Elizabeth Taylor once quipped that she entered hospitals “as others enter taxis”. It was a typically droll remark, designed to take the sting from the health problems that had plagued her for more than four decades. Medical procedures were, she said, “a terrible bore”. But such pain was also the only aspect of her life that she ever underplayed.
Here was a woman who – among other ailments – broke her back five times, fractured her right foot, left leg and wrist, caught pneumonia three times, had both hips replaced, a benign brain tumour removed, survived skin cancer and food poisoning, and braved operations including an emergency tracheotomy, eye surgery and an ovarian cyst procedure, and had lived since 2004 with the heart failure that ultimately claimed her life.
Yet the news yesterday of Elizabeth Taylor’s death at the age of 79 in Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre, Los Angeles, still came as a shock. Because her life had blazed with such passion, on screen and off.
Born in Hampstead, London to American parents, her family moved back to the US on the eve of the Second World War, settling in Los Angeles in 1939 when Elizabeth was seven. The combination of a fiercely ambitious mother, herself a frustrated actress, and Elizabeth’s exquisite face framing those violet eyes, saw her signed to Universal Pictures in 1941.
She could not sing or dance or even act terribly well, she would later reflect, but her first screen appearance at the age of nine in There’s One Born Every Minute was enough to convince the executives at MGM, who had turned her down on a first audition, of their error. They signed her the following year and cast her alongside Roddy McDowall in the 1943 release Lassie Come Home.
National Velvet (1944) was the film that changed her life. She was 12 years old and she was a star. Joseph L Mankiewicz, who directed her in Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and Cleopatra (1963), recalled seeing her and thinking she was “the most incredible vision of loveliness” he had ever seen. “She was sheer innocence.”
Professionally her course was set, though Taylor would later reflect that it was only with her role in A Place in the Sun, filmed in 1949 and released two years later, that it finally occurred to her that she was an actress.
Her acting was “purely intuitive”. So, too, was her romantic life. She fell in love hard and often, and habitually married her lovers. She changed her name in turn from Taylor to Hilton in 1950, Wilding in ’52, Todd in ’57, Fisher in ’59, Burton in ’64 and again in ’75, Warner in ’76 and finally Fortensky in ’91. When asked why she married so often she replied: “I don’t know, honey. It sure beats the hell out of me.”
But it was her love affair, marriage, divorce and remarriage to Richard Burton in all its gruesome glamour that always proved the most compelling. Taylor loved, Burton once said, “like she grieved … like a wild animal”.
In the course of her career, Taylor appeared in more than 50 films. She won Oscars for her performances in Butterfield 8, in 1960, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966.
She had four children – two sons by second husband Michael Wilding, a daughter by Michael Todd and one by Burton – and nine grandchildren. She devoted much of the past decade to raising money for charitable causes, notably founding the American Aids Foundation after the death in 1997 of her friend Rock Hudson.
Two years later, in 1999, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2007 she made one of her increasingly rare public appearances to receive a Humanitarian Award for her work in raising more than US$100 million (Dh367m) to fight Aids.
She lived her life completely and unapologetically. “I know I’m vulgar,” she once said to critics who blanched at her gobstopper diamonds and dissolute lifestyle. “But would you have me any other way?”
And she lived it to the very end. “I’m an example of what people can go through and survive,” she maintained. “I’m not like anyone. I’m me.”