Years ago, Elizabeth Taylor’s father taught her how to tune out any scene she did not want to see, to focus on the middle distance. That came in handy opening night when a reporter from USA Today rushed her the table, flinging a hand in Taylor’s face. Suddenly there was a great cry of “Chen-Chen-Chen! Security! Security!” The reporter was hustled away, and during the entire episode Taylor did not show one flicker of interest or emotion. Her face stayed exactly the same.
The fun was not to last. The next morning, Kevin Kelly’s review was headlined CLUMPING THROUGH. Taylor, Kelly said, was “perfectly terrible,” “a caricature of Coward’s heroine, inside a caricature of an actress, inside a caricature of Elizabeth Taylor. “A hefty housewife in a Community Theater farce,” he pronounced. Burton was treated almost as well. “We were expecting this,” Charles Cinnamon said, but Elizabeth “has been crying all morning.” Plans were being changed. Zev was supposed to take off for Florida, but now that would be delayed, and Chen put off a trip to L.A. Meetings were scheduled at the Shubert; Katselas, whose direction had been called “frenzied and awkward,” was on his way there now. “Everything is up in the air,” said Cinnamon. “We’re just going to rise above this,” Chen Sam said.
Backstage at the Shubert, three days later: “I’m on the verge of giving in my notice,” John Cullum said in his dressing room during the second act of a Sunday matinee. “Line readings! Can you imagine, this man is giving me line readings! And if he’s giving them to me, think of what he must be doing with Elizabeth! Do you know he told her that he wants to have dinner with her tonight to talk about the character and to work on her o’s and a’s?” “This man” was Katselas, clearly in way over his head. “This play is at a crossroads,” Cullum said. “Everybody is very hyper, and it could go either way.”
The fury had been building since the Boston opening. Everybody was defending Elizabeth Taylor. “She’s the kind of woman you want as a close friend.” The gloomy atmosphere at the Shubert, Kathryn Walker explained, could be traced to “an unconscious aggression toward Elizabeth and Richard’s celebrity” and to “a vicious transference process.” Milton Kastelas and his “voyeurism” were also to blame. Although Katselas seemed unbothered by the subcurrents—“I’m just tuning a Rolls-Royce,” he kept saying—Walker was very worried. “It is painful to stand with Elizabeth before we go on and see her look in the mirror and say, ‘Do I really look fat?’ She’s hurt, very hurt, and now they’re throwing her to the lions, the way she’s being directed. I don’t know what she can’t stand up to them.”
A flight of stairs and several dressing rooms away, Elizabeth Taylor, co-producer and star, was fending for herself quite nicely, having another meeting with Katselas after the day’s performance to determine, as Zev Bufman later said, whether there was any way we could avoid getting rid of him.” (There wasn’t. Lou Antonio, who recently directed Taylor and Carol Burnett in a TV movie, would be hired the followed week.) And a joke was making the rounds: Why can’t Private Lives find a new director? Because My One and Only has hired them all.
Moments after Katselas walked out, Taylor’s training to remain serene served her well. In a purple velvet caftan, lush as an overripe plum, she was lounging on a chaise, being absolutely kittenish about what was going on. All of her usual props were there—tropical fish in a large tank, lavender walls, and a bourbon, which she nursed a good hour. The years—or her love of bourbon—have robbed her face of its symmetry, and her eyes flickered with wariness, until she dropped the National Velvet accent and finally relaxed.
“You know what really annoyed me,” she said. “I was watching television in my dressing room and suddenly there was the local Boston anchorwoman talking to Kevin Kelly about Private Lives. He had just done his review, saying the most awful things, and here I am watching it—can you imagine?—and suddenly they start showing a scene from the second act. And I thought, ‘Isn’t that illegal? Don’t they have to have permission to do that? Can’t we sue?’ And at the end of it, this woman says, ‘Well, thanks a lot, Kevin. I’m going to save my $37.50 and not see Private Lives.’ Well, that just infuriated me! We’ve been sold out the entire run! I couldn’t even get tickets for my own children.”
Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes opening very wife. “I wonder if Kitty Kelley is related to Kevin Kelly. Think about it. They’re both K. Kellys. How interesting! Maybe Kitty Kelley is Kevin Kelly in drag. Or maybe the other way around.”