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Famous for her beauty and notorious for her many marriages, actress Elizabeth Taylor, who died of congestive heart failure on Wednesday at 79, was one of the last of the great MGM stars, who used her iconic status to pioneer the world of celebrity fragrances.
Playing on the names of the gigantic gemstones she passionately collected throughout her eight marriages, Taylor created the forerunner of the current celebrity fragrance business in 1987 when she launched her first fragrance, Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion. White Diamonds has sold well in excess of $1 billion at retail since its introduction in 1991. Its memorable commercial — a black-and-white spot that features a glamorous Taylor slapping down a diamond earring on a gambling table and proclaiming: “These have always brought me luck” — is still played during the holiday season each year.
This story first appeared in the March 24, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In addition to Passion and White Diamonds, Taylor produced 10 other scents. Passion for Men was launched in 1988; the Fragrant Jewels trio of scents — Diamonds and Emeralds; Diamonds and Rubies, and Diamonds and Sapphires — was introduced in 1993; Black Pearls hit counters in 1996; Sparkling White Diamonds was introduced in 1999; Brilliant White Diamonds launched in 2001; Forever Elizabeth was launched in 2002; Gardenia was introduced in 2003, and Violet Eyes hit counters in 2010. All 12 are still sold by Arden, primarily in North America.
“It is with deep sadness that we learned of the passing of Elizabeth Taylor, the legendary actress, activist and businesswoman,” said E. Scott Beattie, chairman and chief executive officer of Elizabeth Arden, in a statement. “As her business partner in the fragrance industry, we have held her in the highest esteem and have had tremendous respect for her extraordinary compassion, creativity and business acumen….Our best tribute to Elizabeth Taylor will be to continue the legacy of the brands she created and loved so much. Her sense of humor, passion for life, never-ending dedication and generosity of spirit will be remembered by all of us.”
But while she had a major impact on the beauty world, her personal fashion sense was often questionable. In fact, in 1967, at the height of her fame, when she was married to Richard Burton, WWD labeled the violet-eyed brunette a “fashion dropout” for the unflattering printed dress she wore to a polo match in Nice, France. It was shortly after she had won the second of her Academy Awards, for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the text went on to note, “Liz Taylor won the Oscar…but not for fashion,” and ask, “Doesn’t Richard deserve an Oscar too? Not for being wolf-ed by Virginia but for loyalty to The Missus above and beyond the call of duty?”
The ups and downs of her weight through the Seventies and Eighties didn’t help. Numerous photos through the years show Taylor in less-than-flattering ensembles. A 1970 photo shows her in a white HotPants outfit with daisy trim everywhere, including on the high peekaboo boots, and another picture from that same year shows her in a dizzying ivory mesh poncho pantsuit, detailed with fringe.
Arnold Scaasi recalled how, in 1962, a friend who was Taylor’s hairdresser suggested the actress visit Scaasi’s salon to select some dresses for an appearance on “The Bob Hope Show.” The designer said they hit it off, and he continued to dress her through the years.
“She had a lovely sense of humor. She was not a shy woman,” he said. “She was one of the most beautiful women you ever would want to see. Really. She was fabulous looking.” In her “Cleopatra” days, she was “tiny, a good size 4, with heels maybe five six or five seven,” he added. “She loved trying on clothes and would try on a lot of [them]. She would say, ‘I love that,’ or, ‘That’s not for Elizabeth.’ She liked to speak in the third person.”
And Taylor could look stunningly statuesque in the right caftan or flowing dress, perhaps with a plunging neckline that showed off one of the huge jewels she had been given by her husbands. There was the 69.42-carat pear-shaped Taylor-Burton Diamond or the 50-carat Peregrina Pearl, once owned by Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII. Burton gave her both of those, along with the 16th-century Taj Mahal diamond necklace; the King Farouk bracelet, detailed with hieroglyphics in diamonds and colored stones, and the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond, mounted on a ring. Taylor’s third husband, producer Mike Todd, had showered her with jewelry too, including a remarkable Cartier diamond and ruby necklace and the antique diamond tiara she wore to the 1956 Academy Awards.
Her costumes could be influential, as well. The evening dress Edith Head designed for Taylor’s role as a society girl in 1951’s “A Place in the Sun,” for instance, a strapless white dress with a boned bodice, detailed with daisies, inspired the most popular prom look of that year, while a white dress Taylor wore as Maggie the Cat in 1958’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was licensed by its costume designer, Helen Rose, and sold in the thousands. Photos of Taylor wearing a slip in 1960’s “BUtterfield 8” are unforgettable.
Regardless of her style, though, she was, simply, Elizabeth Taylor. Nothing else really mattered.
Tamara Steele, senior vice president of global fragrance marketing at Elizabeth Arden, began working with Taylor 11 years ago. “Elizabeth Taylor saw this as her business — her home was House of Taylor Headquarters,” said Steele. “The juice was the most important thing for her, and she created fragrances she would love to wear and was proud to give to her friends. She was very knowledgeable about fragrance notes. She instinctively knew quality and wouldn’t compromise, and she was proven to be right all the time. She touched every element of her fragrance brand. She loved to design her fragrance bottles — she had exquisite taste and her bottles were like little jewels. She put her signature and sign-off on everything, including the holiday gift sets and the famous holiday watch gwp [gift with purchase]. She will be greatly missed. This is a sad and hard day for us.”
