Mother possessed a sure-fire tip on how to see Miss Taylor. The plan was to pull our car in front of her rented frame house at sunset, the exact moment before dark when we could see inside the house, but she couldn’t see out. Timing was crucial because shades would be pulled and curtains drawn at dark.
Sundown is short on the high plains of Marfa so we were quick. We parked across the street, and Mother got out of the car while we five children and two mothers crouched in the floorboards. I thought she was going to go straight to the door and knock. To my surprise, she started throwing rocks at the house. Not big rocks and not very hard, but enough that Miss Taylor’s little dog started barking and bounded to the open door. The dog stood at the screen door barking until she appeared. The actress gazed regally around the front yard and let her dog out. Crouching behind the car, Mother squatted on the curb, and the rest of us stayed down. But not so far that I couldn’t see the beautiful star silhouetted in the door.
I looked in the oversized picture window and saw a man sitting on a sofa smoking a cigarette. I think he had a cigarette holder and the smoke was curling up. And then he looked up at Miss Taylor. And then we left.
A big success nationally, the movie was met with some crusty West Texas skepticism locally . Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel, Giant, had already had created a buzz among Texas readers. Criticism was directed at her portrayal of the treatment of the state’s Hispanic population by citizens and particularly by large landowners. Miss Ferber spent time in Texas while researching her novel, including the Rocker B Ranch near my hometown. I recall adults shaking their heads in wonder upon the book’s publication because the scenery was a composite of the whole state. It was as though Miss Ferber had stuck an egg-beater
She was like everyone else who sought a brush with fame in an unlikely place.
Vaqueros employed by Texas ranchers often lived in unacceptable conditions, lacking proper housing, education, and health care for their families. Leslie Benedict, played by Elizabeth Taylor in the movie, was a teacher and newly-wed wife of land baron Bick Benedict. In the story, Leslie visits a destitute family and tries to champion better health care and education for them. She did this to the dismay of Bick who believed “those people” were given to strange superstitions and best left alone. “They believe in the evil eye and witchcraft and every damn thing,” he’d said, missing the point of their substandard living conditions on his own property.
With the 50th anniversary of the film awhile back, I started remembering our own pilgrimage. Mother began her career as a teacher, not married to the land owner, but as a 16-year old girl hired to teach children on a remote ranch near Pandale. For two years she taught in a one-room school which served as her living quarters as well. After that, she taught for six years at Centennial School, a segregated school for Hispanic students in Alpine. Later, she taught in Presidio and even operated a private kindergarten where she opened our home everyday to any five-year-old who get could there. She finished her career in Big Lake with children of the landed gentry as well as children of the ranch hands and oil field workers. She taught more than a thousand children to read.
Asked 50 years later what spurred such an unlikely adventure, Mother said, “It just seemed like the thing to do at the time.” She found validation and encouragement from a 1950s book and movie that spotlighted Texas and its uncomfortable issues, and perhaps she was like everyone else who sought a brush with fame in an unlikely place long ago.