Legendary Hollywood actress, businesswoman and fearless activist Elizabeth Taylor, famed for her striking blue eyes, her beauty, her jet-set lifestyle, her charitable endeavors, a glittering film career and eight marriages passed away peacefully yesterday in Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. She was 79.
Taylor was hospitalized in Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai hospital six weeks ago in early February with congestive heart failure, a condition with which she had struggled for some years. Though she had recently suffered a number of complications, her condition had stabilized and it was hoped that she would be able to return home. Sadly, this was not to be.
At the time of her death, she was surrounded by her children: Michael Wilding, Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd, and Maria Burton. Taylor was survived by 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“My Mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love,” Michael Wilding said.
“Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world.”
Taylor was hailed, in her prime, as the world’s most beautiful and desirable woman. sHE was an effective and arresting actress. Her harrowing performances in “Butterfield 8″ (1960) ”Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966), won her Oscars. She also gave sharp performances in “Giant” (1956), “Raintree County” (1957), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958) — three films that helped build her reputation as a worldwide sex symbol — “The Sandpiper” (1965) and “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967).
Taylor was a champion for a number of charitable causes, notably the fight against AIDS. She founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation after the death of her friend Rock Hudson, and plowed both her time and money into its work, especially as her acting career waned in the 1980s. The BBC once noted that her charity work had grossed as much as her film career.
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born February 27, 1932, in London, the daughter of two wealthy American art dealers, Francis and Sara Taylor. Her mother was a former actress who had given up the career when she married, but encouraged her daughter in the pursuit. Indeed, Elizabeth Taylor and her mother were to remain extremely close until the latter’s death in 1994, at age 99.
Just after World War II began, her parents moved back to the United States and settled in Los Angeles, where Francis Taylor catered to a high-level clientele. Young Elizabeth was noted early on for her looks: According to one perhaps apocryphal story, she was spotted by a talent scout who suggested her for Bonnie Blue Butler in “Gone With the Wind,” but the idea was reportedly shot down by her father.
She eventually made her debut in 1942 in Universal’s “There’s One Born Every Minute.” Taylor was then signed by MGM, which was to be her home for almost two decades, and made “Lassie Come Home.”
Taylor became a child star in her next film, 1944′s “National Velvet,” the story of a girl who rides her horse to victory at the Grand National disguised as a boy.
For the rest of the 1940s, she was an MGM regular, some of her films winners — the 1949 version of “Little Women” — and others, quickly forgotten, such as “Julia Misbehaves.”
In 1950, Taylor turned 18 and had her first hit as an adult, the classic “Father of the Bride,” in which she played Spencer Tracy’s soon-to-be-married daughter.
She married for the first time in 1950, aged 18, to playboy hotel chain heir Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr. The marriage lasted 203 days, collapsing amid verbal and physical abuse after a lavish Hollywood wedding and a three-month European honeymoon.
Taylor moved on, and by 1952 she had tied the knot with British matinee idol Michael Wilding, 19 years her senior. The marriage lasted 5 years and produced two children, Michael Jr. and Christopher. Taylor filed for divorce in 1956, and within days of her divorce from Wilding, Taylor married Hollywood producer Mike Todd.
Critical acclaim arrived with Taylor’s next film, “A Place in the Sun,” based on the Theodore Dreiser novel “An American Tragedy.” Taylor played the beautiful woman pursued by Montgomery Clift, who kills his pregnant girlfriend (Shelley Winters) while boating. The film received nine Academy Award nominations, but Taylor was shut out.
And after some sluggish work in the early ’50s, she was appearing in some renowned films, notably 1956′s “Giant” opposite James Dean and Rock Hudson. Taylor received her first Oscar nomination in 1958 for 1957′s “Raintree County.” Todd suggested her for the role of Maggie the Cat in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958), and Taylor steamed up the screen, spending a good part of the movie slinking around in a slip.
Tough and domineering, Todd was Taylor’s first great love. They had a daughter, Elizabeth Frances, in August 1957, but seven months later tragedy struck: Todd was killed in a plane crash in New Mexico in March 1958.
