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. Continue reading