John Warner, Republican senator who served as Secretary of the US Navy and married Elizabeth Taylor – obituary

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John Warner with Elizabeth Taylor in 1977 - AP
John Warner with Elizabeth Taylor in 1977 - AP

Senator John Warner, who has died aged 94, was already numbered among America’s great and good when in 1976 he became the seventh husband of the glamorous British-born film star Elizabeth Taylor; a dashingly handsome, if plodding, lawyer-turned-politician, Warner weathered their ill-starred marriage for nearly six years before the final, inevitable split in 1981 and formal divorce a year later.

“John is the best lover I have ever had – I want to spend the rest of my life with him and be buried with him,” Miss Taylor had declared at their open-air wedding at Warner’s ranch in Virginia in December 1976. But as the marriage started to disintegrate, she was humiliating and embarrassing him at every turn.

According to her biographer Kitty Kelley, Elizabeth Taylor piqued Warner’s aides who had been summoned to his mansion in Washington to discuss a particularly thorny political problem, when she shrieked into the house intercom from her upstairs boudoir: “Warner, get your ass up here.”

Warner was selected by Richard Nixon to supervise the Bicentennial celebrations - corbis historical via getty images
Warner was selected by Richard Nixon to supervise the Bicentennial celebrations - corbis historical via getty images

On another occasion, at a hunt ball thronged with the cream of Virginia society, Warner accidentally stepped on the hem of her long dress, causing the actress to snap: “Get off my [blank] gown, you [blank].”

As a natural American aristocrat, Warner would have had no truck with such excruciating scatological outbursts. In October 1977 he was mortified when his new bride committed three grave acts of lèse-majesté during a charity ball in New York. Although Miss Taylor was the host for the occasion, she not only failed to attend a reception for the guest of honour, Princess Margaret, but also arrived at the dinner table after the princess had been seated, “a double-barrelled slight in the world of royal protocol”, according to one report.

“Finally,” it went on, “Margaret arose from her table, went to Miss Taylor’s and said: ‘Hello, I’m Margaret.’ Warner snapped to his feet. His wife, though gracious, remained seated. The mountain had come to Mohammed.”

Warner and Eilzabeth Taylor at Regine's nightclub in 1976 - NY Daily News Via Getty Images
Warner and Eilzabeth Taylor at Regine's nightclub in 1976 - NY Daily News Via Getty Images

When, two months later, Warner was dropped from the exclusive Washington Social Register, the directory of the social elite in and around the American capital, there were those who suggested that it may have been on account of his marrying a flashy actress.

The abrupt expulsion – the Warners had featured in the Register for 40 years – also fomented debate as to whether it might damage Warner’s chances of winning the Republican nomination to run for the US Senate from the conservative state of Virginia the following year.

Warner’s political career had followed an upward trajectory since President Richard Nixon appointed him Secretary of the Navy in 1972. Hollywood watchers speculated that the politically naive Miss Taylor had calculated that Warner himself might have the makings of a future president, and that it was the distant possibility, if not promise, of reigning in the White House as First Lady that attracted her.

When he did, in the event, run for the Senate nomination, Warner was accompanied throughout the campaign by his celebrity wife, no doubt recognising that the crowds who flocked to his meetings, fund-raisers and speeches wanted to catch a glimpse of Hollywood royalty rather than of him. Warner won the nomination only by default after his main rival was killed in an air crash, and was elected by the narrowest of margins.

Celebrating the New Year in Gstaad in 1976 - James Andanson/Sygma via Getty Images
Celebrating the New Year in Gstaad in 1976 - James Andanson/Sygma via Getty Images

While Warner knuckled down to the grind of political life on Capitol Hill, his new wife languished at home, occasionally emerging to be photographed at his side at social functions where she would guzzle food as though she were starving. On one such occasion, she wolfed down two enormous hot dogs smothered in chilli sauce and kidney beans. When Warner hazarded that there may be digestive repercussions, she called for two pints of milk to chase the “chilli dogs” down. Her weight ballooned from eight stone to 12 and a half.

