Love On The Rocks
Love on the rocks meant something different to Elizabeth Taylor.
There was no downside to her rocks: those glittering trophies from her career as film star and serial wife, worn to remind us that we were mortals. But she was a screen goddess.
Still, magic by association is always available, if your pockets are deep enough. Hollywood’s crown jewels – the contents of Liz Taylor’s jewellery box – go under the hammer next month: the most coveted gems since the sale of sparklers belonging to that other iconic magpie, Wallis Simpson.
Whenever Liz appeared in public, she hypnotised the eye. That hardware was almost as celebrated as she was. As easy to imagine Liz without her nest of black hair or violet eyes, as to conjure her up without a bangle or bauble worth a king’s ransom.
When details about the auction in Christies of New York went public, like a miser I drooled over that treasure trove. Work deadlines were ignored as I scrutinised descriptions of jewels that ranged from luminous to lavish to legendary.
The 33-carat Krupp Diamond ring given to her by Richard Burton. It redefines the term knuckle-duster.
The necklace he snapped up for a Valentine’s Day token, which includes a stunning pearl owned by Henry VIII’s daughter Mary – and later featured in a 16th painting by Velazquez.
The Taj Mahal heart-shaped diamond pendant which sweetened her 40th birthday – Burton said he’d have preferred to buy her the Taj Mahal but it was too costly to transport.
The ruby and diamond necklace bought for her by another husband, Mike Todd – its magnificence caused her to shriek with joy and jump into a Riviera swimming pool. Who wouldn’t?
Not forgetting the Prince of Wales diamond feathers’ brooch, once owned by Wallis Simpson, which Liz bought for herself.
Wealthy women, from Mary Queen of Scots to Princess Diana, have always owned breathtaking gems. They were an insurance policy – something to sell when the tinsel turned threadbare.
No doubt Liz Taylor’s high net worth trinkets will end up on the necks and fingers of other high net worth women. David Beckham is said to be sizing up some of the booty for Victoria.
But this auction of conspicuous consumption has a purpose besides solving a billionaire’s Christmas present dilemma.
Its proceeds will benefit, in part, Elizabeth Taylor’s Aids Foundation. These dazzle-the-eye charms will be converted into cash for a good cause.
And as I thought of that exchange – diamonds for drugs – I was reminded of my own brush with Aids, when I spent a day as an observer at a clinic in East Africa in the 1990s.
A woman comes immediately to mind. She was in her early twenties and wore a bead necklace. Not valuable, but eye-catching. It matched the vibrantly-coloured batik dress and turban she had put on: her best going-to-hospital outfit. But the clothes hung loosely on her – it was clear she had lost a lot of weight in a short time.
The doctor spoke to her through an interpreter and all at once the light dimmed in her eyes. A death sentence had just been delivered. She was HIV-positive.
The woman neither wept nor protested. She just sat there, thinking. Finally she spoke and the translator decoded her words: “I have four children. The youngest is six months old and the eldest is four.”
The subtext was: “Who will care for my babies when I’m dead?”
I have never been able to forget that doctor's clinic in The Gambia, or the stoicism in the woman's face. Or that her first impulse was anxiety for her children's future – she didn’t even bother asking about her survival chances.
Presumably she knew she was doomed.
Afterwards the doctor told me something of the patient's history. Her husband had been diagnosed HIV-positive earlier, and had gone on to infect her. A common story.
“How long does she have left?” I put the question she left unasked.
He studied her blood test results. “Her immune system is extremely compromised – a year at the outside.”
“What will happen to her babies?”
“Generally the grandparents raise them.” He paused, before using an arresting description I was hearing for the first time, although it is now commonplace: “A whole generation is being wiped out.”
“Can nothing be done?”
“If her husband had used a condom she’d have been protected,” he said.
That mother-of-four in her orange and blue dress and string of beads is long dead now, her husband too. That relentless global Aids epidemic created millions of orphans worldwide.
While the spread of Aids has been halted, and the numbers of Aids related deaths are declining, 33 million people are living with the disease.
But here’s a thought. Some of them may live a little longer thanks to a woman who adored bling, but cared about people, too. People she never met. People who may never have seen her films, or even heard of her.
Elizabeth Taylor’s diamonds, rubies and pearls have never looked so alluring.