AUTHOR’S NOTE: A few years ago, I sat down for a chat with former senator John Warner in his office at a Washington, D.C., law firm. Warner, who passed away on May 25, related to me the story of his long-forgotten stint as the head of the U.S.’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 and how this job led to his marrying Elizabeth Taylor.

In February of 1974, John Warner, then the secretary of the U.S. Navy, received an urgent message that his presence was required immediately in Key Biscayne, Florida. The island village, just across the Biscayne Bay from Miami, was the site of the architecturally undistinguished midcentury concrete-block bungalow that served as Richard Nixon’s winter White House—and, increasingly, his end-time bunker.