The summer of 1955 was a hard one for Elizabeth Taylor. She arrived in Marfa on June 6 after being loaned out by MGM studios to Warner Bros. to star in Giant, the “national movie of Texas.” (Though her portrayal as Leslie Benedict changed the depiction of Texas women in film, as a star under contract, she wasn’t allowed to pick her own roles.) The actress, who died of congestive heart failure on March 23, was suffering from postpartum depression after giving birth to her third child, Christopher, and was recently estranged from husband number two, Michael Wilding. As if that wasn’t enough, the state was in the middle of a hellish seven-year drought, with the thermometer regularly hitting 100 degrees, a period Elmer Kelton called “the time it never rained.”
It was a tough time for Taylor both physically and emotionally, but Marfans only recall her generosity and graciousness. When director George Stevens, who filmed Giant on an open set, yelled “cut!” fans would walk right up to Taylor, who happily agreed to take photos, sign autographs, and even star in several impromptu home movies, including a short 8mm film shot on the set of the Reata by Bill Christopher, the owner of the local department store. Caterer Wally Cech, who served her in the lunch line, admired the 24-year-old starlet’s good looks and noted that though Taylor was strikingly beautiful, she didn’t seem to have a huge ego. She was, by all accounts, sweet and mannerly and even kept a bowl of dimes by her front door to dispense ten-cent tips, a handsome gratuity sixty years ago.
She also embraced the slow West Texas lifestyle. Actor Earl Holliman, who played the Benedict’s son-in-law, says that many nights were passed drinking and that the cast took a few trips down to Ojinaga, Mexico, for margaritas. “We all learned to drink tequila real good,” he chuckles. Clay Evans, whose family’s ranch served as the Reata set location, recalls the night that Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean came to the ranch house for dinner. The menu for the evening? “Beans,” Evans says, a clear departure from the lavish spreads of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
While most of the stars stayed at the Hotel Paisano, Taylor had her own private home. She spent a lot of her spare time there alone, save for her little white dog that she had brought along for company. Vivian Jones, a native of Big Lake, a tiny town some two hundred miles away, was a small child when she visited Taylor’s temporary home. Jones’s mother, whose closest encounter with a movie star was flipping through Movie Tone magazine at her weekly visits to Gladine’s Beauty Shop, didn’t dare miss the opportunity to see Taylor, so she piled her children into the family Buick and drove to Marfa. When they arrived it was near sundown, and they could see Taylor through a window, relaxing in her rent house. Not to be denied, Jones’s mom parked out front, picked up a handful of gravel, and tossed it against the window.
“We heard a small dog barking, and Miss Taylor came to the door,” remembers Jones. “I looked up and saw the beautiful star silhouetted against the door. My mother was so terrified that she hid behind the car. That was as close as she got to Elizabeth Taylor.”
When filming wrapped, the entire town threw a big send-off for Taylor and the crew as they boarded the train for Los Angeles. But before she left the state, she collected a lasting memento of her time in Texas. Somewhere between Marfa and El Paso the engineer stopped the train so that Elizabeth Taylor could get out and dig up some cactus to take back to Hollywood with her.