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Community Perspective: The Butler and His Wife: John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor in Harrisonburg, Virginia

A contributed perspectives piece by Tom Arthur

Editor’s Note: The Citizen first published this perspectives piece in July 2020 and is republishing it in the wake of John Warner’s death this week at the age of 94. Warner and his then-wife Elizabeth Taylor visited Harrisonburg in 1976, and it was here where Warner first announced his candidacy for U.S. senator — a position he held for five terms.

Film icon Elizabeth Taylor and former Naval Secretary John Warner married in late 1976. About two months later, a Washington friend gave me Warner’s Middleburg, Virginia phone number, which I called to ask if Ms. Taylor would talk with the 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 and said the two of them would come to JMU if, in addition to Ms. Taylor’s appearance before students, I would provide a reception hall for the press.  I didn’t know why so much space was necessary but, as part of my job was getting attention for the new JMU theater program, I did what was asked.   

On the appointed day I drove to Mary Baldwin College to pick the couple up after an event there.  I was introduced to Warner and Ms. Taylor, small, plump, black hair flying, wearing an expensive mink coat.   

After introductions Ms. Taylor got in the back seat of the car while Warner was still talking to other people.  I was embarrassed by the undistinguished Plymouth JMU had given me for the event and didn’t want to intrude, so I remained silent behind the wheel until she asked amusedly if I’d noticed her coat, given by a Hollywood studio. I was so tense, I jumped, hitting my head on the car’s interior roof. 

So, laughing, we started a conversation at last.  The first thing she said was, “You know about me.  I want to hear about you,” Gulping, I plunged ahead saying I was newly remarried and worried about how my three children were adjusting to a new parent and she said that she felt the same way. As I talked she stared into my eyes with such rapt attention, I felt like the only man in her world, though my common sense kept reminding me about movie star charm.  

When Warner joined us, we drove to JMU where, coming into the front entrance, we saw television trucks from all over the East Coast.  This is no “small press interview,” I thought to myself. 

When Miss Taylor also saw the waiting cameras, she shouted, “John,” you didn’t tell me about this” and the two of them began arguing furiously. But once out of the car, all became sweetness and light while it emerged that Warner was using his wife’s appearance to announce his campaign for the Virginia Republican Senatorial nomination. 

A crowd began to form as we walked between the press gathering and the auditorium where the actress was to speak.  The mass was gigantic by the time we arrived, far larger than the number of seats available for the actress’ appearance.   

Afterwards I drove them to what was then the best restaurant in town, Lloyds Steak House where one stood in line to be served.  Ms. Taylor was heading for the front of the que until the future Senator whispered that she had to take her place like everyone else, which she did.   

The other patrons, though stealing glances at our table, were hushed while we talked. Our waitress was the only person who requested an autograph, though the actress also wrote a note to my wife, who was teaching during our lunchtime. 

Afterwards, I drove the two of them to the motel they’d stayed at the night before, where their car, far grander than the JMU-provided sedan, was waiting.  Before leaving, Ms. Taylor suggested that the four of us, my wife and me, Liz and John, get together later at Warner’s estate.   We didn’t do it, though it was tempting. But for decades afterwards, we enjoyed watching Senator Warren play an impressive role in the nation’s history that started in our own city of Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Tom Arthur is a retired JMU teacher of acting. He has eight grandchildren.

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