Actress Elizabeth Taylor has died at age 79

Actress Elizabeth Taylor is shown in costume for her character in the 1957 film 'Raintree County.' (AP)
March 23, 2011 3:00:19 PM PDT
Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed film goddess whose sultry screen persona, stormy personal life and enduring fame and glamour made her one of the last of the classic movie stars and a template for the modern celebrity, died Wednesday at age 79.

She was surrounded by her four children when she died of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she had been hospitalized for about six weeks, said publicist Sally Morrison.

"My Mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love," her son, Michael Wilding, said in a statement.

"We have just lost a Hollywood giant," said longtime friend Elton John. "More importantly, we have lost an incredible human being."

Taylor was the most blessed and cursed of actresses, the toughest and the most vulnerable. She had extraordinary grace, wealth and voluptuous beauty, and won three Academy Awards, including a special one for her humanitarian work. She was the most loyal of friends and a defender of gays in Hollywood when AIDS was new to the industry and beyond. But she was afflicted by ill health, failed romances (eight marriages, seven husbands) and personal tragedy.

"I think I'm becoming fatalistic," she said in 1989. "Too much has happened in my life for me not to be fatalistic."

Her more than 50 movies included unforgettable portraits of innocence and of decadence, from the children's classic "National Velvet" and the sentimental family comedy "Father of the Bride" to Oscar-winning transgressions in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "BUtterfield 8." The historical epic "Cleopatra" is among Hollywood's greatest on-screen fiascos and a landmark of off-screen monkey business, the meeting ground of Taylor and Richard Burton, the "Brangelina" of their day.

She played enough bawdy women on film for critic Pauline Kael to deem her "Chaucerian Beverly Hills."

But her defining role, one that lasted past her moviemaking days, was "Elizabeth Taylor," ever marrying and divorcing, in and out of hospitals, gaining and losing weight, standing by Michael Jackson, Rock Hudson and other troubled friends, acquiring a jewelry collection that seemed to rival Tiffany's.

She was a child star who grew up and aged before an adoring, appalled and fascinated public. She arrived in Hollywood when the studio system tightly controlled an actor's life and image, had more marriages than any publicist could explain away and carried on until she no longer required explanation. She was the industry's great survivor, and among the first to reach that special category of celebrity - famous for being famous.

She was a star at age 12, a bride and a divorcee at 18, a superstar at 19 and a widow at 26. She was a screen sweetheart and martyr later reviled for stealing Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds, then for dumping Fisher to bed Burton, a relationship of epic passion and turbulence, lasting through two marriages and countless attempted reconciliations.

Taylor's ailments wore down the grudges. She underwent at least 20 major operations and she nearly died from a bout with pneumonia in 1990. In 1994 and 1995, she had both hip joints replaced, and in February 1997, she underwent surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. In 1983, she acknowledged a 35-year addiction to sleeping pills and pain killers and went into rehab.

The dark-haired Taylor made an unforgettable impression in Hollywood with "National Velvet," the 1945 film in which the 12-year-old belle rode a steeplechase horse to victory in the Grand National. She matured into a ravishing beauty in "Father of the Bride" in 1950 and into a respected performer and femme fatale the following year in "A Place in the Sun." Through the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s, she and Marilyn Monroe were Hollywood's great sex symbols, both striving for appreciation beyond their physical beauty, both caught up in personal dramas. That Taylor lasted, and Monroe died young, was a matter of luck and strength; Taylor lived as she pleased and allowed no one to define her but herself.

"I don't entirely approve of some of the things I have done, or am, or have been. But I'm me. God knows, I'm me," Taylor said around the time she turned 50.

She was a box-office star cast in numerous "prestige" films, from "Raintree County" with Montgomery Clift to "Giant," an epic co-starring her friends Hudson and James Dean. In "BUtterfield 8," released in 1960, she starred with Fisher as a doomed girl-about-town. Taylor never cared much for the film, but her performance at the Oscars wowed the world.

Sympathy for Taylor's widowhood had turned to scorn when she took up with Fisher, who had supposedly been consoling her over the death of Todd. But before the 1961 ceremony, she was hospitalized from a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia and underwent a tracheotomy. The scar was bandaged when she appeared at the Oscars to accept her best actress trophy for "BUtterfield 8."

Greater drama awaited: "Cleopatra." Taylor met Burton while playing the title role in the 1963 epic, in which the brooding, womanizing Welsh actor co-starred as Mark Antony. Their chemistry was not immediate. Taylor found him boorish; Burton mocked her physique. But the love scenes on film continued away from the set and a scandal for the ages was born. Headlines shouted and screamed. Their romance created such a sensation that the Vatican denounced the happenings as the "caprices of adult children."

They were a prolific acting team, and art most effectively imitated life in the adaptation of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" - in which Taylor and Burton played mates who fought viciously and drank heavily. She took the best actress Oscar for her performance as the venomous Martha in "Virginia Woolf" and again stole the awards show, this time by not showing up at the ceremony and chastising voters for not honoring Burton.

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London on Feb. 27, 1932, the daughter of Francis Taylor, an art dealer, and the former Sara Sothern, an American stage actress. At age 3, with extensive ballet training already behind her, Taylor danced for British princesses Elizabeth (the future queen) and Margaret Rose at London's Hippodrome. At age 4, she was given a wild field horse that she learned to ride expertly.

At the onset of World War II, the Taylors came to the United States and Elizabeth made her screen debut with a bit part in the comedy "There's One Born Every Minute."

Her big break came soon thereafter. While serving as an air-raid warden with MGM producer Sam Marx, Taylor's father learned that the studio was struggling to find an English girl to play opposite Roddy McDowall in "Lassie Come Home." Taylor's screen test for the film won her both the part and a long-term contract.

Early loves included socialite Bill Pawley, home run slugger Ralph Kiner and football star Glenn Davis.

Then, a roll call of husbands:

- She married Conrad Hilton Jr., son of the hotel magnate, in May 1950 at age 18. The marriage ended in divorce that December.

- When she married British actor Michael Wilding in February 1952, he was 39 to her 19. They had two sons, Michael Jr. and Christopher Edward. That marriage lasted 4 years.

- She married cigar-chomping movie producer Michael Todd, also 20 years her senior, in 1957. They had a daughter, Elizabeth Francis. Todd was killed in a plane crash in 1958.

- The best man at the Taylor-Todd wedding was Fisher, who married Taylor in 1959.

- Taylor and Burton married in 1964, divorced in 1974, married again in 1975 and divorced again in 1976. Their union produced her fourth child, Maria.

- After her second marriage to Burton ended, she married John Warner, a former secretary of the Navy, in December 1976. Warner was elected a U.S. senator from Virginia in 1978. They divorced in 1982.

- In October 1991, she married Larry Fortensky, a truck driver and construction worker she met while both were undergoing treatment at the Betty Ford Center in 1988. They split up in 1997.

Taylor was the subject of numerous unauthorized biographies and herself worked on a handful of books, including "Elizabeth Taylor: An Informal Memoir" and "Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair With Jewelry." In tune with the media to the end, she kept in touch through her Twitter account.

Survivors include her daughters Maria Burton-Carson and Liza Todd-Tivey, sons Christopher and Michael Wilding, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A private family funeral is planned later this week.

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Associated Press Writer Bob Thomas contributed to this report.


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