Elizabeth Taylor has died at age 79. Throughout her extraordinary life — from child stardom and being celebrated as the most beautiful woman in the world to collecting Oscars, enormous jewels, and seven husbands in eight marriages — she rarely apologized, and kept on surviving.
Last year, she addressed rumors that someone else was going to play her in a movie. "No one is going to play Elizabeth Taylor, but Elizabeth Taylor herself," she said, adding, "Not at least until I'm dead, and at the moment I'm having too much fun being alive...and I plan on staying that way."
Being alive for Elizabeth Taylor meant a near-constant spotlight, starting not long after she was born — with violet eyes and a genetic mutation that gave her two rows of eyelashes. It meant a tumultuous relationship with her own beauty and her ideas of love. "I never planned to acquire a lot of jewels or a lot of husbands," she told Kim Kardashian (yes) not long ago. "For me, life happened, just as it does for anyone else."
Of "being a beautiful woman in Hollywood," she said, "If you were considered pretty, you might as well have been a waitress trying to act—you were treated with no respect at all." Much discussion was devoted to whether she could act at all, or whether she was worth anything beyond her looks. (A Washington Post review of one of the 50+ books written about Taylor declared as recently as 2006 that Taylor was "a timid and rather unintelligent woman whose deepest aesthetic impulses are reserved for the baubles on her fingers and whose idea of morality was to marry every man she slept with."
That putative sexual morality continues to be a source of fascination in her obituaries. "Behind the seemingly scandalous behavior was a woman with a clear sense of morality: she habitually married her lovers," declares The New York Times in its obituary (written by a man who died in 2005, whose idea of morality may have been minted in another age.) And The National Review is already praising her for her refusal to have "affairs."
Needless to say, this is a simplistic assessment of a woman who told Hedda Hopper after "stealing" Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds — after he'd been comforting her at the loss of her great love, his friend Mike Todd, in a plane crash, "What do you expect me to do, sleep alone?" Of her relationships, she would say, ""You don't get over men like the flu. Every divorce is like a little death."
She survived addiction and recovery (several times), spousal abuse (in her marriage to Conrad Hilton Jr.), seemingly endless medical problems and procedures, and public mockery of her fluctuating weight. She wrote a book about that weight in 1988, Elizabeth Takes Off: On Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self-Image, And Self-Esteem. During one of her marriages to Richard Burton, she tried to subsume her own career and told him, "If I get fat enough, they won't ask me to do any more films." She went through a similar self-erasure during her marriage to Republican Senator John Warner. She described herself at the time as "the loneliest person in the world."
She was the first actress to be paid a million dollars (and later more) for Cleopatra. She was also one of the first to take on AIDS activism as a major cause. As Michael Musto wrote today, "She redefined the role of the celebrity by daring to talk about AIDS way back in the '80s, when no one else wanted to touch it." He also said her death means "the end to old-time Hollywood glamour as we know it."
But she wasn't just untouchably glamorous. She called herself another word: "I know I'm vulgar, but would you have me any other way?" Not at all.
Elizabeth Taylor, Lifelong Screen Star, Dies at 79 [NYT]
Remembering Elizabeth Taylor [People]
Elizabeth Taylor RIP [Village Voice]
Related: Growing Up In The Spotlight [Newsweek]