"Get yourself a drink, honey."

Party Time at Liz's

  WASHINGTON -- I met Elizabeth Taylor on Oct. 3, 1980.

  On that day, a Friday, John Meek, my boss at Daniel J. Edelman, a Washington, D.C. PR firm, popped into my office. The conversation went something like this:

  “Hey, George, I’ve signed you up for a committee.”

  “What committee, John?”

  “Well, there’s this group that wants to sponsor an international mime festival here in Washington next year. I told them we would help them with PR. I know some of the people on the committee.”

  “OK,” I said. “When does this all happen?”

  “Today,” he said. “The group is meeting in our conference room at four o’clock.”

  “OK.”

  “Oh, I forgot to mention, Elizabeth Taylor is the chair. She’ll be here today. As well as Marcel Marceau. Liz got him involved.”

  “The Elizabeth Taylor?” I asked.

  “Yes, George. The Elizabeth Taylor.”

  It was not the first time John surprised me with a last-minute assignment. I was the firm’s special projects guy, so I was accustomed to spontaneous gigs.  Usually, they turned out to be - well, they were never dull.

The Meeting

  Liz was late. No surprise. That’s what stars do, right?

  The committee, maybe 15 of us, sat around Edelman’s conference room table. I didn’t know any of them. They could have been lobbyists, attorneys, ad agency execs, diplomats – whatever.  I did recognize one person: Marcel Marceau, the legendary mime artist. Even out of costume, it was not hard to recognize the man. Slender build. Thick, bushy dark hair. Prominent nose.

  I noticed a young Asian woman who was out of character due to age not background. Clearly, we were the two youngest people in the room. There was an empty chair beside her. I sat down.

  Liz finally arrived.

  I had not had many such experiences, but I can tell you when a major star walks into a room you know it. Elizabeth Taylor’s presence commanded - no, demanded - the immediate attention of each of us.

  She sat down, greeted everyone and began shuffling some papers, perhaps looking for an agenda. I took advantage of the pause and checked her out. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in that regard.

  She was 48 years old and four years into her marriage with husband No. 6, Sen. John Warner [R-Va.]. Her thick hair was raven in color, cut off just below the ears and piled high in the tease style of the times. She had pale white skin on a face that was expertly made up. What really got my attention were her eyes. I wasn’t sure of their color. At first, I thought they were dark blue but upon further inspection they appeared violet, something I had never seen. The contrast between the skin, the eyes and the hair were, well, I thought she was beautiful. It took effort not to stare.

  When she walked in, I was struck by how short she was. No more than 5 feet 3 inches. [Actors always seem taller on screen.]  I had read that she had put on weight during her Washington years, and it showed. Still, she had small hips and of course other prominent attributes that added up to a striking figure even with the extra heft.

  I don’t remember much about the meeting, other than Marceau said he had a previous commitment and would not be available for the festival, scheduled for July, 1981.

  I thought that was like staging a rock festival promoting the music of the Beatles and the Beatles not turning up.

  It was clear Liz’s role was to secure publicity and raise money, a task for which she was perfectly suited.

  At the end, she had an announcement, which recaptured the group’s waning attention.

  “I’m holding a fundraising cocktail party at my house this evening. You’re all invited.”

  After the meeting I met my table neighbor, Shizu Munekata of Yokohama, Japan. She told me she was a linguistics student at Georgetown University and worked in the Embassy of Japan’s Information and Culture Center. Her boss had been asked to serve on the committee.

  “But he doesn’t like such activities and doesn’t speak very good English so he sent me instead,” she said.

  Shizu, 22 and in her first year in the U.S., spoke softly and appeared shy in that deferential manner of other young Asian immigrant women I had previously met. But after a few minutes it became apparent she had a quick wit, keen intelligence and would be good company.

  I told her I’d love to go to the party but preferred not going alone. She felt the same way. We agreed to meet at Liz’s.

The Party

  The Warners' Georgetown home was what you’d expect of a senator and a movie star: A two-story reddish brick mansion measuring almost 8,000 sq. ft and covering a nearly a third of the 3000 block of S Street. [Their main residence was the senator’s 2,400-acre horse farm and estate in Loudoun County, Va. 47 miles away.]

  The main reception area, a large open room, was packed. We recognized some of our fellow committee members but no one else. Everyone was sharply dressed and deep in conversation. Caterers hustled from group to group offering tasty-looking treats. Over in a corner a pair of bartenders made sure any empty glasses remained filled.

  We spotted Liz. She wore a colorful, elegant caftan. As she moved around greeting her guests a pair of good-looking 30-something male minions trailed closely behind. Senator Warner appeared MIA.

