Elizabeth Taylor’s childhood reads like something of a fairy tale, albeit with its requisite dark side. The second child of a dreamy-looking American couple living abroad, she was born on February 27, 1932, in London. Her mother, Sara Viola Warmbrodt, born in 1896 in Arkansas City, Kansas, was the daughter of an engineer. Ambitious, lively, and outgoing, with large eyes and a friendly smile, Sara met a handsome young dark-haired man with piercing blue eyes named Francis Lenn Taylor, who had been born in 1897 in Springfield, Illinois, and whose family lived in Arkansas City. From the very start, girls were all over Francis, falling into a swoon within minutes after seeing him. One classmate recalled that “he was the first boy I was ever aware of. I could have eaten him like ice cream on a stick.”
Not only were there those striking looks, but there was also his background and his breeding. This was no naïve, unpolished local lad unaware of the world. Though his father managed a general-goods store and had a modest income, Francis was the favorite of his wealthy uncle, Howard Young. Living in Saint Louis and married to Francis’s aunt Mabel, Howard was a prosperous art dealer with galleries in St. Louis and eventually New York and London, with beautiful homes in those cities as well as in Connecticut, Florida, and Wisconsin. Howard and his wife had no children, and though he was known as a man who did not show his feelings, he doted on Francis and was keenly aware of his nephew’s potential. When Francis turned nineteen, Uncle Howard brought him to St. Louis and later to New York and tutored him in the world of high art. Selling paintings was not just knowing the artistic merits of a piece of work. One also had to know the market for it—or how to create a market—and how to mix and mingle with the wealthy, the influential, the powerful. Also important was the image of the dealer. Young Francis—innately elegant and increasingly more and more sophisticated—soon dressed in splendidly tailored suits with the appropriate shirts and ties and shoes. He spoke in an eloquently thoughtful, knowledgeable manner. People took one look at him or heard him speak and instantly assumed he was somebody.
Certainly that was how Sara Warmbrodt felt upon meeting him. But it wasn’t love at first sight. Too many other things were then going on in her life. Mainly, Sara was hell-bent on building a career for herself. Her ambition? To be an actress; to conquer the world from the stage. Under the name Sara Sothern, she appeared in the stock company of actor Edward Everett Horton, then made her way to Los Angeles, where she debuted playing a lame girl in the drama The Fool. She reportedly made a screen test for MGM but nothing came of it. Then, at age twenty-six, Sara appeared in The Fool on Broadway. Two years later, she went to London with the drama. Afterward, Sara was back in the States in a small role in another Broadway show: The Little Spitfire. But that play closed quickly, no other roles came her way, and Sara, at loose ends, realized she might never have the stage career of her dreams. Then and there, she met up with Francis again. Now an ambitious young man of the world, he was like a knight in shining armor who made her envision another life for herself. About a year later—with permission from Howard Young—they married. Then came their world travels. Uncle Howard paid for their European honeymoon. Then Francis became his uncle’s purchasing agent in Europe and traveled the continent, meeting artists and assessing their work. He proved quite adept at his job and prospered. By 1929, Howard had installed thirty-one-year-old Francis as the head of his London gallery at 35 Old Bond Street.