The Ocean in Her Throat

Marissa Zappas

Elizabeth Taylor taught me to speak. In second grade, I memorized verbatim the 1944 film, National Velvet and when spoken to, would respond out of context with quotes from it. I transcribed the script for writing assignments and even introduced myself as Velvet Brown, Elizabeth’s character, repeating fragmented and congealed lines such as:

“I wasn’t a star. I was born and I was there and that horse died! He died on that salty place. And he lied down, and his eyes was dead… and he died! I know he did. He died! He died! …Hysterics. Past his bedtime! You too, Velvet.”

I spoke through Velvet and through Velvet only. My grandmother showed me the film when I was seven years old, routinely mailing out my handwritten fan letters. Elizabeth even wrote me back once with a signed portrait. I remember the moment it arrived I felt whole for the first time. I cried for joy and choked for air, grateful to be alive. For many, National Velvet was a formative and emancipatory tale about desire and breaking the confines of gender. For me, it represented more than that; my desire was for Velvet’s brazen desire. I lived vicariously through her barefaced obsession with horses.

Even though the signed portrait of her was a photocopy, I imagined that she had personally signed and mailed it. Elizabeth became my source of unending light during the bleakest moments of my life. I’ve visited her grave, built her an altar, made mash-up films with scenes from her movies, read nearly all her biographies and written to her ghost.

Elizabeth Taylor had two requests for her funeral. The first was to arrive fifteen minutes late and the second was to have Richard Burton’s favorite poem, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins read aloud:

…And with sighs soaring, soaring sighs deliver Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.

Elizabeth gave even more than she took — mostly to the gays, her children, and the earth. She contributed more than $270 million dollars to AIDS prevention and care at the time of her death. And yet, there was always public concern for the excessiveness of her taking. Too many diamonds, drugs, and husbands. Frequently, she’d fall ill after an accusation of overindulgence. Many believe that she was the first celebrity to successfully quell her scandals by eliciting sympathy for her illnesses, but I’m not particularly interested in this or even what it means to do this as a woman. Children do this with their parents. I’m interested in the nature of her afflictions.

Her obituary in The Los Angeles Times states that she endured “more than 70 illnesses, injuries and accidents requiring hospitalization, including an appendectomy, an emergency tracheotomy, a punctured esophagus, a hysterectomy, dysentery, an ulcerated eye, smashed spinal discs, phlebitis, skin cancer and hip replacements. In 1997, she had a benign brain tumor removed.” She nearly died four times.

Her history of throat injuries actually extended beyond a tracheotomy and punctured esophagus. And so, I began to meditate on the throat…on her throat, on how her throat drama correlated to significant moments in her life. Freud understood the throat to be the second female orifice and throat pain as a frequent symptom of hysteria. For Freud, throat pain was a displacement of sexual frustration. This isn’t an attempt to psychoanalyze Elizabeth Taylor, but I will say she was at the tail end of two unhappy marriages (with Eddie Fisher and then John Warner) when her major throat crises occurred.

The other night I dreamt I swallowed AA batteries, one at a time, with unnerving ease. Elizabeth and I met on the corner of 6th Avenue and Prince Street, that corner where all the benches are. She wore a periwinkle ball gown, the one she wore to the Oscars in 1970, and gently wrapped her arm around my waist as I pressed her hand firmly into my side. We entered a bodega and went up to the counter as if we’d done it a thousand times. She pointed at a pack of batteries on the wall and the cashier slid them across the counter to us. “You’ll need these…” she said, “trust me.”

I had her buy me batteries; a will to live.

Elizabeth agreed to play Cleopatra on the condition she would be paid one million dollars — more than any actor or actress had ever been paid in history. Not only that, but she had negotiated everything from salaries for her personal stylists that she brought all the way to England from Hollywood, to a stipend for her husband, Eddie Fisher, to merely keep her company with zero obligations, to a shooting schedule structured around her period. Later, when the set location moved to Rome, she’d also have “buckets of Chasen’s chili” flown over from Los Angeles.

