February 27, 1932– Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky:
“The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.”
She came into my focus when my mother sat me down at the kitchen table when I was 5-years old and explained to me the entire Elizabeth Taylor + Eddie Fisher – Debbie Reynolds = Scandal equation. I got it. She was my mother’s favorite film star; they were born in the same year and in same month. My husband is crazy for her. We watched Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958) last weekend and remarked that she is probably the most beautiful woman of all time. I love her deeply.
Taylor was always a trusted friend to LGBTQ people and LGBTQ people loved her right back. She was a very close friend and confidant of a coterie of gay men: Roddy McDowell, Rock Hudson, George Cukor, Noël Coward, James Dean, and most significantly, Montgomery Clift. She was even known to hang out at gay bars. My sources spotted her at The Abbey in West Hollywood only a decade ago.
During the Ronald Reagan presidency, Taylor was the first and most prominent movie star to lend her money, energy, time and name to HIV/AIDS fundraising. Her considerable star wattage turned Taylor from someone who empathized with both the fragility and duality of gay men’s political place in the USA to a commanding force for change. In 1985, Taylor, along with the late Dr. Mathilde Krim, plus a small group of physicians and scientists, formed the American Foundation For AIDS Research (amfAR). In 1991, she started her own organization, The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, to support direct services for those infected and complement the research, education, and advocacy programs of amfAR.
At the eighth International AIDS Conference in 1991, she said of President Bush The First:
“I’m not even sure if he knows how to spell AIDS.”
Her public pronouncements on the subject were passionate, profound and poignant. She raised hundreds of millions of dollars.
For the last 25 years of her life, the fight against HIV/AIDS became a full-time avocation for Taylor:
“I hope with all of my heart that in some way I have made a difference in the lives of people with AIDS. I want that to be my legacy. Better that than for the mole on my cheek.”
Taylor’s relationship with gay men provided a more modern template for the status of Gay Icon. Gays used to embrace a woman who carried the burden of empathy, the kind of strung out glamorous tragedy that Judy Garland epitomized. Taylor had that, for sure, but she also made herself useful. She planted the seeds for the pioneering place in the gay orbit for Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Lady Gaga. Taylor’s embrace of gay people was not an affectation or marketing device, but something innate and intuitive. Aside from the husbands, the martinis, and the diamonds, she had a heart that many gay men unequivocally adored, and with plenty of reason.
”It would be glamorous to be reincarnated as a great big ring on Elizabeth Taylor’s finger.”
But, for me, Taylor was a bit of a conundrum: Truly classy, but perfectly campy; deeply kind, but shamelessly embarrassing; perennially lonely, yet serially monogamous. Pills, coke, booze, men, the commercials, the mascara, Studio 54, the guest appearances on television soap operas… Taylor and I got through those 1970s together!
She gave audacious performances in film adaptations of plays by gay playwrights like Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Boom! (1968) and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof; Edna Ferber’s Giant (1956) and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
I met Taylor once. For realz. It was at the MGM 50th Anniversary Ball in 1974. I was thrillingly treated to a seven-minute conversation with her. Amazingly, she didn’t want to talk about herself, and instead, she asked about me. I explained that I was a Theatre Major at Loyola Marymount University. Taylor quizzed me on the curriculum and my stage roles. I told her that I was quite the admirer of her work. She touched my arm and looked at me with those famous violet eyes, and she whispered (I could feel her breath on my ear):
“I always thought that I was a fine actress, but I spent a lifetime feeling that I was held back because I have such a dreadful speaking voice. The coaches at MGM attempted to help me and I did improve, but I will never shake the fact my ghastly small voice was what stopped me from being truly great…”
Taylor was only in her early 40s when I met her that evening. She was wearing a stunning canary yellow mini-dress with yellow flowers in her hair. She was smoking a cigarette with an elegant ivory holder. She was faultlessly beautiful. I nearly fainted.
I always appreciated that, like me, she had a taste for expensive pharmaceuticals, rich fabrics and rich men. I tremble at the thought of her eight tumultuous marriages and her public denunciation by the Vatican as a home wrecker. I love her for her dramatic tracheotomy scar, of which she was never ashamed, giving me strength to show off my own brain surgery scar. I appreciate her love affair with jewelry, which inspired her to write a book simply titled, My Love Affair With Jewelry (2001). It would look handsome on the shelf with my own memoir, My Love Affair With Sleeping (2017). I admire her unswerving devotion to her friends, to Gay people, for Equal Rights activism, and her attention to fundraising and awareness for HIV/AIDS research and a search for a cure when no one else cared.
My devotions were simpatico with Taylor’s. We both lived with incidents replete with slurred speech, jokes about weight gain, and inelegant gestures of elegance, plus… displays of dignity in the face of devastation.
Taylor’s American parents, both art dealers, were residing in London when she was born. Soon after the start of WW II, they returned to the USA and settled in Los Angeles, where a family friend suggested she take a screen test. Taylor was signed to a contract with Universal Studios and made her screen debut at 10-years-old in There’s One Born Every Minute (1942), but her contract was terminated after a year. Universal’s head of casting stated: “the kid has nothing … her eyes are too old, she doesn’t have the face of a child”.
In late 1942, her father’s acquaintance, MGM producer Samuel Marx, arranged her to audition for a minor role requiring a young girl with an English accent in Lassie Come Home (1943). Taylor stated that her childhood ended when she became a star, and that MGM started to control every aspect of her life. She described the studio as a “big extended factory” where she was required to adhere to a strict daily schedule: Days were spent attending school and filming at the studio lot, and evenings in dancing and singing classes and working on the scenes for following day’s filming. She made nearly 50 films in seven decades, and along the way won two Academy Awards, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, appeared on Broadway and on television.
Taylor overcame a litany of health problems during her lifetime: Pneumonia, diabetes, heart disease, and a brain tumor. She had both hips replaced. On March 23, 2011, Taylor was taken by heart failure. It was a big heart.
In her will, Taylor asked that she be buried with the last love letter Richard Burton ever wrote to her; and she also stipulated that her corpse be delivered to the funeral service fifteen minutes late.
Shortly after her passing, her son Michael Wilding said:
“My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love … We will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world.”
I wish she could have seen HIV become the manageable condition it is today, and to have witnessed Marriage Equality, but mostly I wish that Elizabeth Taylor was with us today, celebrating her 86th birthday.
“I fell off my pink cloud with a thud.”