Elizabeth Taylor in the Flesh

BY Tom LeGro  March 23, 2011 at 2:12 PM EDT

'Butterfield 8' posterIt was 1960, and I was learning how to be a journalist in New York, at Columbia University. At the age of 21, I had a lot to learn, as you will see.

For our “practice” newspaper, the editor assigned me to go down to Fifth Avenue and check out a movie that was in production. It was called ‘Butterfield 8,’ and I didn’t know anything about it. “Do a feature on the process,” he told me. So I hopped on the subway and made my way to a large apartment building opposite Central Park, where there were movie trucks and lights. I figured I could write a little something about how movies are made.

I asked someone how I could find out what was going on, and a bit later a public relations person appeared and told me to have a seat in the lobby and he’d see what he could do. After about 10 minutes, as I was wondering how I could make a story out of nothing, a gorgeous woman in a very expensive fur coat appeared and sat down next to me and asked if I wanted to talk. Even I knew she was Elizabeth Taylor.

I had no idea what to do.

So I started asking about the first thing (or maybe the second) that popped into my mind: a celebrated murder trial that was captivating the nation. Everybody was talking about it. Bernard Finch, a wealthy, middle aged Los Angeles surgeon, and his 20-year-old girlfriend, Carole Tregoff, were accused of murdering Finch’s 35-year-old wife so they could carry on their torrid affair and keep the doctor’s fortune. Both were eventually convicted.

Taylor was glad to talk about the trial, but she didn’t know any more about it than I did. Still, I diligently took notes and failed to ask anything about the movie star who was graciously giving a young student a rare private interview. And 51 years later, I’m still kicking myself for this: I forgot to ask her about her role in “Butterfield 8” or the scene she had just finished shooting.

In the film, as I learned later when I finally saw the movie, Taylor plays a high-priced call girl. Naked (we don’t see that; remember it’s 1960), she gets out of bed, throws on a slip, writes a nasty note in lipstick on the mirror, grabs the fancy coat and leaves the apartment to hail a cab.

Little did I know that underneath that lovely fur coat she was wearing — while I chatted with her — Taylor had almost nothing on.

I went back to the newsroom and wrote a terrible, self-conscious story about how a young student-reporter had been flustered when given a chance to interview a real movie star, one-on-one. That was not the story, commented my professor.

Today — when I heard of Taylor’s death — it all came flooding back.