  Shizu and I spent some time getting to know one another and, intermittingly, observing the crowd with curious interest. We felt like we were sitting in the first row of a local cinema watching “Party Time at Liz’s.”

  Having lived in Washington three years, I knew the long-standing and accepted social gathering drill. After saying hello and exchanging names, the first question always was: “What do you do?” You are immediately categorized and judged by your response. Because the underlying, unspoken motive usually was: “What can this person do for me?”

  Shizu, being a student, would quickly be ignored. Me, a mid-level PR guy passing through D.C. on my way somewhere else, would not fare much better.

  We had no problem with that and decided to explore the premises as best we could. We focused on an empty room off the back of the reception area and immediately scored. It was where Liz displayed her most treasured memorabilia. Two instantly recognizable statues stood out, their gold-plated metal shining brightly in the reflected light. The first Best Actress Oscar was for Butterfield 8 [1960]; the second, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? [1966].

  There were a few other trinkets and some great photos. The lack of clutter made the room that much more impressive. One framed photo on the wall separated itself from the others - 12-year-old Elizabeth with her horse The Pinebald in a scene from her first movie, National Velvet. She appeared older than her years and her already distinct beauty, especially the eyes, held our attention for some time. Instinctively, we both turned to see if we could spot the same woman 36 years later, as the unique opportunity was not lost of either of us.

  We left the room and Shizu and I separated for a bit. I did find Liz, but it was inadvertent as we passed one another. What the heck, I thought. I stopped and introduced myself, telling her I was on the mime festival committee.

  “That’s wonderful, I’m looking forward to your help” she said, pleasantly and sincerely. Noticing I was not holding a glass, she followed up with, “Get yourself a drink, honey.”

  And off she went to the next guest, her minions in tow.

  Soon after, Shizu and I shared a common expression: Bored. It might have been the only party we would ever attend at Elizabeth Taylor’s home. But we had had enough and were out the door, leaving behind a roomful of incessant chatter.

The Aftermath

  There was a second meeting at Edelman a few weeks later, also chaired by Liz. But it was clear at that point the mime festival as hoped for – a 12-day affair – was not going to fly for reasons I never learned or really cared. We never met again.

  Liz’s marriage to John Warner apparently was headed to court one day soon. Interestingly, she loved life on the farm but not in the city. The resulting depression caused her to eat and drink in excess – an admission from her book “Elizabeth Takes Off.”  Sadly, that was the state she was in when we met.

  She famously summed up her marriage to Warner in a 2002 New York Times interview: “We got along wonderfully until he decided to become a politician. And then he married the Senate.”

  There was one unexpected benefit from my brief encounter with Liz, other than meeting Shizu. I met her publicist Chen Sam, a no nonsense, savvy woman with the unenviable task of handling Liz 24/7. At my request, she mailed me a stack of Liz’s publicity photos. In a typical young dude’s gag, I would mail them - signed by me - to unsuspecting friends.

  Mine is pictured above.

  Yep, that’s my signature, not hers.

  A man can dream, can’t he?

-PHOTO-

  WASHINGTON -- I met Elizabeth Taylor on Oct. 3, 1980.

  On that day, a Friday, John Meek, my boss at Daniel J. Edelman, a Washington, D.C. PR firm, popped into my office. The conversation went something like this:

  “Hey, George, I’ve signed you up for a committee.”

  “What committee, John?”

  “Well, there’s this group that wants to sponsor an international mime festival here in Washington next year. I told them we would help them with PR. I know some of the people on the committee.”

  “OK,” I said. “When does this all happen?”

  “Today,” he said. “The group is meeting in our conference room at four o’clock.”

  “OK.”

  “Oh, I forgot to mention, Elizabeth Taylor is the chair. She’ll be here today. As well as Marcel Marceau. Liz got him involved.”

  “The Elizabeth Taylor?” I asked.

  “Yes, George. The Elizabeth Taylor.”

  It was not the first time John surprised me with a last-minute assignment. I was the firm’s special projects guy, so I was accustomed to spontaneous gigs.  Usually, they turned out to be - well, they were never dull.

The Meeting

  Liz was late. No surprise. That’s what stars do, right?

  The committee, maybe 15 of us, sat around Edelman’s conference room table. I didn’t know any of them. They could have been lobbyists, attorneys, ad agency execs, diplomats – whatever.  I did recognize one person: Marcel Marceau, the legendary mime artist. Even out of costume, it was not hard to recognize the man. Slender build. Thick, bushy dark hair. Prominent nose.

  I noticed a young Asian woman who was out of character due to age not background. Clearly, we were the two youngest people in the room. There was an empty chair beside her. I sat down.

