Sunday, March 27, 2011


I was surprised by my reaction to the news that Elizabeth Taylor had died.  I was deeply sad to hear it.  Elizabeth Taylor was the very first movie star I was ever aware of, and she has been a constant in my life for all of my life.  At the supermarket checkout, she was a constant, her image flying at me in one unflattering photograph after another--most recently in a wheel chair and cannula in her nose, looking aged and frail.  In this age of round-the-clock celebrity TV, magazines, newspapers and Internet, Liz retained her ability to fascinate long after her peers had faded into retirement and the grave.  As all the obits said, 50 films, seven husbands, hundreds of carats of diamonds, the condemnation of the Vatican, and billions of spilled words all seem to sum up a long and well-lived life. She was never my favorite movie star, and I managed to miss most of her great film work from the 50s until I was in my twenties, yet whenever Elizabeth Taylor crossed my radar, I almost always stopped to pay attention. Does any star have that effect on me now?  Absolutely not.

Drug stores in the late 50s and 60s had big magazine stands.  The movie mags dominated with their own section and you couldn't miss them.  I first became aware of Elizabeth Taylor during her marriage to Eddie Fisher.  I vaguely knew she had lost her previous husband (Mike Todd) in a plane crash. I also was aware that Fisher was a constant comfort to her in the aftermath of Todd's death, to the point where Elizabeth and Eddie became an item, igniting a scandal over his leaving his marriage to Debbie Reynolds to marry Elizabeth.  I was fascinated over the loud disapproval of Elizabeth when only a few months before, there was this tremendous outpouring of sympathy for the widow.  How did I know this at ten or eleven?  My step-aunt, only a few years older than me, had movie magazines and we briefly lived with her, my grandfather and her mother when we first moved to California in the early 60s. In those pre-Internet days, there was little to distract a young kid other than playing outdoors.  There was this gorgeous creature with a fascinating scar on her throat (the result of an emergency tracheotomy) staring from the covers of these publications.  I started to read and became even more fascinated.  This interest would go last for the next 50 years.

When I was twelve or thirteen years old and living in San Francisco, the News-Call Bulletin, a now defunct tabloid much like New York's Daily News, always had screaming headlines, and other than than the death of Marilyn Monroe, and JFK's assassination, no story had more impact on that newspapers front page than the love affair of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  There affair, which would end their marriages to others, blossomed during the filming of CLEOPATRA.  For a time I sold newspapers in my neighborhood, and I never missed the photos of Liz and Dick on a pleasure boat in the Mediterranean nuzzling in their swimsuits, sunglasses firmly in place, or walking in ancient Roman neighborhoods, hand-in-hand.  Elizabeth was still married to Eddie Fisher. You never saw a photo of them walking together as you did with Liz and Dick.  Eddie was always five paces behind the star, his humiliated, hangdog expression visibly spelled out so clearly.  The movie magazines sided with Debbie Reynolds, a popular studio contract star, but lacking the kind of megawatt fascination and box office of Elizabeth Taylor.  We now know Debbie and Eddie's marriage was already kaput, but at the time, it looked as though Liz had heartlessly taken Eddie away from Debbie.  This instant sympathy for poor Debbie, ignited her box-office appeal, and she would remain a top MGM star for nearly a decade following her divorce from Eddie.

As Elizabeth and Richard played out their romance and eventual marriage, the headlines still blazed.  They trashed hotel suites long before the juvenile antics of Johhny Depp or Charlie Sheen. Richard bought Liz jaw-droppingly huge gems like the Krupp diamond, which managed to enhance her already stunning decolletage. They drew huge crowds to New York's theater district every night while Burton was starring in Hamlet on Broadway.  People thronged to the theater in the hopes they night see Elizabeth with Richard. They were fixtures on the international Jet Set circuit, partying with Frank Sinatra and Princess Grace.  Meanwhile they made movies, drank to excess--their antics and activities somehow enhancing our hum-drum lives. Nothing about them was to trivial to write about, including England laws impounding Elizabeth's dogs from entering the country.  Liz's solution was to hire a yacht to house her precious pets offshore.  Such were the perks of stardom.

