Sixty-five years ago today, the 29th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the RKO Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. The brightest stars of the movie industry were in attendance—and Elizabeth Taylor outshined them all in a nineteenth-century diamond tiara.
Though she was one of the stars of the film Giant, which was nominated that year for nine Oscars, Taylor was not on the list of nominees at the ceremony, which was held on March 27, 1957. (Giant only ended up taking home one prize, the Best Director Oscar for George Stevens.) Instead, she was a presenter at the ceremony (for one of the Costume Design awards), as well as a proud partner.
Her new husband, producer Mike Todd, took home the Best Picture Oscar for his film Around the World in 80 Days. Todd and Taylor had wed in Mexico on February 2, 1957, almost immediately after her divorce from Michael Wilding was finalized. It was the third marriage for both the bride and groom. At the beginning of March, Taylor announced that she was expecting a baby, due later that year.
Though she didn’t win any awards herself that night, Taylor was certainly dressed like a princess. Mike Todd had recently given her a remarkable present: a magnificent antique diamond tiara with fleur-de-lis and festoon designs. Todd was wealthy in his own right, and he loved to lavish jewelry on his movie star wife. The tiara was created in the late nineteenth century. Old mine-cut diamonds are set in platinum and gold and shaped into alternating scroll and latticework elements.
In Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry, Taylor described the gift: “When he gave me this tiara, he said, ‘You’re my queen, and I think you should have a tiara.’ I wore it for the first time when we went to the Academy Awards. It was the most perfect night, because Mike’s film Around the World in 80 Days won for Best Picture. It wasn’t fashionable to wear tiaras then, but I wore it anyway, because he was my king.”
I’ve only got one quibble with Taylor’s remembrance of the night. Tiaras were indeed becoming fashionable accessories at the time. Fashion exploded in the 1950s in reaction to the austere war years of the ’40s, with the silhouettes becoming more extravagant and the bejeweled adornments increasing to match.
Two young royal women were also helping to popularize the tiara: Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who was crowned in 1953, and Princess Grace of Monaco, the actress who had married a prince in 1956. Taylor was just the latest beautiful woman to adopt the tiara trend, and soon brides around the world were wearing small tiaras with their ’50s bridal gowns. In fact, Liz wasn’t even the only woman to wear a tiara at the Oscars that night. Natalie Wood and Barbara Rush both wore tiaras as well—but theirs were set with rhinestones, not diamonds.
For the Oscars in 1957—the year after Grace Kelly had said her own farewells to Hollywood at the ceremony and gone on to her new tiara-wearing life in Monaco—Taylor paired her new tiara with a dramatic evening gown. In the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, Ursula Baumann wrote that “Queen Glamour of Hollywood smiles smugly today, having proved once again that she’s the undisputed ruler of the movie capital.” Baumann added, “The dark beauty of Elizabeth Taylor was enhanced by a Grecian-draped gown of rose gold chiffon. A floating stole bordered in mink added grace to the intricate design, which had a décolleté neckline and narrow shoulder straps.”
The same paper also recorded another impression of Taylor’s Oscar ensemble in their write-up of the ceremony. The presentation of the two costume design awards “marked Elizabeth Taylor’s first trip to the stage, her apricot-colored gown and tiara setting off her beauty to advantage.” (You can see the tiara sparkling as she presents the awards here.) She returned to the stage later in the ceremony to accept the Oscar for Best Music Score, which had been posthumously awarded to Victor Young for his work on Around the World in 80 Days.
But the night really belonged to Mike Todd. For London’s Daily Herald, Anthony Carthew wrote, “The film colony last night saw lovely Elizabeth Taylor spun in the air by her brand-new husband Mike Todd. Todd had just heard that his picture Around the World in 80 Days had won the Oscar for the Best Film of 1956. He did a short jig in the aisle of the Pantages Theatre, then playfully knocked London-born Liz’s diamond tiara sideways. She smiled distantly, for this is a very regal Liz we’re seeing nowadays.” You can watch Mike’s acceptance speech here.
