Elizabeth Taylor dies; screen legend was 79

Elizabeth Taylor, a voluptuous violet-eyed actress who lived a life of luster and anguish and spent more than six decades as one of the world's most visible women for her two Academy Awards, eight marriages, ravaging illnesses and work in AIDS philanthropy, died Wednesday at age 79.

She died of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.

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Screen legend Elizabeth Taylor died Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 79. Publicist Sally Morrison says the actress died Wednesday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center from congestive heart failure. (March 23)

Screen legend Elizabeth Taylor died Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 79. Publicist Sally Morrison says the actress died Wednesday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center from congestive heart failure. (March 23)

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Ms. Taylor’s life offered a mesmerizing series of sagas to rival any movie plot, and they were chronicled by the media since her boost to fame as the enchanting 12-year-old star of “National Velvet” (1944).

By her mid-20s, she had been a screen goddess, teenage bride, mother, divorcee and widow. She endured near-death traumas, and many declared her a symbol of survival — with which she agreed. “I've been through it all, baby,” she once said. “I'm Mother Courage.”

News about her love affairs, jewelry collection, weight fluctuations and socializing in rich and royal circles were followed by millions of people. More than for any film role, she became famous for being famous, setting a media template for later generations of entertainers, models and all variety of semi-somebodies. She was the “archetypal star goddess,” biographer Diana Maddox once wrote.

It helped that Ms. Taylor was eminently quotable. Distraught after her showman husband, Mike Todd, died in a plane crash in 1958, she sought the company of married entertainer Eddie Fisher, whom she later wed. “Well, Mike is dead and I'm alive,” she said. “What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?”

Onscreen, she was presented as one of the age’s greatest saints or sinners. Her roles often intertwined with circumstances in her own life to create an enduring image as victim or vamp.

She made more than 60 films and twice won the Oscar for best actress: as a call girl who meets with tragedy in “BUtterfield 8” (1960), based on the John O’Hara novella; and as the braying, slovenly wife of a professor in “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), adapted from Edward Albee’s play about marital warfare.

“Virginia Woolf” was a rare critical triumph for Ms. Taylor, whom reviewers often found insubstantial or overwrought.

Widespread respect for her acting and humanitarian work came much later in her career with a slew of lifetime achievement awards. Her media exposure, on which she built her star status, might have kept her from being taken seriously in her heyday.

“No actress ever had a more difficult job in getting critics to accept her onscreen as someone other than Elizabeth Taylor,” film historian Jeanine Basinger said. “Her persona ate her alive.”

As a young woman, she was called “Luscious Liz” for her sensual figure, bright eyes with long dark lashes, ruby lips and mane of raven hair. She appeared on the cover of Life magazine 14 times, more than any other film star, and on People magazine’s cover more than 25 times.

In the 1960s, pop artist Andy Warhol used photography and silk-screening techniques to depict Ms. Taylor's face as a totem of beauty and fame in what became a much-reproduced piece.

Hailed as the most beautiful woman of her generation, Ms. Taylor saw herself as one of the most vulnerable.

“I've been able to wear plunging necklines since I was 14 years old, and ever since then, people have expected me to act as old as I look,” she said after her first divorce. “My troubles all started because I have a woman’s body and a child’s emotions.”

She denounced and courted celebrity. She flashed anger when she was not allowed privacy on her terms but also went public with her more than 70 hospitalizations for illnesses, including sciatica and a brain tumor.

It became world news as she lay near death from pneumonia at Oscar-voting time in 1961. After winning for “BUtterfield 8,” she hobbled on stage with a surgical scar visible and received a standing ovation. She always maintained she won on a sympathy vote.

She also intrigued many with her marriages to hotel heir Conrad Nicholson “Nicky” Hilton Jr.; actor Michael Wilding; Todd; Fisher; actor Richard Burton (twice); then-Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.); and construction worker Larry Fortensky. She met Fortensky in the late 1980s at the Betty Ford Clinic while both underwent treatment for substance abuse.

