Elizabeth Taylor, who died Wednesday at age 79, spent much of her life in the public eye – famous for her violet eyes and her jewelry – and she managed over the years to transition from child star, to legendary beauty, to Oscar-winning actress, to tabloid fodder for her passionate affairs, her tumultuous marriages and divorces, to philanthropist being among the first notable Hollywood personality to speak about AIDS and, as co-founder of AMFAR, one of the earliest AIDS research and support organizations – no small achievement.
Although there have been many books about her, some by Taylor herself, it seemed as if Taylor’s own story was too large for one book. She was one of the last Hollywood stars raised in the studio system who knew the old moguls and worked for them. She acted opposite so many great actors, including James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman. She was directed by the greats (George Stevens, Jr) and the now great (Mike Nichols). As Dr. Seuss might have said: Oh the things she’d seen!
She was born in London to American parents who moved to Los Angeles in 1939. Her mother, Sara, was an actress with the stage name Sara Sothern and she encouraged her daughter’s early career. Taylor was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Her early films included “Lassie Come Home”(1943) with Roddy McDowall and “National Velvet” (1943) with Mickey Rooney, during which she sustained a back injury whose pain would continue to plague her.
By the time she appeared in “Father of the Bride” (1950) she was making her first marriage to Hilton heir Conrad Hilton, Jr., whom she divorced the following year. She then married British actor Michael Wilding in 1952, with whom she had two sons, Michael and Christopher, and whom she divorced in 1957.
Many child actresses find the transition to young woman (and object of desire) difficult.
Elizabeth Taylor turned what appeared on screen as childhood determination into a sultry smoldering presence – in films such as “Cat on a Tin Roof” (1958), “Suddenly Last Summer” (1959), both of which garnered her Oscar nominations, and “Butterfield 8” (1961), playing a call girl, which won her first best actress Oscar.
At the same time, her personal life became the subject of increasingly frenzied press attention. In 1956 she married the producer Mike Todd, whom she proclaimed the love of her life, and they had a daughter Elizabeth Frances. Todd died in a plane crash in 1958. Taylor was distraught. She sought out Todd’s Rabbi, Max Nussbaum of Temple Israel of Hollywood, and in 1959 converted to Judaism.
She also began an affair with Eddie Fisher who was then married to Debbie Reynolds. Fisher divorced Reynolds and was married to Taylor – by Rabbi Nussbaum.
Taylor, at the time the biggest movie star in the world, next signed to play “Cleopatra” for a reported $1 million salary (a first for an actress)—a film that turned out to be a fiasco of legendary proportions that almost sank the Fox Studio. Amid the turmoil, Taylor began an affair with her married co-star Richard Burton. However their appearance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” would win Taylor her second Oscar in 1966, as well as a well-received version of “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967).
Their love affair is among Hollywood’s most famous. Their dramatic relationship — they married twice, and divorced twice – is the subject of a recent bestseller “Furious Love” by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. Their final divorce was in 1975. Taylor would go on to marry (and divorce) both Sen. John Warner and Larry Fortensky, but the romance with Burton would burn brightest.
Taylor continued to act, appearing on Broadway in “The Little Foxes” (1981) and appearing infrequently in movies such as “The Mirror Cracked” (1980). Her last feature appearance was in 1994 as Wilma’s mother in the live action movie “The Flintstones.” She did voice work on “The Simpsons” (1992) and “God, the Devil and Bob” (2001).
Taylor checked herself into the Betty Ford Center in 1983 and 1988, again addressing issues that now seem commonplace for celebrities but were not so then.
Taylor also found herself in the role of activist and philanthropist. After her friend, actor Rock Hudson, died of complications related to AIDS, she became one of the first in Hollywood to speak out against the disease – she co-founded AMFAR and raised a reported $50 million to combat the disease.
She was also an early supporter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, serving on its board of trustees in the 1980s and narrating the center’s first documentary, the Oscar-winning “Genocide” (1981).
Taylor was an astute businesswoman, making deals for appearances, and licensing deals regarding perfumes and advertising that kept her in the public eye (and that were quite lucrative). She also garnered frequent tabloid interest for her friendship with Michael Jackson. One of Taylor’s last public sightings was at Jackson’s memorial.
In Taylor, we have the life of a woman, the story of Hollywood in its golden age and after, a tale of great passion, of enormous heartbreak, an amazing story of great actors, great entertainers, great friendships, a tale of philanthropy, of human weakness, of devastating diseases and a great many untimely deaths, including that of Elizabeth Taylor, Wednesday, at age 79.