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Elizabeth Taylor: A Great Humanitarian And One Of The Greatest Actresses Of All Time

The Early Years

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor was born in February 1932 in a planned community called Hampstead Garden Suburb, in northwest London. Her parents were from Kansas. Her father was an art dealer who got into the business through a wealthy relative. He moved first to New York, where in 1926 he married a young actress, also from Kansas, by the name of Sara Sothern. Then a few years later he was transferred to work in an art gallery in London.

Elizabeth Taylor

Since she was born in England of American parents, she had dual citizenship. Later, when she was in her 30s with a British husband, she signed an oath of renunciation at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Then still later, in 1977, when she was married to an American politician running for the U. S. Senate, she applied for restoration of her U. S. citizenship. At that time she stated she planned to remain in America for the rest of her life.

A Conversion To Judaism

She was born into a Christian Science family. But a family friend was an active campaigner for the state of Israel, and her mother also got interested in Judaism and raised money for Zionism. So at age 27, she converted to Judaism, taking the Hebrew name Elisheba Rachel. She became a lifelong supporter of Israel, though she herself rarely attended synagogue. “I am one of those people,” she said, “who thinks you can be close to god anywhere, not just in a place designed for worship.”

In 1959 she made a large purchase of Israeli bonds, which led to her being barred from visiting Egypt. She wanted to get married in Israel; however, since her fiance was not Jewish, she was unable to do so. She raised money for the Jewish National Fund, advocated for the right of Soviet Jews to be able to emigrate to Israel, and she cancelled a trip to the Soviet Union because of its condemnation of Israel for the Six-Day War of 1967.

An Advocate For HIV & AIDS Related Work

Elizabeth Taylor
Nancy Pelosi from San Francisco, CA, CC BY 2.0, Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Taylor Testifying Before the House Budget Committee on HIV-AIDS Funding

She was one of the first public personalities to step up as a strong advocate for HIV and AIDS-related projects. She organized a fundraiser in 1984 to benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles; she was co-founder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research; and she worked to develop support services for people with AIDS — including a $500,000 donation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to the NO/AIDS Task Force serving people in New Orleans.

Eigth Time Is A Charm

Her humanitarian efforts were heralded by no less than the President of the United States. But these activities were not what made her famous. One issue that kept her in the public eye was her tumultuous love life. She was married eight times — twice to the same person. Her first marriage, to a playboy hotel heir, lasted less than a year. She then married an actor; then a producer; then a singer; then another actor; then the politician (U. S. Senator John Warner) — and finally, a man she met at the Betty Ford Center who she wedded at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

Along the way, she was romantically linked with Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra, Henry Kissinger and others. She was often considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. And she was also famous for her collection of diamonds, including the 33-carat Krupp diamond which she wore daily. Her collection of jewels was estimated to be worth some $150 million.

Taylor and Rock Hudson in Giant (1956)

The Road To Hollywood

By now you may be getting an idea of who she was. After her family moved back to the United States in 1939, to avoid the impending war, her father opened an art gallery in Los Angeles, and he began rubbing shoulders with rich celebrities who bought his wares. With her deep blue/purple eyes, and her double-thick eyelashes, she soon caught the eye of Hollywood producers.

She was urged to test for the role of Scarlett’s daughter in Gone with the Wind; but her mother put a stop to that. Yet not long after, she was signed by Universal and at age nine appeared in her first movie There’s One Born Every Minute. Soon after she went to MGM where she appeared in a Lassie movie.

Her breakthrough came at age 12, as a young girl training her horse in the film National Velvet. Both critics and viewers instantly fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor — which ultimately turned into a tempestuous relationship to rival her romantic adventures.

Mickey Rooney and Taylor in National Velvet (1944)

An Iconic Career And Life

The rest of her career is well known and has been well documented, with over 50 books published about her. She was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award four years in a row:  in 1958 for Raintree County, in 1959 for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in 1960 for Suddenly Last Summer, and finally winning in 1961 for her role in Butterfield 8.

She became the highest paid actress at the time for her turn in Cleopatra released in 1963. But the only prize she won for that movie was the opportunity to star opposite her husband Richard Burton. The duo — married from 1964 – ’74 and again from 1975 – ’76 — appeared together in ten other films including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the 1966 movie for which she received her second Best Actress Academy Award. In 1992 she also was awarded the Jean Herscholt Humanitarian Academy Award for her work in fighting AIDS.

Taylor was also famous for her weight problems — yo-yoing back and forth between 120 and 180 — as well as occasional issues with alcohol and painkillers. She also had heart problems throughout her life, which is finally what felled her on March 23, 2011, at the age of 79. At the time, she was surrounded by her four children, and heralded as a great humanitarian and one of the greatest movie stars of all time.

“She was different from the rest of us,” wrote the New York Times. She was described as a quintessential Tennessee Williams heroine — as Taylor herself once said, “Steamy, full of drama … on the brink of disaster.”

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About The Author
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits spent 40 years in New York book and magazine publishing before retiring to Bucks County, PA, in 2017. He now volunteers in the school system, produces the baby boomer blog Sightings Over Sixty . . . and is just starting to chase after grandchildren.
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