Elizabeth Taylor, 18, and Nick Hilton, 23, were married on May 6, 1950 at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. This article is based on observations in “Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star” by Kitty Kelley and “A Passion For Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor” by David Spoto.
Without the star power of Elizabeth Taylor, the GOP probably would have lost the 1978 U.S. Senate race in Virginia. Her then husband, John Warner, was elected with 50.2% of the vote. Taylor participated in numerous party functions in those years, and Republicans should be grateful to her. Her vigorous support of Israel is also admirable, and she was associated with many charitable endeavors, especially AIDS research.
She also volunteered to join Bob Hope on his USO tours. Her obituaries this week prominently noted her eight relatively brief marriages. Her first marriage lasted only eight months, and it essentially ended on the honeymoon. It was nevertheless a notable event for being the most newsworthy wedding in Hollywood social history.
Taylor signed an MGM contract at age 10 during the golden age of the studio system. From that point on her education was limited to three hours a day at the inadequate school house on the movie lot. Even as a senior citizen her spelling was poor.
The word sexy was always spelled as saxy by Taylor, but no one would correct her. College was not an option for the movie star. Taylor achieved fame at 12 with her starring role in National Velvet which won two Academy Awards. At age 18, Taylor married Conrad (Nick) Hilton, Jr, on May 6, 1950, and it was truly the wedding of the year with celebrities begging for an invitation.
Hilton’s father was founder of the hotel chain and had a 1950 net worth of $125 million (over $1 billion today). The senior Hilton was then 63 and had just divorced Zsa Zsa Gabor, 37, and was dating MGM dancer Ann Miller, 27.
The wedding took place exactly one month before the release of Taylor’s acclaimed movie Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracey.
Publicity for the wedding and the movie were intertwined. MGM paid for the lavish reception at the Bel Air Country Club, as well as the $3,500 wedding dress. At the reception Taylor had lengthy conversations with Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and Sheilah Graham, the reigning gossip columnists of the 1950s. Hopper’s headline was “I am so glad I waited for Nick.” Parsons quoted her as saying “Nick and I are now one forever and ever.”
- Their 14 week honeymoon was immediately marred by too much attention. Everywhere they went the crowds were enormous, and the MGM publicity machine kept it that away. When the couple arrived in New York City they stayed in the plush presidential suite of the Waldorf Astoria, which is still the headquarters of the Hilton chain. After a few days they departed on the HMS Queen Mary for three and half months in Europe. When they arrived on board there was a handwritten note from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor asking them to dinner that evening, which they accepted.
- Beginning in Monte Carlo and throughout Europe, Taylor devoted two hours a day to signing autographs and posing for photos. The stories about marital discord began three weeks into the marriage as the couple pursued separate activities in Europe. She was shopping, on the beach and water skiing without him, and he was gambling without her.
- The marriage did not survive the honeymoon and when the Queen Mary arrived back in New York, Taylor immediately checked into a hospital. Hilton told his mother-in-law that Elizabeth was hysterical, and the mother of the bride promptly told her daughter to “grow up.”
- In NYC the couple gave Louella Parsons an exclusive interview which resulted in an article saying everything was perfect with the newlyweds. They both told Parsons they were very happy, which was far from the truth. The couple then returned to Los Angeles but the marriage was beyond repair.
- A bridesmaid said Taylor had mood swings and was frequently depressed. She “required 100% total attention, and Nick was not capable of that.” Taylor was at a brunch with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh when a screen writer arrived an hour late. She picked up a cake and smashed it into his face.
- Two months later Taylor spent a week at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. This began a pattern which remained for the rest of her life. Anytime she encountered emotional strain, Taylor headed to a hospital. She claimed to have exotic illnesses and was always preoccupied with medicine.
- When she left the hospital, Taylor immediately filed for divorce, and charged her husband with “extreme mental cruelty.” Her action was not contested. She cried in front of the judge and said Hilton had used abusive language and left her alone on the honeymoon.
- The wedding presents included two mink coats and a $65,000 ring. All the presents were placed in storage when the honeymoon began, and the plan was to have them sent to a new home in Bel Air. That never happened and the presents remained in storage for 22 years. Taylor also held on to her stock in the hotel chain. It split several times before she sold it for $141,000.
- For the rest of his life the hotel heir would be referred to as “playboy Nicky Hilton.” He did not speak to the press, did not criticize Taylor, and said he was immature at the time of the wedding. The media described him as an alcoholic, a gambler, a drug abuser, self centered and spoiled. He was always described as the cause of the break-up, but in hindsight it now appears there were two sides to this failed marriage, and it is doubtful either the bride or groom was blameless.
- Hilton’s later girlfriends, Natalie Wood and Joan Collins, both portrayed him as devout Catholic who would never marry outside his religion. He always carried rosary beads and gave Wood a crucifix. Hilton made Taylor sign a prenuptial agreement which said their children would be raised Catholic, she would not use birth control and she would not seek a divorce.
- Five years after the divorce, Hilton wanted to be remarried in the Catholic church. This was not possible because Taylor refused an annulment. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 42 in 1969. His death occurred more than a decade before the birth of Paris and her sister Nicky Hilton, who was named after him.
- Taylor’s CNN obituary yesterday concluded by noting:
No leading film actress today, not even Angelina Jolie, can claim to have an off-screen life as riveting, as tumultuous, and as entertaining. When people call Elizabeth Taylor the “last star,” they speak of her as the final member in a glorious parade of personalities — Gable, Cooper, Dietrich, Hepburn, Wayne, Tracy — whose magnetism grew solely in dark rooms smelling like popcorn and illuminated on a big screen. No one could claim her place in that line now. No one should.