  Liz finally arrived.

  I had not had many such experiences, but I can tell you when a major star walks into a room you know it. Elizabeth Taylor’s presence commanded - no, demanded - the immediate attention of each of us.

  She sat down, greeted everyone and began shuffling some papers, perhaps looking for an agenda. I took advantage of the pause and checked her out. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in that regard.

  She was 48 years old and four years into her marriage with husband No. 6, Sen. John Warner [R-Va.]. Her thick hair was raven in color, cut off just below the ears and piled high in the tease style of the times. She had pale white skin on a face that was expertly made up. What really got my attention were her eyes. I wasn’t sure of their color. At first, I thought they were dark blue but upon further inspection they appeared violet, something I had never seen. The contrast between the skin, the eyes and the hair were, well, I thought she was beautiful. It took effort not to stare.

  When she walked in, I was struck by how short she was. No more than 5 feet 3 inches. [Actors always seem taller on screen.]  I had read that she had put on weight during her Washington years, and it showed. Still, she had small hips and of course other prominent attributes that added up to a striking figure even with the extra heft.

  I don’t remember much about the meeting, other than Marceau said he had a previous commitment and would not be available for the festival, scheduled for July, 1981.

  I thought that was like staging a rock festival promoting the music of the Beatles and the Beatles not turning up.

  It was clear Liz’s role was to secure publicity and raise money, a task for which she was perfectly suited.

  At the end, she had an announcement, which recaptured the group’s waning attention.

  “I’m holding a fundraising cocktail party at my house this evening. You’re all invited.”

  After the meeting I met my table neighbor, Shizu Munekata of Yokohama, Japan. She told me she was a linguistics student at Georgetown University and worked in the Embassy of Japan’s Information and Culture Center. Her boss had been asked to serve on the committee.

  “But he doesn’t like such activities and doesn’t speak very good English so he sent me instead,” she said.

  Shizu, 22 and in her first year in the U.S., spoke softly and appeared shy in that deferential manner of other young Asian immigrant women I had previously met. But after a few minutes it became apparent she had a quick wit, keen intelligence and would be good company.

  I told her I’d love to go to the party but preferred not going alone. She felt the same way. We agreed to meet at Liz’s.

The Party

  The Warners' Georgetown home was what you’d expect of a senator and a movie star: A two-story reddish brick mansion measuring almost 8,000 sq. ft and covering a nearly a third of the 3000 block of S Street. [Their main residence was the senator’s 2,400-acre horse farm and estate in Loudoun County, Va. 47 miles away.]

  The main reception area, a large open room, was packed. We recognized some of our fellow committee members but no one else. Everyone was sharply dressed and deep in conversation. Caterers hustled from group to group offering tasty-looking treats. Over in a corner a pair of bartenders made sure any empty glasses remained filled.

  We spotted Liz. She wore a colorful, elegant caftan. As she moved around greeting her guests a pair of good-looking 30-something male minions trailed closely behind. Senator Warner appeared MIA.

  Shizu and I spent some time getting to know one another and, intermittingly, observing the crowd with curious interest. We felt like we were sitting in the first row of a local cinema watching “Party Time at Liz’s.”

  Having lived in Washington three years, I knew the long-standing and accepted social gathering drill. After saying hello and exchanging names, the first question always was: “What do you do?” You are immediately categorized and judged by your response. Because the underlying, unspoken motive usually was: “What can this person do for me?”

  Shizu, being a student, would quickly be ignored. Me, a mid-level PR guy passing through D.C. on my way somewhere else, would not fare much better.

  We had no problem with that and decided to explore the premises as best we could. We focused on an empty room off the back of the reception area and immediately scored. It was where Liz displayed her most treasured memorabilia. Two instantly recognizable statues stood out, their gold-plated metal shining brightly in the reflected light. The first Best Actress Oscar was for Butterfield 8 [1960]; the second, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? [1966].

  There were a few other trinkets and some great photos. The lack of clutter made the room that much more impressive. One framed photo on the wall separated itself from the others - 12-year-old Elizabeth with her horse The Pinebald in a scene from her first movie, National Velvet. She appeared older than her years and her already distinct beauty, especially the eyes, held our attention for some time. Instinctively, we both turned to see if we could spot the same woman 36 years later, as the unique opportunity was not lost of either of us.

  We left the room and Shizu and I separated for a bit. I did find Liz, but it was inadvertent as we passed one another. What the heck, I thought. I stopped and introduced myself, telling her I was on the mime festival committee.

  “That’s wonderful, I’m looking forward to your help” she said, pleasantly and sincerely. Noticing I was not holding a glass, she followed up with, “Get yourself a drink, honey.”

