Elizabeth Taylor, Child Actress, Oscar Winner, Dies at 79

Taylor in a Film Still
Elizabeth Taylor in a film still. The Oscar-winning actress has died at age 79. Source: Getty Images

Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed beauty whose hectic off-screen love life often eclipsed her most sultry film roles, has died. She was 79.

She died today at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, her four children by her side, according to a statement from her publicist. She was hospitalized six weeks ago for treatment of congestive heart failure, a condition that had stabilized, “and it was hoped that she would be able to return home,” the statement said. “Sadly, this was not to be.”

The former child actress grew into a voluptuous and jewel-drenched movie star, making headlines with stormy love affairs and eight marriages. Her husbands included actor Richard Burton (twice), singer Eddie Fisher, U.S. Senator John Warner and producer Mike Todd.

“I never planned to acquire a lot of jewels or a lot of husbands,” she said in an interview with Kim Kardashian posted by Harper’s Bazaar on Feb. 9. “For me, life happened, just as it does for anyone else. I have been supremely lucky in my life in that I have known great love, and of course I am the temporary custodian of some incredible and beautiful things.”

Though critics panned many of Taylor’s performances, the actress and her fans proved she could strike gold at the box office. In 1963, she signed a then-record $1 million contract to appear in “Cleopatra” with Burton -- and earned $6 million more because of delays in filming.

Two Academy Awards

Over the years, she won two Academy Awards, for playing a call girl in “Butterfield 8” and a shrewish professor’s wife opposite Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” She also received Oscar nominations for three other films.

She became an early AIDS activist, raising millions for research and treatment. She also supported a number of charities and, in a business venture, sold perfumes and scents under her name. In 1999, she was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

“Acting is, to me now, artificial,” she told the Associated Press at an AIDS clinic dedication in 2005. “Seeing people suffer is real.”

Her movies, public dramas and health problems made Taylor a frequent topic of cover stories in Life, People and other magazines. By the time she won her first Oscar at age 28, Taylor had been married four times. “What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?” she said.

Loyal Friend

Aside from her many love interests, Taylor was known as a loyal friend. She met Montgomery Clift early in her career and remained a lifelong friend. She was a steadfast ally of her friend Michael Jackson, speaking out on his behalf after he was charged with child abuse. Jackson died of an overdose of prescription drugs in June 2009.

When Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985, Taylor became one of the first figures in Hollywood to raise money and campaign against the disease. And she stayed the course, helping establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1985 and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991.

“She was one of the first public voices to speak up about the AIDS crisis while many others stayed silent in the 1980s, and she helped raise millions of dollars to fight the disease,” Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement today.

Taylor battled health issues throughout her career, as well as drug and alcohol abuse that landed her in the Betty Ford Clinic, where she met her seventh husband, construction worker Larry Fortensky.

“My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor and love,” her son, Michael Wilding, said in a statement. “We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it.”

Born in London

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born on Feb. 27, 1932, to American parents living in London. In 1939, at the outset of World War II, her mother Sara, a former actress, took Elizabeth and brother Howard to California. By 1943, Elizabeth was in “Lassie Come Home” and the following year attained stardom in “National Velvet.”

“She wasn’t a kid,” recalled “Velvet” co-star Mickey Rooney on a CNN program. “She had the essence of a growing, beautiful child who was going to be more beautiful every day.”

Her early movies tracked the young star’s life: “Life With Father” (1947) and “A Date With Judy” (1948) led to “Little Women” (1949) and “Father of the Bride,” which came out in 1950, the year of her first marriage, to Conrad Hilton Jr.

Early romantic roles included “A Place in the Sun” (1951) and “Giant” (1956), followed by her first Oscar nomination for “Raintree County” (1957). She was nominated and again failed to win for well-regarded performances in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958) and “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959), before scoring in “Butterfield 8” (1960).

Real-Life Dramas

In her movies, Taylor sometimes revealed a character’s unexpected vulnerability by a familiar catch in her throat, a portrayal that seemed to echo her real-life dramas.

A pattern was established by the 18-year-old Taylor, whose marriage to hotel heir Hilton began with a three-month honeymoon and ended in divorce nine months later.

She then married actor Michael Wilding, whom she divorced in 1957 after five years and two children. Three days later she married producer Mike Todd, who died in a plane crash a year later.

“I never thought I’d love again” after Todd died, Taylor said, according to CNN. “It was a disaster.”

Still, love again she did. A year after Todd’s death, Taylor married Fisher, Todd’s best friend. When Fisher met Taylor, he was married to actress Debbie Reynolds. “In the old days, if Elizabeth saw a man she wanted, she got him, no matter who she stepped over,” Reynolds told Hello! magazine in 2001.

Health Problems

Even as her movies proved her box-office luster, Taylor was beset by health crises. (Her Oscar for “Butterfield 8” came after she underwent a widely reported tracheotomy.)

Fisher and Taylor divorced after she and Burton -- who was also married -- began their much-publicized love affair on the set of “Cleopatra” in Rome. The shoot ran well over budget, almost bankrupting 20th Century-Fox, and the torrid affair brought unneeded publicity to an already troubled film. Overtime due to various delays earned Taylor $7 million for the movie.

Taylor became seriously ill during production and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz neared a nervous breakdown, but, after three directors, five writers and a cast of literally thousands, the picture was finished -- and then smashed box-office records even as it failed to impress the critics.

Second Try

Taylor and Burton shed their old mates and were married in 1964. They made 11 more pictures together, most memorably “Virginia Woolf.” None gained the notoriety of “Cleopatra” even as Taylor’s and Burton’s relations grew more tempestuous in the course of a 10-year marriage that ended in divorce in 1974. They remarried in 1975, then divorced again 10 months later. Burton died in 1984.

In November 2004, Taylor said she’d been diagnosed with congestive heart failure but would continue raising money for AIDS research. Among other contributions, she auctioned a diamond-and-emerald engagement ring Burton had given her. Earlier she sold a $1 million diamond from Burton to fund a hospital in Botswana.

In addition to breaking her back several times, which hobbled her over the years, she was hospitalized in February 1997 for removal of a brain tumor. The tumor proved benign but she suffered a seizure six days after her discharge and had to be re-hospitalized. In early November 2005, wearing a billowy black pantsuit and much jewelry, Taylor appeared in a wheelchair to help dedicate a UCLA clinical research and education center. With bracelets dangling from her arms and a huge diamond on her left hand, the 73-year-old actress announced creation of the Elizabeth Taylor Endowment Fund to support AIDS research.

Scent of Jewels

Aside from her charities, Taylor over the past two decades promoted a line of scents and perfumes with such names as Passion, White Diamonds, Black Pearls, and Diamonds and Rubies, thus playing off her well-known romance with costly jewelry.

She had two sons, Michael and Christopher, with Wilding; a daughter, Elizabeth, with Todd; and a daughter, Maria, whom she and Burton adopted.

To some, Shakespeare’s reference to Cleopatra seemed to fit Elizabeth Taylor as well: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE