[Editor’s note: This interview originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of A&U.]
“AIDS is my life. I’ve retired from films, and I don’t want to do them anymore,” Elizabeth Taylor asserts firmly in her feminine yet commanding voice, igniting the phone line from her Bel-Air home. As an aside, she adds flippantly: “I did a couple of good films. Leave it at that.”
Moments earlier, waiting for her telephone call, I was worried. How would I address her? Miss Taylor? Dame Elizabeth? I fretted needlessly. After talking with her for a few moments, I had my answer. Just call her Elizabeth. She’s charming, genuine, and easy going, so much so that I feel as though I am chatting with an old chum.
Elizabeth Taylor–her name alone conjures up so many images: Cleopatra, eight marriages, the Betty Ford Clinic (sober for fourteen years), two Oscar wins, countless medical crises, Debbie and Eddie, Eddie and Liz, A Place in the Sun, White Diamonds, the Krupp diamond, humanitarian work, and passionate AIDS activism. I recall when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, Elizabeth, along with Jacqueline Kennedy, dominated the newsstands. She is one of the most photographed people in the world. Indeed, her life certainly reads like a Hollywood screenplay, though she gets highly upset and is quite adamant when asked whom she’d like to see play the part of Elizabeth Taylor: “I don’t want a movie to be made of my life because nobody knows my life!”
A major part of Taylor’s life has been in the oftentimes bleak world of AIDS. She was the first celebrity to get involved in the fight to bring public recognition and acknowledgement of the health crisis, long before it was fashionable to do so. Right at the beginning of our conversation, she sets me straight on a few facts. Most people think it was the death of her cherished friend, Rock Hudson, that inspired her. In fact, months before Hudson’s death, Elizabeth helped to establish amfAR, along with Dr. Arnold Klein, Dr. Michael Gottlieb (Hudson’s M.D.), Dr. Mathilde Krim, David Geffen, Bill Misenhimer, and others. “I first heard about AIDS while reading the newspapers, then, hearing it on television news,” she says. “It was quick; just one sentence. It grabbed me that people were being ignored and dying.”
In 1985, AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) was one of the few organizations that serviced the AIDS community, and they asked her to chair a fundraiser. She and Chen Sam (her devoted publicist for more than twenty-five years who died of cancer in 1995) rented a tiny office and made calls. They got nothing but “no’s.” “The people in this town didn’t give a damn! Frank Sinatra said, I’m not getting involved in this stigma. And he owed the homosexual community so much,” she declares. “I knew what I was taking on but even after all the people who hung up on me, I did not give up.” As soon as Hudson died (he willed $250,000 to amfAR), Hollywood started paying attention. “That made me cynical about Hollywood. What a sad lesson. It’s a very sad comment on this town,” she whispers glumly.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth successfully staged the first major AIDS fundraiser, Commitment To Life, which raised $1 million. She continues her work with fundraising, which includes an annual amfAR benefit called Cinema Against AIDS, which is held in Cannes. This past year, Taylor herself paid $100,000 for an appearance by Dame Shirley Bassey to belt out the classic Bond song, “Goldfinger.” And on February 9th, Art for AIDS II, a fundraiser to benefit AIDS Services Foundation Orange County (ASF) and Laguna Art Museum (LAM), the brainchild of Dr. Arnold Klein, will honor Elizabeth Taylor. Last year, Art for AIDS I staged a tribute to Rock Hudson where Elizabeth gave a heart-wrenching speech about her friend.
Because amfAR focuses primarily on research and Elizabeth wanted more of a hands-on approach to help PWAs, she established The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) in 1991, where monies go directly to community-based organizations that distribute life’s necessities to PWAs. The initial start-up for ETAF came from the sale to the media of Elizabeth and Larry Fortensky’s wedding photographs, which were taken at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. She underwrites all costs and so there is no overhead, and volunteers staff the organization. “AmfAR’s overhead is getting too high for my taste. I’m not being critical, I guess they need to pay the people that work there,” reasons Elizabeth, though she’s still its main contributor. ETAF recipients include Caring For Babies With AIDS, Los Angeles; Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, China; Empower, Bangkok, Thailand; LIFE, Honolulu, Hawaii; and Mother Saradadevi Social Service Society, Tamilnadu, India. How does she decide whom to fund? “Bill Misenhimer [grants consultant, former executive director of APLA and amfAR] researches all the requests. We weed them out, and find out about their overhead. If their overhead is exorbitant, I don’t give them money because I know it’s going into somebody’s pocket. My foundation is for the individual. I want the money to get to the sick who can’t get out of bed,” she specifies.
