Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor (born 1932) is one of film's most legendary women. She starred in over 50 films, from such children's classics as Lassie Come Home and National Velvetto adult fare such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cleopatra, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London, England, on February 27, 1932 to American parents Francis and Sara Taylor. Her father was a prosperous art dealer who had his own gallery in a fashionable part of London. Her mother was an actress who has been successful prior to marriage under the stage name Sara Sothern. She has an older brother, Howard, who had been born two years earlier. In 1939 the family moved to Los Angeles, CA, where Elizabeth was encouraged and coached by her mother to seek work in the motion picture industry. Elizabeth learned well and was signed by Universal in 1941 for $200 a week.
The following year, Elizabeth Taylor signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and landed the part of an English heiress in the successful film Lassie Come Home. MGM was the biggest and best studio of the time and employed stars such as Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Katherine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford. In 1943 Taylor was cast opposite Mickey Rooney in National Velvet, the story of a young woman who wins a horse in the lottery and eventually rides it in England's Grand National Steeplechase. Taylor was so determined to play the role that she exercised and dieted for four months. During filming, she was thrown from a horse and suffered a broken back, but forced herself to finish the project. Her dedication was well rewarded and National Velvet became both a critical and commercial success.
Elizabeth Taylor loved her studio responsibilities, the costumes, the make-up, and the attention. Hedda Hopper, the columnist and friend of Sara Taylor, declared that at fifteen Elizabeth was the most beautiful woman in the world. Making films such as Little Women, Father of the Bride, Cynthia, and A Place in the Sun Taylor soon began to gain a reputation as a temperamental actress who demanded preferential treatment. It was a role she would often play in a widely publicized life.
Her private hours included friendship and romance with Glenn Davis, Bill Pawley, and Montgomery Clift. On May 6, 1950, she married hotel-heir Conrad N. Hilton, Jr., but the marriage lasted less than a year. After divorcing Hilton at 19, she married British actor Michael Wilding on February 21, 1952, with whom she had two sons.
Between 1952 and 1956 Elizabeth Taylor played in numerous romantic films that did not demand great acting talent. But in 1956 she played opposite James Dean in Giant, followed by the powerful Raintree County (1957), for which she received her first Academy Award nomination, and Suddenly Last Summer (1959)—for which she received $500, 000, the most ever earned by an actress for eight weeks of work, and her third Academy Award nomination.
In 1956 Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Wilding separated, and on February 2, 1957, she married producer Mike Todd. James Dean's death the year before, shortly after the two had finished filming Giant, devastated her. She had also endured the horror of her close friend Monty Clift's nearly fatal automobile accident, for which she felt responsible. Clift had left Taylor's home after a party and had driven into a utility pole. On March 24, 1958, her husband Mike Todd lost his life when his private plane crashed in New Mexico as he was en route to an awards banquet. Taylor's grief seemed bottomless over each tragedy, and for a time she sought relief in pills, hysterics, and alcohol. While struggling with personal losses and the concurrent addictions, she played the emotionally-wrenching part of Maggie in the film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Her portrayal of Maggie won her a second Academy Award nomination and offered the opportunity to develop her friendship with Eddie Fisher, who had been Mike Todd's best man at their wedding. Soon after his scandal-ridden divorce from Debbie Reynolds (who had been Taylor's matron of honor at the ceremony) Elizabeth Taylor married Eddie Fisher on May 12, 1959.
In 1960 Taylor turned in one of her best screen performances as a call-girl in Butterfield 8, for which she won an Oscar as Best Actress. A few months later, in 1961, she signed with 20th Century-Fox for $1 million for the film Cleopatra, with Richard Burton as Marc Antony. The two stars were soon romancing off the set as well as on; even the Vatican spoke out in protest, castigating the "caprices of adult children" and accusing Taylor of "erotic vagrancy." In despair over her alliance with Burton, married and the father of two, Elizabeth Taylor attempted suicide in early 1962. But two years later, the two divorced their respective spouses and married on March 15, 1964.
Two films, The VIPs (1963) and The Sandpiper (1965), preceded Elizabeth Taylor's screen triumph, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which she won another Oscar. Her husband and co-star, Richard Burton, was nominated for an Academy Award but did not receive one for The Taming of the Shrew. Well over a dozen films followed, as did a divorce from Burton. The couple remarried on October 10, 1975. They divorced for the second, and final, time in July 1976.
Still, the public clamored for news about this beautifully outrageous star with the violet eyes and voluptuous body. The public's curiosity and interest was piqued once more when Taylor married for the seventh time—to John Warner, a Republican campaigning for the U.S. Senate in Virginia in 1978. According to one biographer, Elizabeth Taylor broke "all the rules for being a good political wife." In addition, she had gained considerable weight and the press hounded her mercilessly about it. Warner was elected, divorced Taylor, and was re-elected in 1984.
Taylor's performances were far from over, She moved to Broadway for the first time in a well-received staging of The Little Foxes. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton then appeared on Broadway in 1983, attempting to rekindle the dramatic spark that had leapt between them, in Noel Coward's Private Lives. The critics were cool, however, feeling that the stage couple projected overtones of the actors' own private times together. It was a poor sequel to their devastatingly effective Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
In 1983 Taylor signed herself into the Betty Ford Clinic in California for treatment of her alcohol addiction. On August 4, 1984, the sudden death of Richard Burton left her "extremely, extremely upset, " according to a spokesperson. Chronic back pain and general ill-health led to her return to drinking and prescription pain killers. Moreover, a number of close friends, among them actor Rock Hudson, fashion designer Halston, and Malcolm Forbes, her private press secretary, became ill with AIDS. Despite her own medical and addiction battles, Taylor became the first actress of such legendary stature to speak out on behalf of AIDS research. In 1985 Taylor became the co-founder and chair of the American Foundation for AIDS research. Her "Commitment to Life" benefit of that year was the first major AIDS research fund-raising gala staged by the Hollywood community.
Tayor returned to the Betty Ford Clinic in 1988, where she met a 40-year old construction worked named Larry Fortensky. Their friendship continued outside the clinic and they married in 1991. She continued her benefit work and, in 1993, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored Taylor with a special humanitarian award for her years with the American Foundation for AIDS Research. In 1994, Taylor returned to the silver screen after a 14-year absence for a cameo in The Flintstones. Taylor appeared in the film because some of the proceeds were to benefit AIDS research. Her marriage to Fortensky ended in divorce in 1996. Taylor revealed that she did not plan to marry again, but was quoted as saying, "I expect to fall in love again."
Putting her own health concerns aside, Taylor postponed brain surgery in February 1997 to participate in the star-studded ABC-TV special, "Happy Birthday Elizabeth— A Celebration of Life, " which marked her 65th birthday and raised money for AIDS research. The following day, Dr. Martin Cooper removed a two-inch tumor from her brain. A week later, Elizabeth Taylor was released from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to recover at home. Through all her triumphs and difficulties, she will always be remembered as a beautiful, much-beloved woman with a presence seemingly larger than life, both on and off the screen.
Further Reading on Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor
Among the most detailed and least restrained biographies of Elizabeth Taylor is Kitty Kelley's Elizabeth Taylor, The Last Star (1981). Other useful works include Brenda Maddox's Who's Afraid of Elizabeth Taylor? (1977) and A Passion for Life: the Biography of Elizabeth Taylor (1995) by Donald Spoto. For a discussion of her screen credits, with illustrations, Elizabeth Taylor by Foster Hirsch (1973) is rather complete.