By now a lot of you may be tired of the many tributes and film clips that have paid homage to Elizabeth Taylor since she passed away from congenital heart failure on March 23, 2011. Before you dismiss this as just more of the same, let me say that this post isn’t only about Elizabeth Taylor, it’s also about you, the shining star in your own life.
Although I am a “Celebrity Scribe” I’m not interested in fluff or gossip. I’m all about seeking, understanding and incorporating the life lessons that are always present. So I invite you to read yet one more piece about Elizabeth Taylor, but this time filter it through a different set of eyes, a different perspective. Think of her life as a 79-year-old treasure map that offers up a bountiful trove of wisdom that might be useful in your own life.
For no particular reason, I was never particularly enamored with Elizabeth Taylor as an actress; but as is often the case after someone dies, we wax nostalgic and delve into their past. After watching a few scenes from her old movies, some black and white news clips, several segments of interviews she did with every famous journalist over the past several decades, and footage of her testifying before Congress on behalf of AIDS research, I came away with a greater understanding of and appreciation for who Elizabeth Taylor really was.
She was a woman who experienced extraordinary highs and devastating lows. She was married eight times to seven men; she had four children, one of whom she adopted with Richard Burton; she survived numerous brushes with death and about twenty major operations; she made more than fifty films and earned two Academy Awards.
Lots of videos have been put together that depict Elizabeth’s life, but I especially like this one because it is narrated by another legend who passed away; the talented, Paul Newman who co-starred with her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Elizabeth Taylor’s impressive jewelry collection, which was mostly given to her by the men in her life, is reportedly worth $150 million and includes the 33.19 carat Asscher-cut Krupp Diamond that Richard Burton bought for her in 1968, and a 69.42 carat diamond called the Taylor-Burton Diamond, which was cut from a rough stone weighing 240.80 carats.
Knowing how much Elizabeth Taylor loved Richard Burton I was surprised to learn that at an auction to benefit the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, she removed an emerald and diamond ring from her hand saying the ring was her engagement ring from Burton. “Please know that it is not easy for me to give it away. It is only my commitment to AIDS that persuaded me to let it go. My love is inside that ring forever.”
That gesture is a testament to the greatest legacy Elizabeth Taylor leaves behind as an advocate and activist for HIV/AIDS patients.
Elizabeth learned about the rarely-talked-about disease when Carrie Fisher brought her attention to how gaunt their friend Rock Hudson looked. In the early days there was such a stigma attached to what was perceived as strictly a sexually-transmitted disease that when Hudson was diagnosed in June 1984 his publicist and doctors told the public he had inoperable liver cancer. It wasn’t until July 1985, while in Paris, that he issued a press release and admitted he was dying of AIDS.
Elizabeth said, “I kept seeing all these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything. Then I realized I was just like them. I wasn’t doing anything to help.”
Elizabeth first took on the AIDS problem in December 1984. In 1985 she became the Founding National Chairman of amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research and in 1991 she founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
“I will not be silenced and I will not give up and I will not be ignored. It’s my life now and it will be until there’s a cure.” With these words, she lent her voice to the voiceless, her iconic image to those who had previously been invisible, and her compassion and determination to a cause many others had shunned. Her willingness to speak out against apathy and silence in the early, frightening days of the epidemic and her instinctive sympathy for those in need earned her a place as one of the most influential advocates for people living with HIV in the U.S. and around the world. (amfAR.org)
Then in December 1984, 13-year-old hemophiliac Ryan White from Indiana was diagnosed with HIV from a contaminated blood treatment. Because of the lack of education available to the public, everyone became paranoid about contracting the disease and Ryan’s school banned him from returning. The lengthy legal battle that ensued thrust Ryan into the national news.
Also because AIDS was thought to be a “homosexual problem” it was largely ignored by policy makers, so in 1986 Elizabeth Taylor went before Congress and publicly chastised the administration by saying: “President Bush, Mr. Quayle, Senator Helms, your policy is wrong, dead wrong and you know it. I’m not in Washington to make people like me. I’m here to speak about a national scandal, a scandal of neglect, indifference and abandonment.”
President Bush, Mr. Quayle, Senator Helms, your policy is wrong, dead wrong, and you know it. I’m not in Washington to make people like me. I’m here to speak about a national scandal, a scandal of neglect, indifference and abandonment.”