Just then, a deafening leaf blower sirens past my window and Elizabeth’s words become muffled. I ask her to repeat what she has just said. She does.
The Foundation also distributes condoms as well as needles, and Taylor is the single largest contributor to amfAR’s work on needle exchange. “There are those who think it encourages junkies. It’s a matter of education,” she explains. “Instead of passing a [possibly infected] needle around you have a fresh, sterilized needle. This is one of my pet peeves. A needle a junkies does not make; a needle passed around, AIDS it does give.”
AIDS touched her life most directly when Aileen Getty, the former wife of her son, Christopher Wilding, revealed to Taylor that she had AIDS. Though diagnosed in 1985, it was not made public until 1991. Elizabeth and Aileen are very close, and like Elizabeth, Aileen is an activist, and was an early supporter of amfAR. “Aileen is magic. What a survivor. She’s been in and out of hospitals so many times but she fights. Aileen is a tiny woman yet she uses her courage, her brain, and every power in herself. Her spirit is keeping her alive,” she says with obvious pride. “For the people that have HIV or AIDS, don’t give in to it. Fight it with all your brainpower because you cannot let it be bigger than you.”
Taylor’s words echo through twenty years of a tireless fight. How overwhelming it must be for her at times. “I live AIDS. It has become my life,” she states precisely and sternly, annoyed by America’s complacency about HIV. “We need to educate people! It should be taught in schools. My god, the highest rate of HIV infection is between [ages] thirteen to twenty-four. What is a thirteen-year-old doing fucking around anyway?” She is angry, takes a short breath, yet remains agitated. “HIV aside, don’t they think about getting pregnant? What do their parents teach them? I would like to get all the parents together and give them holy shit!” she brays heatedly, sounding more like shades of her character Martha in the film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. “Because it’s their responsibility, not the government’s.”
And if Elizabeth could chat up these teens, what would she say? “You can have sex if you use a condom,” she proclaims bluntly, then dons a whiny voice and sarcastically mocks, “‘But it doesn’t feel so good.’” She changes her voice back and continues: “But my reply to that is: Death feels even worse.” She welcomes the opportunity to receive an invite from schools to address “these heterosexual teenagers. I don’t believe in soft-pedaling. I believe in telling it like it is, and giving statistics for them to mulch on.”
Elizabeth knows the human faces behind these statistics. “Nobody knows I go. The press doesn’t follow me. When I did my perfume tour, in every city I would find a hospice. We’d have a ball. I’d go to their room or we’d sit in the kitchen and laugh. I would say, No one seems to be listening to you. What can we do for you? What do you need that you don’t have? I’ll never forget one answer–‘Somebody to put their arms around me.’ So every time that I went to a hospice after that I hugged and kissed each patient because they were being treated like lepers.” She pauses a moment. “There was an old building they turned into a hospice in the Borghese Gardens in Rome where the la-de-da women used to walk their poodles. These women complained about the hospice, saying that it was ruining the Gardens by having this dreadful contagious disease there that they couldn’t walk their dogs anymore. I mean, like it was airborne? They were so stupid,” Elizabeth disdainfully ridicules. Thus, hospice residents were barred from the Gardens. They could no longer walk around there. Coming to the rescue, Elizabeth bought them gym equipment so that they could exercise despite the insensitivity of their neighbors.
“We have a map at amfAR that blackens out areas of the world where AIDS has killed. If you could see how completely out of control it is in Africa, Asia, and India. It is spreading so rapidly. It’s frightening. Even in America. People think the cocktail is a cure. That’s why we need education,” she screams. Elizabeth’s close friend, Nelson Mandela, has even suggested that she not come to Africa because she would be stoned to death. “A woman does not talk to men about sex. Even if I were black, but to be white on top of it–no way!” blurts Elizabeth. She’s presently concerned about the challenge of how to get the message across to halt AIDS without talking about sex.
