The Tim Mendelson Conversation

Elizabeth Taylor Tim Mendelson

Tim, you were Ms. Taylor’s Executive Assistant for more than twenty years, what a great honour that must have been for you. Can you tell us a little about how this role came about, and how you were first introduced to each other?

Working for Dame Elizabeth for all those years was indeed a great honour. One that I appreciate more and more as the years go on.

The road to working for her started when a high school friend’s mom (who happened to be Joan Rivers) offered to ask costume designer/couturier, Nolan Miller if he had a job for me. I was flabbergasted! This was at the height of the hit television show, Dynasty in the 80’s. He hired me to shop for all the incredible fabrics to be used in the designs he created for the show. It was a dream job to go out every day searching for what he wanted and then to see them a few weeks later on television worn by Joan Collins and Linda Evans. He also started designing for Elizabeth Taylor which had always been his dream. I spent a year and a half working for Nolan Miller and then went back to college.

After graduation, I ran into a colleague from Nolan’s who told me she went on to work for Elizabeth Taylor full-time and wanted me to come help. I intended to have a career in film production and initially declined but soon agreed to do odd jobs up at 700 Nimes Road (Elizabeth’s Bel Air home) in between film projects. In the summer of 1991, Elizabeth’s camp called to see if I was interested in helping with her White Diamonds perfume launch, travelling ahead to each city with all of Elizabeth Taylor’s luggage (about 20 suitcases!) for a six-city tour. I said yes, and the rest was history.

The fragrance launch began in New York with a huge press conference and in-store appearance at Macy’s. 10,000 people flooded the store to get a glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor with the remote possibility that they may be chosen to ask her a question. The scene was incredible. It’s a fantastic memory to reflect on, especially considering that White Diamonds is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. White Diamonds and Elizabeth Taylor paved the way for all the other celebrity fragrances. There are around 75 launched each year now, but hers was the first successful one.

A few cities into the tour we were at the Park Hyatt in Chicago sitting around a table in Elizabeth’s suite while she spoke about starting her own AIDS foundation. Back in 1985, Elizabeth had put her incredible fame to great use by drawing attention to the AIDS crisis. People were dying, and everyone was terrified, but no one in power would even acknowledge the problem. Elizabeth decided to take responsibility and action. Alongside Dr. Michael Gottlieb and Mathilde Krim, she co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). amfAR has done so much good and saved countless number of lives, but it became a huge ship with an enormous amount of employees and overhead. Elizabeth wanted to create a smaller organization where she could cover all the costs and have a focus on direct patient care, so she started The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

The perfume tour was in September of 1991, and she married Larry Fortensky the next month…at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch! The wedding was so exciting. Swarms of paparazzi descended upon the tiny town of Los Olivos near Santa Barbara, California. It was a relatively small wedding, but the guest list was very exciting. It included everyone from Valentino to Nancy Reagan to Michael Jackson to…well…Elizabeth Taylor, all in this magical setting. Then in February of the following year, Elizabeth turned 60 and had a private party at Disneyland. It was a big party, and they closed the park to the public for the night. Everyone from David Bowie and Iman to Ringo Starr and Cindy Crawford were there to celebrate. I looked around and said to myself, “Why would I want to work on films which is such a slow and tedious process when I can work in Elizabeth’s world which is like living in a film starring none other than Elizabeth Taylor herself!” I worked by Elizabeth’s side from then on.

During the years you worked with her, given that she was involved in so many different projects, what might a typical day look like for you?

From AIDS events, interviews both filmed and written, photo shoots, the occasional film or television appearance, award shows, gatherings of family and friends, hospital visits and non-stop travel. What was the question again? Oh yeah, there was no typical day. Just trying to stay on the treadmill without falling off.

As jewellery played such a big part in Ms. Taylor’s life, did you have any knowledge of fine jewellery prior to working with her? What valuable lessons did you learn from her about living with and caring for such precious, historic pieces day to day? 

When I worked for Nolan Miller on Dynasty, the jewelry was big, but not real. When I saw Elizabeth’s important pieces, they looked the same to my untrained eye as what Joan Collins wore on set. As time went on, I did learn to tell them apart. I realized early on that if I were to hold onto this position with Elizabeth, I had better know about her jewels. I called it job security.

