The news that Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels will be auctioned is as inevitable as it is elegiac. I love jewellery, and one of the sad things about being a fairly conventional man is that I find it difficult to wear as much as I would like. I also know that even if I were able to amass and wear a sizeable collection of trinketry, I would be unable to take it with me, unless I chose to be interred with my belongings. The next best thing to doing a Tutankhamun is of course to get Christie’s to sell it for you and to produce a lavish catalogue of your effects.
Strange to say, but the mass dispersal of the knick-knacks that one leaves behind is a form of immortality; as I look around my office, my eyes alight on a couple of catalogues to which I refer from time to time: handsome slip-cased sets of Sotheby’s sales of the contents of the Château de Groussay and the possessions of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. These are as much instruction manuals as they are sales brochures, as they offer a unique distillation of lives well lived according to the rites of mid-20th-century café society.
Groussay was the home of Charlie Beistegui, whose guano-based fortune supported a life of European splendour. Beistegui is best known today, if at all, for his eponymous Venetian ball, but Groussay was his chef d’oeuvre; just for the hell of it, he had a theatre built that was modelled on the Margravine opera house at Bayreuth, and in which he held just two performances, preferring to come and sit in quiet contemplation of his creation. However, my favourite room is the double- (or triple-) height library at Groussay; a masterpiece, one of the best rooms ever conceived by mankind – at least it is when photographed by Cecil Beaton, who was apparently so impressed with it that he used it as the basis for his Prof Higgins’s library in My Fair Lady.
Now Liz Taylor is up for the catalogue treatment and I hope that my esteemed colleague Vivienne Becker, the world’s foremost journalistic authority on jewellery, is employed to write the foreword. I love Burton and Taylor; showbiz jet-set royalty; and when writing my book about costume balls I came across an amusing insight into their jewellery-buying habits.
At the end of the 1960s they had made headlines, not so much for their acting or their relationship, but for their shopping, when Burton had beaten Aristotle Onassis and the Sultan of Brunei to the 69.42ct stone that would forever be known as the Taylor-Burton diamond and for which he had paid $1.1m.
The afternoon before the Proust ball given by Marie-Hélène de Rothschild in the early 1970s, a salesman from Van Cleef & Arpels visited them to discuss the jewellery that she would wear to the dance. Burton recorded the home shopping spree, Burton-Taylor-style, in his diary: “E. had changed a gold belt she had bought from them – or I had rather – when she was doing Zee & Co and he had come up with the new belt-cum-necklace in exchange.” He goes on to add: “With us of course, and probably with everybody, he brought as I said an extra two or three millions in temptations. I was not to be drawn however except for a pair of matching earrings for the already bought necklace which E. had been ‘loaned’ for some time and naturally (sarcastically) became attached to. That, by the way, is a good ploy of such salesmen. They let you have a splendid but not overwhelmingly expensive piece on loan, or for a specific occasion, an opening night or the Rothschild party for instance, and hope that the wearer or the spectator, me, decides to buy it what the hell. The necklace and earrings are a perfect example since I bought the earrings. They cost about six thousand dollars.”
Compared to the Taylor-Burton diamond, it was a bargain and that evening Liz Taylor looked like a very expensive Christmas tree with jewellery everywhere including her hair, and I will be looking out for it in the upcoming catalogue: it is an interesting commentary on our times that rather than their combined body of work, it is for their shopping that they are likely to be remembered. Still, at least it will keep their memory alive; I read recently in the foreword to Furious Love, a study of their famous on-off-on-off love affair, that when Burton and Taylor came up in conversation, a young person piped up that that they did not know that Tim Burton had married Liz Taylor. I suppose at the very least the sale of her jewels will set that misconception right.