At this point, I truly need to go to the bathroom. I ask Elizabeth, Do you want to hold on? “Sure. Sure,” she politely responds. When I return, she asks, “Was that the tap, or you peeing?” Caught by surprise and slightly embarrassed, I reply, I don’t know. Did you hear me?! “It sounded like a waterfall,” she exclaims jovially. “No wonder you had to go pee!” We both burst into laughter. This reminds her of an incident that occurred while she and her then-husband, Senator John Warner, were in a small plane over the state of Virginia during the campaign. They made an emergency landing in an open field. “I really had to go! There was no question about it. I charged to the nearest house.” When the woman answered the door, her mouth gaped open and she allowed Elizabeth to use the bathroom. “I’ll never forget this,” laughs Elizabeth. Neither will I.
Elizabeth has suffered the loss of many people that she loved, all covered breathlessly by the world press–husband Mike Todd’s death in a plane crash; the suicide of her personal secretary, Roger Wall, after he learned that he was HIV-positive; close buddies, Mongtomery Clift and Roddy McDowell. Over the New Year’s holiday she lost yet another great friend. “He’s one of the ones I’m going to miss so much,” she tenderly cries as her voice cracks. I give her a few minutes then ask, How do you deal with the grief? “I’m a very spiritual person. I don’t believe in organized religion anymore but I believe in God.” She pronounces it “Gawd,” and for an instant, I’m pulled back in time to my parochial school in Ohio where Sister Agnes Clare would also pronounce it that way. “I’ve come to the conclusion that everything happens for a reason. I know the times that I’ve almost died, the first thing I thought of was, Not poor me, but, What am I to learn from this lesson?” she confides. “I used to pooh-pooh it but I realize [now] that I am a damn strong and a damn brave person. And I can get through anything. It’s mind over matter.”
Does she have a take on the afterlife? “I believe that the soul does not die. I have a little dog, Sugar, and I know she has a soul. We communicate and she understands every word I’m saying to her. I’ve been pronounced dead four times. I’ve read my own obituary, and they were the best reviews I’ve ever had!” jokes a dramatic Elizabeth. After the quick laugh, she continues in a serious tone: “I went to that tunnel, saw the white light, and Mike [Todd]. I said, Oh Mike, you’re where I want to be. And he said, ‘No, Baby. You have to turn around and go back because there is something very important for you to do. You cannot give up now.’ It was Mike’s strength and love that brought me back.” Her near-death experience occurred back in the fifties, long before she or anyone else for that matter were aware of, much less spoke of such things. Taylor never revealed it because she felt it was “Looney Tunes.”
Elizabeth also thinks President Bush is a bit of a Looney Tune, as she has been quoted saying, “I don’t think President Bush is doing anything at all about AIDS. In fact, I’m not sure he even knows how to spell ‘AIDS.’” We giggle when Elizabeth assures me that she did indeed make this comment. However, Taylor still has hope for Bush. “I know his best friend, which doesn’t mean he’s like Bush–they couldn’t be more opposite,” she clarifies. “I’ve asked him to get some messages to Bush including that I would like to be an Ambassador of AIDS for the country. They have no one representing AIDS and I am the person to do it.” Elizabeth is excited and ready to take the plunge. She made this request in early December while visiting Washington, D.C., to be awarded the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for the significant contribution to American culture through her craft.
It’s hard to believe that this Dame will be seventy-one in February, with four children, ten grandkids, and one great grandchild. She’s as glamorous and headstrong today as she was in her legendary studio days. This past fall, Simon & Schuster published Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry, and The House of Taylor recently released a new perfume, Forever Elizabeth. A children’s book has been reissued that Elizabeth wrote and illustrated when she was fourteen, Elizabeth Taylor: Nibbles and Me. Thank heaven for this classy live wire. What are her thoughts about getting older? “I think you grow older only if you allow yourself to grow older. Life is my true passion, and my work for AIDS keeps me here. I’m fed up with the ignorance, and I will not stop until there’s a cure.” Before we hang up, we wish each other Happy New Year and she gently adds, “Maybe this will be the year for a cure, huh?” Hope so, Elizabeth.
Had you not been an actress, what other profession would have interested you?
Where are your two Oscars located at this moment?
In a room I call my trophy room, which includes things from all over the world.
Any secrets you’d like to reveal about how you stay so young?
I know you thoroughly enjoy traveling. What is your favorite city?
I was born in London. I love London. I’d like to go home but they don’t allow dogs in. I also love Paris, and Rome.
Where is your favorite place to disappear to?