When the Burton's tumultuous union floundered, it seem to signal a long slide.  Had they peaked in our fascination?  Certainly Burton's star had waned.  And while Elizabeth's ballooning weight and less-than-stellar movie choice had dimmed her box office luster, she continued to fascinate.  In the late 70s, I got pretty close to her one night in New York at a very flashy opening of a ballet adaptation of THE MERRY WIDOW starring the great British ballerina, Dame Margot Fonteyn

You sensed that as she aged, Liz wasn't always having a good time.  When the Elizabeth and Richard agreed to star in a Broadway revival of PRIVATE LIVES, the reviews were pretty vicious, but you knew this wasn't a good idea in the first place.  The years in Washington as the wife of Senator John Warner didn't look particularly happy for her either.  Elizabeth Taylor seemed constrained and Washington packed more bullshit than Hollywood ever would.  Besides as a bonafide Hollywood heavyweight, Liz was used to speaking her mind and Washington wasn't the place for her brand of spirited frankness and bawdy humor.

Once she left Washington, Elizabeth Taylor seemed to have a rebirth.  She emerged newly slim and as glamorous as ever in her early-to-mid 50s, her black hair edged with white tips, which only accented her gorgeous eyes. A little discreet plastic surgery had her looking sensational and the paparazzi followed her everywhere, this time canoodling with Malcom Forbes.  Elizabeth Taylor seemed reborn.  And then Rock Hudson, her good friend and former co-star, died of AIDS.  Taylor who had enjoyed close and intimate friendships with Hollywood's gay stars, Montgomery Clift and Roddy McDowall, finally found a second act which would perfectly suit her generosity and star power.  Before taking up the cause of conquering AIDS, the disease was thought of as a deadly, highly contagious "gay" disease.  Elizabeth Taylor give the disease a human dimension.  Her righteous anger at the politics and prejudice coupled with her fame galvanized the public, and she was able to make people look beyond the rumors and ignorance surrounding AIDS, raising millions for a cure.  It was a graceful way to engage her energies.  Elizabeth would never have made a career in TV (can you imagine her starring as Cagney or Lacey?). She wouldn't find success as an aging character actress, and she lacked the stamina and acting chops for a stage career.

Liz threw herself into becoming the face of AIDS.  She launched a perfume line, which helped maintain her lavish lifestyle, and wrote a coffee table book about her fabulous jewelry collection. She managed to get married one more time, and her close friendship with Michael Jackson continued to provide her public with fascination, as did her bad health. Even as she succumbed to deteriorating heart disease, we were not treated to a bedside deathwatch.  Unlike Zsa-Zsa Gabor (the quintessential personality who was famous merely for being famous), who seemed to issue press releases on an hourly basis from her hospital bed with the grim news of leg amputations, etc.,  Elizabeth Taylor slipped away with her dignity intact.

The first Elizabeth Taylor movie I ever saw was WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?  I was sixteen and it shocked me. There was a tremendous amount of publicity surrounding the making of the movie and after it opened.  I recall big spreads in Look and Life magazines. I was too young to appreciate its very adult themes.  But I was far more interested in Richard Burton's performance than I was of Elizbeth's.  It seemed to be very one note.  And whenever her voice rose, it lacked dimension. As a friend later put it, Mike Nichols got a very good performance out of her, but imagine what it might have been in the hands of a great actress.  Elizabeth Taylor's voice never worked for me, and it kept me from enjoying many of her performances.  I liked her work a lot in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and GIANT.  Good as her work is in A PLACE IN THE SUN, Shelley Winters is the performance you remember. My favorite movie of hers is Franco Zeffirelli's sumptuous THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. Taylor made few comedies, but she had a flair for the genre. The VIPs was laughable and both Maggie Smith and Margaret Rutherford steal the movie from Elizabeth and Richard.  He's better than she is.  The scenes with Louis Jordan are embarrassingly comedic in their silliness.

