Elizabeth Taylor, Hollywood Icon and AIDS Awareness Champion, Dies Aged 79

By Steve Williams

March 24, 2011

Oscar winning actress Dame Elizabeth Taylor has died today, March 23, at California's Cedars-Sinai Hospital. She was 79. According to her publicist Sally Morrison, "She was surrounded by her children -- Michael Wilding, Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd, and Maria Burton."

Taylor was hospitalized some weeks ago for congestive heart failure but, after a number of complications, had seemed to be improving. She is survived by 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Born in London, 1932, the two-time Oscar winner is regarded as one of the most popular actresses to grace Hollywood's golden age, and won praise for star turns in such classics as "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "A Place in the Sun," and her iconic title role in "Cleopatra."

She would go on to win Oscars for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Butterfield 8," though her legacy in HIV/AIDS awareness is just as notable as her exploits in celluloid.

Taylor began her AIDS awareness work in the 1980s when AIDS was a mysterious virus that gripped nations around the world in cold dread. Stigma came next and with it silence. A silence that was deadly.

Yet, to much controversy, Taylor actively broke that silence. She raised funds for the AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) dinner, reportedly the first major AIDS benefit ever held in America, and with this she cemented her public commitment to raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.

Mindful of the power of her own celebrity, Taylor was instrumental in founding the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) and used her status as a Hollywood icon to broadcast to the media the necessity of raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.

In continuing this work, Taylor went before the U.S. Senate to testify in support of the Ryan White CARE Act, the largest federal Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency program providing assistance to those suffering from HIV/AIDS-related problems. She also addressed the General Assembly at the United Nations on World AIDS Day.

And then came her work in creating The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF).

From ETAF website:

In October 1991, Miss Taylor established The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF). With a focus on direct services for people living with AIDS, ETAF provides funding to AIDS service organizations throughout the world to assist those living with HIV and AIDS.

Since its inception, the Foundation has raised funds for HIV/AIDS service organizations throughout the world, providing critically needed support services and prevention education.

Taylor was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in 1999.

Known in the press for her acting talent and beauty, her dry wit and her very public battle with alcohol and drug addiction, her string of (seven) husbands also gave the media a fair amount to chew on. In typical humor Dame Elizabeth once commented, "I am a very committed wife. And I should be committed too - for being married so many times."

She also reacted defiantly to claims that she was licentious: "I've only slept with men I've been married to. How many women can make that claim?"

While it was often Taylor's beauty or eventful private life that earned her column inches, her eloquence and turn of phrase were both outstanding facets of her personality.

Indeed, Dame Elizabeth once said, "I adore wearing gems, but not because they are mine. You can't possess radiance, you can only admire it."

And so the world admires her radiance today even as she slips from our grasp. It is a certainty, however, that those she has left behind will remember her, both for her glittering work on the big screen and her devotion to HIV/AIDS awareness and HIV/AIDS research and treatment – work that will be continued by others treading the path she bravely forged before them.