When it was announced that silver screen legend Elizabeth Taylor had passed away at age 79 on March 23 of congestive heart failure, Hannon Bell’s telephone began to ring.
“I received plenty of condolences,” the Winnipeg REALTOR® told the WREN. “It’s almost like she was a relative.”
Of course, Bell is not related to the London-born movie icon, but he is noted for having “the finest Elizabeth Taylor collection in the world,” according to her biographer C. David Heymann.
Bell’s vast collection includes 100 binders containing over 20,000 photos of Taylor, who was referred to as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” including black-and-white glossies, colour photos, rare and never before published photos, rare studio photos, as well as magazine and news clippings.
Bell said he methodically and meticulously compiled his collection, beginning when she first appeared on a movie screen at age nine in 1941’s There’s One Born Every Minute in which she was an unbilled performer, and eventually amassing an encyclopedic-style-catalogue of her life.
Taylor became a film star at age 12 when National Velvet was released.
According to biographer Alexander Walker, viewers and critics fell in love with Taylor playing the role in which she overcame adversity to win the Grand National, riding her character’s beloved horse. Walker said she was an inspiration to “people who have never seen a girl on horseback, or maybe a horse race for that matter — who believe that anything is possible ... A philosophy of life, in other words ... a film ... which has acquired the status of a generational classic.”
“All her life was spent in the spotlight,” said Bell. “The camera lens and the public loved her.”
The fact he has amassed such a vast collection attracted the attention of the media in 1973 when the first article about his “hobby” was published. Since then, other articles have appeared in local newspapers, and magazines such as People, Life, Scoop and Celebrity that have a North American following. As well, he has been interviewed on television and radio about his extensive collection of Taylor memorabilia.
After the announcement of Taylor’s passing, Bell was again called upon by the media to comment on the life of the woman who first came to his attention when he saw her in the 1963 film extravaganza, Cleopatra, at the Metropolitan Theatre in Winnipeg. It was this movie that made her a superstar, which is reflected in her then unheard of $1-million salary to play the title character.
At the time, Bell was fascinated with the history of Ancient Egypt, which prompted him to see the three-hour epic starring Taylor, Rex Harrison, who played Julius Caesar, and her two-times married and two-times divorced husband Richard Burton, who played Mark Antony.
In real life, she was married and divorced eight times to seven different men, beginning with her first husband, Nicky Hilton, in May 1950. Her last marriage was to Larry Fortensky, a man 20 years her junior. The five-year marriage to the construction worker ended in 1996. She was also the mother of four children.
“I was a 13 year old who fell in love with this 30-year-old woman,” said Bell.
At the time, Bell had no idea that he would eventually amass the ultimate Taylor collection. The collection began innocently enough, with a few pasted news pictures from Cleopatra on a school clipboard, but getting his hands on other Taylor memorabilia soon became a
Among Bell’s artifacts of Taylor’s career is a 466-page typewritten shooting script for Cleopatra, which was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Bell obtained the script while attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, located in Pasadena, California, in 1992.
“I’d say it was rare when I got that one,” Bell said about the Cleopatra script. “It was the only one I am aware of that was available at the time.”
Bell said his dedication over the years to his collection doesn’t classify him as being just another Elizabeth Taylor “fan.”
“I don’t like the word and I don’t consider myself a fan. I consider myself to be an archivist, an historian, who has an intelligent understanding of her life and career.”
As far as his collection, Bell calls it a “hobby that sort of got out of hand.”
“People will remember her as an important, if not the most important, personality of the 20th century,” said Bell.
People will remember Taylor well
after they have forgotten about most modern-day film stars, he added.
“She may have been beautiful and she may have been talented, but she had a conscience,” Bell said of Taylor. “She never lived in the past. She always looked forward, so she did a variety of things after her acting career.”
Taylor became an AIDS activist after the death of her friend, film star Rock Hudson, of complications arising from the disease. Her work to promote AIDS awareness and research earned her
a special Oscar, the Jean Hersholt
Humanitarian Award, in 1993.
She also won two best actress Oscars, and her 55 film credits included memorable roles in such acclaimed movies as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Place in the Sun, Butterfield 8, Giant, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and The Taming of the Shrew.
Bell’s one regret is that he didn’t personally meet Taylor. In 1981, he was scheduled to see her when Taylor was playing on Broadway in The Little Foxes. Unfortunately, their encounter was cancelled when Taylor sent a note that she was not feeling well.
By this time, it was well known that her health was deteriorating. In fact, she was plagued by illness and injury throughout much of her life. She would undergo 20 major surgeries, including the removal of a benign brain tumour in 1997. As well, she acknowledged a 35-year addiction to drugs and alcohol in 1993, and subsequently underwent treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage in California.
Although their meeting was cancelled, Bell managed to take three photos of Taylor in New York
Despite having never met Taylor in person, Bell did make contact with the film legend while she was alive.
“Her people saw an article published in 1976,” he explained. The article contained a picture of Bell wearing a T-shirt inscribed with “Hannon’s Passion — Elizabeth Taylor.”
Bell also sang the song he composed about the film star, The Lavender Lady — one of three he has written about her — to Taylor’s press agents, John Springer and Chen Sam, over the telephone, which contains the chorus, “She’s the lady, oh yes ... my
passion, my passion, my passion.”
Lavender happened to be Taylor’s favourite colour.
The agents then told Taylor about Bell’s song.
“She wrote asking me to send her two T-shirts, one small and one medium,” said Bell. “She even sent me her full address in Switzerland, something she rarely did, and she really didn’t know me at the time.”
Bell is convinced that the T-shirts and the song composed for her became the inspiration behind Taylor’s multi-million dollar line of Passion perfume.
In 2005, Bell put his Taylor collection up for sale with an asking price of over $900,000.
“The only reason I wanted to sell it was just that it was overpowering my life, and I felt that at the time I would rather sell it while she was alive,” he explained.
“I could then sell it with a clear conscience. I wanted to pass it on to someone who would appreciate it.”
There were no takers, although he did get what he considered a serious inquiry about the collection from Germany.
Bell said he is again contemplating placing the 20,000-item on the market, “if the right person should come along.” If he should successfully sell his vast collection, he would honour the memory of
Taylor and give a portion of the sale’s proceeds to her AIDS charity.
The media recently reported that much of Taylor’s nearly $1-billion estate is to be given to the AIDS
charity she established.
“We all have hobbies,” wrote Bell in his brochure promoting the original sale of his Taylor collection. “Some come, some go. My hobby, collecting mainly photographic material on the life and career of
Elizabeth Taylor, never went away.”
Bell said the beauty and talent of the legend of the silver screen had the ability to “take your breath away.”
(Further information about Bell’s collection is available at www.elizabethtaylorcollection.com)