AD’s West Coast editor Mayer Rus sits down to shrimp cocktail and a cobb salad with Charlie Scheips, project director of the Elizabeth Taylor Archive, to talk about what will become of the actress’s vast collection of letters, documents, ephemera, and 10,000 enchanting photographs.
Mayer Rus: Your business card is so glamorous: Project Director of the Elizabeth Taylor Archive. And the color of the typeface—Liz Taylor violet. Chic! Do you have a history with the great lady?
Charlie Scheips: We met in the 1980s. The boyfriend of her assistant at the time was a childhood friend of mine. And we got to know one another when I was setting up a big Art Against AIDS exhibition at the gallery at the Pacific Design Center, which had just opened. I’ll never forget the day of the event. I was incredibly stressed trying to get the show up, and I got a call from Elizabeth’s assistant. She said Elizabeth was too ill to come that day, so she wanted me to call Gregory Peck and ask him to read a letter from her at the event.
MR: You just dialed up Gregory Peck to see if he was free that night? “Gregory, dear, if you’re not too busy…”?
CS: I came to Los Angeles in 1984 to be David Hockney’s assistant, so I met all kinds of people—Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Billy Wilder. When Gregory Peck would call and say, “Charlie, can you come to dinner?” I always assumed that meant “. . . and bring David Hockney.”
MR: Did you actually get him to read the letter that night?
CS: Yes! He was incredibly gracious. He said he’d do it if we promised to get him out before 6:30, so we got him out before 6:30.
MR: Did you keep in contact with Liz—can I call her Liz?—after that event?
CS: We never really lost touch. We reconnected doing events for AmFAR in New York, and we had mutual friends and lots of friends who were sick at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
MR: How did the archive gig come about?
CS: I had lunch with someone I know who’s a trustee at the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. They were interested in what I had done at the Condé Nast archive, getting it organized and developing different ways to utilize it. I’m used to having those kinds of lunches and leaving and thinking that it’ll never happen. This time, it happened.
MR: Tell me about what you’re doing.
CS: I came to Los Angeles last March and really started from scratch. There are now 10,000 photographs in the database, plus we’re figuring out how to deal with all the letters, documents, contracts, and ephemera that are scattered in warehouses all over town. Elizabeth kept everything, including everything her mother collected. But she wasn’t a nostalgic person about her history. She was interested in the now.
MR: I’m pea-green with envy. You must have uncovered some real treasures. What are your favorites?
CS: There’s a fabulous photograph of Elizabeth as a seven-year-old girl on the ship she took with her family when they left England to escape the war. The foundation used that one for its Christmas card last year. I actually found the ship’s registry on Ancestry.com, and her name was on it.
MR: More, please.
CS: The other day I found masses of photos from her wedding to Nicky Hilton. There was a great one of Louella Parsons and Jimmy McHugh walking into the church. There are also amazing pictures of the weekend Elizabeth Taylor spent with Marshal Tito on his private island, touring his private zoo. One of the interns asked, “Who is that?” Of course there are tons of pictures of her and Richard Burton, pictures of her and the Beatles at the Dorchester in London, pictures of her and Grace Kelly at her fabulous 40th birthday party in Budapest. I could go on and on.
MR: Please, for pity’s sake, go on. I can’t get enough of this.
CS: You’d love these pictures I found of her sitting around the house in Bel Air with Shirley MacLaine and Lauren Bacall. In one of them, they’re doing the “hear no evil, see no evil” thing. So sweet. There are also pictures of her and Adnan Khashoggi that are pure 1980s. Every photo is like a time capsule pulled from this extraordinary life of insane celebrity and amazing beauty.
MR: What will eventually become of all this material?
CS: We’re still deciding. Ultimately we might end up with a website that people would have access to for research or reproduction rights. There are all kinds of possibilities.
MR: How do you account for her unending allure?
CS: I think she was the last great product of the studio system. People like her and Cary Grant, they were taught how to dress, how to talk. They were real stars. Today, you see Brad Pitt and other celebrities and they all look like schlumps. Everyone looks smelly—even the cute ones! I think Elizabeth was and is appealing from both a masculine and feminine point of view. Beyond the beauty and the talent, she was fierce and ballsy, both as an activist and a philanthropist. She always had a giving-ness and a kindness that people sensed.
MR: It must be thrilling to have a hand in shaping her legacy.
CS: I take it seriously, my role as a keeper of her image and her ideas. This is Elizabeth Taylor, after all. They don’t make ’em like her anymore.
MR: Amen to that.
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