I have the most beautiful bedroom in the world. It’s octagonal. It’s a huge room and it’s like being in a tree house. I can see all the tops of the trees. It’s my security. It’s where I recharge when I need E.T. time.
I’ve read that you have a gift of ESP. Can you elaborate on this?
The first time it happened to me was when I was nineteen and Michael Wilding was thirty-nine. He was such a gentle gentleman. We were going to Rome for the weekend and I turned to him and said, Michael, we have to get off this plane now. I said it with quite certain knowledge. The stewardesses helped us get our bags. Since we were well-known they did it as a great favor. They got us off, the plane took off, and it dissolved in mid-air just outside Rome. Later, I asked Deepak Chopra, How do you know the difference between a premonition and certain knowledge? And he said that’s it, it’s a certain knowledge.
I saved Richard’s life and the people he was working with, his secretary and his make-up man. We were staying at President Tito’s house in Dubrovnik. And they were shooting on all the real locales and it took two helicopters to get them up to this battleground. I said, Get off the helicopter and get into the other one. I said this to Richard Burton, the man who took no shit from anyone. They got on the other plane, and the helicopter plowed into the mountain, killing everyone.
It has happened throughout my life, but it has slowed down now–and nothing disastrous has happened.
Out of the many people you have met through the years, is there one in particular who stands out, who impressed you or inspired you the most?
Mike Todd and Richard Burton.
Who would you like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
Do you have an all-time favorite movie?
No, I don’t.
What is your favorite Elizabeth Taylor movie?
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I became V.W. I captivated this character through sheer observation, no acting lessons. Never had one.
Who was the love of your life?
I’ve had two great loves. Mike Todd and Richard Burton.
What would you like to be remembered for?
My work for AIDS.
Describe the period of time you spent in Puerto Vallarta in the early sixties.
Pure. Love. Experiencing things through new eyes, which I had learned from almost dying from pneumonia. Things took on a different color. I saw the real color of things; the depth of things. It was like heaven. We’d go to beaches and totally strip off because there was no one around. There was one called Twin Beaches. It’s all built up now and smells like diesel. It became a tourist attraction. They’ve ruined it, ruined it, ruined it. There were only 5,000 people when we were in Puerto Vallarta. I want to remember it when it was fishing village.
Elizabeth shares a story about President Reagan:
I got him to finally address AIDS. He got up on stage to talk, and ACT UP started booing and hissing so you couldn’t hear a word. The President looked so bewildered. I jumped up on stage and said: I don’t care what your politics are, I don’t care how you feel about the President or what he’s not doing, he is still the President of the United States of America and you owe him some due respect so shut the fuck up! And they did.
I hate big parties. I always have, except for the fun of having a new dress made and wearing my jewelry.
I’ve studied Judaism and Buddhism.
Even if you don’t believe in God, there still must be some higher power. You just need to look out the window to affirm that
People tell me that I look fifty, and it’s not due to facelifts because you can see when I was shaved bald that I didn’t have a mess of scars.
Elizabeth comments on people who have touched her life
My inspiration. We loved each other with all our hearts. Not sexually but maybe romantically.
My best friend. A devastating loss. Everybody in this city loved him so. He was honest, true, intelligent, and funny. We shared so much, and I think he considered me his dearest friend, which was an honor.
Jimmy had been hurt very early on in his life. He was full of pain. When we were on location sometimes he’d talk to me about it. We were very close. We’d talk about things in the middle of the night.
Our relationship was so convoluted, and passionate. Everything we did was so filled with passion, whether it was lovemaking, or fighting, or exploring.
I think I’m one of the few friends Michael has and I would do anything for him. I understand him. I know the depth of pain he goes through. We were both child stars, which is a common bond. He’s a genius. There is no one in show business to equal him. There is no one to equal his friendship and his love.
I love Shirley! I don’t quite understand her but, hey listen, if that’s what she believes, kudos for her.
God, we had fun together. When we were in Texas on location, we’d go out in a hailstorm getting conked on the head with hail the size of golf balls. We wanted to get a bucket full so we could make Bloody Marys. And one time we even invented a chocolate martini.
Debbie and I have become friends and I’m so glad. Everybody thought I broke up the marriage but [at that time] Debbie and Eddie did not communicate. I was not in love with Eddie, ever! The only thing we had in common was Mike.That whole situation was one of the things I regretted the most in my life.
In one word, describe Elizabeth Taylor.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.