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New book offers unprecedented look into Elizabeth Taylor's private life


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: It has been 12 years since legendary Oscar-winning actress Elizabeth Taylor died at the age of 79.

And, for the first time, her estate granted a journalist access to the icon's private diaries, personal letters and off-the-record interview transcripts. The result is a nearly 450-page examination of Taylor's extraordinary career, advocacy efforts, complex personal life, marriages, and battle with addiction.

I spoke recently with Kate Andersen Brower, the author of "Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon."

Kate Andersen Brower, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

There must be dozens, if not scores of books about Elizabeth Taylor. What made you want to write another one?

Kate Andersen Brower, Author, "Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon": It was a unique kind of moment where I wanted to write about an important historic figure.

And I got to know Senator John Warner, who was Elizabeth's sixth husband. And Senator Warner put me in touch with her family. And the family said they were finally ready to let a journalist see her diaries and letters. They were very protective of her. And it had been about a decade since she had passed away.

So, it was a unique sort of chain of events that led to this book.

Judy Woodruff: If she were alive today, she's be 90 years old. I think that's correct.

To what extent did you feel you had to reintroduce her to the American people? Because she died, as you said, a decade ago.

Kate Andersen Brower: I think she's one of the handful of women from the 20th century who resonates today.

I mean, there's Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, and Elizabeth Taylor. So I think people know who she is as an actress, but they had no idea the ways in which she resonates now and the issues that she was taking up at the time that are important today, like AIDS and opioid addiction.

Judy Woodruff: And, speaking of that, she had a long, a very successful career in many ways, but also a complicated life with a lot of challenges.

How did you even decide what to tackle? I mean, you mentioned the addiction.

Kate Andersen Brower: I mean, you could do a book on each decade of her life. It was just so packed.

The book is more about her — what made her tick, sort of her thinking. I wanted readers to get a sense of what motivated her. So, it's — there's also a lot about her career and acting and how she had to fight for the roles she wanted.

You know, until "A Place in the Sun," she felt like she was getting, between "National Velvet," and "A Place in the Sun," a lot of roles that weren't really up to par. And she was so smart. She could read a script and she knew instinctively if it was any good.

She knew "Cleopatra" wasn't a great script, for instance, but she demanded $1 million to be in that film. And I had no idea going into this book that she's the first actor to get paid that much for a film.

Judy Woodruff: She had a difficult childhood, to put it mildly, a mother who very much was on her case all the time, difficulty with her father.

How did all that shape who she was?

Kate Andersen Brower: For the first time, this book delves into abuse from her father. He did physically abuse her.

And in her later relationships throughout her life and all these tumultuous, passionate marriages, most famously twice to Richard Burton, she did seek out a certain kind of man. And the psychology behind that is very complicated. But she didn't want a gentleman, like Michael Wilding, her second husband.

She wanted somebody like Mike Todd and Richard Burton, who were physically abusive at times. And she was physically abusive towards them. So I think a lot of that is from this childhood and this feeling of always having to prove her worth, her value to people. She was a commodity from the time she was 12 years old.

Judy Woodruff: From — as you say, I mean, you write a lot about how she came — she was into acting as a child, and then at 12 with "National Velvet."

Kate Andersen Brower: Yes.

Judy Woodruff: Eight marriages. Difficulty with addiction.

How did she cope with the adversity? She had successes, but she had plenty of adversity too.

Kate Andersen Brower: Yes.

I think she — she famously told off MGM head Louis B. Mayer when he was being rude to her mother and said, "Go to hell," and walked out of the room. And when they didn't fire her, and which I think this is a really revealing story — she was a teenager at the time. And when she wasn't fired back for — for talking back to Mayer, she said she knew that she was worth a lot of money to them, and it wasn't about who she was.

And so she used that knowledge and making herself a commodity in a really unique way that I think actors are doing today. You know, she would go to — AIDS was her — was the way that she expressed all of that pent-up, I think, anger and frustration.

Judy Woodruff: Later in her life, she was a big advocate for AIDS, for the AIDS community. She went to President Reagan and she went to other leading politicians to try to get more funding.

There's been some cynical speculation that that was all about trying to, frankly, improve her image.

Kate Andersen Brower: I don't think that that — I haven't seen anything that would indicate that, especially in the early years, when she was getting no from people. She was getting people hanging up the phone on her for the first time in her life, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson.

They were not willing to help. She again and again ran towards people who were in pain, because I think she was deeply in pain from her childhood and then beyond. And that's why I think she had this everlasting, sadly, opioid addiction throughout her entire life.

Judy Woodruff: I think it's fair to say people who look at — look toward — look at her wonder, OK, eight husbands — or, I should say, seven husbands, eight marriages, because Richard Burton twice — who was the love of her life?

Kate Andersen Brower: It's interesting, because I worked closely with her grandson, who is Mike Todd's grandson. So it was always a difficult conversation.

I think it was Richard Burton, a tie with Mike Todd, but they were only married for a year. By the time she was 26, she had been twice divorced and once widowed. So, I was struck by just the fast-paced life that she lived.

I don't know if she would have stayed married to Mike Todd. I mean, he died a year later, but those are the two that really stand out.

Judy Woodruff: What is the question that you still have after writing this book?

Is it — what other — what else would you like to know about her that is not — is still not available today to know?

Kate Andersen Brower: With all of these letters, especially when she's writing to her doctor about her addiction — one really painful letter, she is asking for — she says: I know I'm an addict, but I want to be treated like a normal person. I want the pain medication that I need to get through this surgery.

I guess the thing I have always wondered is, what is that deep void, what is that sadness that I think she did carry through her entire life and was never able to fill, like a lot of addicts. I don't think she would have the answer to that.

Judy Woodruff: So, maybe unknowable?

Kate Andersen Brower: Maybe unknowable. I think there's a lot of things that you can never know about a person.

She's a very complex, really multifaceted, fascinating woman.

Judy Woodruff: Well, Kate Andersen Brower, thank you very much for joining us.

"Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon."

Thank you.

Kate Andersen Brower: Thank you, Judy.

Judy Woodruff: Thank you very much.

Fascinating and complicated, for sure.

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