Elizabeth Taylor's infamously outrageous jewelry collection is up for sale on December 13th at Christie's in New York and I'm wondering what new queen will end up with her wandering (the translation of the word Le Peregrina) pearl. The pearl, favored by queens, even by the Queen of Hollywood, was discovered in Panama by an African slave diver around 1550 and, like its last movie star mistress, this pearl had a Big Time reputation. Unfortunately, it was for getting lost, sometimes for a lifetime.
The Peregrina was always worn by queens and lost by queens, once lost in a couch in Windsor Castle. The Spanish master, Diego Velazquez, in the mid 1600s painted Queen Isabel wearing the pearl, and he also painted young sweet Mary, Queen of England wearing the pearl before she became Bloody Mary and had her namesake niece, Mary Queen of Scots, beheaded.
The story of Elizabeth Taylor losing the Peregrina Pearl in the recent book on loving her jewels is false. The writer was not there in the room, as I was. I am still here to tell the tale as I do in my book, It's All About The Dress, about all the adventures in my unusual life, having been thrown into the crazy world of fashion and Hollywood at only twenty.
We were holed up in the lavish red and white Valentine Suite in Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas while shooting The Only Game in Town. Elizabeth was co-starring with Warren "Beauty" (her nickname for him) Beatty, and her husband Richard Burton was more than a little bit interested in his male counterpart, the only other actor to score more leading ladies than him. February14th was approaching and Richard had to prove his love with a jewel.
As I learned from Elizabeth, Lesson One in romance is teaching your man to show his love with a jewel -- be it your anniversary, birthday, Christmas or, in this case, Valentine's Day. One of Elizabeth's favorite indoor games was thinking of ways she could charm men into buying her jewels -- whether her husband or the current movie producer for the typical end of movie gift. Her love of jewels stemmed from Mike Todd, who gave her priceless jewels, including a complete set of rubies and diamonds, as well as a large engagement ring.
Mike Todd was larger than life. My ex-father-in-law Bunny Berkeley told me that he was once asked to decorate Todd's office at MGM during the 1950s. Todd was filming Around the World in 80 Daysand he asked Bunny to decorate his office to look "substantial." He said he wanted to spend $60,000, which was quite a lot of money to spend on art antiques and rugs, especially in the 1950s. Try as he might, Bunny only managed to spend $40,000. When Todd saw the office, he told Bunny he loved it. But when the bill arrived he became furious and yelled at Bunny, "I told you to spend $60,000, not $40,000! And God dammit, now go out and spend $60,000 or you are fired!"
With that kind of legacy, Richard did not want to be outdone by a previous husband. He went out and bought his beloved wife an emerald set and now he was buying her the Peregrina pearl. It was being brought to Vegas by Ward Landrigan from Sotheby's. Ward visited Elizabeth once a year, trying to entice her with various large gems, saying she could keep them for a day to try them out. This time he brought La Peregrina with a very large art book showing the pearl around the head of La Infanta of Spain.
Which brings us to Lesson Two: do not try out priceless jewels. We were in the Valentine Suite in our pajamas. The walls were hot pink, the carpet was four inches of white shag, and Elizabeth's little white Pekinese dog, Ofie, looked like part of the decor. The couches were red velvet and the furniture was gold. Upstairs a hot pink staircase curved up to the master bedroom where Richard lay fast asleep in a red, heart-shaped water bed -- dead to the world. His plan was to present the royal gem to Elizabeth the next day, Valentine's Day. However, Elizabeth managed to charm Uncle Ward and he agreed to leave the pearl in the suite so she could relish it with her girlfriends. He retired, with plans to return early the next morning and hand the pearl over to Richard.
Elizabeth had called the girls in for a pajama party, including her hairdresser, Claude Bozacchi, and myself. The three of us took turns trying on the pearl, which sat alone in a black velvet box. We each put it on our forehead, in our hair, on our pajamas, and then we put it back in the box. At one point we ordered room service and three rolling trays arrived with fried chicken and champagne when we heard Elizabeth's blood curdling scream, "Oh my God... !!!"
The Peregrina Pearl was gone! Luckily, Richard was sound asleep upstairs and did not wake up. At first we thought the room service waitress had stolen the pearl, but the hostess had never been to the back part of the immense suite where we sat on the red couches overlooking the wall-to-wall glass view of the sparkling city. The black velvet box on the coffee table was empty. We looked at each other with declared innocence and promised it was no joke.
Down on our hands and knees, from midnight to dawn, we went through every inch of the white shag carpet until we were dead from exhaustion. With a little help from the champagne we all three fell asleep, myself on the floor. Richard got up first at 6 AM to make coffee and write in his diary. After coffee he planned to call Ward to come over with the pearl. We heard him get up as we pretended to still be asleep. How to tell him? Who would be brave enough and who would take the fall?
With the three of us lying around, Richard walked into the room and went to the kitchen for his coffee and came right out again. I opened one eye, and watched him wake up Elizabeth and hand her the pearl. "Here," he said. "I found your dog in his bed chewing on this!"
After three hundred years of Infantas and queens wearing the worlds most famous pearl, a little white dog's tooth marks could possibly be there if you are lucky enough to get up close, a reminder of a different kind of queen.
Richard Burton was quoted as buying the Peregrina pearl because it was owned by a Welchman, but it was really owned by a Scot. As a fun twist of fate, when my Florida fishing boat captain husband Big Mike traced his Scotch Hamilton ancestry back to James Hamilton, his great-great uncle, he found the current James Hamilton, the Duke of Abercorn, had sold the Peregrina pearl his family had bought in the 1880s from Charles Louis Bonaparte for his wife Louise Hamilton, Duchess of Albecorn. The Duchess was the one who later lost the pearl at Windsor Castle, it found its way to Sotheby's in 1969, and it was then sold it to Burton for only $37,000, proving that it is indeed a small world.
VICKY TIEL began designing clothes forty years ago in Paris and still owns a boutique there. Her couture dresses are available in Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, and her perfumes are carried in Perfumania. Her memoir, IT'S ALL ABOUT THE DRESS: What I Learned in 40 Years about Men, Women, Sex, and Fashion was published by St. Martin's Press in August 2011.