After the ceremony, Taylor joined Todd backstage to appear before the press. “Just print that I’ve won the two best prizes in Hollywood,” Todd joked, glancing at his Oscar statuette and his famous wife. When one reporter asked Todd to hold the Oscar between himself and Taylor, Todd replied, “Nothing’s ever going to come between us.” Afterward, the couple headed off to Romanoff’s, where Todd was hosting a victory party. A reporter for the Los Angeles Mirror News reported that “an aide followed [the couple], carrying Liz’s heavy mink coat. But she bore up under the weight of her diamonds—a dazzling tiara, earrings, brooch and that little old 30-carat hunk of ice Mike slipped on her finger.”
About that brooch and those earrings. The diamond jewels, which have floral and ribbon themes, were Taylor’s constant companions in 1957. I believe these were also gifts from Mike Todd. She wore the earrings and the brooch for her wedding to Todd in Acapulco in February 1957. You’ll spot the diamond circle brooch pinned to the bodice of her dress in this picture from the celebrations.
Taylor was spotted wearing the brooch and earrings again on Valentine’s Day 1957, for dinner with Todd at the El Morocco nightclub in New York. She’d recently been released from the hospital, reportedly for continued treatment of spinal issues that she’d been suffering for some time. (She was, of course, also expecting a baby.)
The jewels were in Taylor’s luggage when the couple flew to Hollywood a few days later. (“We really don’t need a plane,” Todd joked with reporters. “We’re flying on Cloud 9.”) Liz wore the earrings and brooch again at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, sponsored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles on February 28, 1957.
Both Todd and Taylor took home statues that evening—the Best Picture award for him for Around the World in 80 Days, and a special achievement award for her. (The woman across the table with the sparkling hair ornaments is Debbie Reynolds, who was then the wife of Todd’s close friend—and Taylor’s future fourth husband—Eddie Fisher.)
On April 5, about a week after the Oscars, Elizabeth wore the earrings and brooch again for an appearance with Todd on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person. During the interview, she discussed her new “housewife” status, quipping, “I have a tiara just to do the dishes in.” Todd quickly replied, “You mean all people don’t have tiaras?”
On May 4, 1957, Todd and Taylor were splashed across the cover of the weekly Picture Post ahead of their arrival in Europe to continue promoting Around the World in 80 Days. Taylor is again wearing the earrings and brooch here.
And then, Taylor wore all four jewels—tiara, earrings, brooch, and that astonishing engagement ring—for the premiere of Around the World in 80 Days at the Cannes Film Festival on May 6, 1957. Todd and Taylor’s daughter, Liza, was born exactly three months later.
Taylor’s final appearance with Todd and the tiara took place on February 26, 1958. She wore the tiara, plus diamond girandole earrings and a diamond heart necklace, both gifts from Todd, with a Lanvin gown for the ceremony. The couple was gearing up for yet another glittering awards season. Taylor had been nominated for the first time for the Best Actress Oscar, recognizing her work in Raintree County. Soon, she would begin filming another Oscar-nominated role, Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
In a profile written by Lloyd Shearer the same month, documenting Todd’s rise to fame, the producer was described as having “everything: the most successful movie of the past decade, millions of dollars, and, to cap it all, Elizabeth Taylor Todd, impeccably groomed and gowned, wearing a sparkling tiara, riding in a $25,000 Rolls Royce.” Sadly, though, Todd had only days left to enjoy it. On March 22, 1958, just four days before the Academy Awards ceremony, he perished in a plane crash in New Mexico.
Taylor would go on to wear the Todd Diamond Tiara for years after her husband’s untimely death. After her own passing in 2011, the tiara was auctioned in a blockbuster sale of jewels from her collection at Christie’s. The jewel’s pre-auction estimate was set between $60,000 and $80,000, but when the hammer fell, it sold for more than four million dollars. The proceeds went to a cause close to Taylor’s heart: AIDS research.