In 1977, I was in the warm-up area at the Washington, D.C. International Horse Show when I saw Elizabeth Taylor walking toward a carriage that was lined up, ready to go into the arena. Remarkably, she was not surrounded by press or security, so I approached her and said hello. She turned and smiled at me and I found myself gazing into those famous violet eyes.
“Miss Taylor,” I said, “We should be seeing you in ‘International Velvet’ next year.”
She laughed and said those days were behind her but she appreciated the thought. A footman helped her into the carriage and off she went in to the ring.
Since Taylor’s death yesterday I’ve been thinking about that brief encounter and how it made me watch “National Velvet” again. Tonight may be a good time for another viewing of the film that launched a career like no other. Here’s the movie trailer. See if you can resist.
Set in the 1920s, the story is about a 12-year-old English girl, Velvet Brown, who rescues a horse from the killers. With the help of a young drifter (Mickey Rooney) she trains “The Pie” for the Grand National at Aintree, the most demanding steeplechase in the world. When she realizes that the jockey they’ve hired doesn’t believe in The Pie, Velvet disguises herself as a male jockey and rides to victory.
The 11-year-old Taylor first met the horse she was to ride at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. The 7-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, King Charles, was a grandson of Man o’ War trained as a hunter-jumper. His wealthy socialite owner offered him for use in the movie.
Taylor fed and rode the chestnut gelding every day, and a bond developed between the girl and the horse. On the set, he would do anything for Taylor, but was inclined to nip at anyone else.
After filming was completed, King Charles was given to Taylor on her birthday and remained in her possession the rest of his life.
In 1956 Taylor had another role as a horsewoman, in “Giant,” filmed in Texas.
Over the years since then, Taylor’s continuing interest in horses was apparent. She was often seen at major Thoroughbred races in Europe and the U.S., including the 1968 Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which she attended with then-husband Richard Burton.
From 1976 to 1982 she was married to Virginia senator John Warner, an avid horseman. The couple lived at Warner’s Atoka Farm in Virginia and were often seen at equestrian events (such as the Washington International Horse Show where I met her).
In 1986 she attended the races at California’s Hollywood Park with Michael Jackson. The same year she returned to Kentucky, to attend the races at Keeneland with George Hamilton.
Is it a reach to say that these appearances reveal a life-long bond with horses? Watch Taylor in “National Velvet,” and you tell me.