Elizabeth Taylor was my father's dream girl. In 1950, when he was 17, he wrote a letter to his crush inviting her to the spring formal at Saint Francis Preparatory School in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania. He dutifully waited for her reply, certain she would be won over by his letter, drop Nicky Hilton, get on a plane and attend the prom. When he didn't hear from the great movie star, he was devastated. My grandmother said he took to the attic for a weekend, locked the door and cried his eyes out.
My father finally met Ms. Taylor, by then Mrs. John Warner, in the fall of 1978 on a campaign stump through my hometown of Big Stone Gap. At long last, he was to meet his boyhood crush. He was not alone in giddy anticipation of her arrival. The town, the county, the entire southwest tip of the state was in a dither.
Elizabeth Taylor wore a purple silk Halston pantsuit accessorized with a sumptuous gold necklace staccatoed with amethyst stones the size of cookies and matching drop earrings encrusted with pearls. With 1970s' sprezzatura , she tucked a small bouquet of fresh violets behind one ear. She stood for photo after photo until it was my father's turn to meet her. He told her the story of the letter.
He said, "You stood me up, Elizabeth." And she said, "I'm here now, Tony."
The exchange left my father smitten for life. It never dawned on him that thousands of boys around the world had written the same letter, filled with hope, longing and the certain belief that Elizabeth Taylor would choose him over all the others.
That night, Candidate and Mrs. Warner stopped for a chicken dinner at Fraley's Coach House, where Ms. Taylor, hungry from the long trip, quickly swallowed a fried chicken wing in the restaurant kitchen, a bone lodging in her throat. She was rushed to Lonesome Pine Hospital, where the doctor took a rubber hose and stuffed the bone down where it dissolved in digestion.
Ms. Taylor was, by all accounts, the model patient. She was also shy and gracious, according to my mother. After she left the hospital, Ms. Taylor sent a generous donation, which was typical of her.
Elizabeth Taylor was our girl. She was the actress that feisty immigrant girls identified with; like them, she was a brunette with thick eyebrows and curves. Italian, Greek, and Jewish girls related to her style, a golden tan in summer offset by dazzling jewelry that made jaws drop. Elizabeth Taylor was not a farfetched dream. The likes of her might have been found in the factory line, whip-stitching the hems of blouses on a sewing machine next to her best girlfriends with the kind of chutzpah the working girl of the 1940s invented.
There was a time when Hollywood movies were the only window to the outside world for those of us growing up in small towns. Movies taught us how to live the good life, how to set a proper table, what to drive, what to wear and how to walk in the world. American stories told on the silver screen said who we were and what we believed in. It was so real my own father felt Elizabeth Taylor could be his, if only for one night, in a gym under paper stars.