Most important to Elizabeth was the sentimental value of each piece of jewelry and who had given it to her. Mike Todd and Richard Burton were the two great loves of her life and had given her most of the iconic jewels. She had such a deep appreciation for each piece, and I learned from her all the reasons that they were considered so fine by jewelry experts. The important jewelry houses and designers along with the highest quality stones were some of their unique qualities, but many of them were also important because they came with a history from before they were given to Elizabeth. La Peregrina pearl is the best example for that level of historical significance. Thank goodness I worked for her for over 20 years. I needed that long to learn all of it.

She was the owner of one of the most prestigious private jewellery collections in the world. Did you have your own personal favourite piece amongst the collection?

I loved most of it but have to say the Bulgari emerald necklace and brooch which Elizabeth wore together. Green has always been my favorite colour and the emeralds were extraordinary. One evening, Lorraine Schwartz, the fabulous jewelry designer who was and is a dear friend to both me and Elizabeth came to visit. We were playing show and tell with Elizabeth’s jewelry collection and when Lorraine saw the emeralds she was aghast. She went on to explain that the mine where they came from was closed some time ago, and it’s impossible to find that quality anymore. The emeralds were such a gorgeous shade of green with incredible depth and hardly any inclusions which is so rare for emeralds. Elizabeth and I were both in awe of these unbelievably beautiful stones.

Did Ms.Taylor have a favourite piece of jewellery which she wore more than the rest? If so, what do you think it was that drew her to this piece in particular?

One time, Elizabeth was scheduled to do an interview on film and the interviewer was asking her some questions ahead of time which she never liked. She preferred spontaneity. He assumed that her favorite piece of jewelry was the Elizabeth Taylor Diamond ring (known then as the Krupp Diamond) and told her so. She got upset and said, “I don’t have a favorite!”

Shortly prior to this she lost a dear friend to cancer named Chen Sam. Chen had given her a pave diamond heart pendant. Elizabeth had emotional attachments to jewelry based on who had given it to her and while she was grieving the loss of Chen that piece was her favorite.

We all remember the historic Christies auction of Ms. Taylor’s private jewellery collection in December 2011, which set a world record for the most valuable sale of jewellery in auction history, with sales reaching more than $156 million dollars. Were you at the Rockefeller Centre in New York, and if so, what are your personal memories of the evening?

I was absolutely there. As a co-trustee for her estate, we were completely responsible for approving all aspects of the sale. It was unbelievable and incredibly emotional at the same time. Elizabeth always knew that her jewels, being as important and magnificent as they were, would go out into the world after she died and be auctioned off by either Christie’s or Sotheby’s. A few years before she passed she made an agreement with Christie’s that they would get the auction of a lifetime. Knowing this, Christie’s was able to get organized ahead of time, and we did the sale the same year. It happened so soon after she passed that it heightened the whole experience. The grieving around the loss of Elizabeth, the pressure of the sale, the vast amount of public attention Elizabeth was getting and just the condensed fabulousness of it all created an atmosphere that was bittersweet at best and highly emotional all the way around. I was really just trying to keep my tears from becoming heaving sobs and also appreciate the glamour of it all since it truly was a once-in-a-lifetime event. There was also the responsibility to her Trust and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation which put a different kind of pressure on me and my co-trustees.

The first item in the sale was one of her charm bracelets whose high estimate was $35,000. When it went for $325,000 I knew we were going to be okay.

Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry is an absolutely stunning book in which Ms. Taylor takes readers on a personal guided tour of her private jewellery collection whilst weaving in stories about her life. Can you tell us a little about how the brilliant idea for the book came about?

Elizabeth had such an incredible jewelry collection and was always telling wonderful stories about the pieces. We knew that when her jewelry went to auction after she died, Christie’s would do a stunning catalogue, which they did, but it seemed important that Elizabeth do something more personal. She had no interest in writing her autobiography. There was too much pain and loss in the past, and she was far too busy living in the moment to go on a long journey backward. In addition, it was impossible for her to write her own autobiography without telling secrets about other people that were part of her story and sharing things that were private to them and that she didn’t want to betray. The jewelry book idea seemed a nice way of taking a trip through her life touching on all the happy, fun and wonderful moments without the dirt. It was sort of a sneaky way of getting Elizabeth to write an autobiography only skimming the cream off the top, and it still stands out as a completely original and unique idea. No one else has done a book like this.

