nTHIS Thursday will mark six years since the death of movie legend Elizabeth Taylor. Few might realise that the glamorous, violet-eyed film star, AIDS campaigner and business woman once had a very strong connection with Essex. EMMA PALMER finds out more.
Born in London to wealthy American art dealer parents, Taylor moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1939 where she quickly landed a film contract with Universal Pictures. Her breakthrough role in National Velvet in 1944 when she was just 12 years old, saw her become one of the studio’s most popular teenage stars and she easily transitioned to adult roles by the early 1950s.
But it was then that her star power on the screen began to be overshadowed by her personal life, most especially the men she loved. She once said of her penchant for walking down the aisle: “I think I ended up being the scarlet woman partly because of my rather puritanical upbringing and beliefs. I couldn’t just have a romance; it had to be marriage.”
Taylor was famously hitched eight times to seven men– including twice to Richard Burton . Her second husband was the actor Michael Wilding, who was born right here in Essex.
Michael Charles Gauntlet Wilding was born in Leigh-on-Sea in 1912, to Henry Wilding, a soldier and businessman and Ethel Thomas. Wilding was enrolled at Christ’s Hospital School in Sussex for his education and also briefly studied art at the London Polytechnic. He excelled at art and even spent a year in Bruges as a café portraitist before accepting a clerking job with the commercial art firm Garlands.
In 1934, Wilding was hired as an extra at Elstree Studios thanks to his girlfriend’s connection with a film company and he soon found himself serving as stand in for Douglas Fairbanks junior on the film Catherine the Great.
It was during these early years as an actor that he also met Stewart Granger who would become a lifelong friend.
His good looks and immaculate dress sense ensured Wilding quickly built up a career as one of the leading matinee idols of British cinema during the thirties and forties.
He established himself in films in notable pictures of the early war period, such as Convoy, Kipps, Cottage to Let, the Big Blockade and Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve. In 1949 Wilding was voted the top British star of the big screen and he was in the top 10 each year from 1947 to 1950. His stay at the top however proved to be a brief one and he later confessed surprise that his limited talents had taken him so far and brought him the sort of adulation that was later reserved for pop singers.
In his 1982 autobiography, Apple Sauce, Wilding admitted he had always been afraid of performing:: “I was not a born actor and the art of acting never came to me easily,” he confessed.
Wilding was in the middle of an affair with another of the great stars of the age, Marlene Dietrich (whom he had recently starred alongside Alfred Hitchcock’s British crime thriller Stage Fright) when he met the 20-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in 1952.
She had been sent to London to film the part of Rebecca in Ivanhoe and he was filming for Trent’s Last Case in the same studio complex. Despite the 20 year age difference they fell in love and married. Rumour has it, she proposed to him.
“This, to me, is the beginning of a happy ending,” said Taylor of the match. Wilding moved to Hollywood but failed to land the big parts he so desired. The couple’s had two sons – Michael Howard and Christopher Edward.
By this time Taylor was 24, and becoming one of the most sought-after stars in Hollywood, especially after her performance in Giant, during which she formed warm relationships with her co-stars, Rock Hudson and James Dean. Wilding was middle-aged and his career was fading
Although the union ended in divorce in 1957 – largely because Taylor had by this time met and fallen in love with Hollywood producer Mike Todd, who would later become her third spouse -Taylor later wrote of Wilding: “We had a lovely, easy life, very simple, very quiet. Two babies were born. We had friends. We didn’t do much.”
She also was quoted as saying: “He was one of the nicest people I’d ever known. But I’m afraid I gave him rather a rough time, sort of henpecked him and probably wasn’t mature enough for him.”
After the divorce Wilding returned to Britain and in the late 1950s he married the millionairess Susan Nell but this too ended in divorce. In 1962 he met the actress Margaret Leighton and they married in 1964.
Although Wilding took occasional film roles such as in Waterloo (1970) and Lady Caroline Lamb (1972), he devoted himself to Margaret managing her career.
Taylor’s career on the other hand was unstoppable. In 1958 she starred as Maggie Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The film received rave reviews from the critics and Taylor was nominated for Academy Award for best actress, but lost to Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! Hits such as Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and Butterfield 8 followed, then in 1963 she starred in Cleopatra which not only earned her a then unheard of $1 million paycheck but also introduced her to the great love of her life - and the man who would become her 5th and 6th husband - Richard Burton.
She once said of the fact she had become the highest paid actress of all time: “If someone’s dumb enough to offer me a million dollars to make a picture, I’m certainly not dumb enough to turn it down.”
Taylor would marry twice again after Burton- to politician John Warner and construction worker Larry Fortensky - but those closest to her said she never found the passion she had with Burton or the stability she enjoyed with Wilding in another partner again.
Taylor died of congestive heart failure in March 2011 aged 79.
Wilding died died at his home near Chichester in November 1979. He was 66. Margaret had died three years earlier from Multiple sclerosis and Wilding had never fully recovered from her loss.
His obituary in The Times read: “His fame rested principally on a series of romantic comedies -The Courtneys of Curzon Street, Spring in Park Lane and Maytime in Mayfair - which, set in an artificial world inhabited by earls and dukes, provided perfect escapism for British cinema-goers suffering the deprivations of rationing and austerity.
“Enormously successful at the box office, these films teamed Wilding, usually cast as the elegant aristocrat with Anna Neagle, and they were directed by her husband Herbert Wilcox. “
Wilding was very much an actor who didn’t take the craft too seriously. One of his most famous quotes about the industry was: “You can pick out actors by the glazed look that comes into their eyes when the conversation wanders away from themselves”
As for his second and most famous wife, Wilding once said of Taylor, “The real tragedy concerning Liz is that there is not a man in the world she cannot have at the snap of her fingers.”