“Since I was a little girl, I believed I was a child of destiny…”
For the last several years, however, the superstar, 62, says she’s tried to court a life that’s a little less extreme black and white, and more, say, on the gray side.And, indeed, the great triumphs and tragedies that were Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor’s fate have been a source of fascination to her millions of fans for over a half a century.
During this time, acting, for one, has taken a backseat to an array of other priorities for this most extraordinary of Hollywood celebrities: raising funds to fight AIDS; the marketing of a line of women’s fragrances (Passion, White Diamonds); and the candid book she wrote on weight and self-esteem, Elizabeth Takes Off (G.P. Putnam Sons, 1987).
Taylor and her husband, Larry Fortensky, recently celebrated their third wedding anniversary on a trip to Asia, where Taylor was raising money on behalf of AmFar (The American Foundation for AIDS Research). Although she’d been active in AIDS work prior to the 1985 death of her close friend, Rock Hudson, the personal loss affected Taylor deeply, moving her to become a more visible force in the fight against the disease that killed Hudson. And, in March of 1992, she established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) to fund badly needed AIDS service organizations.
“I could no longer take a passive role as I watched several people I knew and loved die a painful, slow and lonely death,” Taylor told ABILITY. ETAF creates and maintains essential support services for people suffering for AIDS/HIV. These range from setting up clinics, hospices, school health programs and family counseling to research grants. “Even if we make the smallest gesture, at least we are making an impact,” says Taylor, who underwrites all costs for raising and administering ETAF funds.
The foundation itself operates at zero overhead cost. “This allows me to put money where it’s truly needed,” she says, “to those organizations serving people with HIV/AIDS or preventive education.”
Taylor’s dedication to the battle against AIDS also stems from personal crisis: her daughter-in-law, Aileen Getty, has the disease. Last September, Getty was present at the launch ceremony of ‘The First AIDS Ride Across America,” a bike-a-thon of which she and Taylor are honorary co-chairs. Produced by the Los Angles Center for Living, a non-profit organization providing non-medical support for people with AIDS, the Ride, which started in La Jolla, California, raised money for some fifty grassroots AIDS groups nationwide. Bikers reached the finish line, in New York City, on November 12.
For the last several months, Taylor’s own extensive travel schedule in the interest of AIDS has been curtailed following hip-replacement surgery. The recent Asian excursion was perhaps a bit premature, as she tried to return to her normal pace to soon and was subsequently forced to cut back on activities at home, including attending the glitzy Carousel of Hope Ball, the big October fundraiser for Juvenile Diabetes, of which she is a committee member. Earlier, she told us: “My recovery from hip-replacement surgery has been slow going. When deciding whether or not to undergo surgery, I didn’t anticipate the lengthy time I would need to fully recuperate…but I don’t regret choosing to have this surgery because, in the long run, it will improve my quality of life–and already has.”
For five decades now, fans have followed Taylor’s personal affairs as enthusiastically as they’ve flocked to her movies. The voluptuous beauty with the famous blue-violet eyes was born in London, on February 27, 1932, to American parents, who moved back to the States when she was seven. By nine Taylor was already under contract to Universal Pictures, and at ten played a small part in her first film, There’s One Born Every Minute. In 1943, a winning screen test landed her the role of granddaughter of an English lord in Lassie, Come Home, and she signed with MGM.
The following year she played her first starring role–young equestrian Velvet Brown, in National Velvet. More films followed in quick succession, including Little Womenand Father of the Bride. But the first movie that really required acting, she said, was A Place in the Sun, a 1951 film in which she co-starred with Montgomery Clift.
Taylor earned Academy Award nominations for Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer. In 1960, she won an Oscar for Butterfield 8 and another one six years later, for her performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which she co-starred with Richard Burton.
By that time she had married Burton (whom she would divorce in 1974, remarry eighteen months later, and again divorce the following year) after splitting with singer Eddie Fisher. Taylor has contended that, to her, love is synonymous with marriage–thus her seven husbands: Nicky Hilton, Michael Wilding, Mike Todd, Fisher, Burton, John Warner and Fortensky. All her previous marriages, but the one to Todd, ended in divorce. Third husband Todd died in a plane crash just a year after she and the showman wed.
Taylor is the mother of two sons and two daughters (daughter Maria was disabled with a hip disorder but her condition has since been corrected), and is a grandmother several times over.
As famous as she is for her sizzling love life. Taylor is equally known for being plagued with serious illnesses: ulcers, severe back problems, and bouts of pneumonia that almost killed her.
A turning point occurred in December of 1983 when she entered the Betty Ford Center for treatment of drug and alcohol dependency. Family intervention was responsible for getting her there, one month after she closed on Broadway in the play, Private Lives–and two years following her Tony nomination for The Little Foxes.
Her work wasn’t suffering, but Elizabeth Taylor, the person, was.
Not only from the ravages of too much alcohol and pills, but from too much food. At age fifty, the 5’4″ actress had ballooned from her usual weight of 121 lbs. to 180-plus. Emotional upset was the cause.
Taylor said she lost her sense of worth when then-husband John Warner was elected a U.S. Senator. “I felt I’d become redundant–I had nothing to do,” she wrote in Elizabeth Takes Off. Out of loneliness, she said, “I ate and drank with abandon. The large amounts of food I ate were a substitute for everything I felt was lacking in my life. But what was really starving was my self-esteem, and all the food in the world couldn’t bolster it.”
When she left the Betty Ford Center, terribly overweight (“I wore cover-ups–that didn’t”), she determined to shed the unwanted pounds. Plastering a “fat photo” of herself on the fridge door she created a diet that she used to successfully work off sixty pounds. I her frank, and often humorous, book which provides a 14-Day Diet Meal Plan and recipes, Taylor confesses that years before, after filming Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which she was required to gain considerable weight, “Richard and I went on ‘The Drinking Man’s Diet’…It worked for awhile, and then we dropped the ‘diet’ and just continued drinking.”
The approach to weight control Taylor uses and recommends is akin to the Alcoholics Anonymous one-day-at-a-time method. And she strongly advises to turn to physical activity whenever the compulsion to overeat takes hold.
This past year has been a particularly rough one for Taylor. While holidaying in Switzerland last Christmas, she tripped in the snow and dislocated her hip. When she returned to Los Angeles, she checked into St. John’s Hospital, in Santa Monica, for tests. And that’s where she was on January 17 when the devastating Northridge earthquake struck. The street on which the hospital is located was hit badly. Taylor called the trembler “one of the most frightening experiences of my life. All the electricity went out. Windows were exploding. You could hear patients screaming. There was mass confusion.”
But within thirty minutes, husband Fortensky had arrived, and with two of Taylor’s bodyguards, whisked her down the stairs in a wheelchair and promptly drove her home. A few months later she decided on having the hip-replacement surgery.
In September, Taylor’s ninety-nine-year-old mother, Sara, died around the time the actress lost round one of a lawsuit against NBC, which wants to broadcast an unauthorized TV movie of her life.
Despite all this, the long months she’s spent at home recuperating from surgery have, she says, “given me the change to step back and evaluate my life and all that I have to be grateful for.”
As for her ongoing work to defeat AIDS, she remains a committed warrior, upholding her vow to continue the fight: “I won’t stop until that hideous disease is conquered.”
Elizabeth Taylor Issue 1995