As Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery goes under the hammer, Liz Smith recalls the golden years of their friendship

There was no red carpet – family and friends attending the private memorial service for Elizabeth Taylor walked instead on a violet carpet, the exact shade of the legendary Hollywood star’s eyes and a poignant reminder of her fabled beauty.

There was no red carpet – family and friends attending the private memorial service for Elizabeth Taylor walked instead on a violet carpet, the exact shade of the legendary Hollywood star’s eyes and a poignant reminder of her fabled beauty.

Above the marquee outside the Steven J Ross Theater, on the historic Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, Los Angeles, where the service was held on Sunday, 16 October, were the words, “Elizabeth Taylor – A Celebration of a Remarkable Life.”

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“Of course there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” says Glasgow-based arts publicist Liz Smith, whose “accidental” friendship with Taylor dates back almost 50 years, and who was one of a few hundred relatives and friends at the 75-minute ceremony, hosted by actor Colin Farrell.

“My own eyes were certainly filled with tears throughout the afternoon,” says Smith, who has many memories of her “unlikely but very, very special friendship” with the iconic star. “It’s such a cliché to call someone an ‘icon’, but Elizabeth was a true icon,” says Smith, who divides her time between Glasgow and the Borders and who has two daughters by her second husband, the late Mick Smith, and three grandchildren.

Born in Cheshire and educated at Heathfield School, near Ascot, although she’s lived and worked in Scotland for more than 30 years, Smith first met Taylor – who died of heart failure at the age of 79 in March – in the early Sixties. Or rather she met Burton and Taylor, who were still on their first marriage, when she was invited to their home in the Hollywood hills with her boyfriend, the late Welsh actor Brook Williams, who became her first husband.

Son of actor, playwright and author Emlyn Williams, Brook was best friends with Richard Burton, and the pair liked to share a bevvy or three.

“I was absolutely petrified when I first met Elizabeth – after all, she was the most beautiful woman in the world! But I needn’t have worried, the friendship was instant,” recalls Smith, speaking on the eve of Tuesday’s New York auction of Taylor’s jewellery, couture gowns, art and memorabilia, which will be hammered by Christie’s in a sale that is predicted to break all records – in excess of £19m.

Famously discreet, despite a job that dictates she’s in constant touch with the media, Smith has rarely spoken about the woman she knew and loved for her intensity, her extravagance, her generosity and her resilience.

But, after attending Taylor’s memorial service, then visiting Christie’s touring exhibition of Taylor’s jewels, wardrobe and memorabilia at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, she decided to share some cherished memories, which range from shopping in Edinburgh with Taylor – particularly the vintage clothes shop, Hand in Hand, in Stockbridge for antique lace tablecloths and bedspreads – to attending Taylor’s lavish 40th birthday party in Budapest, where Princess Grace did a knees-up with comedian Frankie Howerd. Then there was the stay at London’s Dorchester Hotel, when Taylor was – in her words – “Damed” in 2000, wearing lilac to match her eyes and Van Cleef & Arpels pearl-and-diamond earrings that outshone Buckingham Palace’s chandeliers.

Elizabeth and Liz’s friendship – marked by a gold Cartier friendship bracelet, a gift from Taylor, which Smith always wears – endured, despite Smith divorcing Williams after ten years of marriage. Indeed, she became unofficial godmother to Taylor’s daughter from her marriage to Mike Todd.

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“The amazing thing is that Elizabeth and I just clicked; I’ve no idea why – we simply hit it off, despite the fact that she was older than I,” Smith explains. “If she liked you, she liked you. She was so loyal. Family was the centre of her life – her four children, ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren – and she’d gather everybody around her, this huge extended family of friends, various waifs and strays, and, of course, her dogs and cats.

“I feel privileged to have known her, absolutely blessed. You have no idea how kind-hearted she was – she once decked me out in diamonds for a ritzy party because I didn’t own a string of pearls,” Smith says, gazing at her pink-and-gold Chopard watch. Diamonds roll around like dice on its face and it reads: “Be Happy”.

“Elizabeth gave me this watch at a sad time in my life. So thoughtful! We shared laughter and tears. I was also very fond of Richard, who was a terrific flirt, always with a twinkle in his eye, although he adored Elizabeth – they couldn’t live without each other, nor could they live with each other. It still astonishes me that when I was a 16-year-old student at the Webber Douglas Drama School, in London, I was a Burton groupie, buying cheap tickets to sit in the gods to see his Hamlet.

“We had such happy times – very simple times. I’m not talking about glitzy, celebrity-filled parties,” she continues. “There were some, of course, but the best times were family barbecues, lounging by the pool, cooking steaks marinaded in Elizabeth’s ‘secret’ recipe, which I still use, or eating baked potatoes – albeit with caviar! – with mutual girlfriends from London, Sheran Hornby and Norma Heyman. Richard used to call us the Four Musketeers.

“Then there were the holidays, horse-riding in Mexico, where they had a house in Puerta Vallarta. Brook and I honeymooned there after we all drank Claridges, in London, dry after our wedding – Richard insisted on toasting us in so much vintage champagne it ran out!”