Elizabeth was referring to Senator Jesse Helms’ strong opposition to federal financing of AIDS research and treatment and his influence on the Bush administration to deny any help. to those who were suffering. Helms’ ignorance and religiously-based bigotry were obvious when he opposed the Kennedy-Hatch AIDS bill in 1988 stating, “There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.” I shudder to think how much damage was done by Jesse Helms’ narrow-minded thinking during his five terms as senator?
To everyone’s amazement Ryan White lived five more years until April 8, 1990. During that time Elizabeth expended a great deal of time and effort to keep AIDS in the forefront of peoples’ minds. I believe she contributed to the Ryan White Care Act being passed into law four months after he died; a piece of legislation that provides services to people living with HIV/AIDS.
Elizabeth’s unwavering compassion and outspoken support for the HIV/AIDS community influenced other celebrities to get involved, including her friend Michael Jackson who dedicated his song, “Gone too Soon” to Ryan White; Elton John who started his own AIDS foundation; and Princess Diana who made sure the media photographed her hugging AIDS patients.
LIFE LESSON: Do you have a higher purpose beyond yourself? You don’t have to be a movie star to make a difference in the world. Is there some cause you are willing to take a stand for and speak out about? Is there an issue that moves you to take action? Abused children, the elderly, the homeless, a health issue, the environment, animals? You can become an advocate for change in your own neighborhood, town, city, or state, in the nation, or even the world.
THE LOVES OF HER LIFE
When I heard that Elizabeth Taylor had died, I imagined her being happily escorted into heaven by the two men she called the great loves of her life – third husband, film producer Mike Todd, and her fifth and sixth husband, actor Richard Burton.
Mike Todd was 23 years older than Elizabeth and she adored him. They were only married 13 months when Mike’s private plane the Lucky Liz crashed on March 22, 1958, over New Mexico on its way to New York. He was 49 years old.
In a later interview Elizabeth said that she would have been on that plane if she hadn’t had pneumonia. Mike had postponed the trip for three days hoping Elizabeth would get better, but destiny had other plans for her.
Years later Elizabeth told Barbara Walters, “Mike came upstairs five times to say goodbye and we held each other and cried. I didn’t sleep that night. He promised to call me from Albuquerque where the plane was refueling and when the call didn’t come at the designated time, I knew.”
Perhaps on some subconscious level Mike sensed something. Just hours before the flight he phoned a few friends, including Kirk Douglas, trying to round up a gin rummy player for the flight. Reportedly he said, “Ah, c’mon, it’s a good, safe plane. I wouldn’t let it crash. I’m taking along a picture of Elizabeth, and I wouldn’t let anything happen to her.”
LIFE LESSON: We tend to take life for granted until we lose something precious, whether it’s a loved one or our health. We are oblivious to the grand miracle that we get to live each day. The key is not to wait until tragedy strikes to appreciate life. Treat each day as if it could be your last. Don’t dwell on things you can change. I find I sleep better if I write down three things that I am grateful for each night before I go to bed.
At 26 years-old Elizabeth found herself alone with her and Mike’s seven-month-old daughter and her two small sons from her previous marriage to Michael Wilding. Years later Elizabeth admitted that Mike’s death affected her in a such a self-destructive way that she didn’t care if she lived or died.
As most people know the grieving widow found comfort in the arms of Mike Todd’s best friend, Eddie Fisher, who was married to Elizabeth’s close friend, Debbie Reynolds. When Eddie divorced America’s Sweetheart and married Elizabeth on May 12, 1959, a little more than a year after Mike’s death, the public’s sympathy turned to ridicule.
“It wasn’t until I almost died from pneumonia five years later while filming Cleopatra that I realized there must be something I was meant to do in this world, otherwise I would have been on the plane. When I got out of the hospital I looked at everything with a different sense of awareness. All my senses were so much more acute. Ever since then I’ve had a passion for life.”
So did Debbie Reynolds ever forgive Elizabeth Taylor?