I missed many of her movies of the 60s:  THE SAND PIPER, THE COMEDIANS, BOOM!, HAMMERSMITH IS OUT, X Y AND ZEE, ASH WEDNESDAY, THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN.   I did seem REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, a movie that made no impact on me whatsoever. I do remember her hilariously funny, late-in-the-day turn in THE MIRROR CRACK'D ("Wrinkle, wrinkle, go away," her character said to her mirror.  'Reappear on Doris Day," she finished with mock maliciousness that was truly hilarious).  I preferred the more natural charms of Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren and Doris Day.  Still, there were those gorgeous eyes, the pale skin and all that dark hair to make you overlook her less than brilliant acting.  She was a mesmerizing screen presence.

It's been fourteen years since the death of Princess Diana, and while many famous people have died in the intervening years, including Michael Jackson, I think it's a pretty safe bet that Elizabeth Taylor's passing, while not as shocking, registers just as hugely with the public.

Throughout her life, Elizabeth Taylor never seemed to lose her hold on our imaginations.  Even in the midst of one of the most polarizing love affairs of all time, Elizabeth Taylor provided fascination.  All of her great contemporaries are gone, save Sophia Loren and Doris Day (two stars who has managed to keep the affection of their large fan bases).  Few of the stories I've read since she died, mention that she was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.  But we know Elizabeth Taylor was one of the great Dames of modern times.  She will be missed.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


I know my friends in New York will be highly unimpressed, but we had a snow storm a few weeks ago.  Maybe we got two inches. But it was fun and it didn't last too long.  Rain had it washed away within a few hours and it got sunny again.  These photos were taken at around 7:30 AM.   

The New York State Department of Taxes broadsided me a few weeks ago. Why?  New York State put a lien on my credit report, saying I owed them more than $1500 in tax.  They are liars.  I paid a lot of tax on the sale of my New York apartment, and when I filed my 2009 taxes, I wrote them a check for more than $21,000.  Two months later, they notified me that I was more than $1,500 short of the tax due.  After conferring with my accountant, we found the error and I paid both the state of New York and the Federal government more than $3,000 in additional tax.  In other words, I paid the tax New York State asked me to.  I didn't contest.  I didn't argue.  I figure, you owe the tax--pay the tax.  I have the cancelled checks to prove I paid the tax--last June.

Fast forward to February, 2010--approximately six months later--my banker calls me and says there is a tax lien for the entire $1,500 + on my credit report.  I checked my records and found the cancelled check.  I called New York State Department of Tax where I was rudely accused of ignoring their notices, which I truly never received. The lady on the phone indignantly insisted I was wrong.  "How much more do I owe?" Her reply stunned me:  $20.48!  "If that is all I owe, why was the entire $1,500 listed on the credit report lien."  "We always list the original amount," was her obnoxious reply.  So I lost nearly $12,000 in loans from my bank due to the lying incompetence and mean-spirited attitude of the New York State tax department.  It cost me another $40 more to settle the $20.45 owed plus the cost of a money order and overnight delivery so I could get a quick letter of satisfaction that I had paid this in full for the underwriters of the bank.

Once I calmed down and really looked at the situation I called the NY State Tax thugs back.  "You never sent me any notice for the additional $20.48 and I think you owe me a better explanation for attacking my credit report," I accused.  The pinhead told me it was my fault for being late on the tax in the first place.  Nearly 40 years as a resident in New York and these bullies are treating me like a tax-dodger.  It is infuriating.  I demanded to speak to his boss. She was as unwilling and as unmoving as her predecessor.  I frustration, I accused her of killing me and said, I'm going to kill myself.  She actually took me seriously!  "Mr. Mowery, please tell me you're not thinking of killing yourself over this!"  "What would you suggest?  I've entered Kafkaland, and you're not making one bit of sense," I replied adding a bit more drama than the situation warranted.  Somehow these theatrics turned her back into a sympathetic human being.  We went over the file again and she finally admitted, "I see there was a sincere attempt to pay the tax, so I'm going to try to see if I can get this dismissed from your credit report, but it will take about 30 to 60 days."  My banker told me I would have to start a long letter campaign to get this off my credit report and it could take years. 

