“Ttguhwoon yangchull jiboong uy goyangii.” This was my childhood name for Elizabeth Taylor. It wasn’t because I didn’t know the name of this candy-eyed, black-haired, boom-busted film star. Neither was it that could not pronounce her name. “Ttguhwoon yangchull jiboong uy goyangii” is not a complicated babyspeak for a future pornographic philosopher, but simply the Korean translation of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” This is how I first came to know Elizabeth Taylor in Seoul, Korea in the early 1980s: dubbed in Korean, the television station showed a film in which a beautiful girl in a skintight white slip prowled around a bed the size of a small island. I asked my mother what this was, and the words she spoke as answer were like a magic spell: “Ttguhwoon yangchull jiboong uy goyangii.” I still remember the visceral shock of chewing those words in my own mouth while memorizing the image of the candy-eyed girl in the white slip. Why was a cat tipping around on a tin roof? Why was it hot? What did that have to do with the beautiful girl on television? My mother explained to me that the girl’s name was Elizabeth Taylor, that she was a great American film star, and in fact, one of her favorite film stars.
Even now, I can’t speak the words “Elizabeth Taylor” or look at a picture of her without having “Ttguhwoon yangchull jiboong uy goyangii” pop in my head like a favorite song. Taylor was the first American film star I fell in love and obsession with. I was already obsessed with various American femme icons before this, but they were all small (great, but small) potatoes: Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman), Lindsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman—in Korean, titled simply after her character’s last name: “Sommuzz (Summers).” But Taylor was something mythic. That slip, and the white chiffon dress she subsequently put on in the film, were nothing like the bellbottoms and wrap dresses that I associated not only with those television actresses, but my own mother. Plus, through Taylor I learned about the existence of something called “film,” which did not happen with reliable regularity every week, but flared up randomly one afternoon, never to be seen again. My brain didn’t know what to do with all this information, and I loved it.
But more importantly, Taylor was like a father figure to me. My own father was, to borrow the words of children’s book author John Steptoe, a monster...sometimes. My mother never regaled us with nostalgic tales of how beautiful and loving my father was or had been. But once she found out my hunger for this creature called Elizabeth Taylor, my mother fed my bottomless brain stories about her. We must have seen together Cat (my favorite Taylor picture—I know the above image is from Butterfield 8, but I just couldn’t do a slip justice. Better a [fake] fur coat and lipstick on mirror), and Cleopatra (my mother’s favorite) at least a couple dozen times. Watching these films, my mother and I had the same conversation together, each time as if for the first time: isn’t she beautiful, isn’t she kind of short-waisted, aren’t her breasts large, aren’t her breasts too large, isn’t her voice is a bit shrill, isn’t she so sensitive, isn’t she beautiful. Taylor was someone our mother remembered fondly, admired, criticized affectionately, worried over. I knew my mother didn’t love her husband, and in my eyes, for good reason. But I knew that she did love Elizabeth Taylor, as I loved Elizabeth Taylor.
Of course, Elizabeth Taylor died last month. On the day that she died, I texted my sister as soon as I found out. My sister got into Taylor much later than I, but this time it was I who introduced her, and Taylor was the means by which she and I grew close again after an icy adolescence. We texted back and forth like crazy, pouring out our sadness. After I finished teaching my first class that morning, I called my mother. When she picked up, even before I had a chance to say hello, she blurted out: “I was just going to call you to tell you that Elizabeth Taylor died. But I thought you might be teaching.” We both choked back tears. We choked them back because it seemed kind of silly for a mother and son to be crying over a dead film star as if the film star were a family member. But she did feel like a family member to us. “It’s like she was a part of our family,” I said to my mother. “Yes,” she agreed. Then we proceeded to have the conversation about Elizabeth Taylor/ “Ttguhwoon yangchull jiboong uy goyangii” we always have, and always will have: isn’t she beautiful, isn’t she kind of short-waisted, aren’t her breasts large, aren’t her breasts too large, isn’t her voice is a bit shrill, isn’t she so sensitive, isn’t she beautiful.