It sounds almost feral...
As they say, "Don't look into a lion's eyes." I had that happen once when I was in a jeep in the bush of Africa, in Chobe — this was during my second marriage to Richard Burton. It was on an earth path at 6 in the morning. And I came upon this black-maned lion just in the middle of the forest, at this footpath crossroads. We were in this totally open jeep that belonged to the white hunter guard named Brian and myself. It was just him and myself, no tour guide. No protection of any sort. And I said, "Go very slowly, just make as little sound as you can." And we got a little bit closer — so close, in fact, that I could see the hairs on this animal's body.
Now, I'm fascinated by cats. I used to have an Abyssinian cat — if you are a cat lover you'll know exactly what I mean. When I say that the tips have a little dark marking on them, and it gets lighter and lighter the closer it gets to the pelt. But the mane itself, around that lion's face — those huge amber eyes — was black. I'd never seen anything resembling this lion. I wanted to get really close. And the animal by this time was looking at me, and Brian, who would not look at him, said, "Elizabeth, stop staring into the cat's eyes." And I said, "Why?" and he said that that was the one thing that will make them pounce, it makes them very nervous. And I said, "I'm sorry, Brian, but I can't take my eyes away from this." And this cat and I are staring into each other's eyes. And there was no power in this world that could make me take my eyes out of that cat's eyes. I was into them. And I was looked into that cat. Finally the cat stood up — my eyes and his eyes were still locked — and he kind of stretched. Brian's hands were starting to shake on the wheel. And the lion opened his mouth, and I saw these teeth, I could see like strings of saliva attaching the teeth as he yawned, and he let out a roar that didn't make me jump — because it's as if I knew what he was going to do — and I still kept staring at him and he sort of moved his eyes away from me, started very gently padding away from me, turned and looked at me again over his shoulder, and then just went into a very relaxed trot and disappeared into the bushes. I can't tell you what a trip that was.
Do you have a special affection for animals?
I've always preferred animals to little girls or boys. I had my first horse — actually it was a Newfoundland pony — when I was three, and I loved riding, without anyone shackling me — riding bareback as fast as I could.
In Africa, I also had a troop of green monkeys in my living room. Every morning and every evening, for a period of two months, I would go to the lip of the forest, which was right near Richard's and my bungalow, and it was where the monkeys would go down and drink at the river. Now, I'm not foolhardy, and I don't even think that encounter with the lion was foolhardy, because I knew nothing was going to happen. I was very respectful of the monkeys. It took me about two or three weeks, but I would start making them unafraid of me with food. And I got them so they'd go up, this two-story wall, and around the swimming pool, and into my living room, and just have them accept my presence and realize that I was not threatening. They were just gorgeous little, innocent creatures whom I sat and chatted with. There were about 20 of them in my small living room, with Richard in the bedroom — just the monkeys, who would reach out and touch my knee. So it wasn't just the MGM lion! And I became known amongst the local tribes as this strange Caucasian lady who spoke to animals. And so can my daughter, by the way…But, of course, you're an animal and we're communicating. [laughing]
You've obviously never liked to conform or be shackled.
I hated school, so I was kind of an oddball. As far back as my consciousness can remember — and unfortunately it's associated with pain but also with curiosity.
An unauthorized biography of you (Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star) by Kitty Kelley has just been published. Its thesis is, so to speak, that you were nurtured by the studio, that you didn't have a life of your own aside from it, and that you lived the parts that you played and played the parts that you lived.
That's absolute bullshit! I had my own world, my parents were sensitive enough to me, and I had something going for myself that I was tapping into quite naturally and quite instinctively. And they encouraged my relationship with animals. In England, where I lived until I was 8 years old — you'd have a certain formal time for mommy and daddy: but otherwise the nannies would structure your life. I didn't dig that kind of existence at all. My family, being American in this sort of formal society, were much more liberal with their time than most English parents. But as far as nannies were concerned, I did live the so-called "upper-middle class" childhood. I rebelled against it, and found nature was the one place where I could do y own thing and where I could trip out, literally, as a kid.
You weren't lonely?
There were all these fantastic natural highs. Why would I be lonely?
You seem to rebel against any kind of authority figures — L. B. Mayer, your nanny...
That type, yeah. My nanny, for instance, was horrible! Her name was Frieda Edith Gill — it's so onomatopoeic: Frieda Edith Gill, Frieda, Edith Gill. I think she was probably very sweet, and I was rude in my rebellion. But I had my own identity and I probably was the biggest manipulator of all time. I got my own way so cunningly, because I can see that in my daughter, I can see it in myself. Yeah, I was probably the biggest manipulator ever born! I hadn't thought about this for ages, but I can see that little girl getting onto that horse, and going on that trip that she wanted to go on, and accomplishing it, though sometimes it would take hours to start the trip. My pony would run away and I'd have to wait for her to come back, or track her down. And sometimes I would be gone all day long. I knew that if it were into the evening I'd be up shit's creek without a paddle, so I'd, you know, get myself back one way or another. But it's strange, this is really turning into an interview about animals! [laughing]
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