March 28, 2011 — -- We all know about Elizabeth Taylor the movie star, the glamour queen, the AIDS activist.
But what about Elizabeth Taylor, the mother?
In all the coverage of Taylor's life, her children seemed like little more than a footnote. She had four of them: two sons by her second husband Michael Wilding, a daughter by her third husband Mike Todd, and an adopted daughter with her fifth and sixth husband Richard Burton.
"I don't think we heard a lot about her as a mother because we don't tend to think of mothers as so glamorous," said William J. Mann, author of "How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood." "She was this globetrotting beautiful siren who kept them out of the spotlight -- she wasn't pushing them onto TV shows as some famous parents do. there wasn't a lot of use of her children in the media."
Even so, their lives, like hers, took dramatic turns.
Michael Howard Wilding, 58, acted for many years, most prominently as Jackson Freemont on the now-off-air soap opera "Guiding Light." In his teens and twenties, he showed a rebellious streak, decamping to India and then England to form a rock band, and fathering two daughters with two different women before settling down with his current wife, Brooke Palance, the daughter of actor Jack Palance.
Christopher Wilding, 55, works as a photographer and film editor. He famously married oil heiress Aileen Getty in 1981. Before their wedding, Taylor threw a star-studded party for the couple, hosting Sissy Spacek, Carol Burnett, Dudley Moore and more of her A-list friends at the home of home of Aileen's divorced mother, Gail Harris Getty.
Christopher Wilding and Aileen Getty's marriage also didn't last -- they divorced in 1989, and two years later, Aileen Getty revealed that she was HIV positive.
Liza Burton Tivey, 53, went to a tony private school in Gstaad, Switzerland and dabbled in acting. Considering her upbringing, it was a natural pursuit. "When Elizabeth was making 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,' she had Liza on the set with her quite a bit," Mann said.
But even from an early age, it seemed clear that Burton Tivey didn't want to stay in the spotlight. At a party Taylor and Burton threw after one of her school performances, a reporter from Britain's The Daily Mail asked Burton Tivey if she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who became a star at age 12. Her reply: "An actress? Urggh." She chose instead to work as a sculptor in upstate New York, where she lives with her husband, two sons and their horses.
Taylor began the process of adopting her second daughter, a German orphan, with her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher. After they divorced, Burton helped Taylor adopt the little girl, whom they named Maria Burton.
Taylor reportedly had Maria go through nearly two dozen surgeries to correct a genetic defect in her hips. In her teens and twenties, she tried out modeling and fashion design, and later started a talent agency with her first husband, Steve Carson. Their marriage soured in 2000, and when Maria fled to Taylor's home with her 2-year-old son, Carson publicly blamed Taylor for using her star power to tear his family apart.
"Elizabeth becomes the mother hen when those kids were threatened," Mann said. "She took Maria's side and bore the brunt of the criticism through that ordeal."
Now 49, Burton is out of the entertainment industry and lives in Idaho.
Elizabeth Taylor, Mother
While Taylor's romantic relationships with men waxed and waned throughout her life, her children stood by her. In 2000, they all convened at Buckingham Palace to watch her be made a Dame of the British Empire. They admitted, though, that having a Hollywood icon as a mom made growing up far from ordinary.
"When my mother started having her affair with Richard [Burton], it was overwhelming," Michael Howard Wilding once said, according to The Daily Mail. "We were in Italy at the time and the paparazzi were going wild. They were crawling all over the walls and around the villa. I remember once we were given permission to use the garden hose on the telephoto lenses peering over the wall."
Taylor took steps to keep the cameras off her children. Her daughters reportedly had more than a dozen security guards when they were in Rome with her and Burton.
"Christopher Wilding once said to me, 'My mother protected us from the circus,'" Mann said. "That didn't mean they didn't see paparazzi -- sometimes, there was no way to avoid it. In general, she was very protective of them."
But not always present.
'She wasn't a hands-on mother, necessarily," Mann said. "There were a lot of nannies and assistants to take care of the kids. She was more of the pal than the disciplinarian. She was the kind of mother who said, 'I'm here if you want to talk to me.' She was only 18 when she had Michael, they weren't that far apart in age, and she took that approach with all of them."
Holidays were a different story. Taylor, who converted to Judaism for her marriages to Todd and Fisher, celebrated "anything and everything," according to Mann.
"Especially when she was married to Richard Burton, holidays could be enormous," he said. "Richard's daughter would join them, they would go on the yacht, the Kalizma. Later, it would be with John Warner's family. There were always a lot of kids, grand kids, friends, spouses and all of that."
The four children reunited at Taylor's funeral last week. Michael Howard Wilding and Liza Burton Tivey read at the service; two of Taylor's ten grandsons performed as well.
It remains to be seen how Taylor's massive estate -- worth approximately $600 million -- will be distributed among her children. Her will is expected to be read this week, and a Friday report from The Daily Mail said that Taylor's manager and confidant, Jason Winters, might inherit more of her fortune than her children. But Mann said he can't see that happening.
"I would be surprised if she didn't make accommodations for the four kids," he said. "She really did care about them. Unlike so many Hollywood families, they were very happy. They were very fond of their mother and were close to her till the end."