During the shoot in the winter of 1961 in England, she’d suffered months of pneumonia, eventually requiring an emergency tracheotomy. She was so ill that doctors pronounced her dead after she stopped breathing for, supposedly, five full minutes. Miraculously, she gasped for air and started to breathe again. In an interview with Oprah, she spoke about the experience of losing consciousness during that time, of even hearing her own obituaries in the news: They were the best reviews I’d ever gotten.

Indeed they were. She took home an Academy Award that year for her performance in Butterfield 8, donning a throat scar and mint green Dior gown (her specific dress was called Soiree A Rio) to the ceremony. She had emerged victorious, after being shunned and labeled a home wrecker for stealing Eddie from Debbie Reynolds, a near impossible feat for a woman in 1961. Women who fell down generally stayed down. The awards that year were held at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and drew a crowd of twenty-five hundred people, the largest in Academy history. Eddie even referred to it as her “coronation.”

Elizabeth publicly desired: men, drugs, food, jewelry, horses and more. She knew her worth, both as a person and as “Elizabeth Taylor, the commodity,” as she even put it. As a commodity, she participated in the act of consuming, but if commodities are objects, they aren’t meant to do that. The American public was witnessing something they didn’t think was possible, but what they often failed to acknowledge was her mortality. When objects begin to consume it is the stuff of horror films. She ruptured the American consciousness, my pagan queen.

In 1978, on the tail end of her marriage to Senator John Warner, Elizabeth was rushed from Fraley’s Coach House to Lonesome Pine Hospital on account of having a two-inch chicken bone stuck in her esophagus. A doctor named Patel dislodged the bone by pushing it down her throat, into her stomach. It was a straightforward and nonsurgical procedure, but while performing it, Dr. Patel found a “pear-shaped out-pouching” of the esophagus. He diagnosed the ailment as Zenker’s diverticulum, a stretching of the esophagus, which she undoubtedly had prior to choking. A symptom of Zenker’s diverticulum is unexpected regurgitation of food which can lead to aspiration (food particles entering the windpipe and lungs) and, in some cases, pneumonia. So it can be gleaned that all her bouts of pneumonia, of which there were many, were likely a result of her Zenker’s diverticulum. On top of a history of choking, she had a permanent abscess lodged in there.

Celebrity gossip columnist Hedda Hopper rang Elizabeth a few months after Mike Todd’s death to inquire about rumors regarding her affair with Eddie Fisher. Elizabeth famously replied, “What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?!” As biographer Ellis Cashmore noted, this response was very “Marie Antoinette-like”: honest, morally questionable and totally shocking to the public.

But morality be damned: Elizabeth and Marie Antoinette had nothing to lose by their ostentatiousness; their lives were under threat to the point where these demands were not unlike requests for a last meal. Asking for cake or diamonds is frivolous, sure, unless it’s the last request you make. Imagine, actually eating your last meal. . . I’d surely choke.

A typical day’s diet for Elizabeth Taylor in 1960 as reported by The Guardian consisted of:

Mimosa, crispy bacon, scrambled eggs.
peanut butter and bacon sandwich, Chateau Margaux 1945.
crispy fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn bread, biscuits and gravy, peas, trifle, homemade potato chips and a Jack Daniels, on the rocks.

After a dinner party in 1956 Elizabeth’s dear friend Montgomery Clift drove home tipsy and crashed his car into a tree. Rushing to the scene, she found Monty bloody and disfigured. The story goes that she reached her hand down his throat and pulled out a tooth that was blocking his air flow, saving his life. Nurturing and monstrous, savior and destroyer, hearty and graceful, a woman unafraid of reaching down throats with bare hands.