Many regarded Ms. Taylor’s glamour as a chief reason for the relatively unknown Warner, a former secretary of the Navy, getting a Senate seat in 1978. The supporting role as political spouse did not suit Ms. Taylor, and she returned to a life where she was undoubtedly the main attraction.

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London to American parents on Feb. 27, 1932. Her father, Francis, ran an art gallery. Her mother, the former Sara Warmbrodt, had once been an actress who trained Elizabeth from her earliest years to be presentable in public, in looks and manner.

After war erupted in Europe, the family relocated in 1939 to southern California. Ms. Taylor’s mother began promoting her daughter to studios as a young look-alike of Vivien Leigh, star of “Gone With the Wind.”

Her father persuaded a fellow air-raid warden, film producer Samuel Marx, to cast Elizabeth in the family drama “Lassie Come Home” (1943), and she won a contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios.

Mogul Louis B. Mayer, an Anglophile and lover of wholesome screen images, took a fancy to Ms. Taylor. Her slight British accent made her perfect for several films that were set in England and meant to foster ties between the two wartime allies.

In “National Velvet,” based on Enid Bagnold’s horse yarn, Ms. Taylor had a lead role as a country girl who wins a horse in the lottery and proceeds to victory in England's Grand National Steeplechase.

She charmed audiences, and Ms. Taylor advanced quickly to ingenue roles. There was great anticipation for her first onscreen kiss, from actor Jimmy Lydon, in “Cynthia” (1947). But with most dating choreographed by the studio, her off-screen life was solitary. She and a friend formed a club called S.L.O.B., standing for Single, Lonely, Obliging Babes.

She was the young lead in hits like “Father of the Bride” (1950) and its sequel, “Father’s Little Dividend” (1951). She played Spencer Tracy's daughter, getting married in the first and having a baby in the second.

For publicity reasons, the second film’s release was delayed until Ms. Taylor married Nicky Hilton, whom she had met through a studio official. She was impressed with Hilton’s wealth, but his drinking, gambling and womanizing helped ruin the marriage. They divorced in 1951.

During this period, critics took notice of a more dramatic Taylor for her performance in “A Place in the Sun,” which was filmed in 1949 and released in 1951. The movie was based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy,” about an ambitious drifter (Montgomery Clift) whose love for a socialite of glistening beauty (Ms. Taylor) is jeopardized by his pregnant, working-class girlfriend (Shelley Winters).

Ms. Taylor became a devoted friend of Clift. Years later, when Clift was uninsurable because of his substance abuse problems, she put up her own $1 million salary as insurance on a film project for him, but Clift died in 1966 before filming started.

Although Clift held Ms. Taylor in esteem, that could not be said of director George Stevens. Speaking of their collaboration on “A Place in the Sun,” he said he found it hard to elicit deep feeling from the 17-year-old and reportedly teased her that she was not appearing in “Lassie Comes Home to a Place in the Sun” but instead a powerful story about the price of the American dream.

On the set of “Giant” (1956), in which Ms. Taylor played a Maryland-bred gentlewoman amid Texas ranchers Rock Hudson and James Dean, Stevens made her wear much smaller shoes so she would wince properly.

“Giant,” both popularly and critically applauded, salvaged Ms. Taylor's career after she had starred in a string of forgettable romances.

She earned her first Oscar nomination for 1957’s “Raintree County” as a mentally unbalanced Southern belle during the Civil War era. Her second nomination came in Tennessee Williams's “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958) as Maggie the Cat, who tries to lure her emotionally distant husband (Paul Newman) back into bed. She was another sexy but traumatized Williams heroine in “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959), co-starring Clift and Katharine Hepburn.

Ms. Taylor won the Oscar for her next role, as a call girl named Gloria Wandrous in “BUtterfield 8.” It was a part she never wanted and claimed to detest for the rest of her life. She felt the studio was trying to profit from her troubled off-screen sex life.

