Elizabeth Taylor‘s death last week made me sad, but not for the reasons I expected. I wasn’t sad for her; by all accounts, she lived a long and fulfilling life, brought joy to millions through her movies, and did enormous good through her philanthropy and activism. Rather the sadness came from the sense, as it did when her friend Michael Jackson died, that a more blissful era had passed.
The day Taylor died, I began working on a project for LIFE, captioning photos for an upcoming book commemorating the photojournalism magazine’s 75th anniversary. Poring through LIFE‘s archives, I was reminded again what a repository of our shared cultural memory it has been. So many familiar images — the sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square on V-J Day, Jackie Robinson stealing home, the Beatles frolicking in a swimming pool during their first visit to America, a naked Vietnamese girl running down the road, a student at Kent State screaming over the body of a classmate killed by National Guardsmen, the Zapruder film — all of them encoded in our DNA and burned into our retinas as if they had happened to us, even if we’re too young to have been there.
There were Hollywood pictures, too, of Marilyn Monroe in thoughtful repose, James Dean walking down a rainy street, and many pictures of Taylor, including the one at the top of this post, taken in 1947, when she was just 15 but already impossibly beautiful, already a star, yet with a lifetime of tumult and triumph and endless scrutiny still ahead, about to crash over her like an ocean wave. Who could have imagined it? And yet, she looks prepared and unafraid.
And then, in the same book, opened to the middle, was a wordless, two-page spread, a photo from Ground Zero of the towers exploding above, debris and bodies shooting out against a cloudless blue sky. Cracking the book open to that page was like finding a crack in history, a dividing line between a soft, smooth past and a jagged, doubt-ridden future. And I remembered what it felt like to be in New York that day, to see the smoke and smell the burning flesh and to slowly wrap your mind around the dazed realization that our city and our country had changed irrevocably, and those memories made me terribly sad all over again.
There’s something comforting about these retrospective projects. Yes, the ’60s (or the ’30s and ’40s, or the ’80s and ’90s, take your pick) were a terrible time, too, so full of violence and chaos and uncertainty, but we got through them, didn’t we? Now we can look at old photos from those eras as mementos of a time when we were young and foolish; we’ve made so much progress since then and are so much wiser now. But while 9/11 recedes into the past (can it have been almost 10 years already?), there’s no such reassurance. If anything, that image was a reminder of the opposite, that all our sense of our own progress and wisdom was an illusion, that the world is just as dangerous as ever, and that we are no smarter about it, except for the realization that has been forced upon us that we are no longer immune from whatever’s happening beyond our shores, or from the blowback from our own reckless, selfish actions.
What I seem to be helping to curate, then, is an elegy for the American Century (a term that, like the photos, also originated in the pages of LIFE). The images we remember all mark a time when America was the world’s most powerful nation, when not just our weapons or our ideology but also our movies and pop culture were inescapable. It was also a time of relative consensus at home; as bitter as the political or social clashes may have been, we all shared some common assumptions and a common popular culture — not really something you can say anymore, at least not often.
Taylor was a part of all of that, helping to reinforce Hollywood as the source of the nation’s dream life and spreading its gospel around the world. Whether on-screen or off — whether in her torrid movie romances, her stormy marriages, or her fierce advocacy for people scorned because of how they got sick — she got everyone in the world involved in a discussion of an elemental question: what does it mean to love?
There’s no one left, it seems, in movies or in politics, who can get us all talking to each other and asking questions like that. Even in death, Taylor still looms large, but it’s not, as Norma Desmond said, that the pictures got small. The pictures are still as big as ever; it’s the world that got small, it’s we ourselves who got small, and the little worlds each of us live in that shrank and grew farther apart. So it’s not for Taylor that I mourn, but for each of us, and for our ability to reach across those worlds and connect with one another.