Elizabeth was always closest to gay men starting with her father, then Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Rock Hudson, and many others. During her final years living on Nimes Road in Beverly Hills, she spent most of her time with Jason Winters, her manager, Jose Eber, her hairdresser of twenty-five years and Tim Mendelson, her personal assistant. “Let’s face it,” one of them said to Vanity Fair in 2011, “gay men helped keep her alive for the last 10 years. And the gay community kept her stardom alive. They made her an icon at a time when a lot of people didn’t care.”

Elizabeth embodied the word camp. She was never a parody of herself, she embraced who she was with unapologetic sincerity, dripping in diamonds and near-death experiences. At the heart of the word “camp” is not necessarily parody or even humor, but the deepest and most transformative love, necessarily informed by trauma and the re-appropriation of it. Paul Flynn of the Guardian wrote, “Her feeling for camp was not an affectation or strategic marketing device, but something more innate and intuitive,” (hinting at a more calculated approach from other celebrities). Flynn also elaborates on how Elizabeth earned her right to the label “fag hag” by comparing her to other starlets who also enjoyed the company of gay men, but never actually stood up for them when it mattered. Elizabeth was an ally at a time when that term meant nothing and held no cultural currency.

What makes her my personal icon was her embodiment of contradictions and her ability to move through tragedy with grace, without ever denying her pain. During the course of her life, she’d take one step forward and two steps back, continuing on even if it wasn’t in the same direction. There’s a watery, dance-like quality to her physicality. I love to watch this specifically in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where she dances through so much pain, with anger deeper than the ocean.

In my late twenties, I was presented with the rare opportunity to train as a perfumer at a large international company. The process of memorizing hundreds of smells was equal parts grueling and dreamy. During this time, a perfumer mentor told me that I should be able to recognize the nuances of rose oil as if she were my mother standing across a baseball stadium, that I should know every single one of her angles. Over time, I did.

It was also during this period that I began to collect pictures of Elizabeth Taylor. I now have over a thousand. Both of these processes, studying her photos and memorizing smells, have to do with triumphing over dysmorphia, of trying to really see (or smell) through the distorted lens of trauma. It’s not that this project of trying to really see is impossible, although dysmorphia cannot be conquered through repetition– I know literally every single angle of Elizabeth Taylor’s face and body through every year of her life as well as every constituent of every variation of rose oil and absolute. It’s just that to see is not to feel and certainly not to embody, but it is in the process of trying to see that there is infinite feeling.

Smell played a large role in Elizabeth’s life even before her perfume collection. Mike Todd actually patented Todd AO, a massive failure, but it was truly the first attempt at integrating scent with a curated artistic experience. Even today, this is difficult if not impossible to execute. His vision was that movie theaters would release various smells during a film (for example if someone was smoking a cigarette on screen, a cigarette would be lit in the theater). What’s fascinating about scent is that there’s no olfactive language. Perfumers, for example, borrow words from other experiences like taste, emotion, sight (often color), and touch (often texture). These words are then applied to a different visceral experience, one fully reliant on breath itself and memory.

In a way, Elizabeth used this very technique to seduce the world; she was impossible to put words to. One could try, but the words themselves were so contradictory they were rendered pointless. A monster/the most beautiful woman alive/too honest/a liar. Scents are like this too, they sometimes embody totally opposing words and in fact, the best ones often do. Smell also doesn’t require a throat to process.

Since her death in 2011, there have been four new White Diamonds fragrance flankers (offshoots of the original). Postmortem paraphernalia is a huge business, but these weren’t that, they were new fragrances altogether, not objects of nostalgia. She continues to peddle perfume from the grave, speaking to me through scent: her most recent launch in 2021 was White Diamonds Legacy, which contains a gardenia heart note “embodying the essence of Elizabeth.” Gardenia was apparently her favorite flower so I find it appropriate, necromantically speaking.

Choking is like turbulence, unnerving but necessary. It seems like my throat has been hurting for years, but I will continue to turn to Elizabeth for answers. And batteries.

Marissa Zappas is a perfumer and writer living in New York City. She has an MA in Anthropology from The New School for Social Research.