Screen legend also heralded
for her humanitarian efforts
LOS ANGELES Elizabeth Taylor went from dazzling beauty in her glory years to self-described ruin in old age.
She spent almost her entire life in the public eye, from tiny dancer performing at age 3 before the future queen of England, to child screen star to scandalous home-wrecker to three-time Academy Award winner for both acting and humanitarian work.
A diva, she made a spectacle of her private life eight marriages, ravenous appetites for drugs, booze and food, ill health that sparked headlines constantly proclaiming her at death's door. All of it often overshadowed the fireworks she created on screen.
Yet for all her infamy and indulgences, Taylor died Wednesday a beloved idol, a woman who somehow held onto her status as one of old Hollywood's last larger-than-life legends, adored even as she waned to a tabloid figure.
Taylor, 79, died of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she had been hospitalized for about six weeks.
"We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it. Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts," her son, Michael Wilding, said in a prepared statement.
A star from her teen years in such films as "National Velvet," "Little Women" and "Father of the Bride," Taylor won best-actress Oscars as a high-end hooker in 1960's "BUtterfield 8CQ" and an alcoholic shrew in a savage marriage in 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
In the latter, she starred with husband Richard Burton, their on-screen emotional tempest considered a glimpse of their stormy real lives (they divorced in 1974, remarried in 1975 and divorced again a year later).
For all the ferocity of her screen roles and the turmoil of her life, Taylor was remembered for her gentler, life-affirming side.
"The shock of Elizabeth was not only her beauty," said "Virginia Woolf" director Mike Nichols. "It was her generosity, her giant laugh, her vitality, whether tackling a complex scene on film or where we would all have dinner until dawn."
"She is singular and indelible on film and in our hearts," he said.
Though Taylor continued acting in film, television and theater in the 1980s and 1990s, she called it quits on the big screen with 1994's "The Flintstones," playing caveman Fred's nagging mother-in-law.
Took up fighting AIDS
Taylor bid farewell to the small screen with 2001's "These Old Broads," a geriatric diva romp co-starring Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and one-time romantic rival Debbie Reynolds, whose husband, Eddie Fisher, left her for Taylor in the late 1950s.
She was remembered for her friendship, standing by Michael Jackson, Rock Hudson and other troubled friends.
"I don't know what was more impressive, her magnitude as a star or her magnitude as a friend," MacLaine said. "Her talent for friendship was unmatched. I will miss her for the rest of my life and beyond."
Collins called Taylor one of the last of the true Hollywood icons. "There will never be another star who will come close to her luminosity and generosity, particularly in her fight against AIDS," she said.
AIDS activism had become Taylor's real work long before she gave up acting. Her passion in raising money and AIDS awareness brought her an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in 1993.
"Acting is, to me now, artificial," Taylor told The Associated Press at the 2005 dedication of a UCLA AIDS research center. "Seeing people suffer is real. It couldn't be more real. Some people don't like to look at it in the face because it's painful.
"But if nobody does, then nothing gets done," she said.
Legion of Honor, dame
One of the groups that benefited, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, praised Taylor for being "among the first to speak out on behalf of people living with HIV when others reacted with fear and often outright hostility."
Taylor's work "improved and extended millions of lives and will enrich countless more for generations to come," the group said.
Taylor received the Legion of Honor, France's most prestigious award, in 1987 for AIDS efforts. In 2000, Queen Elizabeth II made Taylor a dame the female equivalent of a knight for her services to charity and the entertainment industry.
Taylor herself, however, suffered through the decades.
She fell from a horse while shooting 1944's "National Velvet," causing a back injury that plagued her for the rest of her life. Her third husband, producer Michael Todd, died in a plane crash after only a year of marriage.
Taylor had life-threatening bouts with pneumonia, a brain tumor and congestive heart failure in her 60s and 70s, and from drug and alcohol abuse, including a 35-year addiction to sleeping pills and painkillers, which prompted her to check in to the Betty Ford Center.
She had at least 20 major operations, including replacements of both hip joints and surgery to remove the benign brain tumor.
Taylor also dealt with obesity, packing on as much as 60 pounds and writing, "It's a wonder I didn't explode" in her 1988 book "Elizabeth Takes Off," about how she gained the weight and then shed it.
"Eating became one of the most pleasant activities I could find to fill the lonely hours and I ate and drank with abandon," she said.
After a lifetime of ailments and self-abuse, Taylor said in a 2004 interview with W magazine that "my body's a real mess. ... Just completely convex and concave."
Her trials made her a butt of jokes, but even when people made fun, she preserved a hint of the divine aura of her youth.
When cartoonist Garry Trudeau mocked Taylor and then-husband John Warner, newly installed as a U.S. senator, in a 1979 "Doonesbury" comic strip, he memorably described her as a "tad overweight, but with violet eyes to die for."
Her eyes were only part of the charms that took her to the top in Hollywood and kept her there for decades.
Born in London on Feb. 27, 1932, to art dealer Francis Taylor and American stage actress Sara Sothern, Taylor seemed born for the spotlight. A seasoned ballerina at age 3, Taylor danced before Princess Elizabeth, the future queen.
Her family moved to Hollywood at the outset of World War II. She then made her screen debut with a tiny part in the 1942 comedy "There's One Born Every Minute." Her big break came a year later in "Lassie Come Home."
Taylor's screen test for the film won her both the part and a long-term contract. She grew up quickly after that.
"I have the emotions of a child in the body of a woman," she once said. "I was rushed into womanhood for the movies. It caused me long moments of unhappiness and doubt."
__Steady work and high-profile romances followed into her late teens, with early lovers including athletes Ralph Kiner and Glenn Davis and hotel heir Conrad Hilton Jr., whom she married at age 18 and divorced just months later.
Taylor got four straight Oscar nominations from 1957 to 1960, for "Raintree County," the back-to-back Tennessee Williams adaptations "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Suddenly, Last Summer," then her win for "BUtterfield 8," a film she later disparaged.
_Professional success was tempered by the headlines that came with Taylor's personal life. She was wed again at 19, to British actor Michael Wilding, a marriage that lasted four years and produced two sons.
She married producer Todd, with whom she had a da
Published by The Record/Herald News on Mar. 24, 2011.