by Elisa Lipsky-Karasz, Harper's Bazaar, May 2012. Photos by Victor Demarchelier
An etiquette expert grandmother and a wild child mother taught Liv Tyler all the rules.
It was 1997 and etiquette expert Dorothea Johnson pulled up to an Aerosmith show in Boston clad in an Armani suit. She'd just gotten off a plane from D.C., where she founded the Protocol School of Washington, but she wasn't there to teach rock stars any table manners. She was there to watch the concert with her only grandchild, Liv Tyler, daughter of lead singer Steven Tyler.
"I got to the stage door and this girl said, 'You're Dorothea, aren't you?' I said, 'How did you know?' And she said, 'Steven said you wouldn't look like anyone else,'" the blonde-coiffed Johnson, now 82, says, giggling. "I like classical music and Frank Sinatra, but I'm always open to a new experience. And let's face it," she says, lowering her voice politely, "it's here to stay."
Today she, Liv, and Bebe Buell, Liv's mother, are having a family get-together in New York, while Dorothea has meetings for her sixth book, Modern Manners, out next year. Liv, who is writing the book's foreword, curls up in a chair in her casual-chic uniform of Lanvin flats, skinny jeans, and a cozy striped sweater. Meanwhile, Bebe-still revved from performing at Milk Studios the night before to promote her latest album, Hard Love-strides into the room still in her "Goth girl" look (sans the top hat she favors for shows).
Bebe was always the kind of girl who "people would stop and stare at," says Dorothea, who was the one to set Bebe off on her rock 'n' roll path when she submitted her daughter's senior-year picture to the legendary modeling agent Eileen Ford in 1972. "Bebe did not want to go to college. So I thought, 'What is she going to do? Maybe modeling.' And it worked.
"Eileen had great plans for Bebe," Dorothea continues. But when Bebe got to New York, "she had her own plans. Eileen used to call me and ask, 'Where is she?' And I would say, 'I don't know!'"
Bebe, now 58, was likely out on the town-this is a woman whose 21st birthday was spent hanging with Mick Jagger and John Lennon. ("Mick took me to dinner, and then he said, 'We're going to visit someone,'" she recalls. It was John Lennon. "I talked to him for two hours about UFOs, one of my favorite subjects, and he sang 'Happy Birthday' to me. I burst into tears. Mick said, 'You're not supposed to cry. You're supposed to be happy.'")
"Because I had really good manners, Mick would take me with him to very nice events that probably he wouldn't have taken another girl to," adds Bebe. "I was always included-I mean, I loved being downtown at Max's Kansas City and CBGB's and all that, but you could also always take me uptown." As a result, her dance card was packed with a list of rock-star conquests that reads like a music buff's vinyl collection: Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page, Elvis Costello, Todd Rundgren, and, of course, Liv's father, Steven Tyler.
Liv famously figured out her father's identity at age 11, when she was backstage at an Aerosmith show and met her doppelgänger half-sister Mia (until then, Liv had thought Rundgren was her father). When Bebe confirmed her daughter's hunch-while Tyler was playing on stage, no less-in between tears of joy, relief, and heartache, she recalls that Liv suddenly smiled up at her and said, "Christmas is going to be really fun this year."
But as much as Liv is her father's daughter-the long dark hair, the tiny nose ski-jumping to pillowed lips, and, it turns out, the voice, which she exhibits in a new promotional video for Givenchy, wailing INXS-she is in many ways the product of these two women who raised her, along with help from Bebe's cousin Annie Noyes. "It was a collaborative effort," Bebe says.
"My mother, grandmother, and my aunt all mothered me," says Liv. "So sometimes when we're all together now, they try to be the parent, and I have to say, 'Back.'"
Bebe was just 23 and getting ready to launch her own music career when Liv was born, and until she was in third grade, Liv split her time between Maine and the suburbs of D.C., where Dorothea taught etiquette to business professionals and dignitaries. So while Bebe was touring with her bands, the B-Sides and, later, the Gargoyles, Liv was tagging along with her grandmother to ambassadors' garden parties in the nation's capital or playing in the fields at Annie's house in Maine. In 1989, Bebe and Liv moved to New York City, where she graduated from York Prep.
"I always made sure that if I had to go and be a rock 'n' roll crazy person that Liv had that grounding foundation of my mother or my cousin," explains Bebe. "We tried to keep everything stable." She turns to Liv: "Do you ever feel unloved?"
"No," says Liv, adding, "There's a lot of freedom and passion in my mom, which is definitely something I carry inside of me. And my grandmother is an incredible teacher. In the world she's been a businesswoman, but for me she's always been nurturing."
Now that Liv is a mother herself, to seven-year-old Milo (with ex-husband Brit rocker Royston Langdon), Bebe sees a certain synchronicity in their lives. "When Liv had Milo, that's when it really came full circle to me. I am so proud of her," she says. "We are both single mothers but in different eras. Single mommyhood wasn't fashionable in the mid-'70s."
"I don't how fashionable it is now either," Liv says with a wry laugh, continuing, "Milo really likes all his different family," including her younger half-sisters, Mia and Chelsea, and half-brother Taj. Liv sees Milo's father in him as well. "He's such a Langdon-he looks so much like his dad, and he's got the whole northern English side of his family."
These days, she looks to both her mother and grandmother for advice. "I've learned from both of them that sometimes things don't go the way you wanted them to," Liv says, casting her eyes down. "I always have this vision of falling down and standing back up and being brave enough to move on."
"One of my favorite expressions is 'School is never out,'" adds Dorothea, who often texts Liv words of support.
That said, Bebe will forever be in the school of rock, in particular when it comes to Liv's career (next up is the indie Robot and Frank, followed by the sci-fi drama The Side Effect). "She's always telling me, 'Enough with these sweet roles. You need to play a one-eyed, one-legged whore,'" Liv says, cracking up.
But the three women can be sure to find common ground in some pretty fabulous fashion, like a white fur coat, once Bebe's, that Liv found while cleaning out the closets of her West Village townhouse. "I was like, 'This is awesome, it's 30 years old,'" says Liv. "It's almost 35 years old," Bebe corrects her. "The story behind it is funny: All the other Aerosmith wives had these fur coats and bling-bling. One day [when the band was on tour in England], I wasn't feeling well because I was a little bit pregnant with you. And Steven had snuck off to Harrods and came back with that coat. He said, 'Make sure you wear it and walk past the other girls.'" And to this day, Tyler sends Buell flowers every Mother's Day.
Bebe and Dorothea have also passed on to Liv all their beauty secrets, especially to moisturize, which in this family is practically a religious commandment. "When she was little, Liv would get out of the tub and lie down on the bath mat and I would spray lotion on her. And then I would tell her, 'Now you finish this,'" recalls Dorothea. "Lotion-ize," echoes Bebe, who is working on a beauty book for next year.
"They taught me to just take that extra bit of time," says Liv, whose own trick is to put on a bit of blush for the school run. "There's nothing worse than having to get up at 7:00 every morning, get Milo dressed, me dressed, walk the dog, make breakfast, get him to school by 8:30, and then have all the paparazzi jumping up from behind a bush when you have no makeup on."
And while Dorothea was a devotee of Erno Laszlo's black Sea Mud Soap, Liv has converted her to the Clarisonic face brush.
"Wait a minute, I want one," Bebe says.
"I thought I sent you one," says Liv. "I did send you some very fancy creams."
And they do all share a devotion to working out, starting with Dorothea. "She's always set a good example-she does 100 sit-ups in her nightie. Every. Single. Morning," says Liv. "I mean, I've never done that, ever." But for Dorothea, of course, it's protocol.