When they came together on January 7, 1946 for a scripted public service announcement over the CBS radio network, live from the ground-floor broadcast room of the White House, it seemed like there couldn’t be two more polar opposite individuals than the teenage movie star and middle-aged First Lady for one odd reason.
In the single photo taken of them together, the one who usually smiled really didn’t and the one who almost never did, was broadly beaming.
Not yet even a teenager, the actress with thick eyelashes framing luminous violet eyes was poised and articulate, invariably radiating a confident warmth beyond her nearly thirteen years of age.
Born as Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, but known as Liz, she’d become nationally acclaimed after starring in the December 1944 hit film National Velvet, her affinity for animals emerging in the storyline of a girl and her horse as it had a year earlier while appearing in Lassie Come Home.
That day, she stood in place, her hand on the chair of the seated First Lady, her face tentative.
In contrast was the stout and grey woman born as Elizabeth Virginia Wallace, but known as Bess.
From the moment her husband had inherited the presidency nine months earlier upon the sudden death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bess Truman detested the fact that fate had thrust her into a life of posing for still pictures and performing for newsreels.
Instead of the poker face she invariably showed the world, however, when the camera snapped her with Liz, she was uncharacteristically smiling, almost laughing with relief.
The two women shared more than the same first name and a birthday in February. Although she was born in England, Taylor’s parents both hailed from Arkansas City, Kansas.
Before settling in California, they returned with Liz there in 1937, and she attended school in the small Midwestern town, just over 260 miles from Bess Truman’s permanent home of Independence, Missouri.
Also there for the broadcast was Cornelia Otis Skinner, tart but talented stage and screen actress, prolific writer of books, plays, films and New Yorker articles.
Also there was the strapping former First Son Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. who attended in place of his mother. The cause was the annual fundraising for the March of Dimes, culminating on the January birthday of the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt; he had helped create the first national effort to treat and eventually eradicate the scourge of polio, to which he had fallen victim as an adult.
Eleanor Roosevelt had always hosted the annual March of Dimes event in Washington while she was First Lady, but 1946 found her in London.
Writing in her daily column, the former First Lady noted that she was “particularly grateful to Mrs. Truman” for continuing the tradition from the White House.
Every year, Eleanor Roosevelt had been surrounded by popular actors and actresses who made the cross-country trip from Hollywood to Washington to appear at the culminating fundraiser dinner, overseen by the First Lady. The actors were especially relevant since a large venue for raising annual donations took place at the movies. As Mrs. Roosevelt explained:
“Outside every motion picture theater, there is a table on which are receptacles into which people put their contributions of dimes. I have always felt that this was one of the best ways of making it possible for almost everyone to contribute in a great national effort. Even children save their pennies until they can put a dime down on the table outside a movie theater.”
Four years later, in 1950, Liz Taylor was back at the White House, this time to meet with the husband of Bess and to raise awareness for another national charitable group.
She went along with fellow cast members Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett from the recently released film “Father of the Bride” to meet President Harry Truman.
The movie stars were in the capital city making an appearance at a Red Cross fundraiser, an effort providing direct aid to those servicemen then being sent to fight in the Korean War.
In appreciation of their “coming clear across the country for this,” President Truman invited them to come to the White House, where they met with him and military officials.
Over the years, Liz Taylor would meet many a President and First Lady.
A Democrat, she would appear at a Los Angeles fundraiser in support of John F. Kennedy’s candidacy when he was nominated by his party at its 1960 convention held there, and later meet with him in a hotel bungalow in Hollywood, where she made a point of stating that nothing else took place but a talk.
She more frequently crossed paths with the Attorney General, the President’s brother and his wife, Robert and Ethel Kennedy, seated with them along with her husband actor Richard Burton at fundraising events in New York and Los Angeles.
Although movie fan magazines cooked up nearly two decades worth of fake feuds between Liz Taylor and Jackie Kennedy, the two did not meet until a chance 1976 encounter backstage after a New York ballet performance by their mutual friend, ballerina Margot Fonteyn.