Listening to Elton John, Michael Caine, and Taylor’s stepdaughter, acclaimed actress Kate Burton, speaking at the memorial about the three-time Oscar-winner’s often troubled life, career and charity work, was incredibly moving, Smith acknowledges, but it was seeing Taylor’s fine jewellery collection that really opened memory’s floodgates.

The auction includes 269 diamonds, pearls, rubies, rings, necklaces and a tiara, most of which Smith recalls her friend wearing. She says that Taylor delighted in her jewels, insisting that she was only their custodian. Smith thought Taylor’s unrivalled gems looked their glittering best when she was not all enamelled perfection. “Elizabeth’s face was so flawless that she was even lovelier without a scrap of make-up.

“I was with Richard and Elizabeth, when he bought some of the items being auctioned. In 1971, for instance, Brook and I were on their yacht, Kalizma, in the south of France, when her son, Michael [Wilding], announced that he was to become a father at the age of 18; Elizabeth was 39.

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“She was overjoyed; then Richard said that we were going to Van Cleef & Arpels in Antibes, because he wanted to buy her a ‘granny present’ – a pair of long, swingy diamond earrings and a choker centring on a snarling lion, with emerald eyes, magnificently sculpted from diamonds and gold, which could be detached and worn as a brooch. The choker becomes two bracelets. Ingenious!”

When Taylor put on the jewels, which she later wore for a photoshoot with fashion photographer Norman Parkinson, Smith recalls Burton telling his wife: “Nobody is ever going to believe that you are a grandmother.”

In Monte Carlo, Taylor asked Smith: “Would you like to see some of my goodies?” They went to the bank where Princess Grace kept her crown jewels and in the vaults, an Aladdin’s cave of gorgeous gems was revealed, as well as throwaway charm bracelets made by Taylor’s children, Michael and Christopher Wilding, and daughters Liza Todd and Maria Burton when they were small.

“To Elizabeth, who was not an avaricious woman, those little tokens were more precious than diamonds,” Smith says.

Not in the sale is Taylor’s most famous jewel, the Cartier diamond, which became known as the Burton-Taylor diamond: a 69.42 carat, inch-thick diamond for which Burton paid £680,000, in 1969, making it the world’s most expensive diamond at the time. (Taylor sold it for £1.8m in 1979 to fund her then husband, John Warner’s candidacy for the Senate.)

Smith and her husband were having dinner with Burton and Taylor at The Bear, in Woodstock, near Oxford, because she was doing up a house for them – Smith had an interior design business with actress Jill Melford – when Burton kept being called away to the phone to speak to his agent in New York where the Cartier diamond was being auctioned.

“Richard went up to $1m, then someone bid another $50,000. He pulled out. Elizabeth was bitterly disappointed, so he immediately got on the phone and offered the new owner another $50,000. It was the stuff of fantasy! Elizabeth was beside herself. Several bottles of fizz were cracked open that evening.”

Inevitably, Smith tried the Cartier diamond for size. It was as big as a pigeon’s egg. “It was dazzling; it lit up the room. Princess Margaret told her it was ‘very vulgar.’ Elizabeth suggested she try it on. ‘It doesn’t look so vulgar now, does it, ma’am?’ she asked.”

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When Taylor decided that she would sell the Cartier, Smith thought she should sell the fabulous Krupp diamond ring, which is the size of a walnut (33.19 carats), and is expected to raise around £2.2m in the sale. She recalls telling Taylor that she thought she should sell the Krupp, which was allegedly unlucky. “Actually I don’t think it did bring her much luck – Richard bought it for her in 1968.”

Raising a glass to Taylor’s memory, Smith speaks about the famous pear-shaped La Peregrina pearl – expected to fetch up to £1.88m – which Burton proudly showed her after he bought it in 1969. “He made the film, Anne of the 1000 Days, and was really into the Tudor thing. The pearl was luminous, Elizabeth had it set in a choker before adding it to a longer necklace.”

Then there were the ping-pong diamond rings that Burton gave to anyone who beat him at the game. They were the smallest diamonds he could find, one-eighth of a carat. He gave Smith one when she bested him in a fiercely-fought match at their Gstaad home. Sadly, the ring perished, along with treasured snapshots and precious keepsakes, in a fire which gutted Smith’s family home in Rannoch, Perthshire, in the 1990s.

“Needless to say, Elizabeth was an absolute rock when that happened, so supportive,” murmurs Smith, whose grief over the loss of her parents’ home has never been assuaged.

Smith last saw Taylor a year ago when she came to London for an event at Buckingham Palace in aid of the Welsh College of Music, organised by Burton’s nephew, actor-director Guy Masterson, no stranger to Edinburgh Fringe audiences. “Elizabeth was very frail. Yet she still seemed indestructible. I couldn’t believe that one day she would no longer be there. Despite all her battles with illness, she was a strong woman.

“I miss her dreadfully because she was always there for you in times of trouble. And I hope I was there for her, too. I saw her through many marriages. I miss her laughter most – she had a wicked sense of humour. Oh, she was life-enhancing!” exclaims Smith, quoting her favourite Taylor aphorism: “You can’t cry on a diamond’s shoulder, and diamonds won’t keep you warm at night. But they’re sure fun when the sun shines.”

The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor auction is at Christie’s, New York, December 13-16. For more information, visit

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