Elizabeth Taylor, Film Icon of Glamour and Notoriety, Dies at 79

By Robert Simonson
23 Mar 2011

Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, a movie star who for a half-century was as famous for her personal attractiveness and sensational personal life as she was for her many films, has died at the age of 79, according to CNN.

The Oscar-winning actress, according to a statement from her publicist, died "peacefully today in Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles." Six weeks earlier she had been hospitalized with congestive heart failure, "a condition with which she had struggled for many 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."

Ms. Taylor, who suffered from a weak constitution much of her life — it has been argued that public sympathy won her first Oscar for "Butterfield 8," as she had recently endured a life-threatening illness and was not expected to live — had been in deteriorating health. In July 2008, she was also hospitalized for congestive heart failure, and was put on life support.

A London-born beauty who never lost her clipped, clean way of speaking, Ms. Taylor possessed vivid features known to three generations of filmgoers: Raven hair, dark eyebrows, ivory skin, a near-perfect figure and, most remarkably, violet eyes that were among the most commented-on physical attributes in Hollywood history. Her great beauty arguably both aided and hampered her career as an actress — winning her roles that her modest acting skills were sometimes not quite up to, and distracting audiences and critics when she did turn in excellent performances.



Her lovely appearance also attracted her a great many male admirers. Seven of these she married, and one of them, actor Richard Burton, she wed twice, first from 1964 to 1974 and again from 1975 to 1976. Her first husband was hotelier Conrad Hilton, Jr. The union lasted less than a year. She divorced actor Michael Wilding in 1957 after five years of marriage to tie the knot with impresario Michael Todd, who then died in a plane crash in 1958.

Singer Eddie Fisher became spouse number four in 1959, shocking the country by leaving wife Debbie Reynolds for Ms. Taylor — a split that earned the actress much negative publicity as a home-wrecker. That marriage was broken up in spectacular fashion when Ms. Taylor fell in love with co-star Burton on the set of the film "Cleopatra," soon to become the (then) costliest flop in film history. Burton and Ms. Taylor had a stormy union which furnished the tabloids with material for years. They also paired in a series of largely poorly received films — the exception being Mike Nichols' screen adaptation of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Ms. Taylor won her second Oscar for her performance as the vicious, man-eating Martha.

Ms. Taylor entered political life in 1976 by marrying Virginia Senator John Warner. They divorced in 1982. Her final marriage was to Larry Fortensky, a construction worker she met while in rehab. "I am a very committed wife," she once said. "And I should be committed too — for being married so many times."

Elizabeth Rosemund Taylor became a movie star when she was 12. Having spent her first seven years in England, she moved with her American parents to Los Angeles in 1939. Soon after, she was noticed by the film studios and signed by first Universal and then MGM. After a few minor appearances in movies like "Lassie Come Home" and "Jane Eyre," she burst forth as the young heroine of the 1944 English horse-racing drama "National Velvet." Thereafter, she became M-G-M's top child star, winning another huge hit with the comedy "Father of the Bride" (the success of which was partly attributed to the media circus surrounding her marriage to Hilton) and its sequel "Father's Little Dividend." Under George Stevens' direction in 1951's "A Place in the Sun," she delivered what many consider her best performance, as a rich girl in love with the poor, conflicted Montgomery Clift. The picture was an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's novel "An American Tragedy."

As she entered her 20s, more challenging roles came her way, more often than not in adaptations of epic novels and plays. She was the willful wife of a Texas rancher in "Giant"; a Southern belle in the sweeping "Raintree County"; Maggie in the 1958 film version of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and Catherine in the 1959 movie of Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer"; and a prostitute in "Butterfield 8," based on the John O'Hara novel. To all these, she lent an earnestness and aching sincerity, as well as an evident work ethic. She was nominated for Academy Awards for all of the above, save "Giant." In the 1960s, she became the first actress to earn $1 million, for the movie "Cleopatra."

Her co-stars were among the biggest stars in Hollywood. In addition to Burton and Clift (a close friend until his death in 1966), they included Rock Hudson, James Dean, Lawrence Harvey, Spencer Tracy, Orson Welles, Robert Taylor, William Powell, Paul Newman and Rex Harrison. Her heyday was the 1950s and, to a lesser extent, the 1960s, and during that time there was not a bigger movie star in the world, or one whose movements were more closely covered in the press. By the 1970s, her movie career all but dried up, and she settled into the role of a sort of movie queen emeritus. She remained very much a figure of public fascination, however, and never ceased to make headlines, though often for episodes that she likely would have preferred remain private. She has appeared on the cover of People magazine more times than any other figure, except Princess Diana.

In the 1980s, she ventured into stage work. The announcement that she would make her Broadway debut in a 1981 revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes set off a wildfire of media attention and box-office sales. The production, produced by Zev Bufman, also starred stage veterans Tom Aldredge and Maureen Stapleton. The rehearsal process was rife with drama, with Bufman and director Austin Pendleton warring for control of Taylor's performance, and Pendleton and Hellman getting into arguments in the lobby of the Martin Beck. A pre-Broadway tryout at the Kennedy Center became a social event for the Washington elite, as then-husband Sen. John Warner showed off his famous wife. In the end, reviews were mostly kind, and the revival received Tony nominations both for the production and Ms. Taylor. (Some years later, however, New York Times critic Frank Rich named his positive review of the revival as one notice he wished he could have retracted.) Box-office business never lagged, fueled by Ms. Taylor's celebrity.

Bufman brought Ms. Taylor back to Broadway in 1983 with a revival of Noel Coward's comedy of divorced spouses in love, Private Lives, in which she starred as Amanda opposite her real-life ex-husband Richard Burton. Reviews were less kind this time around. "From the start, the production never even pretends to be anything other than a calculated business venture," wrote Frank Rich. "Miss Taylor lists about, her hands fluttering idly, like a windup doll in need of a new mainspring."

Many of her go-rounds with the press in her final two decades concerned her precarious health. She had a benign brain tumor removed in 1997. She has broken her back four times. In 2006 she went on the U.S. talk show "Larry King Live" to dismiss claims that she had Alzheimer's and was close to death. She suffered from diabetes, battled ulcers, amoebic dysentery, bursitis, acute bronchitis, and two serious bouts of pneumonia, had both hips replaced and, in later life, she was confined to a wheelchair because of osteoporosis. And this is to say nothing of her battles with drug and alcohol addiction.

She also made news through her charitable works, putting much time and effort into working for AIDS-related charities; her passion for collecting fine jewelry; her long and curious friendship with late singer Michael Jackson; and for a guest appearance on "General Hospital" in the early '80s; and her launching of three perfumes, "Passion," "White Diamonds" and "Black Pearls," which together earned her an estimated $200 million in annual sales.

She had four children over the course of her life: two sons with Michael Wilding, Michael (born 1953) and Christopher (born 1955); a daughter with Michael Todd, Elizabeth Frances Todd, called "Liza" (born 1957); and daughter Maria Burton (adopted 1964 with Richard Burton).

She continued to dabble in theatre until the end. On Dec. 1, 2007, she and James Earl Jones gave a benefit performance of the A. R. Gurney play Love Letters to raise $1 million for Taylor's AIDS foundation. Gurney recalled the event: "James Earl Jones has done it many times. He's a first-rate actor and very at home in the part. With her, she was very nervous about it. She couldn't even finish rehearsing the ending, she'd get so nervous and tired and say, 'I can't do this.' But she came out and did it, and as the play continued, she grew into the part in a most amazing way. At the end the audience rose to its feet, and she, who had been in a wheelchair all evening, got up on her feet and applauded the audience. I've never seen that play work so well therapeutically before."