It is well known that Ms. Taylor wanted to share her collection of jewellery with the world after she passed away, which was honoured with the Christies sale. Similarly, The Elizabeth Taylor Jewellery Collection, which is now exclusively available on QVC, is a range of fashion jewellery inspired by Elizabeth’s own private collection. How did the idea for this range develop? Do you have a favourite piece?

Elizabeth had such an immense appreciation for jewelry. She genuinely enjoyed it; both giving and receiving. Aside from her film and AIDS work, it is the thing she is probably best known for. At the time, when Richard Burton was bestowing upon Elizabeth some of her most important jewels it was front page news. Based on the results of her Christie’s sale it seems that the public is still fascinated by Elizabeth’s jewels, so we just had to do a collection inspired by them. We chose to do this for QVC because we felt the audience would love to hear stories and see beautiful images of Elizabeth in a fun and lively format. If the jewelry were in a case at a store, it would not have the same celebratory atmosphere. It is a bonus that I get to go on myself and talk about the fun times. And of course, the main impetus is that 25% of her portion of sales goes to The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

During the period in which you worked with Ms. Taylor, HIV/AIDS activism, and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) was very much at the forefront of her life. With her main focus firmly on the tremendous work of the Foundation, did she still have a passion for acting at this time, and if so, did she like to keep up to date with the latest movie releases and film industry news? Did you ever watch movies together at home?

Elizabeth was so incredibly famous, but understood that fame had no purpose unless it was to do good. Once AIDS came around and was being so ignored by mainstream society she became enraged, but quickly realized that she could shift her unrelenting spotlight to the AIDS epidemic. It was difficult for people to continue to look away with Elizabeth Taylor as the spokesperson. This was real life and death. At that point, Elizabeth gave up acting for the most part and committed herself to the fight against AIDS.

During the time I worked for her, she did a few projects like The Flintstones, but she only agreed to play Fred Flintstone’s mother-in-law because Stephen Spielberg promised to make the premiere of the film a fundraiser for The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and she donated her fees as well.

She was a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and took her responsibility to vote very seriously, but was not involved in the film industry. She watched all the films the Academy sent and from time to time we watched them together.

As one of the most legendary actresses of all time, did she ever share any stories with you from her days on set? What was the acting role she was most proud of?

Elizabeth enjoyed the grips and electricians on set who played with her when she was a girl making movies. From the way she described them, they were like big brothers or uncles. They would bring her chewing gum and other treats. They would toss her around and put her up on their shoulders. There are so many people with big egos in Hollywood and show-business in general, so Elizabeth always had a particular appreciation for the “regular” people in her life.

By far, the acting role that Elizabeth was the proudest of was Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. She was 20 years younger than the character she was portraying and had to gain weight for the role. They aged her with make-up and prosthetics. Elizabeth’s acting ability was often overshadowed by her beauty, and this was one time that it didn’t get in the way. In addition, she and Richard really got to go at each other which they always enjoyed.

As an actor, businesswoman, and humanitarian, which of her achievements do you think Ms. Taylor was most proud of? How do you think she would have liked to have been remembered?

Elizabeth has a big and caring family including four children, ten grand-children, four great-grandchildren and they are who she is most proud of. For the last 25 years of her life, the work she did for AIDS was her most important achievement, and that is absolutely how she would want to be remembered.

Every day with Elizabeth was an adventure. There was non-stop drama and plenty of tears, but a ton of comedy and just plain fun! I had no idea that I would be there for so many years and in actuality, I still work for her. Don’t misunderstand, though; I worked very hard. It was a demanding position, but Elizabeth was so wonderful, and it was such a joy. I am extremely grateful for my life with her.

Tim will be appearing on QVC UK on 11 September at 12pm and 7pm to showcase The Elizabeth Taylor Jewellery Collection. For further information, please visit: www.qvcuk.com

For further information on The Elizabeth Taylor Trust, please visit: www.elizabethtaylor.com

For further information on The Elizabeth AIDS Foundation, please visit: www.elizabethtayloraidsfoundation.org

To purchase a copy of Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry please visit here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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