Here Comes the Groom...

updated 10/07/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/07/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN LARRY FORTENSKY CHECKED into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in the fall of 1988, he could hardly have felt like a lucky man. Then 36, the blond construction-equipment operator was shadowed by two failed marriages and a number of run-ins with the law for drunk driving and public intoxication. But Lucky Larry, the high school dropout, could never have imagined the scope of the transformation that he ultimately owes to the Teamsters medical insurance plan.

On Oct. 6, a clean and sober Fortensky, 39, will marry the woman he met during group-therapy sessions at the drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic: Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner, 59, winner of two Oscars, owner of the Krupp diamond, and the living, breathing emblem of Hollywood glamor. (For the trials of a Liz look-alike, see page 77.)

The goddess seems enraptured with her man of the people. In fact, in a gesture of extravagant generosity, Liz has outfitted both Larry's maternal grandmother, Mary McGill, 86, and his aunt Bea Souza, 52, for the wedding in elegant gowns by Dynasty designer Nolan Miller and $400-a-pair shoes to match. ("They're things you could get up here in Modesto for $80 a pair," says another aunt, Helen Aller, 65, who was invited but had previous plans. "You're paying for the name, you know.") Souza will also be attending Liz's Oct. 4 lingerie shower and has already bought her gift—a nightshirt printed with a photo blowup of a younger Larry standing in front of his red convertible.

Yet for all the emotion and traditional hoopla surrounding the splashy nuptials, the union raises a number of questions. How can a woman whose previous husbands have included some of the world's most affluent and powerful men find happiness with a guy who operates an off-road Caterpillar dirt compactor? The answer: no problem, if you remember that husbands like Mike Todd and Richard Burton were pretty earthy types themselves. Liz is nothing if not consistent.

But can a handyman who grew up in a four-bedroom tract house in a blue-collar enclave of southern California feel at ease in Liz's $6.5 million, 22-room Bel Air mansion next door to the Ronald Reagans? Will their mutual vow to stay substance-free be enough to keep their love alive? "I think she'll make it with this one," predicts husband No. 4, singer Eddie Fisher. "I wish them all the happiness. You know, she's never had a working man before."

Certainly she's never had anyone quite like Fortensky. Born in 1952 and raised in Stanton (pop. 30,000), 30 miles south of Los Angeles, young Lawrence Lee, the eldest of Dorothy "Dot" Fortensky's children, never really knew his dad. Her marriage to miner Harold Fortensky, known as Pete, disintegrated in the mid-'50s, shortly after the couple's 18-month-old daughter, Leslie Ann, drowned at a family outing. Larry's mother later married Bill Lacy, a machinist. To help support Larry and her six younger children, she drove a catering truck and later worked a paper route. "Anytime you spent the night with the Lacy kids, you'd get up at 3 A.M. to fold papers and ride the truck around," recalls family friend Roger Jetmore, an airplane painter.

Still, Larry could be a trial to a woman like Dorothy, who was respected in the community. "She spent many a night worrying about that boy when he was growing up," says one neighbor. Explains Jetmore: "Larry was kind of a partyer." In the 10th grade he dropped out of Pacifica High School in neighboring Garden Grove and went to work as a painter and construction worker. In April 1972 he was drafted into the Army but was discharged three months later. Army policy precludes further disclosure.

That same year Larry married factory worker Priscilla Joan Torres, then 18. In a recent interview on the syndicated TV show Hard Copy, Priscilla (now Pia Castaneda) claimed that during their courtship she allowed Larry to have "one-night stands" with other women because they both wanted her to be a virgin on their wedding night. Though the marriage lasted less than two years, it produced a daughter, Julie, now 19 and married, who was raised mostly by her grandparents, the Lacys.

Fortensky tried matrimony a second time with former lab technician Karin McNeal. When they broke up in 1984, he filed for a restraining order, claiming that she threatened him with "bodily harm"; she in turn charged in court papers that a drunken Larry had tried to choke her in front of his mother. She also claimed he slashed her lab coats to bits.

After a series of minor drug and alcohol arrests dating back to 1987, Larry found himself checking into Belly Ford. Once inside the rehab center, the Teamster and the movie star had a better look at each other than most prospective husbands and wives. Says Ford alumnus Jeff Wald, a TV producer and ex-husband of singer Helen Reddy: "Betty Ford is conducive to forming friendships. The veneer is stripped off. Whether you have $50 or $50 million, you wear sweats, get up at the same time and make your bed. I'm sure that any relationship that started there started from total honesty."

Virtually inseparable since they emerged from rehab in late 1988, Larry and Liz traveled to Modesto together last summer, where his mother was hospitalized for pancreatic cancer. (Dorothy died on August 12; Liz attended the funeral.) And in 1990 Fortensky cared for Liz during her near-fatal bout with pneumonia. While friends uniformly attest to Liz and Larry's devotion, other more jaundiced souls suggest that the timing of her engagement and wedding are not unrelated to her current $20 million publicity campaign for White Diamonds perfume. Liz hotly denies this accusation.

For their part, Larry's kin take a more down-home view of their new in-law. "She's a very nice lady. They are very comfortable with each other," says his aunt Delores Hoornaert, who observed the couple at grandma Mary McGill's Fourth of July barbecue in Stockton, Calif. While Larry tended the barbecue, Liz sat in the backyard reading a book. "You wouldn't think they could converse on the same level, but they do," says aunt Helen Aller. "They're like two peas in a pod."

Fortensky's dad, Harold, who these days runs an RV resort in Isleton, Calif., laments the relationship he never had with his son. Admitting that he hasn't seen Larry in 20 years, Fortensky père won't be going to the wedding either. Still, he declares philosophically, "I'm happy for him. Sounds like he had a tough life too. It might work out."

Yet some among the Fortensky clan wonder whether Larry might not begin to feel kept. "If Elizabeth had her way," says Aller, "she'd have him there all the time." But Larry, according to his Teamster buddies at Local 420 in El Monte, Calif., still climbs into a Caterpillar every now and then. In fact, in 1990, while living under Liz's roof, he managed to earn more than $15,000 behind the wheel. "I don't see him sitting on a chaise lounge with a rose between his teeth," says one Teamster coworker.

For his part, Larry, who never comments on Liz, seems to know that things are, for once, going his way, and he has the good sense not to gloat about it. His union dues are paid up and, given Taylor's matrimonial track record, that's a pretty smart bet.

MARJORIE ROSEN
NANCY MATSUMOTO and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles

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