The actress was also known for her commitment to AIDS-related charities. After her great friend and “Giant” co-star Rock Hudson died from the disease in 1985, at a time when Hollywood and the fashion industry were reluctant to embrace AIDS activism, Taylor became an important fund-raiser for the cause. She was the founding international chairman of amfAR, and also started her own AIDS charity, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. She was given the amfAR Award of Courage in New York on Feb. 9 but could not attend because of ill health. Her friend Elton John accepted it on her behalf, saying, “She earned our enduring love and respect for her compassion and her courage in standing up and speaking out about AIDS when others preferred to bury their heads in the sand.”
Another longtime friend, Valentino, who designed her wedding dress for her last wedding, said, “She was an extraordinary human being. She sold all her jewels in the early Eighties to build 15 day hospitals in Africa. Together, we created a charity for children with AIDS in Italy, and I personally saw her sitting on the floor next to terminally ill people, holding their hands and comforting them.” Then he added, “I will miss her forever and miss her calling me with the nickname of Rudy.”
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born on February 27, 1932, in Hampstead, England, the daughter of Americans Francis Lenn Taylor and Sara Viola Warmbrodt. Her father was an art dealer and her mother a former actress. When World War II began, the family, including her older brother, Howard, returned to the States, settling in L.A. Elizabeth’s first film was with Universal Pictures, “There’s One Born Every Minute” (1942). Then MGM gave her a standard seven-year contract and cast her in 1943’s “Lassie Come Home.” At 12, she appeared as Velvet Brown in MGM’s 1944 film “National Velvet,” the story of a young girl who trains her horse to win the Grand National. The film was a runaway success and made Taylor a star.
“Life With Father” (1947), “A Date With Judy” (1948) and “Little Women” (1949) were three of Taylor’s hits as a teenager. But “A Place in the Sun” put her in a new category altogether. She radiated warmth and charisma in her role as the glamorous, wealthy Angela Vickers, who comes between George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) and his pregnant, working-class girlfriend (Shelley Winters). This role gave the first indication that Taylor could be a fine dramatic actress.
Regarded by many as the loveliest woman in the world in the Fifties and Sixties, she became a perennial cover subject for Life when that magazine was a bellwether of American culture. She had starring roles in more than 50 films, including “Giant” (1956), “Raintree County” (1957) and “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959).
A drama queen in more ways than one, Taylor lived life on a grand scale, marrying eight times, including twice to Welsh actor Richard Burton. She divorced her first two husbands, hotel heir Nicky Hilton and actor Michael Wilding, and her third, Todd, was killed in a plane crash in 1958. Her next marriage, in 1959, was to Todd’s friend, singer Eddie Fisher, who unfortunately was still married to America’s sweetheart, actress Debbie Reynolds, with whom he had a daughter and a son, when his romance with Taylor began. Taylor was labeled a home-wrecker on an endless series of fan magazine covers, and only won back some public support when she almost died from pneumonia.
“Maybe I’ve been around so long that people expect me to survive,” Taylor told WWD in 1996. “And I guess they must want me to survive. My life has had so many ups and downs that sometimes it takes even my breath away.”
In 1960, Taylor became the highest-paid actress of the time when she agreed to accept $1 million to play the title role in 20th-Century Fox’s “Cleopatra.” (She reportedly requested the then-unheard-of sum because she didn’t want to do the movie.) On the troubled set, she and Burton, who played Marc Antony, kindled their incendiary romance, which created an epic scandal because she was still married to Fisher and Burton was married to his first wife Sybil and had two young daughters. The film, plagued by endless delays and cost overruns, became a punchline for comedians and wasn’t released until 1963. Taylor, for her part, was condemned by congressmen, while the Vatican accused her of “erotic vagrancy.” When Burton appeared in “Hamlet” on Broadway in 1964, huge crowds gathered outside the theater simply to see the couple leave together. The endless paparazzi stakeouts and tabloid coverage of the duo prefigured the massive ranks of paparazzi that feed the tabs today.
The two married for the first time in 1964. Burton and Taylor’s wildly over-the-top lifestyle — replete with extensive entourages for each star and seemingly endless purchases of property and world-class jewelry — came to overshadow the accomplishments of both. Some of their joint acting projects — such as 1967’s “The Taming of the Shrew” — were both critical and financial successes, but their films together began to bomb as their 10-year first marriage was winding down. The pair’s epic bouts of fighting and drinking had also grown stale. Their second marriage lasted less than a year.
In addition to her Academy Awards and a Golden Globe, Taylor received the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the French Legion of Honor and the Presidential Citizens Medal and was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Taylor is survived by her children Christopher Edward Wilding, Michael Wilding Jr., Liza Todd and Maria Burton.