Our Fascination With The Much-Married Woman

After her death, Elizabeth Taylor's many marriages have received almost as much attention as her film career. What's behind our obsession with serially married ladies?

A number of media outlets have taken Taylor's eight weddings as an invitation to speculate on her morality, offering mockery (the Washington Post said her "idea of morality was to marry every man she slept with") or an odd form of praise (in the National Review, "though she endured a great deal of ridicule for her - was it eight marriages - she explained that she just couldn't bring herself to have 'affairs'"). Others have simply chronicled them — ABC's feature on "The Many Marriages of Liz Taylor" explains, by way of introduction,

Sadly, there are no more tomorrows for Taylor, who died March 23, 2011 at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, where she checked in six weeks earlier suffering from congestive heart failure. And perhaps just as sadly, no more lovers.

And nearly every account of her life speaks of "scandal." NPR's obit is representative:

Taylor spent years as a scandalous figure whose personal life had elements that seemed crazy even for Hollywood, as Carrie Fisher explained in her recent one-woman show, Wishful Drinking. In the show, Fisher unveils a huge blackboard full of photos, demonstrating how her father, Eddie Fisher, left her mother, Debbie Reynolds, to be with Taylor — and how much Hollywood drama followed at least in part from those events. You are not a true celebrity, it seems, unless you both repel and attract with your glamorous, constantly shocking life.

Some of Taylor's "scandalous" status came from her relationships with married men, but much of that combined attraction and repulsion stemmed specifically from her decision to get married again and again. This decision — especially in a celebrity, and especially in a female celebrity — seems to touch off a whole groundswell of judgment and fascination. Taylor isn't the only one — Zsa Zsa Gabor is also known for, as PopEater puts it, her "prolific trips down the aisle" (one of them to Conrad Hilton, Sr., the father of Taylor's first husband). Hollywood has plenty of much-married men, too, but while Larry King is sometimes the butt of jokes for his many consecutive spouses, they're hardly the focus as they've been for Taylor and Gabor. Something about a multiply married woman seems to catch our collective attention and hold it.

So what is it? Is getting married a bunch of times just external proof of a varied sex life? It's true that the sexual choices of female celebs tend to inspire both more judgment and more prurient interest than those of their male counterparts. And having many marriages and divorces is one measure of a "messy" life, something that may draw more attention to women than to men. For rich and powerful dudes, there's a certain expectation of excess, and having lots of spouses may seem like par for the course. But female celebrities rarely get a pass for outlandish behavior, and that's how Taylor's marriages have been portrayed, whether implicitly or explicitly — as outlandish. To Taylor, though, they were just life — when asked why she got married so much, she said, "I don't know, honey. It sure beats the hell out of me." And perhaps that refusal to explain — or be ashamed by — her life stoked America's fascination all the more.

Earlier: Remembering Elizabeth Taylor's Outsized, Unapologetic Life

The Many Marriages Of Liz Taylor [ABC]
Elizabeth Taylor, Lifelong Screen Star, Dies At 79 [NYT]