Undeterred, Warner took Elizabeth Taylor on the stump during his periodic bouts of electioneering. At one event in 1980, he made a public faux pas when his wife was asked about her weight. “My looks don’t matter that much to me,” she replied. “John is interested in having a happy human being, not a model-type beauty.” After Warner interjected that “she is prettier inside than she is outside,” one journalist noted that “with flattery like that, who needs insults?”

Warner separated from Miss Taylor in late 1981 after it emerged that she had entertained an actor 16 years her junior at her secluded villa in Mexico. Many commentators agreed that the marriage had been the worst error of judgment of Warner’s political career.

After the couple were divorced 14 months later he continued to feature in gossip columns on account of his links with other glamorous women, among them Princess Michael of Kent, Lady Annabel Goldsmith and the Marchioness of Northampton.

At home in the kitchen for the ABC broadcast The Barbara Walters Special in 1977 - Walt Disney Television via Getty Images
At home in the kitchen for the ABC broadcast The Barbara Walters Special in 1977 - Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

The son of an obstetrician and gynaecologist, John William Warner was born on February 18 1927 in Washington and attended Woodrow Wilson High School. After two years’ service in the US Navy he took an Engineering degree at Washington and Lee University in 1949.

During the Korean War, he interrupted his Law studies at the University of Virginia to serve as a communications officer with the US Marines, being discharged in the rank of captain. Having worked briefly in a private law practice, he joined the Department of Justice in 1954, working as an assistant US attorney prosecuting cases of murder and gambling.

His career prospects were considerably accelerated in 1957 when, aged 30, he married Catherine Mellon, the daughter of the multi-millionaire philanthropist, banker and art connoisseur Paul Mellon, one of the world’s richest men. In 1960 he joined the Washington law firm of Hogan and Hartson, eventually becoming managing partner, and worked on Nixon’s presidential election campaign in 1968. When Nixon entered the White House the following year, he appointed Warner under-secretary of the US Navy, promoting him to the post of Secretary when John Chafee resigned in 1972.

In Beverly Hills in 1982, the year their marriage ended - Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
In Beverly Hills in 1982, the year their marriage ended - Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Two years later, Nixon picked Warner to supervise the American Bicentennial, the official celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the nation’s revolution against British rule. By then, Warner had honed a distinctive image as a Virginia “country squire” – fox-hunting, tweeds and all – causing one friend to note that he should have been born an Englishman; nevertheless he was judged a success in his bicentennial role, with the television newscaster Barbara Walters, who dated him following his divorce in 1973, describing him as “very patriotic”.

By the time the bicentennial celebrations reached their climax in 1976, Warner was already courting Elizabeth Taylor, whose second marriage to Richard Burton had ended that summer. They had met in Washington when the British Embassy hurriedly persuaded Warner to escort the film star in place of her hairdresser at a reception for the Queen. Warner subsequently attended a charity preview of Miss Taylor’s film The Blue Bird (1976), and joined her in Vienna during the filming of A Little Night Music (1978).

With his third wife Jeanne Vander Myde, who survives him, in 2007 - Andrew Shurtleff/AP
With his third wife Jeanne Vander Myde, who survives him, in 2007 - Andrew Shurtleff/AP

Warner served five terms as a senator, and did not seek re-election in 2008, when he rejoined his old law firm. Despite his relatively liberal politics, Warner became the second-longest serving senator in Virginia’s history, and the longest-serving Republican senator from the state. He was awarded the first National Intelligence Distinguished Public Service Medal.

In 2009 the Queen conferred on Warner an honorary knighthood for his work in strengthening the American-British military alliance.

John Warner’s first marriage, to Catherine Mellon, with whom he had two daughters and a son, was dissolved in 1973. After his divorce from Elizabeth Taylor in 1982, he married his third wife, Jeanne Vander Myde, a real estate agent, in 2003. She survives him along with his children.

John Warner, born February 18 1927, died May 25 2021

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