What’s in that box labeled with Elizabeth’s name? I asked with curiosity. – Dozens of memories in form of old newspapers and photos, would you like to see them?. This is how my chat begun with Sergio Toledano, adopted child of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, whom being only 12 years old, conquered the heart of Vallarta and Liz Taylor herself.
“Vallarta” as a destination brand, began when the port was related to the names of Burton and Taylor, says Sergio.
Elizabeth and Richard came to Mexico in September of 1963, to film the movie The Night of the Iguana, in which Richard was the main character.
The ‘Vallarta’ brand, as a destination, began when the port was related to the surnames Burton-Taylor, says Sergio. Elizabeth and Richard arrived in Mexico in September 1963. The reason for their unsuspected visit? The filming of The Night of the Iguana, which Richard Burton would stellarize. According to Ellis Amburn’s book ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’, Taylor arrived at the port with a cargo of 74 suitcases full of the most exotic and original attire and with the clear intention of keeping Ava Gardner, the other main character of the film, away from Burton once John Huston (tape director) will shout: cut!
I often wonder when Vallarta’s destiny was written, says Sergio. Could that has been when Tennessee Williams wrote The Night of the Iguana imagining a magical place in Mexico? or when John Huston decided to film the movie at the port? Or when Elizabeth decided to accompany her husband during the filming? Anyone who has been the true detonator, the history of the port changed forever. Of course, don’t forget the unique geography of this place. It’s one of the most beautiful bays in the world. The water is temperate, the sierra – which ends at the sea – is majestic and its inhabitants are extremely friendly, Sergio describes with great pride. In the end I think that everything contributed to create the myth of Puerto Vallarta.
I was born in Mexico City, says our host, but from an early age I moved here, right after my mother died. It was my uncle, Xavier de la Torre, who brought me to Vallarta to live with him.
Xavier was very close to Rock Hudson, an endearing friend of Elizabeth, so it was not long before she also became part of her uncle’s group, an incredibly creative man and a celebrity in Vallarta. From fashion to interior design and from there to sculpture or cooking. Everyone knew him and he knew everyone. His home (Villa Leonarda) was a true creative mecca.
The fame of Xavier de la Torre grew when pictures of Elizabeth appeared in Vallarta displaying their designs.
Elizabeth and Richard began their relationship in 1962 during the filming of the movie Cleopatra, but it was in Vallarta where they lived the best years of their romance.
‘I always say that Elizabeth and Richard fell in love in Puerto Vallarta, but also fell in love with Puerto Vallarta’, says Sergio.
When Elizabeth and Richard first arrived to Vallarta, the town was just over a thousand inhabitants, most of them fishermen, so part of the charm they found was that they could walk the streets in peace.
The many pictures of them walking hand in hand through the cobbled streets, resting in typical handmade leather chairs or fishing in Mismaloya (aboard on the legendary ship Taffy) are the best evidence that their days in Mexico were unforgettable.
My relationship with her was very special and unique, explains Sergio. How did she become my godmother? In a very natural and innocent way. One day, my uncle showed me a picture of her and commented: Look Sergio, your godmother. I just smiled and answered: Yes, I want Elizabeth to accompany me on my First Holy Communion. He replied: Very well, the next time you see her, ask her if she wants you to be her godson. And so it was. The desire of the little boy became a reality in a mass officiated in the Parish of Guadalupe, in front of a few assistants. She asked me to call her “madrinita” which is little godmother. No one else call her that, just me, Sergio remembers.
My uncle Xavier was of the zodiacal sign Leo, so all his friends always gave him figures of lions. That’s why he named his house “Villa Leonarda”. And although it has undergone some transformations, now it is the oldest one that exists in Vallarta. The house was abandoned some time after his death. I came from time to time, but on one of those occasions the house wouldn’t let me go. Elizabeth used to visit his house regularly. I remember returning from school and there they were all gathered talking. They could be Richard, Elizabeth, Xavier and Burt Lancaster, for example.
In addition to being an extraordinary designer; he had an outstanding talent to create friendly atmospheres, to cook and to decorate, -the reason why the meetings were always made in Villa Leonarda-. He was a splendid host. There is even a very interesting anecdote about the property. According to my uncle, one day Richard offered to buy it because, apparently, he always liked it more than the one he inhabited, to which Xavier responded in a friendly but definitive manner: Look Richard, you have fame, private plane an extraordinary career and, especially Elizabeth Taylor, but this house will never be yours.
At first, Elizabeth and Richard rented ‘House Kimberly’ – named after an old owner – but they fell in love with it in no time. It was a huge, (10 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and three kitchens) but traditional Mexican house made of brick and tile. Later they joined it to another property with a rose bridge (replica of The Bridge of Sighs, in Venice), where they built the pool and the rooms for the guests. ‘I could live here’, Elizabeth said the first time she saw it. It was not long before Richard offered $40,000 for the house, to give it to Elizabeth for her 32nd birthday, just a month before they got married. It was their home for the next decade. Elizabeth spent the afternoons puzzling, while Richard devoured book after book, lying on a hammock. He was passionate about literature, Sergio says. For Graham Jenkins, brother of Richard Burton: House Kimberly was the place where their true love was born. Before Vallarta it was just a tumultuous romance. There, the two became one. The residence was its first property as a couple, its operations center and home for the next decade. For many, the story ended in February 1974, just 10 years later, when Elizabeth celebrated her 42nd birthday at Kimberly House. Only a few months later the woman with the violet eyes announced to the world her separation from Richard. After the divorce, the property was in hands of Taylor, who finally ended up selling it in 1990.
The photograph of my First Communion went around the world, says Sergio. The chronicle of the event, celebrated the May 13th of 1969, appeared in the LIFE magazine with the header ‘The Mexican son of Elizabeth Taylor’, which shocked to the whole planet. At that time the press invented a lot things about my origin and supposed adoption.
They even went so far as to say, from the photograph in which I appear with dark glasses, that I was a blind child, the son of some fishermen who had died in an automobile accident. It was one of the most important couples in the history of cinema, so now I’m not surprised the gossip was like that. What is a shame is that the house has been lost. I think Casa Kimberly must have been fitted out like a museum, but now it’s too late, Sergio laments.
Today, Kimberly House remains only the facade. To give way to new construction, its interior has been demolished, so, of the history of Taylor by the port, only remains her memory and some friends.
I think the people of Vallarta and Mexico are indebted to her. We owe her a special homage for having named the port.
It’s an idea that has been bouncing in my head for a while, and I know that sooner or later, it will be a reality, Sergio concludes.
Experience the magic of the Villa!
The staff at Villa Leonarda, led by Delia, will receive you with a welcome refreshment of guacamole, salsa and chips, with a round of lime margaritas.