The irony here is this incident got me worried about my Federal Tax return.  At the same time I received the notice from NY state, I called the IRS and explained the situation to them.  Two minutes later he said, there was no further monies due the IRS from 2009. But he also stated, if there were late charges, or any other question of your owing the IRS, we would notify you many, many times before attaching a lien to your credit report.  

I'll give the state of New York 60 days and revisit the situation.  I've already drafted a letter with copies to the head of NY state's tax department, the governor, the attorney general, the Congressman of my old district, and both state senators as well as the Albany bureau chief of The New York Times.  If I have to embarrass the state of New York, I'm prepared to do so.  The bums. 

The red rose bush, trimmed and ready for it's first blooms (sometime in June).

Tarragon, which is just coming up now.  While the basil, parsley, mint and oregano didn't survive the winter, the tarragon, chives, thyme, rosemary and sage did. 

New chives

Daffodils just blooming.

The pear tree with a few blooms and the euphorbia with their sci-fi light green flowered tops. 

The white camellia, which is just starting to bloom.  All my neighbor's camellias are either red or pink or 
variegated between red and white.  But I think the pure white camellia makes for a spectacular showing.  
I hope my friend Dyanne will be able to give me ideas on what shape to trim it back when she visits this 
summer.  This shrub is really out of control.

Hydrangea, trimmed of its old dead blooms. 

Weeping Snow Fountain Cherry just blooming. 

We've had some fierce rains these past couple of weeks, and finally, though rain has been forecast, it's been sunny and breezy here Portland. The bulbs I planted last year are finally sprouting and I have a few daffodils.  My Weeping Snow Fountain Cherry tree is just blooming now, as is the grafted pear tree that I bought last summer.  If all goes well, it will produce five different types of pears. I'm still trying to decide if it will go into the front yard this summer when I restore the front yard into a garden (it is now an alternative driveway).  The white camellia is just blooming and they are gorgeous (though my mother is always telling me how much of a mess they make as they shed their blooms.  Camellia blossoms disappear awfully fast when they drop to the ground). The tulips and iris I planted last fall (and one iris that is still in the pot) are all sending up news leaves.  The lilac is leafing and so is the mystery shrub next to it.  The lilies and grape hyacinths are also shooting up.  All three hydrangeas have lots of new green leaves, which prompted me to prune the old dead blooms off of them.  I'm about to begin looking for hearty hanging plants to hang outside my dining room.  I'm getting sick of seeing last year's dead plants staring at me.  I miss the spectacular yellow variegated coleus from last year, which I brought in.  While the other coleus plants have survived, that one, alas, is down to two cuttings which I saved for rooting which they are now doing in my kitchen window.  I'd hate to lose that beautiful plant.  

I finally bought a Kindle, and I'm waiting for it to arrive.  I have a few books I'd love to begin reading and can't wait to start downloading them.  

The news from Japan and Libya is very scary right now and I'm hoping the U.S. won't get sucked into a long and involving military action there, though it seems that lots of people, including Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, are wanting for the U.S. to become involved.  I think Europe has far more at stake there and the United States shouldn't be leading the charge in every conflict.  Besides, at a time when Congress is slashing budgets does it make sense to increase the one budget that desperately needs to be pruned:  defense.  Some bonehead on CNN said a recent poll suggest that 46% of Americans would be in favor of us engaging in a military intervention in Libya.  Some Americans have no sense of how seriously bad our economy is, and engaging in another armed conflict is only going to make it worse.  

I'm not sure Japan has asked for the world's help in getting their nuclear reactors under control. But they should. I'm very concerned their government hasn't been more forthcoming about how serious the danger a nuclear meltdown is in those four reactors in NW Japan. 

Time to get back to preparing my tax returns.  Ugh. 

I found this green glass head, which I'm using to hold my old fur hat, which my friend Jon gave me for Christmas years ago.  I'll never wear it out here, because even in the cold of New York City winters, it makes my head boil with heat.  But it's lots of fun to have this glass head to hold and and prevent it from permanently creasing the fur.