A contributed perspectives piece by Tom Arthur
Film icon Elizabeth Taylor and former Naval Secretary John Warner married in late 1976. Two months later, a friend gave me Warner’s Middleburg, Virginia phone number, which I called to ask if Ms. Taylor would speak with JMU Theater students. I recognized Warner’s voice when he answered saying he was his own butler but played along while he took the message.
A few days later Warner, now playing himself, called back to say the two of them would come to JMU if, in addition to Ms. Taylor’s appearance, a large room would be provided for the press. The request seemed odd but the space was accordingly lined up.
On the appointed day I drove to Mary Baldwin College to pick the couple up after an event there and was introduced to Warner and Ms. Taylor, small, plump, black hair flying, wearing an expensive mink coat. After introductions, she got in the rear seat of the car while Warner was talking to other people. I was embarrassed by the drab grey Plymouth provided by JMU for transporting these glamourous people and stayed mute behind the wheel until she virtually demanded to know if I’d noticed the coat, provided by a Hollywood studio.
So, we started a conversation at last. She immediately said, “You know all about me. I want to hear about you.” Gulping, I plunged ahead saying I was newly remarried and worried about the three children from a previous marriage I’d brought with me to the union, to which she responded that she felt the same way, staring into my eyes with rapt attention. It felt terrific, even as I understood that I was experiencing the Elizabeth Taylor movie star treatment first-hand.
When Warner joined us, we drove to JMU and coming in the front entrance saw television trucks from all over the East Coast outside the building. Ms. Taylor seeing the waiting cameras now shouted furiously, “John,” you didn’t tell me about this” and they began arguing in decidedly earthy terms. However, once out of the car where it emerged that Warner was using his wife’s appearance to announce he was seeking the Virginia Republican nomination for the Senate, they were charm itself.
While Warner was dealing with the reporters in his hall, Ms. Taylor and I walked to her auditorium through an increasing crowd of students, teachers and administrators. The mass was gigantic by the time we arrived, far larger than the number of seats available for the actress’ appearance.
I missed both Warner’s announcement and Ms. Taylor’s talk running from place to place, quieting the overflow auditorium group and making sure all was well with the future Senator. Afterwards I drove them to Lloyds Steak House, then the best restaurant in town, where you queued in line to be served. Ms. Taylor was headed straight for the front of the line when Warner whispered sotto voce that she had to take her place like everyone else, which she did.
The other Harrisonburg patrons were hushed through the meal, glancing our way only furtively. Our waitress was the only person who requested an autograph, though the actress wrote a note to my wife, who was teaching during our lunch.
Afterwards I drove the two of them to the motel where they’d stayed the night before and where their car, far grander than the JMU-provided sedan, was waiting. Before leaving, Ms. Taylor and Warner suggested the four of us, my wife and me, Liz and John, get together later at his estate.
I came home in a happy daze but my wife hearing the invitation said she just couldn’t picture herself socializing with Elizabeth Taylor and John Warner. She was right of course.
Common sense notwithstanding though, this theater academic will always remember the unforgettable day Elizabeth Taylor came to Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Tom Arthur is a retired JMU teacher of acting. He has eight grandchildren.