“The contemplation of beauty causes the soul to grow wings.”
I must confess to a secret character flaw. Ever since childhood I have been strangely attracted to the dark side . . . in the form of black-haired beauties.
It all began when I entered the third grade in our two-room country school in my birthplace of Selma, Arkansas. That year for some reason the school at Florence, Arkansas, a similar rural community a few miles up the road where Mari’s family came from, began to transfer its students to the Selma Elementary School.
One of those students was a darling young girl named Lynell Hays who sat right in front of me in one of those old-fashioned folding-seat desks. In my memory at least, she had the most beautiful black hair I had ever seen. It was prominently and profusely paraded right in front of my boyish eyes all day long, every day. I was immediately and irreversibly captivated by that vision of raven loveliness, a luxurious pool of shimmering ink into which I was quickly and helplessly swallowed up.
Obviously, I had a crush on the owner of those ebony ringlets, but since I was far too timid to express my feelings, the object of my affection never knew of my devotion. It was more than twenty years later that I learned that Lynell was Mari’s first cousin. And it was more than sixty years later at the fundraiser for the Selma Methodist Church this past May that I learned that my classmate Lamar Daniels of Selma had harbored similar feelings for the lovely Lynell. I assume he never told her of his devotion either, which is just as well because he was much more attractive to the young girls than I would ever have been.
So that first romance with a black-haired beauty was a lost cause from the beginning.
Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair
Black is the color of my true love’s hair.
Her lips are like some rosy fair.
The purest eyes and the neatest hands,
I love the ground whereon she stands . . .
—Traditional Appalachian folk song
My second romance with a black-haired beauty was more successful, though it too eventually failed.
Her name was Martha but I called her “Fred.” She was the daughter of a couple of family friends in our hometown of McGehee, Arkansas. Since her parents and mine got together often, I had known her from her earliest childhood.
So patiently (and not so patiently) I waited for her to grow up, or at least to become of sufficient age for me to start dating her—which I did in the summer of 1958 when she was a junior in high school and I was a junior in Ouachita Baptist College.
That steady romance lasted two years until 1960 when “Fred” graduated from high school and entered college, and I graduated from Ouachita and entered graduate school in a different university. After a rather shaky on-and-off relationship, the romance ended permanently on Christmas Day 1961.
Looking back on that traumatic experience I eventually realized what the problem was between us. Since “Fred’s” father and mine were both cattlemen, the basis of their longtime friendship, I assumed that what she and I had going for us was the fact that we were both country. That was true, but the problem was that she was country club, and I was country clod.
So that second romance with a black-haired beauty also failed.
Blame It All on Liz Taylor!
But now after loving you, what else is there to do?
For honey, all the rest is just gonna have to be second best.
I know I’ll go through life comparing her to you.
That’s ’cause I’m no good, I’m no good to anyone, after loving you.
Besides being woefully mistaken in thinking I could ever attract or retain the affection of either of the preceding black beauties, my other problem was unrealistic expectations—of myself and of the objects of my affection.
Part of that problem resided in the fact that I had even earlier fallen hopelessly and eternally in love with the very icon of black beauty, Elizabeth Taylor, for whom I reserved total and undying admiration, adulation, and adoration.
That third and doomed romance also began in childhood, mine and hers, with her appearances as an adolescent in movies like Lassie Come Home, Courage of Lassie, and National Velvet. It continued with her roles as a blossoming young lady in films such as Little Women, Father of the Bride, Father’s Little Dividend, and Ivanhoe.
A Thing of Beauty Never Dies
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams . . .
That infatuation with Elizabeth Taylor has never ended, as evidenced by an email I sent to several friends at the time of her death on March 23, 2011.
In that email, which began with the above quotation from Keats, I described a dream I had about Liz a few days before she died in which I got to visit her in person. In our conversation I was able to share with her my quote about her: “Elizabeth Taylor is the most beautiful creature God ever made—except for Mari, of course!” When she smiled and told me that it was sweet, I replied, “Oh, Miss Taylor, I have loved you since we were both children.”
When I woke up, I told Mari, “Instead of my usual nightmares, I just had a sweet dream about Elizabeth Taylor and was able to say goodbye to her.” That dream gave me a sense of closure.
My Letter about Liz Taylor
“Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.”
But that dream was not my first personal “encounter” with Elizabeth Taylor, as evidenced by the attached letter and photo that I once wrote about her and to her:
6 February 1995
Good Housekeeping Magazine
959 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10019
Dear Sir or Madam:
Imagine the shock to my fifty-six-year-old male system when, while leaning over the kitchen bar gazing deeply and longingly into those spellbinding violet eyes which graced the cover of your March issue, I suddenly saw Elizabeth Taylor wink…right at me!
Although obviously and undeniably a sign from Saint Valentine of long-last requited love, my jealous wife of thirty-two years tries to laugh it off as merely a cruel hoax played on me by a combination of “an overactive imagination, wishful thinking, and slipping bifocals.”
Yeah, sure. And I suppose that fluttering in my chest was ’cause I forgot to take my heart medication!
Oh, she of little faith.
xc: Elizabeth Taylor
I will miss Elizabeth Taylor, but I now have five photos of her (including this one) above my computer, taken at different stages of her life. I look at them several times a day . . . and sigh. I also start each day saying, “Mornin’ Liz, I sure do wish you would wink at me again!”
My Final and Successful Romance:
“Love Is Blond”
The girl that I marry will have to be
As soft and as pink as a nursery . . .
—Song I used to sing to Mari while we were dating,
taken from the musical Annie Get Your Gun
(To see a video of it performed by Tom Wopat
and Bernadette Peters, click here)
Yet, isn’t it a strange quirk of fate that for all of my attraction to black beauties I ended up marrying a blonde beauty whose “signature color” is pink? But there is a reason.
Last December 27, I went forward at church, put a dollar in the Joy Jar, and said:
“Today Mari and I have been married forty-eight years. The only smart thing I ever did in my life was marryin’ Marion. But even that I can’t take credit for. She and my mother and God got together and worked out that whole deal. All I did was show up and say, ‘I do.’
“But I’m awful glad I had at least enough sense to do that. ’Cause not only is she much younger [four years younger] and much prettier than I am, she’s also much smarter than I am. But then y’all already knew that. Which means that y’all are smarter than I am too, ’cause it took me years to figure that out.
“But by then it was too late. It was a done deal.
“So, you young people, be careful who you say ‘I do’ to. You just might end up like me—happy and blessed!”