  And off she went to the next guest, her minions in tow.

  Soon after, Shizu and I shared a common expression: Bored. It might have been the only party we would ever attend at Elizabeth Taylor’s home. But we had had enough and were out the door, leaving behind a roomful of incessant chatter.

The Aftermath

  There was a second meeting at Edelman a few weeks later, also chaired by Liz. But it was clear at that point the mime festival as hoped for – a 12-day affair – was not going to fly for reasons I never learned or really cared. We never met again.

  Liz’s marriage to John Warner apparently was headed to court one day soon. Interestingly, she loved life on the farm but not in the city. The resulting depression caused her to eat and drink in excess – an admission from her book “Elizabeth Takes Off.”  Sadly, that was the state she was in when we met.

  She famously summed up her marriage to Warner in a 2002 New York Times interview: “We got along wonderfully until he decided to become a politician. And then he married the Senate.”

  There was one unexpected benefit from my brief encounter with Liz, other than meeting Shizu. I met her publicist Chen Sam, a no nonsense, savvy woman with the unenviable task of handling Liz 24/7. At my request, she mailed me a stack of Liz’s publicity photos. In a typical young dude’s gag, I would mail them - signed by me - to unsuspecting friends.

  Mine is pictured above.

  Yep, that’s my signature, not hers.

  A man can dream, can’t he?

Cover Photo
Cover Photo

Shizu Munekata, circa 1980

Postscript:

  Thirty-five years later, on Nov. 20, 2015, I was driving from Toronto to Montreal for the funeral of my Uncle Bill Cook. With me were my aunt, Claire Haddad, and her daughter, Andrea Zabaneh, both of Toronto. My aunt, one of Canada’s most celebrated fashion designers, was working on her biography.

  Suddenly, out of the blue, she mentioned to Andrea about getting the Elizabeth Taylor story right.

  “You knew Liz Taylor? I asked my aunt.

  “Not exactly,” she said. “But we did work together in a round-about way.”

  She then told this story:

  In 1964, during a visit to Toronto, Liz had an assistant – not Chen Sam – call about making a gown for her boss. My aunt, known for creating elegant at-home loungewear that could be worn anywhere, told the assistant she needed Liz’s measurements. “Not possible,” said the assistant, explaining they were never revealed.

  Quickly moving to Plan B, my aunt asked the assistant to secretly get her one of Liz’s bras and she would take it from there. The assistant did. My aunt stuffed the bra with cotton wool, placed it on her adjustable mannequin and designed a gown she cut on the bias, which allowed a forgiving fit.

  When Liz tried on the gown it was perfect, astounding her as it had never happened before.

  My aunt loved telling the story and was laughing at the end. But I had drifted away, returning to the party at Liz’s and reimagining our conversation armed with this new information:

  Me: “Hi Liz. My aunt Claire Haddad, the Toronto woman who designed the gown you liked so much, says hello.”

  Liz: “Claire Haddad is your aunt? Let’s go sit down, George, have a drink and you tell me all about her and how she’s doing. Maybe she can design a dress for me for the mime festival opening?”

  Whoops. I’m back.

  Speaking of Liz. Post-D.C. and failed mime project, she helped establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research and was a titanic fundraiser and advocate for the fight against the illness the rest of her life. In the eyes of many, her humanitarian achievements surpassed her Hollywood fame.

  As for Shizu Munekata, she achieved extraordinary success of another kind. Armed with a pair of impressive degrees and a keen intellect in IT, she initially suffered a series of humiliating experiences at major companies like Sony, Intell and NTT, where the male-dominated management treated her as little more than their coffee girl.

  When I interviewed her in Tokyo in 1992, she explained it in a typical Japanese way: “If I bowed 90 percent, they only bowed 15 percent.”

  Fed up, in 1991 she started her own business, something few Japanese women did in those days. Resolute and ambitious, she developed a client base of Japanese companies that required her skills to do business in the U.S., while American firms hired her to help them navigate their way through the unfamiliar maze of Japanese culture.

  Her company, Enhance, Inc., based in suburban San Francisco, is in its 31st year.

  We remain good friends.

  Me?

  Not long after the mime festival project fizzled, in early 1981, John Meek came into my office to announce another surprise project. This time he was joined by three men, all Vietnam veterans. Once we were introduced John explained that the men had an idea for a memorial on the National Mall to honor soldiers who died in the war. To date, they had struggled raising money and gaining support.

  “I’d like you to drum up some publicity and help them out,” said John, a Marine veteran of the Korean War.

  “Sure, John, I’d be happy to,” I said.

  And thus began my role in the epic journey of the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

  But that, my friends, is a story for another time.