When I heard of Elizabeth Taylor's passing this morning, my first thoughts were not of the striking violet-eyed beauty she possessed in her youth, her movies (let's face it, she didn't make too many exceptional ones) or even her stormy marriages to Richard Burton and six other men that made her a tabloid icon. No, it was the memory of holding an almost-empty bottle of Demerol, the kind you stick a syringe into. The patient's name on the label was "Mrs. Sen. John Warner." It was dated circa 1979. Taylor was married to Senator John Warner of Virginia from 1976 to 1982. That's right, I was holding Elizabeth Taylor's Demerol: a macabre piece of celebrity memorabilia representative of the pain that came with her glamor and her fame.
The bottle belonged to a man named B.J., who had appropriated it during his stint as one of Taylor's assistants in New York City in late '70s, a time when she was so heavy she was portrayed by John Belushi in drag on "SNL," munching on a chicken leg.
B.J. showed it to me in 1989, when we were working together at the Sunset Blvd. offices of Celebrity Service, which provided clients not with high-end escorts or limos, as some confused callers assumed, but contact information (agent, publicist, etc.) for film and TV stars and other notable public figures.
Click the image to see the article from Film Threat Magazine.
The information was stored on tens of thousands of White Out-caked 3"x5" cards (already an embarrassingly outdated information storage system at the time), dating back to the 1940s. If you got bored, you could look on the back of a file and see what hotel Cary Grant stayed in when he was filming To Catch a Thief on the French Riviera in the summer of 1954 or call Joey Bishop's home phone number and see if it was still good.
As we rifled through the files, B.J. would regale with stories of his days in New York, including tidbits about people like Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as well as tales of weekends spent at gay sex clubs in the Meat Packing District, like the one about the time he stepped into a cab after long "shift" at the Mine Shaft and the driver looked in the rearview mirror and said, "Hey, buddy, what's that stuff on your cap?"
I was fresh out of UCLA Film School at the time, but I'd seen and heard enough not to be shocked by mere bathhouse debauchery. If anything robbed me of my innocence, it's what I came to call Celebrity Festivals of Death.
Whenever news organizations caught wind that a celebrity might be dead or at least packing their bags for The Hereafter, our phones would light up with calls for their rep, as well of those of others who had worked with them, loved them or, it seemed, once breathed the same air.
Eager to protect their "scoop," the intrepid journalists from Entertainment Tonight, Variety, National Enquirer, Reuters, et al, wouldn't actually tell us the star in question had passed, but after the fifteenth call in a row for Frank Sinatra or Richard Pryor, we'd catch on and ask, "So . . . did he die?" to which they'd typically reply, "We're not sure." Thus the responsibility of confirming the death often fell in our laps.
Actress Rebecca Schaeffer.
My first Festival of Death did not involve someone who was a true celebrity -- not in life, anyway. It was Rebecca Schaeffer, a 22-year-old actress who was shot and killed by a mentally ill fan in July 1989. Suddenly, the quiet of the afternoon was broken with a mad flood of calls for this girl who had done little more than co-star opposite Pam Dawber in the short-lived series "My Sister Sam" (1986-88). What's up with that? The first thing we had to do was confirm that her contact information was current, so we called up her agent's office and asked, "Do you still handle her?" We had no idea she'd been murdered. I can't recall for sure, but there's a chance her agent didn't know either. As information about what happened slowly emerged over the next few hours, a pall settled over the office. It was heartbreaking.
John Candy on the set of 'Wagons East.'
Oftentimes, the agent, manager or publicist in question knew very well that their client was dead, yet they denied it anyway. I remember calling up John Candy's agents at CAA on the March morning in 1994 when word of his death began to filter back from Durango, Mexico, where the 43-year-old actor had been shooting the movie Wagons East. As gently as possible, I asked if Candy had passed. "Um... he's not feeling well," replied the agent's young female assistant. It's possible that they were trying to make sure Candy's family and associates heard the news from them or another friendly source first, instead of a journalist calling for a reaction. ("I'm sorry. You didn't know? He's dead.") But agents' assistants know that the truth won't set them free, it will only get them in trouble, so they lie as a matter of course.
Bob Hope enjoying breakfast.
Usually, the is-he-or-isn't-he-dead drama unfolds behind the scenes and, more often than not, the rumor turns out to be false. But occasionally the public is invited to view the festivities. In 1998, the Associated Press inadvertently posted its pre-prepared obit for Bob Hope on the internet, and the "news" quickly found its way to congressman Bob Stump, who announced Hope's death on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Back in Los Angeles, the offices of Celebrity Service were getting slammed with calls from frantic journalists, convinced that the 95-year-old comic legend was already reading his wisecracks off of cue cards in the Great Beyond. I called Hope Enterprises and Linda Hope came on the line and told me her father was alive and had "just finished eating breakfast in his Toluca Lake (Calif.) home." Translation: Not only is Old Ski Nose still breathing, he's not in the hospital being fed through a tube.
With the TMZ-ing of celebrity reporting in recent years, this might all seem a little quaint now, but it affected me enough that I was moved to write an article about it, titled Celebrity Death Feeding Frenzy. If it had been written within the last ten years, it definitely would've mentioned Taylor, who's probably been the subject of several false death rumors during the last two months alone, as she lingered in the hospital. And as sad as her predicament was, you can bet the journalists chasing the story were buzzing on adrenalin, just as they would be covering a plane crash, a war or a similar large-scale tragedy.
The note from Jackie O. (Click to enlarge.)
Taylor had come back from the brink of death so many times -- starting with a bout with pneumonia in 1960 that left her with a tracheotomy scar -- it almost seemed like she could go on forever. But her work lives on, right? And as her friends, family and true blue fans mourn her loss, I'm the jerk writing about her Demerol. I'm sorry. I guess I've just seen too much of the celebrity meat grinder.
As for B.J., he died of AIDS in December of 1989. Given his raucous bathhouse tales and his occasional observation that he was in "the waiting to die period of [his] life," we should've suspected something was up. But he never looked or acted sick until that November, when he went to the hospital with a bad cough and never emerged alive. I inherited his job as the editor of the company's daily newsletter, the Celebrity Bulletin, along with a note from Jackie O that he'd gotten from friend who worked with her at Doubleday Publishing ("Lewis ... I took the Russia book. I'll be careful. Thanks, Jackie.") I scoured his desk for the bottle of Demerol, but it was nowhere to be found.
Todd Longwell is a freelance journalist who has written for a wide range of publications, including the Los
Times, the New York Post, American Cinematographer, Filmmaker, Emmy, Film Threat and, yes, even the
Weekly World News. For ten years, he was a regular contributor to The Hollywood Reporter. More recently, his byline has appeared in Variety.