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February 1, 2012

Elizabeth Taylor was my aunt

http://www.jewishjournal.com/gina_nahai/article/elizabeth_taylor_was_my_aunt_20120201

It’s true. Really. The Elizabeth Taylor. She of the many husbands and the showpiece jewels, the on-screen splendor and off-screen grit was, indeed, related to me by marriage.

This isn’t a recent discovery; I’m not like my mother, who tends to unearth a long-lost or previously unknown cousin every time she steps out of the house. I’ve known about my relationship to Elizabeth Taylor since I was a young child in Iran, and I was reminded of it again recently during a book launch at USC.

My colleague, writer M.G. Lord, has published a book titled “The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice.” It’s a slim volume with a bubble gum pink dust jacket and a picture of Taylor in a silk-and-lace slip, wearing gold pumps and holding a glass of something alcoholic as she extends a very definite “come hither” look at some lucky soul (maybe even my uncle) somewhere off camera. Lord is a widely published columnist and cultural critic who started her career as a syndicated political cartoonist for Newsday. She has written books on subjects ranging from Barbie to rocket science. “The Accidental Feminist” is an entertaining and original analysis of Taylor’s life and career as a movie star who, through the roles she played in the movies and in life, challenged the prevailing notions of a woman’s place in the world. It’s great fun to read even if you’re not a fan (or, in my case, a niece) of Taylor’s. If nothing else, it’s a splendid reminder of how much we have evolved, in our perception of women and minorities, from the days of “National Velvet” and “A Place in the Sun.” But where it really shines for me is in its underlying assumption that art, even at its most commercial, can reach well beyond its intended target, that a good story can be absorbing in the immediate and transformative in the long run, fantastical on one level and deeply significant on another.

From her early 20s until his death more than a decade ago, Elizabeth Taylor was the common-law wife and would-be companion of my great-uncle Manouchehr. She was as madly in love with him as he was with her, as committed to him as he was to her. That she wasn’t aware of this, or of dear Uncle Manouchehr’s existence, was beside the point; he knew it and, therefore, so did we — and so did just about every man, woman and child with whom he ever exchanged a word. He knew it the way some people know there’s a God: They can’t see Him in person, but they see His image and handiwork everywhere. They can’t touch Him, but they talk to Him and know He listens — know that He loves them and is watching over them and that all they have to do to be united with Him for eternity is behave well and wait. 

Dear Uncle Manouchehr was neither delusional nor mendacious. Tall and well built, with light blue eyes and auburn hair, he was by far the best-looking of Taylor’s lovers, and the most charming as well. He was all handshakes and hugs, laughter and stories and 18-year-old, single malt scotch in a crystal glass. He was the one person in the world who could make a small, orange-and-white taxi (his only means of transportation) sound like an Italian sports car, refer to the sweaty, chain-smoking driver as “my chauffeur” and evoke the image of a fine young Englishman in a cap and uniform. He had a love for beauty that never diminished with time or circumstance, and a knack for storytelling that convinced even the most skeptical of listeners to suspend disbelief. Of all the girls he could have married in Iran, or all the movie stars he could have had as lovers around the world, he chose Elizabeth Taylor because she was the grandest and most passionate, and because she had the courage and the strength of character to choose (in men and in pills) her own poison.

We were a close family with few secrets, and we all loved dear Uncle Manouchehr and his dazzling English-American wife, but none of us really knew what he did with his time when he wasn’t waiting for Elizabeth Taylor, or who he would have been if not her greatest love in life. He was Jewish on all sides but didn’t look it, born just beyond the ghetto but without a trace of it in his language or manners or aspirations. Imagine Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, plucked out of his royal surroundings as a fully developed adult and placed on a crowded sidewalk in downtown Tehran, still in his Ascot attire, waiting for his security detail and the black Rolls-Royce that will take him right back to where he rightfully belongs. If you had to bet, you’d say the ride would never come, that the prince would grow old on that sidewalk and eventually be lost in that crowd. You might even suggest to him, as I know many in my family did, that he give up his Ascot plans and invest in some practical clothes, resign his post as will-be king and become a shopkeeper or a mechanic, leave Elizabeth Taylor for a nice Jewish woman and a couple of ordinary kids.

But if he did take your advice and surrender to circumstance, accept the existing version of reality and make peace with his limitations, if he stopped telling the stories and announcing the dates — for the next phone call from Los Angeles, the next rendezvous in Rome, the wedding that would have to take place without the knowledge of the studio bosses — if he came for Shabbat dinner one night and failed to wave an airline ticket he claimed he was about to mail to her so she could rush over to him from the set of whatever movie she was on — then I suspect you would feel the loss of some grand possibility not only in dear Uncle Manouchehr’s life, but also in your own.

Dear Uncle Manouchehr never made it out of Iran and into Elizabeth Taylor’s waiting arms. He had lived for so long in a movie set version of Los Angeles that he knew he could never reconcile himself to the real thing. But the stories he told about his life there gave the rest of us the yearning for a fate we could otherwise never have dreamt of, just as the stories Elizabeth Taylor told in her films gave him, and, to hear M.G. Lord tell it, countless other men and women, the daring to stand, penniless, on a smoggy sidewalk in an overcrowded city, raise their arm before a dented orange-and-white taxi and expect a Ferrari to stop.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

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