Liz Taylor was also an initially strong supporter of Jimmy Carter’s 1976 candidacy, meeting with him at a gala fundraiser at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Later that year, however, marriage made her switch party allegiance. In December of 1976, she married John Warner, chairman of the U.S. Bicentennial Commission John Warner, who had formerly served as President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of the Navy.
Not until the 1990 funeral of her friend, millionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes, however, did she meet Nixon, by then former president, when they sat together during the services.
On January 1, 1979, Liz Taylor gained the same status that Bess Truman had once held, becoming one of the “Ladies of the Senate,” an informal group of Senate spouses that had been holding regular meetings since World War I, convening as volunteers for the Red Cross.
Almost immediately, there was speculation about whether the newly-installed Senator Warner might not seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and make Liz Taylor First Lady herself.
She wasn’t averse to the idea.
In 1977, she responded to such a scenario by recalling how enamored she’d become with the White House because of her first visit:
“I was a little girl of thirteen when I first went there. I was part of a Hollywood group visiting the president’s wife Bess Truman. It was a wonderful inspiring experience.”
Taylor, however, did she explain why it was, if it was so wonderful for her, that Bess Truman was wearing the high-beam smile and not her.
Of course, Liz Taylor didn’t become First Lady in 1980, but one of her old Hollywood friends did.
Liz had known actress Nancy Davis from when both were under contract at MGM, before the latter married fellow actor Ronald Reagan.
Her disagreement with some Reagan policies never got in the way of Taylor’s friendship with the President and First Lady.
They came backstage to see her after a performance of Little Foxes at the Kennedy Center, and she performed for his second Inaugural Gala.
Liz Taylor, in fact, was more often at the White House during the Reagan era than at any other time.
Despite her partisan affiliations, Liz Taylor became especially close to another California Republican First Lady, albeit during her post-White House years.
In 1983, she formed a permanent friendship with former First Lady Betty Ford, who personally helped counsel the actress, as she did all patients who entered the Rancho Mirage, California drug and alcohol recovery center which she helped found and which bore her name.
Taylor would need a second stint at the Betty Ford Center in late 1988.
Taylor became a strong supporter of the institution and Betty Ford, in turn, became an advocate for AIDS education due in support of Taylor’s work as co-founder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
Despite her refusal to attend the 2003 Academy Awards to protest President George W. Bush’s anticipated invasion of Iraq which she predicted would result in “Word War III,” Liz Taylor made a final White House visit as the guest of the President and Laura Bush.
The event was the annual reception held for Kennedy Center Honor recipients, which she was awarded that year.
A cancer survivor, enduring a lifetime of chronic back pain, often hospitalized for respiratory complications, her verve never abandoned her; although she was 79 years old by the calendar, to many she seemed timeless.
But of course, she was first and foremost simply human. Her body simply gave out.
She died on March 23, 2011.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, as a special guest of the President and Mrs. Clinton for the White House reception and dinner and then the Lincoln Memorial ceremony, the actress recalled what she remembered as being her first visit to the historic mansion and meeting with a First Lady.
“What a difference a half century makes, huh?”she quipped, referencing the overt political influence of Hillary Clinton with the more covert style of Bess Truman.
And she finally admitted why she hadn’t been able to break into her signature smile, spilling the beans that something else was going on beneath the surface, literally and figuratively.
As a later newspaper story revealed, “she had surreptitiously kicked off a slipper and it had landed under a chair occupied by Mrs. Harry Truman. Liz desperately fished for the shoe with her toes while keeping her serene pose for the cameras.”
Asked if the Millenium event was the greatest of all her White House moments, however, Elizabeth Taylor shook her head, no.
She couldn’t help but feel the best time was the Bess time, her first visit to the White House.
She finally explained why, more fully:
“You could see when we started she was very nervous. I was very insecure about meeting her until I saw that she was more insecure. I thought why is she nervous about meeting me?! And that made me somehow feel more secure. At least I thought that at the time. Now I realize it wasn’t this kid actress she cared about, it was flubbing a live radio broadcast from the White House! She just had to set it up with about one sentence – the second it was over, she was so pleased as Punch, she couldn’t stop smiling! You never know what’s really going in people’s heads, especially famous ones.”