In many ways, it was a horse who first brought an exquisite 11-year-old actress named Elizabeth Taylor to the public’s attention, propelling her into stardom and forever changing her life. In her first starring role, as Velvet Brown in the 1944 film National Velvet, the young girl whose violet eyes would entrance millions for decades to come climbed aboard a chestnut Thoroughbred horse named The Pie (for his piebald color). Velvet, the heroine from the 1935 novel by Enid Bagnold, eventually rides to victory in England’s greatest racing event, the Grand National Steeplechase. And Elizabeth Taylor rode into our hearts.
It was the horse who brought her to our attention, and it was Taylor who brought King Charles to the attention of Hollywood. She met the show hunter and jumper, who was trained by world-famous horseman Egon Merz, at the Riviera Country Club in West Los Angeles when the owner offered to let Taylor ride him. The young actress’s fondness for the horse eventually got King Charles (sometimes erroneously identified as the grandson of Man O’ War) a part in the classic. A girl and her horse was a time-honoured convention even then, but the story’s focus on the power of the animal-human bond in National Velvet was decades ahead of its time, as was its storyline of an ordinary young girl whose dedication allowed her to accomplish an extraordinary feat. The experience of making the film with the horse would forever affect Taylor, well beyond the permanent injury to her back suffered in a fall.
“The relationship between King Charles, the horse’s real name, and me was so special,” Taylor told Cowboys & Indians through her spokesperson, before her death at The Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation. “He was given to me on the last day of shooting and it is a memory that I cherish. There never was a sweeter, more noble animal, and caring for him was a great source of responsibility and happiness. We trusted each other. We loved each other. He lived at stables in Pacific Palisades, California, and I rode and visited him whenever I could. Every little girl deserves the kind of miracle experience that I enjoyed while doing National Velvet and bonding with that magnificent soul. My heart still swells whenever I think of him, and I still do — often.”
And so do millions who have been touched by the book and the movie — and the horse — that made Elizabeth Taylor famous. And in her words “Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses.”
IMAGE/ARTICLE CREDIT: Cowboys & Indians
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