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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Elizabeth Taylor’s recent passing means that she is making headlines again, something she has done for over half a century.

In my study of celebrity fan magazines I came across her name and image repeatedly, especially after she transitioned from being a child star to an acclaimed actress as an adult.

Taylor’s life in fan magazines reflects the major changes celebrity coverage underwent from World War II to the present. While stars under contract with the major studios could typically count on favorable coverage, as the studios’ power crumbled in the late 1950s—the height of Taylor’s movie career—gradually coverage became more critical. And Taylor was on the vanguard of this shift.

Her 1950 marriage to Nicky Hilton at age eighteen took place at a time when many teens married. (The median age of first marriage in 1950 was 20.3 according to Census data). In the years after the war, fan magazines often swooned over celebrity marriages and babies, even those to teens.

When Taylor and Hilton divorced a year later, the typically star-friendly Photoplay pounced, running an article called “Liz: Spoiled Brat or Mixed-Up Teenager.” The story not only criticized her for seeming to marry impetuously, but appeared to take her divorce particularly hard. “The fairy tale’s over,” concluded the author.

Other celebrities who divorced during the postwar years received similar negative coverage, especially if a female celebrity appeared unwilling to put marriage and family ahead of career and fame.

But this would be tame compared with what lay ahead. When Eddie 1958_09_COVER compressedFisher left wife Debbie Reynolds to marry Taylor, she and Fisher were blamed for destroying what had been perceived as America’s golden couple. Reynolds and Fisher appeared in many fan magazines, such as the 1958 Photoplay cover at right, starring as the “ideal” young postwar couple.

Taylor and Fisher’s relationship would come to an infamous end in 1962 after she and Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton were caught at the end of a telephoto lens, kissing on a yacht.

Published in Life magazine, this picture helped usher in the era of paparazzi and “gotcha” celebrity coverage. As the studio system gradually faded away and the powerful institutions that once offered some protection against negative publicity faltered, Taylor found herself on the frontlines in the new world of celebrity coverage. She and Burton became frequent fodder for fan magazines.

“How long can Burton hold Liz—and his liquor too?” a 1964 Photoplay story asked. Was he having an affair? Did they have an open marriage? These speculative stories published in the 1970s reveal the significant changes that took place in celebrity coverage. Her weight gain also made headlines years before it became commonplace to slam celebrities for their changing bodies.

While conducting the research, one of my research assistants commented that she was surprised that fan magazines had been so hard on celebrities back then, especially one that we have known as a grand dame of Hollywood in recent years. Taylor paved the path that many celebrities today experience, learning how to navigate life in the public eye.

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