Holmes was also close pals with the Taylor-Burtons, as in Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She met them in Italy when they were filming Cleopatra, and Rex Harrison, playing Caesar in the film, was assigned to be photographed by Holmes. “I then began to shoot Elizabeth,” says Holmes. “I was one of her favorites, thank Heaven, because she and I got along great. At that time she was married to Eddie Fisher. A marriage that was over by the time Cleopatra was done. In 1962, Two Weeks in Another Town, a big hit starring Kirk Douglas was about to start filming in Rome. To welcome the cast and crew to Rome, Eddie and Elizabeth gave a party at the Grand Hotel honoring Kirk. Kirk called me and said, ‘Let’s go together,’ Elizabeth was wearing a divine white chiffon number with scads of emeralds around her neck, and who walks in unforgivably late but Richard Burton off the plane from New York in a rented a dinner jacket? He had just finished starring inCamelot on Broadway and was considered to be quite hot. When Richard walked in, he and Elizabeth locked eyes and Kirk and I actually saw the beginning of that relationship. Kirk said to me, ‘Did you see what I saw? And I said ‘No one could miss it.’ And well, we know the rest about them.”
Holmes was on many of Taylor’s films and was an eye witness to the celebrity relationship the rest of the world hungered to hear about at the time. “One day on Cleopatra, Elizabeth called me and asked that I join her in her dressing room, which was about half the size of the Hollywood Bowl,” says Holmes. “She said, ‘The gentleman from Bulgari is coming to show me some things.’ So, Richard Burton pops into the room and Liz says, ‘Richard, isn’t this emerald divine?’ This emerald was about two and a half inches square. Richard responds, ‘How much is that damn thing?’ The salesman quoted its multi-million lira price, which was about $250,000 in those days. Burton exploded and asked Liz, ‘What kind of idiot would pay that kind of money for a piece of green glass?’ To which Liz quickly replied, ‘Darling, you are.’” Holmes notes that Taylor made Burton a-million-dollar-a-film star.
Holmes even taught Taylor’s young son, Michael Wilding, Jr., how to use a camera on the film set of X, Y and Zee as a favor to Taylor. “I’ll never forget that,” recalls Holmes.
“Liz had stalled for weeks for a cover shot I really needed to get. So on the last day of shoot, I thought, it’s now or never, and Elizabeth just wasn’t going to have it. So I
actually grabbed her by the wrist and said ‘Sit down,’ and in five minutes I got what I needed. That photo ended up on seven magazine covers and was seen all over the world. She wore the most beautiful lowcut V-neck dress and a brooch. You know, if you have to get a photo, you have to get it. It’s that simple. I showed Michael how to get a shot when you really needed one.”
Location, Location, Location
Holmes reflects that some of the film locales were quite dangerous. “I spent six weeks living in a tent in Nimibia which used to be Southwest Africa,” recalls Holmes. “It was the toughest of the 33 films I did. It was called Creatures of the World Forget and starred Julie Ege, whom I shot in a zebra bikini because she had such a knockout figure. She’d had an affair with a British Member of Parliament and had quite a reputation. The costar was Australian actor Tony Bonner. It was a prehistoric themed film, and all they did was grunt because it was produced by the Winter brothers in England who were too cheap to pay for translating dialog. It was an amazing time because we came up against Apartheid, so we had the Irish and South African actors, who were the cavemen extras in the film, as our bodyguards. We were glad to have them to protect us since Julie and I were the only women on the location. I remember that it was so dry and so hot and the only meat served at the food tent was zebra which was horrible. Julie and I lived on some wonderful South African oranges we found, some bread and good South African white wine. And we found an old opal mine filled with water that we and the muddied extras used as a swimming hole.”
War films can sometimes be the most dangerous of all to work on and Holmes learned that first hand. “In 1968 we were shooting a film called Castle Keep, starring Burt Lancaster, Patrick O’Neal and Bruce Dern in Petrovaradin, Yugoslavia, on the Danube River,” she remembers. “It was a story of the Battle of the Bulge, and the cast and crew were living in a castle. Well, the day we arrived, they had a blizzard that was the worst thing I’d ever seen. Then, it never snowed again, and we had to use manufactured
snow. The most dangerous thing was that defective WWII ammunition was being used in all the war scenes. I was such a smartass in those days and I was always taking risks to get a picture. I was standing by the camera and a little bullet whizzed by my ear and
destroyed the Panavision lens just inches away from me. I didn’t take as many risks after that.”
Asked the secret to her success, Holmes shares that she was never influenced by other photographer’s style. “I loved shooting portraits and shooting them in black and white,” says Holmes. “The more spontaneous, the better.” Her trained eye came in handy when she was a Town & Country magazine contributing editor and worked with photography greats like Slim Aarons and Norman Parkinson. Her taste is her own and she does not revere other photographers just because they are famous. “I hated what Richard Avedon did to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor when he shot them,” says Holmes. “He made them look horrible. And Diane Arbus? She shot freaks. I couldn’t stand any of it. My style is for beauty, not beasts.”
These days Nancy Holmes stays busy with myriad friends and family and always makes time to travel in high style. She’s writing another book and confides, “It’s for my great grandson. It’s called Dear Harry, and it is advice from great grandmother to great grandson. It will be about life, love and the pursuit of happiness, and I plan to dance with him when I am 100. The first sentence is, ‘Dear Harry, I’ve had such a lucky life. I have so much to tell you that I don’t even know where to start.’”