The Time I Asked Elizabeth Taylor To Dance

In 1981, Elizabeth Taylor was starring on Broadway in a revival of the Lillian Hellman play, “The Little Foxes,” and married to husband No. 6, John Warner of Virginia (whose previous wife was the banking heiress Catherine Conover Mellon). At the time, Taylor was past the glory days of her career but because of the husbands and jewels and assorted mishigas, she was still the most sought-after specimen in the pop-culture petri dish of stardom. She was also at her very fattest.

I, meanwhile, was 16 years old, an insecure adolescent trying to hide behind a façade of ennui, and I was at my very most obnoxious. My family, who measure up as crazy on any yardstick, was having dinner in The Edwardian Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York. A grandiose, rococo restaurant with potted palms and a band playing Viennese waltzes at the edge of a parquet dance floor, it was considered chic in its day.

The cast of characters included my father, his second wife (about whom the less said the better), my brothers, and some cousins. We were already seated (and probably well into cocktails) when a commotion started at the host stand and then rippled outward, almost instantly captivating the entire room. Elizabeth Taylor had arrived.

She’d made the unfortunate wardrobe choice of a top that had strips of fabric with beads at the ends, and as the maitre d’ escorted her and the senator to their table, her blouse got caught on some unsuspecting (and undoubtedly delighted) diner’s chair. After a “look-but-nobody-look” impossibly awkward moment, she was tugged free and continued on her way, as if nothing at all had happened.

My father, initially oblivious to the fuss, finally paid attention and (in characteristic fashion) said, “I know her! She works for me.”

By the time we’d all recovered from our hysterics and pointed out the ridiculousness of this statement, we were confounded to see that Elizabeth Taylor and her husband were being seated at the table next to ours. We were instantly on our best behavior and trying to act utterly blasé. Other diners, meanwhile, kept approaching her to ask for an autograph and were unceremoniously turned away.
“I’ll bet you 20 bucks to go talk to her,” my cousin said, hoping to see me similarly humiliated.

It was a bet. Even worse, it was a dare. And if there’s one thing a 16-year-old boy doesn’t do, it’s back down from a dare.

It was one of those moments in life when you know you’re going to fail spectacularly but the point is to look good doing it, and I pushed my chair out, gathered up my testicles and managed to rise to my feet. The distance of a few yards seemed simultaneously endless and not nearly long enough, and my trachea was throbbing as I shuffled over toward imminent humiliation.

“Excuse me. Ms. Taylor?”
I’d like to say that what I remember were those extraordinary violet eyes, which were hypnotically beautiful. But more realistically, I was trying not to crap myself.
Her head swiveled to look at me. She smiled, but in an insincere, let’s-get-this-over-with kind of way.

What happened next I fully credit to the “Great Brain” series of children’s books, which I had devoured as a kid and all of which revolve around a smart-ass protagonist whose grandiose plans are about to backfire on him when he thinks up an ingenious solution at the last minute.
“Would you dance with me?”
In my (no doubt highly romanticized) recollection, she let out that lusty, unladylike laugh, and her smile—and about this, I’m not mistaken—became one of genuine amusement.
“That’s very sweet of you,” she said, “but I only dance with my husband.”

Thankfully, I resisted the urge to say, “Well, then, your dance card is mighty full.”
Conscious that every eye in the room was on me, I thanked her and backed away. Liquified bowels notwithstanding, I managed to make it back to my table, where my otherwise earsplitting family sat silently agog, eyes like lemurs and mouths gaping.

“What the hell did you say to her?!?” my cousin asked, incredulous that I’d managed to get a smile and a laugh out of one of the most hounded human beings on the planet.

“I asked her to dance.”

My heart was still beating like a jackhammer, and if I didn’t have my own cocktail, I took a hefty swig off of someone else’s. My cousin promised to pay me as soon as everyone stopped staring, and a glissando of false laughter and “So, anyways…” chatter carried us past the uncomfortable moment of everyone in the restaurant staring at us.

Elizabeth Taylor and John Warner ate quickly and then left as inconspicuously as they’d come, which is to say, not at all.
My cousin eventually paid me the twenty bucks.
But more importantly, I learned something that’s stood me in good stead to this day.

When in doubt, flirt.

Thank you for the dance lesson, Elizabeth Taylor.
R.I.P.

2 Comments

  1. Posted November 3, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    That’s not just the best asnwer. It’s the bestest answer!

  2. Posted November 3, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Essays like this are so imporatnt to broadening people’s horizons.

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