She filled my childhood. In the late 1960s and ’70s, my mother kept a never-ending supply of every pulp movie star magazine and gossip tabloid imaginable on our coffee table in Levittown, Pa. — and she consumed all of them with gusto. Liz and Dick! Liz and Eddie! Liz’s continued feud with Debbie! Liz’s latest illness! Liz’s latest heartbreak!
My mother, Naomi Millstein Levine, was the same age as Ms. Taylor, who died last week at 79. In fact, my mom loved to point out that she was born on Feb. 24, 1932 — just three days before her idol. And, like my mom, Ms. Taylor was the second child in her family.
Although their lives were a world apart, Mom lived and died through every romantic heartbreak, every hospital visit of her beloved Liz. She lived by the words, “If Lizzie can keep on ticking, so can I.” I’m sure her mantra was also that of countless moms across America, briefly diverted from their routines by living vicariously through Ms. Taylor’s astonishing life.
And when I became the Hollywood bureau chief for Star magazine in the late ’80s, I made my mother proud by being the one to report Ms. Taylor’s up-close and personal triumphs and tragedies. My mom loved to boast to friends, “It’s not out in the Star yet, but my Barry tells me …”
Two decades ago, before the days of Web sites like TMZ and RadarOnline, and packs of paparazzi, Hollywood was a much more intimate town. There were fewer gossip reporters and the mainstream media for the most part shunned our world. We had Ms. Taylor to ourselves.
At least, we did until her bizarre eighth wedding, in 1991, to a construction worker named Larry Fortensky. For those of us in celebrity land, this was the biggest event of all time. As Star’s boss in Los Angeles, I came up with an 80-page “battle plan” to infiltrate the ceremony, to be held at her close pal Michael Jackson’s ranch near Santa Ynez, Calif.
Driving up there in the middle of the night from Beverly Hills, my team of a half-dozen reporters set up camp in a giant trailer in the wilderness on Jackson’s property before daylight.
We even built a makeshift radio tower for our then brand-new “cellular phone.” But my best intentions and months of planning turned into a complete disaster. Tarantulas invaded our trailer, scaring us out of our wits. And then on the big day, my idea to get exclusive photos by sending up a reporter and a photographer in a giant hot-air balloon blew up big-time.
The balloon snagged on trees upon liftoff, hurtling my reporter and photographer to the ground. Fortunately the heavy brush saved them. My main competition, The National Enquirer, ended up getting the big scoop — an interview outside the local police station with a photographer who had parachuted into the wedding (and was promptly arrested for trespassing). All I got was loud shouting from my editors back in New York over that newfangled phone.
My only consolation was a free lunch — I happened a week earlier to say during a TV interview that Mr. Fortensky’s blue-collar family wanted Kentucky Fried Chicken at the reception. KFC seized upon that as a marketing gimmick and drove to Santa Ynez with trucks full of greasy hot fried chicken for the entire media mob.
As we say goodbye to Elizabeth Taylor, I’m hoping she knew this: We were never out to stalk you — we were really there to celebrate you.
In early 1992, I decided to leave Los Angeles for good and return East for a new job. As it turned out, my mother died the next year at the age of 60. Ms. Taylor, whom I rallied on in my heart to keep going for Mom, would see nearly 20 more years.
Fittingly, after all those years of covering her every waking moment, Ms. Taylor was my last image of my West Coast life. I was on my way to the airport when I stopped at a red light at Pacific Coast Highway and Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
I looked in my rear-view mirror and there she was — Ms. Taylor and her new husband, Larry, walking into a pet store. I pulled the car over onto the side of the road. She had on sunglasses, boots and a cowboy hat. There were no photographers around. In fact, no one was watching them but me.
My first instinct, of course, was to find a pay phone and call in the photographers — I knew the pictures could be tabloid gold.
But I didn’t call. I just got back in the car and kept on driving straight to the airport. For whatever reason, I decided to leave Ms. Taylor alone that sunny California afternoon — to be in peace that day. Just as I hope she will live in peace now — far away from spying tabloid eyes like mine.
Barry Levine, the executive editor of The National Enquirer.