Devastated, Taylor was comforted by Todd’s best friend, actor and singer Eddie Fisher who accompanied her at Todd’s funeral. Fisher’s wife, American’s sweetheart actress Debbie Reynolds, stayed home in California to take care of Taylor’s children.
Taylor stole Fisher from Reynolds in an affair that scandalized puritanical America. Taylor was now “the other woman,” scorned as a homewrecker — and, based on box office returns, more popular than ever.
Fisher and Taylor married in 1959 amidst much public outrage and appeared opposite each other in the 1980 “BUtterfield 8,” with Taylor cast as a high-class call girl. Though she hated the film, her performance — and a sudden case of pneumonia that threatened her life — invited the sympathy of the Motion Picture Academy, and she finally won an Oscar. “I lost to a tracheotomy,” fellow nominee Shirley MacLaine quipped.
In 1960, now perhaps the most famous actress in the world, Taylor was offered the lead in 20th Century Fox’s production of “Cleopatra.” Taylor demanded and was paid a record $1 million. “Cleopatra” was the most bizarre piece of entertainment ever perpetrated at that time.
The movie flopped, but the Roman set was the backdrop for a sizzling love affair that made headlines around the world: Taylor and her leading man, Burton, who was married. Her affair with Burton fueled a paparazzi rush unrivaled in its time.
The two were inseparable — and very publicly so. Pictures of the couple finally prompted Burton’s long-suffering wife, Sybil — who had attempted suicide — to file for divorce. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, both friend and foe to Taylor over the years, called her “sick.” The Vatican released a message directed at her, saying she was guilty of “erotic vagrancy.” A U.S. congresswoman even introduced a bill banning Taylor and Burton — or “Liz ‘n’ Dick,” as they were becoming known — from the United States. In response, Taylor asserted, “I will never go back to America.”
“Elizabeth looks at you with those eyes, and your blood churns,” said Burton, a Shakesperean actor hailed as the next Lawrence Olivier and known as much for his philandering ways as his Shakespearean expertise.
They married in March 1964 in Montreal. Burton bought Taylor jewels, furs, baubles. The two caused near-riots when they appeared in public. Burton’s tour of “Hamlet” sold out and their movies together — “The V.I.P.s,” “The Sandpiper,” even the grim, groundbreaking “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — were hits, the latter also nominated for 10 Oscars. Taylor received a best actress trophy for her performance as the tempestuous Martha; Burton was nominated for his performance as the emasculated George.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a harrowing portrayal of a marriage torn by booze, bitterness and failure and it mirrored the marriage of Taylor and Burton.
They divorced in June, 1974 and remarried in October of the following year in Botswana, only to divorce again in August, 1976. Before he died, Burton commented: “We never really split up – and we never will.”
The marriage left Taylor an alcoholic, and her career continued to languish as she entered her 40s. A seventh marriage to Virginia Senator John Warner, from 1976 to 1982, failed to cure the blues.
Indeed, Taylor was starting to become a figure of mockery. During a fund-raising dinner for her sixth husband, U.S. Senator John Warner, R-Virginia, Taylor choked on a chicken bone. The incident, including a bulked-up Taylor, was viciously parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” with John Belushi playing Taylor.
In and out of California’s Betty Ford Clinic in the 1980s, she overcame her alcoholism and a dependence on painkillers and emerged as a champion in the cause of AIDS victims. In 1985, she organized a benefit dinner to raise money for her friend Rock Hudson, who was dying of AIDS. The project eventually led to the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR); in 1991, she began the Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation.
In 1991, she stunned the world by marrying husband No. 8: Larry Fortensky, a 40-year-old construction worker she met in rehab at Betty Ford Clinic. They parted amicably three years later.
In later years as her health failed she retired from the public gaze, although she notably attended the 2009 funeral of her long-time friend Michael Jackson, while she remained active in raising funds to battle AIDS/HIV.
Taylor’s health continued to deteriorate. In 1997, she underwent surgery to have a brain tumor removed and in 2006 she appeared on US television to deny rumors she had Alzheimer’s disease.
In July 2008, she was hospitalized but her spokesman denied reports that she was close to death, while in 2009, she underwent heart surgery to repair a “leaky valve,” tweeting afterwards: “It’s like having a brand new ticker.”
Rest in peace, Elizabeth Taylor!