The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elizabeth Taylor loved John Warner. Life in Washington nearly killed her.

A new authorized biography details what happened when a screen legend met an ambitious politician. Being a senator’s wife, she said, made her “a drunk and a junkie.”

Actress Elizabeth Taylor and her husband Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) at a party in Washington in March 1981. (Diana Walker/Liaison/Getty Images)
12 min

The following is from “Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon,” by Kate Andersen Brower, HarperCollins, copyright 2022. Printed by permission.

Elizabeth Taylor needed a date. It was the summer of 1976, and the 44-year-old movie star was freshly divorced for the second time from her great love, Richard Burton. But a new romance with Ardeshir Zahedi, the dashing Iranian ambassador to the United States, was frowned upon by his ex-father-in-law and boss, the shah of Iran. Which meant that when Queen Elizabeth II hosted a glittering Washington dinner party in honor of the U.S. bicentennial, the British ambassador had to scramble to find an alternate escort for the British-born Taylor. Sir Peter Ramsbotham picked up the phone and called one of Washington’s most eligible bachelors of the moment — John W. Warner, a former secretary of the Navy who harbored greater political ambitions.

“You know Elizabeth Taylor, don’t you?” Ramsbotham asked Warner.

“No! I don’t know Elizabeth Taylor,” Warner replied. He had seen her at cocktail parties once or twice, but always surrounded by other guests.

“Well, we need a suitable person to escort her to dinner.”

“Who are you thinking about?”

“You!” Ramsbotham replied, exasperated.

From Taylor’s perspective, her night with Warner at the British embassy went well. Warner, 49, and three years past his divorce from banking heiress Catherine Mellon, was a handsome Republican with silver hair, chiseled cheekbones and tailored suits. She called him the next day and asked what he was doing.

“I’m going to my farm and I’m not going to shave for a week,” he said.

“Hmm,” she said, “that sounds interesting.”

Warner was sitting in his library when he saw dust and gravel billowing from a limousine speeding up his driveway. He gave Taylor a tour while an assistant unloaded her many suitcases.

“This reminds me so much of England,” she told him as they walked arm in arm through the fields. “I’d like the role of the farmer’s wife.”

She did not want to be Elizabeth Taylor anymore. And she needed someone to help her get over Burton.

I’ll be dead when this is over, Warner thought to himself.

Five months later, he became the sixth of her seven husbands.

Zahedi would later speculate that they wed so quickly because Warner wanted her help in his 1978 bid for Virginia’s U.S. Senate seat. And Taylor did not question his motives. She knew that she would be an incredible asset. Voters clamored to meet her, enamored with how down-to-earth and approachable she seemed on her whirlwind tours of the state, making up to six stops a day for two months.

She shook so many hands that she hurt her own. “I saw it time and time again, the men would take a woman’s hand and just crush it, and say, ‘I’ve waited all these years to meet you.’ ” Warner recalled. “Her hand began to swell up.”

But she did not stop. She felt revitalized after the humiliation of another failed marriage to Burton.

Taylor understood the world of power and politics, but Warner did not make her feel like a true partner. And she was simply too dynamic a force to play a supporting role in the campaign. “I made a condition,” Warner said. “No jewelry, and she had to get rid of the Rolls-Royce and the yacht. She said, ‘The yacht? Aren’t you secretary of the Navy?’ I said, ‘Yes, but we’re going to have a busy enough life.’ ” She sold the Taylor-Burton diamond to help finance Warner’s campaign. It was a way of letting go of Burton and committing to a new man.

“I had to go along with the party line,” Taylor said later. A Republican women’s group told her not to wear purple, her favorite color, because “it denotes royalty … and passion,” one organizer told her.

“What’s the matter with that?” she replied.

“You’re the candidate’s wife!” The subject was closed.

In the large entrance of their grand Georgetown home, there was a spot at the top of the stairs where you could hear everything from below without being seen. One day, Taylor stood there with Mary Conover, one of Warner’s daughters, and overhead a political adviser talking to Warner.

“She has got to get her wardrobe together,” the adviser said. “She has to wear some tweed and plaid suits and proper hats.”

This preposterous guidance for the most glamorous woman in the world made Taylor and her stepdaughter laugh so hard they had to duck into a bedroom.

After Warner was elected, she got sweet revenge when she took her purple Halston pantsuit out of mothballs and wore it proudly to a luncheon thrown for her by the Republican ladies.

Taylor was notably more liberal than her husband. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment; he did not. She thought women should be drafted into military service. “That dog won’t hunt,” Warner told her. At a Republican congressional retreat, Taylor brought up the women-in-the-military issue. Silence fell over the crowd. When Warner motioned for her to be quiet, Taylor called back to him to drop his “all-domineering hand.” (Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in the House and the Senate, sent her a one-word commendation: “Bravo!”)

But she managed to have some legislative impact. Her impetus was a quintessentially Elizabeth moment on the campaign trail. On a side trip for lunch at the governor’s mansion in Richmond, the campaign bus was slowed by an early snowstorm. The timing was unfortunate: “I need to go to the bathroom,” she whispered to Warner, tugging at his sleeve. “Ask the driver to spot a restroom and pull over.”

Warner advised her that the bus had a bathroom. Taylor walked to the back but disappeared into the room for just a moment.

“Why don’t you go back and look at the bathroom?” she demanded. “It was a sodden mess! Pee everywhere.”

Warner beseeched the driver, who tried to make a pit stop at the Richmond airport, only to find it closed. Warner slipped the watchman a $20 bill, and Taylor disappeared inside the airport – but again came back out after only a minute.