“It was after many years,” Debbie explained. “I’d remarried and she’d remarried. I was going to London on the Queen Elizabeth ship and I looked up and I saw tons of luggage going by me – birdcages, dog cages and nurses, and I realized Elizabeth was on the same ship as me. I almost changed my mind about going, but my husband said, ‘Don’t be silly, we won’t be on the same floor, but of course we were. So I sent a note to her room, and she sent a note back saying that we should have dinner and get this over with and have a good time. Because we were very good friends when we were 17 and went to school together on the MGM lot, we had a wonderful evening with a lot of laughs. It was one of those things that happen in life and you just have to get through it.”
LIFE LESSON: Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself. It is absolutely essential to your peace of mind. Resentment and bitterness will only poison your own mind, body and spirit.
In 2001, Elizabeth and Debbie, along with Shirley MacLaine and Joan Collins, co-starred in a TV movie written by Debbie’s daughter Carrie Fisher called These Old Broads. In a true-to-life scene Elizabeth’s and Debbie’s characters talk about the husband they had in common.
When asked if the movie was cathartic, Debbie Reynolds said: “I got her view point and she got mine. I had warned Eddie when he left that she would throw him out after a year and a half because he wasn’t nearly exciting enough for her. He answered her call and she took it. Eddie was crazy about Elizabeth. He loved her very much. She was the most glamorous star of our generation. Women liked her and men adored her, including my husband.
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” – Mark Twain
The movie studios capitalized on Elizabeth’s gorgeous blue/violet eyes, her double set of eyelashes, her raven-dark hair and fair skin casting her most notably as the bride-to-be in the original 1950 version of Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracy; a society girl in A Place in the Sun (1951) with Montgomery Cliff; the Texas rancher’s daughter in the epic, Giant (1956) opposite Rock Hudson and James Dean; Maggie, the sultry, yet sexually-frustrated wife of Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Katharine Hepburn’s niece in Suddenly Last Summer (1958); a call girl in Butterfield 8 (1960) with Lawrence Harvey and Eddie Fisher (for which she won an Academy Award); and an Egyptian Queen in Cleopatra (1963) with Richard Burton that earned her a record-setting contract of $1 million.
And then there was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). It seemed impossible that 32-year-old Elizabeth Taylor was chosen to play Martha, a frumpy, drunk in her mid-fifties who engages in vitriolic, verbal taunts with her husband George, played by the actress’s real-life husband Richard Burton. Elizabeth gained 22 pounds for the role; she wore extra padding, make-up that aged her, and a gray-streaked wig. It was a remarkable performance that earned her a second Academy Award.
Usually the more beautiful you are the more difficult it must be to lose the very thing that people admire you for. I love that Elizabeth didn’t mind playing such an unflattering part. Years later she said, “I am sincerely not worried about getting old.” Perhaps that’s because Elizabeth nearly died a couple of times and she understood what was truly important.
LIFE LESSON: If we live long enough, we’re all going to get old. We must make peace with the idea that beauty is fleeting and that we won’t be taking any of our material possessions with us when we leave. What truly matters is the richness of your character, the compassion you develop and the love that you share.
I’d like to end by going back to the beginning of Elizabeth Taylor’s career when she was twelve years-old and starred in the 1944 movie National Velvet, playing Velvet Brown, a girl who desperately wants to ride an unruly horse in the Grand National steeplechase.
This clip has beautiful horses, breathtaking scenery, and it is set to the upbeat tempo of Keith Urban’s song, “Days Go By.”
Elizabeth was exceptionally beautiful even as a child. She was young and innocent with her whole life ahead of her. She had no idea what lay ahead of her, as do any of us. She hurt her back doing her own stunt falling off the horse and she was hospitalized several times during the movie. It was the first of many injuries and illnesses that would plague her over the years.
LIFE LESSON: No one has the perfect life. Even those with unbelievable beauty, brains, money, fame, and success, don’t escape unscathed. We are all someone’s child and often times someone’s parent. We all bleed and we all mourn. Don’t ever be jealous of anyone else. Focus on living your own life in the best way possible.
Rest assured that whatever station of life we are placed, princely or lowly, it contains the lessons and experiences necessary at the moment for our evolution, and gives us the best advantage for the development of ourselves. – Edward Bach
Thank you Elizabeth Taylor for all that you have contributed to make the world a better world. I like to think of you free from pain and happily reunited with those you love.