Devastated by her husband Todd’s death in a plane crash — the plane was called the Lucky Liz — she launched into an affair with Fisher, a Todd protégé then married to actress Debbie Reynolds.

The union with Fisher was troubled from the start and ruptured completely after she met Burton, playing Marc Antony to her Queen of the Nile on the set of “Cleopatra” (1963).

She and Burton, the dashing, Welsh-born actor, flaunted their off-screen romance by dining and sunbathing together. Politicians denounced them, and reviewers denounced the movie, which cost $40 million, took years to film and nearly bankrupted Twentieth Century-Fox. Ms. Taylor received $1 million for her starring part, the most ever paid an actor for a single film at the time.

The Burtons became the world’s best-known couple, smoldering jet-setters that the public loved to follow. They appeared together in several more films, including “The V.I.P.s” (1963), “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967) and “The Comedians” (1967). Arguably their greatest work together was “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” and Ms. Taylor surprised many by equaling the power of its stage star, Uta Hagen, in such a challenging part.

Ms. Taylor gained 25 pounds and shed any remnant of vanity to engage in alcohol-fueled, foul-mouthed psychological battles with her husband, played by Burton.

Wags joked that the part was not acting but instead was like a typical evening at home with the combative couple. Burton’s advanced alcoholism and infidelities hastened their divorce in 1974, followed by a remarriage and second divorce in 1976.

That year, single and a guest of the British embassy in Washington for the U.S. bicentennial celebrations, she met Warner, who was heading the bicentennial proceedings.

Their courtship was rapid. As he pursued a U.S. Senate seat, Ms. Taylor lent the Warner campaign $200,000 and loads of glamour. The couple were lampooned in a Pat Oliphant editorial cartoon: She was drawn as a thoroughbred that Warner rode to victory.

On the campaign trail, she attracted bigger crowds than Warner did, but her efforts did not always go smoothly. At one luncheon, she choked on a chicken bone, an incident that came to symbolize her mounting weight and ill health. Not long after, John Belushi portrayed Ms. Taylor devouring an entire chicken in a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

She said boredom was to blame for her ballooning weight, and she searched again for acting projects. She made her stage debut in a 1981 revival of Lillian Hellman's “The Little Foxes,” playing the scheming matriarch Regina.

“Oh, I'm wonderful playing bitches,” she told The Washington Post at the time.

Her appearance at the Kennedy Center in the play brought mixed reviews, but the show was sold out on Broadway and earned her a Tony Award nomination.

Survivors include two children from her marriage to Wilding, Michael Wilding and Christopher Wilding; a daughter from her marriage to Todd, Liza Todd Tivey; a daughter she and Burton adopted, Maria Burton Carson; a brother, Howard Taylor; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

In the 1980s, Ms. Taylor became a businesswoman, lending her name to cosmetics and perfume lines. She wrote books about dieting and her jewelry collection, which included a $1.05 million, 69.42 carat diamond from Cartier's and the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond, once part of the estate of Vera Krupp, a wife of steel magnate Alfried Krupp.

While flaunting her accoutrements, Ms. Taylor also became a champion of the exploited and mistreated, including the pop singer Michael Jackson.

She helped make AIDS an issue of mainstream concern, saying her interest began when she was asked to chair a benefit for AIDS patients in Los Angeles in 1984. The next year, Rock Hudson, her friend and former co-star, died of AIDS. She was founding national chairman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and started the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

“People were telling me not to get involved,” she told a reporter. “I got death threats, I got angrier and angrier. So I put myself out there.”

In 1993, she received the Academy Awards’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award. She received a 2002 Kennedy Center Honor for her film work, philanthropy and endurance in the American public eye.

In 2000, Queen Elizabeth II made her a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire. Recovering from back and hip surgeries, Ms. Taylor entered Buckingham Palace in a wheelchair.

“You can call me Dame Elizabeth,” she told the media. “I've been a broad all my life. Now I'm a dame.”

bernsteina@washpost.com

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