Elizabeth Taylor dead at 79

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Elizabeth Taylor, the iconic Hollywood star whose tumultuous romances and precarious health challenges often played out as larger-than-life Elizabethan dramas, died of congestive heart failure at Los Angeles's Cedars-Sinai Hospital. She may have been 79, but with more than 65 years of screen time preserved for all time, she will remain a glorious, glamorous and full-blooded image.

Revered for her generous charity work but sometimes controversial for her turbulent personal life, the three-time Oscar honoree, fragrance and jewelry mogul and tenacious AIDS activist possessed many talents, including a remarkable gift for self-appraisal.

Just before turning 60 in 1992, she summed herself up for Life magazine, saying: "I've been lucky all my life. Everything was handed to me: looks, fame, wealth, honors, love. But I've paid for that luck with disasters. Terrible illnesses, destructive addictions, broken marriages."

Eight marriages, in fact - though she was quoted as saying the two great loves of her life were producer Michael Todd (husband No. 3) and actor Richard Burton (Nos. 5 and 6, given that they remarried, albeit briefly the second time).

Liz Taylor, trailer screenshot, cropped from h...

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Born in Hampstead, England, the second child of Francis Taylor, a timid American art gallery owner working abroad, and his highly assertive wife Sara Sothern, a former actress, Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1939.

Pushed by Sara, young Elizabeth made her movie debut in 1942's There's One Born Every Minute, and appeared with lifelong friend Roddy McDowall in 1943's Lassie Come Home. But it was 1944's National Velvet, with Mickey Rooney, that brought her stardom at age 12. Not only was she a natural before the camera, but also, even then, Technicolor - and movie audiences - just couldn't get enough of her remarkable violet-colored eyes.

A string of movies followed (such as 1946's Courage of Lassie and 1949's Little Women), but critics still were not impressed - a fact she would have to contend with to varying degrees throughout her career. (Taylor once told Johnny Carson that she'd been given a preview of some of her obituaries, "and they were the best reviews I'd ever gotten.")

Her first recognition as a serious screen presence, however, came with 1951's A Place in the Sun, in which she costarred with Montgomery Clift, who also would become a close friend. The drama, regarded as one of the best ever made in Hollywood, was a showcase for Taylor's erotic power as well as her maternal strength, even at her tender teen age. Her white party gown in the movie also inspired an entire generation of high-school prom dresses.

With her showy role opposite Rock Hudson and James Dean in 1956's Giant, the then-23-year-old Taylor cemented her place as an actress, and went on to be nominated for an Oscar three years in a row - 1958, 1959 and 1960 - before winning her first Academy Award in 1961 (for Butterfield 8). She would take home another in 1967, for her blowsy role as the drunken and unsatisfied wife in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and a third, a special humanitarian award, in 1993.

But for all the attention Taylor earned for her onscreen life, it was her personal dramas that kept her in the public eye nearly all the time.

"My troubles all started because I have a woman's body and a child's emotions," she once said. At 18 she wed for the first time, to hotel heir Conrad "Nicky" Hilton in May 1950. But Hilton couldn't tolerate Taylor's celebrity, and he "became sullen, angry and abusive, physically and mentally," she wrote in her memoir. Eight months later the marriage was over.

She followed the failed union with a brief affair with film director Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain). Shortly afterward, while in England filming Ivanhoe, Taylor met British actor Michael Wilding, and the pair wed in February 1952. "It's leap year, so I leapt!" Taylor told reporters at the time. That union lasted five years and produced two sons, Michael and Christopher.

Her next marriage was to producer Mike Todd (Around the World in 80 Days). Of Todd, Taylor wrote in Elizabeth Takes Off: "He was 25 years my senior and eternally young. I could hardly keep up with him. He was the most energetic man I've ever known, and he made our short 18 months together one of the most intensely glorious times of my life." Todd died a year after their wedding when his plane crashed, leaving his widow with their 7-month-old daughter, Liza. Taylor had been scheduled to travel with him, but she stayed behind with the flu.

A few months after Todd's death, Taylor outraged the world by taking up with popular singer Eddie Fisher (a friend of Todd's who was still married to sweet-faced Debbie Reynolds, the mother of Fisher's two young children), and exhibiting none of the requisite guilt. "What do you expect me to do, sleep alone?" she told columnist Hedda Hopper. Fisher divorced Reynolds and married Taylor in 1959, but it wouldn't last - two years later, on the set of Cleopatra, Taylor met her match in her costar, the swaggering Welsh actor Richard Burton.

 


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