“Which one of you fellows has a dime?” she asked. It was the era of the pay toilet, and no one had a dime. Finally, Warner had the governor’s driver meet the bus and race them to the mansion, sirens blaring; Taylor leaped from the car and almost knocked down the governor’s wife on her way in.

She brought it up later. “John, do you want to stay married to me?” she said. “Because if you do, you have five months to get rid of this law that penalizes women.” Warner approached Sen. Ted Kennedy, who partnered with him on legislation to outlaw pay toilets at airports.

After Warner won his Senate seat, he hosted a fundraiser breakfast at their Georgetown mansion for dozens of lobbyists, who paid $2,000 a seat. Just as they were leaving, the housekeeper announced that Taylor — who rarely made an appearance before midday — wanted to know if breakfast was still warm. She came down in an almost-transparent negligee and told the men as they put on their coats: “Do the right thing, do a favor for me — whatever you gave, now double it.” They did as they were told.

But Elizabeth was growing desperately unhappy in Washington. Warner was a workaholic who rarely missed a vote. With the campaign over, “I had no function anymore,” she said, “not even as an ornament.” Isolated from her Los Angeles social circle, she ate and drank at home alone, adding more than 40 pounds to her 5-foot-2 frame. Warner nicknamed her his “little heifer,” and she pretended not to be offended, but it stung.

She thought she had reached a new low when she forced herself to look in the full-length mirror of their Georgetown mansion one day, after stepping out of the bath. What she saw stunned her.

Before Warner was elected, a journalist asked if Taylor thought their marriage could withstand his life in the Senate. “I’ll tag along,” she said. But she soon learned that she could not go with her husband to Capitol Hill every day, and that when senators are not voting, they are often on the road campaigning for colleagues or working on their own reelection efforts back home. The separation was killing her.

“We worked so much at night, and she would sit around and watch the boob tube,” Warner admitted. He knew she drank “a bit too much” but maintained he never saw it as alcoholism.

“Pooters,” he would tell her, using another of his nicknames for her, “go pour yourself a Jack Daniel’s and go on upstairs and watch TV.” But her glasses of Jack Daniel’s were getting larger and larger.

Taylor’s descent into serious alcohol and painkiller addiction was terrifying for her family to watch. Chris Wilding, her second son, then in his early 20s, recalled a visit to Georgetown. “I would occasionally be awoken in the wee hours by the telephone intercom system in my bedroom. My mother would ask if I would like to meet her in the kitchen for a beer,” he said. “She would sound woozy — like a beer was the last thing she needed — but also genuinely lonely, and I could never turn her down.”

On one occasion, she called him to her bedroom, saying she needed help with something. What he saw alarmed him. “She was seated on the edge of the bed in her underwear, and she had a syringe of Demerol in her right hand. She pointed to a spot on her thigh and asked me if I would administer the shot for her. … I told her that I was sorry, but that I absolutely could not help her with this. She looked at me with deadened yet disappointed eyes.”

On Valentine’s Day, Taylor and Warner went out to dinner in Georgetown. He kept a pager in his pocket in case he was needed on Capitol Hill.

“Elizabeth,” he told her, “I’ve got to go vote.”

“You can’t! It’s Valentine’s Day. You’re going to leave me here?”

“I have no choice,” he replied.

He raced to the Hill, then came back to the restaurant, where she burst into tears and had to be taken home. When Sen. Howard Baker heard the story, he couldn’t believe that Warner would leave his movie-star wife alone on that night. Not long after, Baker asked Warner to make a speech for him at a conference. When Warner returned to the Senate, he was furious to learn that a vote had been taken while he was gone.

“I did a favor for your wife,” Baker said: He had broken Warner’s perfect voting record, so now, Baker hoped, Warner would no longer fear missing a single vote.

But Warner would never change. Life as a senator’s wife in Washington, Taylor said later, made her “a drunk and a junkie.” She worried that she would die of an overdose if she stayed.

In 1981, Taylor was deeply affected by the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. She decided to place a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for gun-control legislation. Warner was furious. “That was a sharp turn for the worse in their relationship,” said Austin Pendleton, who directed her that spring in “The Little Foxes” on Broadway.

Warner wrote Taylor a letter on April 1 of that year, begging her to reconsider.

“Memorandum for Elizabeth,” he began, then crossed it out and wrote “My loving wife.”

“We both share a strong belief that steps must be taken to remove the root causes for violence leading to these terrible assassination attempts. However we disagree on the means to affect our common goal. … Emotions are very high nationally and the impact of the ad would be minimal. … Should the ad have the reverse effect you desire, and prompt another act of violence somewhere, it would be tragic for all of us including the President and the recent victims, as well as our Nation.”

She placed the ad anyway.

Soon thereafter, they had the conversation.

“We decided one day that we were still friends, let’s stay friends and not let this pace drive us in the wrong direction,” Warner recalled. They finally divorced in 1982.

A few months later, Taylor’s children called Warner and said that their mother seemed sad: Could he fly to New York and surprise her for Christmas? They wrapped him in a giant red package in the middle of her living room.

“What is this???” she shrieked when she emerged from her room at noon. When Warner jumped out, she was giddy.

Twenty years later, reflecting back on her seven husbands, she remembered her time with Warner fondly.

“He knows he wasn’t the love of my life,” she told the New York Times in 2002. “And I know I wasn’t the love of his life, but we loved each other.”