"She had a sense of who she was"

By Michael Lea

March 25, 2011

If there's one thing Bill Flanagan remembers about Elizabeth Taylor, it's that the woman sure knew how to make an entrance.

It was 1989 and Flanagan, current dean of the law school at Queen's University, had just completed graduate school at Columbia University in New York when he took a job as director of public policy at the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

Taylor was the national chair of the organization and would regularly attend board meetings.

"When she showed up at one board meeting I remember in particular, it was very much a performance," Flanagan recalled.

"Elizabeth Taylor had arrived and you knew that she had been in hair and makeup for three hours. And she looked spectacular. She had a sense of who she was."

It was part of Flanagan's job to arrange meetings for Taylor in Washington, D.C., where she would lobby policymakers and lawmakers for more funding for AIDS research and care.

"I would have been 29 and just the opportunity to meet Elizabeth Taylor, of course, was pretty dazzling," said Flanagan, "but also to meet someone who was a champion in the fight against HIV and AIDS in the United States, someone who had taken such a courageous stand, one that was very much motivated by her own personal conviction.

"It was inspirational to say the least," Flanagan said. "Really quite thrilling."

Taylor died Wednesday at the age of 79.

On Thursday, Flanagan recalled a board meeting in Los Angeles where the participants included such famous people as film producer David Geffen and advice columnist Abigail Van Buren — "but Liz Taylor, she was the star."

"The likes of David Geffen and Abigail Van Buren were nothing when Liz Taylor walked into the room," Flanagan said. "It was pretty impressive."

Taylor personified the old Hollywood glamour, he said. "She had a real magic about her, there's no doubt about it. She had not only the old Hollywood star power, but this was a woman who had become a tremendously effective advocate — and selfless.

"There wasn't any reason why Elizabeth Taylor would do any of this. She was Elizabeth Taylor. She didn't need to take on an unpopular, unloved and stigmatized cause, but she did, and with great personal conviction."

Flanagan said Taylor was the kind of woman who would not be silenced. She was prepared to "rattle politicians' cages" and use her position and influence to advocate a cause she cared very deeply about.

He remembers her as "very gracious, very passionate, thoughtful, courageous," and willing to take personal risk in speaking out about a disease that produced fear in the population.

"This was in 1989 and the AIDS epidemic was raging," Flanagan remembered. "There were no effective treatments at the time so it was a very difficult time in New York. Like many major cities, it was being very badly affected.

"She certainly earned my undying admiration and loyalty."

Flanagan believes Taylor was instrumental in transforming the debate over AIDS in the United States and around the world.

Following the death from AIDS of her friend Rock Hudson in 1985, Taylor threw herself into the AIDS crisis.

Even before his death, she had been a major supporter of AIDS Project Los Angeles and in 1985 she joined the board of directors of the National AIDS Research Foundation. It later merged with the New York-based AIDS Medical Foundation to become the American Foundation for AIDS Research, for which Taylor was the national and later international, chair.

In 1991, she founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to help organizations provide direct care for people with HIV/AIDS.

"She was really one of the first celebrities in the United States to speak publicly about AIDS," said Flanagan. "At the time, it was certainly courageous of her. She really was a pioneer.

"She was a very outspoken advocate for the rights of people with HIV and, of course, she was very critical of the government at the time. Presidents Reagan and Bush had been very slow to respond to the epidemic and so she testified in Washington many times and on Capitol Hill and raised millions and millions of dollars for HIV research."

Flanagan said he has remained a big fan of Taylor's movies.

"She was legendary," he said. "She had a huge career."

He never had any one-on-one meetings with Taylor, but he recalls that at board meetings she was willing to listen to the experts around her and didn't presume to tell them how to run the organization.

"She certainly had a lot of input into the strategic direction of the organization, but at a very high level, and she quite rightly let people like myself do all the running around. She was the spokesperson for the organization. That was her great skill."

He remembers her as elegant and respectful.

"Not at all demanding in any kind of Hollywood diva-esque manner. She was a lovely person. It was a great privilege to have known her even as briefly as I did."

His only regret is that he didn't leave with a photo of the two of them together or even an autograph.

"Isn't that unfortunate? I wish I had."

Flanagan, who became dean of law at Queen's in 2005, has continued his work with HIV/AIDS. He was president of the Ontario HIV Treatment Network from 2003 to 2008 and was executive director and co-founder of the Canada AIDS Russia Project.