "very grand and old Hollywood. I came in a limousine. Normally I would come in a taxi. And the show and the curtain calls and the flowers -- normally an actor eats spaghetti afterwards in a small room. I guess she's the only real star we have left."
Real star sentiment, anyway, was in the air. The music was Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The dress was sequins and black tie. "Fabulous, "marvelous," "spectacular," people said. in a double-A corner of the the A-level floor, Ann Miller -- in black sequins -- sat at a table with a centerpiece of a lavender bouquet. Didn't see the show, honey, because she'd been on stage with her own show, "Sugar Babies." But she and Mickey Rooney, who've known Taylor for 35 years, of course sent flowers. "Wonderful woman," she said.
The star, Ol' Violet Eyes, arrived with John Warner shortly before midnight. Her gown was heavy white satin. Her eyelids were the dark purple she wore i Cleopatra. Her necklace was a rope of enormous pearls and diamonds; her diamond ring a stone the size of a peach pit. "I think that's a very famous stone, but I don't know what it is," the woman from People magazine fretted. It was difficult to get close enough to ask. Six security guards hovered about Taylor, who broke away from them to dance.
"If I can make it her, I'll make it anywhere," sang Liz with the music.
The reporters pounced.
"I missed my first vote in the Senate tonight in 2 1/2 year," said Warner, and, "She was as cool and as calm as any general under fire," and "She said, 'We're a partnership. Come. I'll be on the 7 o'clock shuttle back to Washington tomorrow.'"
She said less, laughing and dancing and joking. She was a bit flushed, perhaps feverish, having had bronchitis all week. "I'm shy," she said. And, "I'm very lucky." And, "Aren't you sweet?"
The producer, Zev Bufman, made the traditional announcement about reviews. "These notices are absolutely incredible . . . The Frank Rich review in The New York Times is probably the strongest review I've read in The Times in 20 years . . . it's the finest most incredible welcome for Elizabeth Taylor to Broadway, WELCOME TO BROADWAY, LIZ."
The crowd roared. The security guards continued to hover. "Press off the floor," they said.
Ol' Violet Eyes moved to a table on the side of the floor to speak with Shirly MacLain, who was sitting with manhattan Borough president Andrew Stein and a man Stein introduced as "Jackie Green, one of her [MacLain's] agents."
"You were just great," said Green, "Fabulous, fabulous."
"A magnificent human being," said MacLaine, later.