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Elizabeth Taylor emerged as activist

By Ted Johnson

March 23, 2011

Years ago, a magazine for those with HIV called Elizabeth Taylor "the patron saint of AIDS."

In the latter part of her life, as she remained a tabloid darling, did an occasional cameo and launched a few business ventures, her activism overshadowed all else.

Her work for AIDS research, support and prevention stood out not just for her stature, but because when she started, in the mid-1980s, the stigma and hysteria were at its peak.

She became a model for other actor-activists, such as Angelina Jolie and Bono, who, like her, used their fame in an effort to shift the public's attention to an undercovered crisis.

"She was really the first person to really understand the power of her celebrity," said Kevin Frost, CEO of the Foundation for AIDS Research, the org for which Taylor become founding chair. "It didn't just give her the ability to do good, but to her, the responsibility to do good."

Frost was an activist in the mid- and late 1980s, when AIDS was marginalized as a disease of worry to gays, drug users and Haitians, he recalled, and then "along comes this Hollywood royalty. She was really and truly a force of nature."

Hollywood's awareness took off after Rock Hudson disclosed in summer 1985 that he was suffering from AIDS, but she became involved in the crisis six months earlier, when she became a supporter of AIDS Project Los Angelesand started planning for a major fund-raising event. Her reason was simple: "I kept seeing all of these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything," she once said. "And then I realized I was just like them. I wasn't doing anything to help."

The September 1985 fund-raiser, a mix of young and old Hollywood as well as former first lady Betty Ford, raised some $1.3 million. That same month, according to Variety, she appeared at a press conference to kick off AmFAR, in which she announced that Hudson had sent a $250,000 check and first lady Nancy Reagan sent a letter of support. Hudson died several weeks later.

Taylor's involvement didn't wane after that initial push. In May 1986, she testified before Congress, urging lawmakers to expand support for research and help those afflicted. The following year, when amFAR was planning a fund-raiser in Washington, she got President Ronald Reagan to attend. According to Frost, Reagan had yet to publicly talk about the AIDS crisis in 1987, and he went "largely because she shamed him into doing it," Frost said.

Her criticism of government inaction continued into subsequent administrations, garnering headlines as she testified again before congressional committees (in a bold emerald dress in 1990) and before the U.N. General Assembly as attention turned to the international crisis. In 1996, she appeared before the National Press Club, where she urged adoption of needle exchange programs, which were in need of government support.

She blew into town like a tornado," Frost said. "She was fiercely direct. She spoke honestly. She would call (lawmakers) by names and say, 'Your policies are dead wrong.'"Taylor had a chance to learn the ways of Washington by experience: In 1976, she married former secretary of the Navy John Warner, who ran for the Senate two years later and won. But she hated the role of political wife, once calling it "domestic Siberia." During her husband's Senate campaign, she was told by women who worked on the campaign what to wear. She obeyed. After his victory, however, the women gave her a luncheon in her honor, and she put on her "purplest Halston pantsuit," she told writer Kevin Sessums in an interview for Poz magazine.

When she got up to address the gathering, "I told them the story that the women who ran John Warner's campaign had forbid me to wear purple. I got up and pointed out one specific woman. I said, 'That one! Right there!'"