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 as 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 remains my mother’s favorite film star; they were born in the same year and same month. She is also a favorite of mine and The Husband. We watched Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958) last weekend and we remarked that she was very possibly the most beautiful woman of all time. I loved her deeply.
Taylor was always a trusted friend to gay people and gay 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, she was the first and most prominent star to lend her money, energy, time and name to 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 Dr. Mathilde Krim and 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 who founded amfAR:
“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 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 made herself useful also. She planted the seeds for the pioneering place in the gay orbit for Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Lady Gaga. Taylor’s embrace of gays 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 ample reason.
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 & I got through those 1970s together.
She gave audacious performances in film adaptations of “gay” 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 7 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 & 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 that evening, 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 8 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 (2015). I admire her unswerving devotion to her friends, to Gay People, for equal rights activism, & and attention to fundraising and awareness for HIV/AIDS research and 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.
I wish she could have seen HIV become the manageable condition it is today, but mostly I wish that Elizabeth Taylor was with us today, celebrating her 84th birthday.
“I fell off my pink cloud with a thud.”