Who owns Elizabeth Taylor?

The question comes up because Taylor is suing ABC television to stop it from making a film of her life. Taylor is of the opinion that she owns the rights to her own life and that if anyone is going to make a movie of it, she is. "I am my own commodity," she said. "I am my own industry."

Her position sounds reasonable, especially because the film ABC says it wants to make is supposedly a docu-drama, that particularly odious melange of fact and fiction in which one cannot be distinguished from the other.

But aside from that, anyone can sympathize with the desire of Taylor to control the one thing that should be inalieniably hers -- the story of her own life. Taylor raises questions concerning invasion of privacy but also advances the argument that there is an entity that might be called Liz Taylor, Inc. From time to time it has merged (Conrad Hilton Jr., Michael Wilding, Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher, Richard Burton, Burton again and John Warner), itself in the activities of others (particularly Warner), but it has always been in the business of selling Elizabeth Taylor. She is what it sells -- its only inventory. She wants to control it.

In a sense, this is also the argument advanced by Mary Cunningham. In a recent issue of Newsweek, Cunningham complained about how she has been dragged into the public spotlight and treated like a sex object instead of the brilliant businesswomen she is -- Phi Beta Kappa at Wellesley, honors grad from the Harvard Business School and "the youngest assistant treasurer in the history of the Chase Manhattan Bank." Is it her fault that she also has a terrific hunk of hair?

Well, the answer to that is no. And to be perfectly fair, not The Press but some elements of it, have not been perfectly fair to Cunningham. Ever since she was at Bendix and romantically linked to its president, William Agee, some writers have been unable to resist the use of sexist adjectives. They have, she says in Newsweek, called her "a blue-eyed blonde" a "shapely veep" a "master manipulator" and, after she and Agee married, a "pretty wife."

What Taylor, Cunningham and many other celebrities like them are pleading for is a measure of control over their own lives -- specifically, the way they are portrayed in the entertainment and news media. It is a natural enough desire and anyone in public life has shared those sentiments from time to time. It is an awful feeling to lose control of your image, to see parts of your life seep like water from under a door you want closed.

The trouble is, though, that celebrities such as Taylor and Cunningham want to have it both ways -- they want publicity, but on their own terms. Taylor, especially, is a creation of the media. Her activities were hyped by every studio she worked for and it is likely that the press releases and glossy photos of her put out by her various PR agents would by now make a small mountain. Memory fails to find an instance where she reprimanded a studio for trifling with the literal truth.

The same could be said for Cunningham. In the weeks preceding the Newsweek piece, she was interviewed by Parade Magazine, The Washington Post and Savvy Magazine -- the last an adoring article complete with cover photo of her and Agee. Even before that, she sat down with Gail Sheehy to write an endless newspaper series detailing her version of what went on at Bendix. She wants the impossible -- the attention given to a sex object, and the somber "press" due a brilliant executive.

There are serious issues at stake here -- issues concerning privacy and, of course, the First Amendment's guarantee of a free press. But these issues would be far more compelling if they were raised by someone who was dragged kicking and screaming into the limelight. That's not the case, though, with Elizabeth Taylor, nor for that matter with Mary Cunningham. Neither one has any aversion to publicity, just to publicity they cannot control. But they are the ones who have made their lives an open book. They should not now complain because someone else wants to turn the page.