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My encounters with Elizabeth Taylor

by Jim Longworth

By the time I was 10 years old, there were two loves in my life: baseball and Elizabeth Taylor. Of course nothing can match the sensation of hitting a fastball, but watching Liz emerge from an Egyptian bath in Cleopatra came pretty close.

My crush on Ms. Taylor never went away, so imagine my delight when I heard she was coming to Danville, Va. in the summer of 1978 for a campaign stop with her newest hubby, John Warner, then a candidate for US Senate. At the time, I was the late-night weatherman and features reporter for WFMY-TV in Greensboro, and Danville was part of our market, so I had myself assigned to cover Warner’s campaign stop at that city’s historic Tobacco Museum.

I was also promotions manager for WFMY, so in addition to conducting interviews, I always carried “Newsreel 2” T-shirts with me whenever I was going to meet a celebrity.

“Newsreel 2” was a comical, faux newsreel that I produced for the 11 p.m. newscast, and we never had any trouble getting big stars to wear our apparel. On this day, my hope was for both Mr. and Mrs. Warner to don shirts during the interview. John was a typical politician, so getting him into one of our T-shirts took all of about three seconds. Liz was another matter entirely. She was gracious during the interview, and kind to everyone around her, but she flatly refused to put on our promotional tee.

On the trip back from Danville, it occurred to me that Taylor probably declined our wardrobe request because she was beginning to be self conscious about her weight gain. Anyway, John squeaked out a victory that fall, and the Warners became DC’s hottest couple, both thanks to Elizabeth.

I met up with them again two years later at their Atoka Farms estate in Middleburg. Va., where they hosted a fundraising barbecue for nextdoor neighbor and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. The Reagans’ rented home had once been a retreat for John F. Kennedy and his family.

In fact, the famous footage of a pony licking JFK’s face was filmed there in Middleburg. But on that summer day in 1980, there were no ponies at the farm, just GOP elephants and plenty of media. I was there to cover Reagan for CNN, and during a break in the action, I interviewed John and Liz.

By now my beautiful Cleopatra, a tiny woman in stature, had ballooned up considerably (biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli estimated her weight around that time at nearly 200 pounds), but I was still mesmerized by those violet eyes and her regal grace. In fact, I was so enthralled with her that I can scarcely recall what we talked about. I understand that this phenomena has happened to other interviewers, but in my defense, that Taylor encounter occurred more than 30 years ago, and I wasn’t far removed from being the 10-year-old boy who had the star’s photo pinned up in his bedroom wall. Many years later I learned the reason for Elizabeth’s weight gain. She was miserable playing the role of the dutiful, stay-at-home housewife of a US senator, and she ate to relieve the boredom and the emotional pain. Her marriage to John lasted only two more years, at which time she got back into shape, pitched her own line of cosmetics, appeared on everything from miniseries to soap operas, and was a major force in the fight against AIDS.

We lost Dame Elizabeth on March 23 to congestive heart failure. She was only 79 years old, but a lifetime of illnesses had taken its toll.

Looking back on my visits with Ms. Taylor, I am amazed at how gracious and friendly she was at a time when, we now know, she was so unhappy and self conscious. I still have one of the T-shirts she refused to wear, and it stands as a reminder of my two encounters with the greatest female star Hollywood ever produced. She was beautiful, sexy, talented and a great humanitarian. Come to think of it, Elizabeth Taylor was much better than baseball.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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