It’s one of the most irresistible, if improbable, Hollywood stories of recent times. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, did Elizabeth Taylor escape New York City by getting in a rental car with Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando and driving all the way to Ohio?
Not so, says, Tim Mendelson, a close friend and trustee of Elizabeth Taylor’s estate, who was with her that week in Manhattan at the St. Regis Hotel. “There was never any road trip,” he says. “Elizabeth was in New York after 9/11 with Debbie Reynolds. She didn’t want Debbie to be alone.”
The story of the unusual road trip took hold of the public’s imagination after it was first reported in 2011. Last week, as part of an ongoing TV anthology series called Urban Myths, British network Sky Arts was set to air a controversial episode that touched on it. That episode, which featured Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson, was ultimately canceled following public outrage over the white actor’s casting, including criticism from the late music icon’s daughter, Paris Jackson.
The renewed attention prompted Mendelson to share his account with PEOPLE of what really happened that day.
“On Sept. 11, Elizabeth was in New York City to attend Michael Jackson’s two concerts, which were taped for television,” recalls Mendelson. “Michael was celebrating the 30th anniversary of his solo career and she escorted Michael both nights to Madison Square Garden.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, Jose Eber, Taylor’s longtime hairdresser, called Mendelson to inform him of the terrorist attacks in downtown Manhattan. When he went to Taylor’s hotel suite, Mendelson says, “She was well aware of what had happened. She took me by the hand to a window from her suite and pointed down Fifth Avenue, where we could see the towers burning.”
Despite the shock, he says, “Elizabeth was strong and comforting. Even though we didn’t know what to think at that point, she kind of kept us all calm. Elizabeth had been through a lot of things in her life.”
Later that day, Mendelson called his good friend Carrie Fisher, whom he’d first met through Taylor. Fisher said that her mom, screen icon Debbie Reynolds, was in New York City — by herself. “When I told Elizabeth that Debbie was alone, she told me, ‘Oh my God, get her over here immediately, and take care of her. Have her be part of our group!’ “
Reynolds moved into the St. Regis, taking one of the suites rented out by Taylor and her entourage of friends and family. “I remember them both trying to be strong for everyone else,” says Mendelson. “They were emotional — we all were, but they were stalwart. It was the kind of women they were.”
Still, he recalls, Reynolds “tried to lighten the mood. She would come over every morning very perky, and sometimes Elizabeth, who liked to sleep late, would say, ‘Okay I’m not ready to wake up’ — but that’s how they acted together.”
Taylor and Reynolds, of course, had long moved past one of Hollywood’s biggest scandals after Taylor had an affair in the late ’50s with Reynolds’ then-husband Eddie Fisher, whom she later married.
“They had known each other for decades,” says Mendelson. “They went to the little red schoolhouse together on the MGM lot. They had been through hard times, rough times and also great times. They were both very strong women but also so familiar with each other. They teased, and cajoled and they poked fun at each other — they had a deep connection. Debbie was very inside Elizabeth’s world, so they could talk and understand each other.”
The week was a surreal one, including solemn visits to a local church where Taylor prayed for the families — and a dinner one night at the 21 Club, which Reynolds also attended. “I remember President Bush encouraging people to go out and carry on,” Mendelson recalls, “so Elizabeth tried to do that.”
Later in the week, Taylor visited the Armory, in downtown Manhattan, where families and friends had gathered to look for the missing. “She wanted to be of service, if she could, to the families,” says Mendelson. “She was just trying to embrace people and wipe their tears away.”
While there, he says, a policeman came over to speak to the star. “He said, ‘Miss Taylor, this really isn’t something that we are supposed to do but would you like to go down to Ground Zero?’ Being Elizabeth, she said yes, and they took her there with her security guy.”
Afterward, Mendelson says, “She was devastated. She said it was like looking into the gates of hell.”
The next day, Saturday, Sept. 15, the group — including Reynolds, who needed to be back in California for a show — flew back to Los Angeles on a private plane.
Fifteen years later, Mendelson, who is also an officer of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, is still moved by the enduring friendship of Taylor and Reynolds that he witnessed that week — and, in turn, Carrie’s love for them both.
“They were both intelligent and had great senses of humor,” Mendelson says of the two longtime friends. “The history between them was palpable. And Carrie was fascinated with Elizabeth, who was her stepmother. She respected her and loved her. Carrie, like Debbie, had a real respect for the people who made Hollywood and Hollywood history. All three of them had a unique bond.”