Hollywood mourns the ultimate celebrity

Tributes have been pouring in for Elizabeth Taylor, who died yesterday

Guy Adams@guyadams
Thursday 24 March 2011 01:00

The last public words of Dame Elizabeth Taylor were shared with the 322,000 fans who followed her occasional pronouncements on Twitter. "My interview in Bazaar with Kim Kardashian just came out!!!" she announced, providing a link to a magazine article in which she summed up her life and times thus: "I never planned to acquire a lot of jewels or a lot of husbands. For me, life happened, just as it does for anyone else."

It was a typically splendid one-liner from a woman whose death yesterday, at the age of 79, ends one of Hollywood's most fabulous careers. For almost seven decades Dame Elizabeth was a crown jewel of popular culture. She starred in 50 movies, won two Oscars, married eight times to seven men, endured ravaging illness, personal tragedy, and was photographed as much as any woman alive. She was, if you like, the celebrity's celebrity.

Doctors at the Cedars Sinai Medical Centre in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, said yesterday that Dame Elizabeth died in the early hours of the morning, from congenital heart failure after being admitted to the institution for "monitoring" last month. The star's final hours were spent in the company of all four of her children: Michael Wilding, Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd and Maria Burton.

"My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humour, and love," Michael said in a statement. "Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world. We know, simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it."

History will record that Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was a famous movie actress. But in truth, her role in popular culture was more pervading than that. A child star, who blossomed into one of the last great screen-sirens of her generation, her fame endured even as the film jobs declined. In later years, she enjoyed second careers as a perfume saleswoman and tireless advocate for gay rights and Aids awareness.

Taylor's relationship with Richard Burton – whom she married and divorced twice – was of course one of celebrity culture's most compelling love affairs (at one point, it saw the couple accused by the Vatican of "erotic vagrancy"). But it was only one of the many gifts her tumultuous love life bestowed upon headline writers. As she once put it: "I am a very committed wife. And I should be committed too, for being married so many times."

When Taylor wasn't filling column inches with romantic liaisons, fans followed her myriad other personal struggles. She battled drug and alcohol addiction, and a selection of chronic illnesses that saw her endure 30 operations and spend her final years in a wheelchair due to osteoporosis. A lifelong weight problem also provided tabloid fodder. Joan Rivers once joked, to Dame Elizabeth's amusement, that she had "more chins than a Chinese phone directory".

Fame, and with it great fortune (she was worth an estimated $600m at her death) always seemed to come easily. Though born in Hampstead in 1932, Taylor was brought up in Hollywood by ambitious parents who encouraged her to pursue a career in entertainment. After a couple of roles in Lassie films she "hit" at the age of 12, in National Velvet, the 1944 children's classic about a girl who wins a horse in a raffle and trains it for the Grand National.

Audiences were as taken by her raw beauty as they were by her actual performance. "She strikes me, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful. I think she also has a talent, of a sort," said critic James Agee in an often-quoted review in The Nation. "She and the picture are wonderful, and I hardly know or care whether she can act or not."

Over the ensuing decade, she matured into one of the great screen beauties of the era. In one of the most consistent runs of form in Hollywood history, Taylor found herself among the 10 highest-grossing female performers at the box office for more than 10 years in a row.

The jury might remain out regarding the true extent of her acting ability. But there can be little doubt that Dame Elizabeth did occasionally find her mark. Her performance as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof garnered a much-deserved Oscar nomination in 1958, and she won a Best Actress award in 1961 for playing a Manhattan call girl in Butterfield 8.

Perhaps her finest performance came five years later, when, at 34, she won a second Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, gaining 20lb in weight and wearing a grey wig to play Martha, the foul-mouthed, drink-addled and sexually predatory leading lady. Some said, a touch cruelly, that she was typecast for the part.

Dame Elizabeth's defining role was, however, her own life: the beautiful, troubled Hollywood star, whose habit of hopping from marriage to marriage added to a jewellery collection which rivalled that of a maharajah.

Among her husbands was hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, whom she wed at 18 and divorced six months later, film producer Michael Todd, who was killed in a plane crash, US Senator John Warner, and a burly construction worker, Larry Fortensky, whom she'd met in rehab.

In her later years, she gamely stayed in the spotlight, making occasional appearances, in her wheelchair, on the dancefloors of West Hollywood's gay nightclubs. She even took a cameo role in The Simpsons. At her funeral which is due to be held tomorrow, mourners will surely recall the phrase she once told an interviewer should adorn her gravestone: "Here lies Elizabeth. She hated being called Liz. But she lived."

A life in Brief

1932 Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor born in Hampstead, London

1942 makes screen debut in There's One Born Every Minute

1950 Marries hotel heir Conrad Hilton

1951 They divorce

1952 Marries Michael Wilding

1957 They divorce; marries Mike Todd

1958 Todd dies in a plane crash

1960 Is first star to be paid $1m, as the lead in Cleopatra with Richard Burton

1961 Oscar for role in Butterfield 8

1964 Marries Richard Burton

1966 Wins second Best Actress Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

1974 Divorces Burton

1975 Remarries Burton

1976 Divorces Burton; marries John Warner

1982 They divorce

1991 Marries Larry Fortensky

2004 Has congestive heart failure

2011 Dies in Los Angeles

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