When Barbara Walters asked Dame Elizabeth Taylor what she’d like to have written on her tombstone, she offered this suggestion:
“Here lies Elizabeth. She didn’t like to be called ‘Liz.’ But, she lived.”
“But, she lived,” is an enormous understatement from a woman who never did anything understatedly, whose life in diamonds was a gem in and of itself. As our culture reacts to Elizabeth Taylor’s death at 79 — yesterday, of congestive heart failure, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles — we are reminded of her beauty, glamour, and above all, charity.
My grandmother wears Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds fragrance, which has always haunted me as the ultimate old-lady scent. I knew the Andy Warhol prints of her; her name popped up through my life the way true icons’ names are wont to do. Basically, I understood she was a legend, a movie star, an all-around big deal. But my real introduction to Elizabeth Taylor — who I will not call ‘Liz’ — came when I was a freshman at Emerson.
It so happened that as I navigated freshman classes, weaving through gen-eds that are notoriously rife with popular
culture (hello, Jewish Origins of Punk Rock), her films kept popping up in my studies.
The first time was in Professor Sunil Swaroop’s Theater into Film class. I watched her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the same time Suddenly, Last Summer screened in my Forbidden Knowledge classroom.
For all the influence A Streetcar Named Desire (which stars Vivien Leigh, not Taylor) has on the history of film, I could never think of playwright Tennessee Williams onscreen without Elizabeth Taylor immediately appearing in my mind. Her performances in those two films felt “forbidden” and “theatrical.”
When I finally saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I was taken aback by her virtuosity. No longer Williams’ self-righteous but vulnerable Southern belle, Taylor was a consummate actress who floored me with her range and the humanity I already knew to expect from her.
There’s a scene in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where Paul Newman asks Taylor, “What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?” She replies, “Just staying on it, I guess. Long as she can.”
That very perseverance is what made Elizabeth Taylor a star. Through her many marriages, failed either by divorce or death, her struggles with health problems, and her battle against alcoholism, Taylor was one fierce Dame.
In fact, her famous backbone found its way into fiction: it was reading about Taylor’s grit and determination that helped Charlotte move beyond her miscarriage in Sex and the City. Who knows how many real-life women she inspired, too.
That’s the thing about Elizabeth Taylor — she was a capital “M” Movie Star with all the grace to survive tragedy. But she was just as accessible to Charlotte, and to me, as to the millions of people around the world she committed her life to helping.
Her tireless work on behalf of people affected by HIV/AIDS put a voice to an unspoken-about epidemic. She helped found the American Foundation for AIDS Research and told The New York Times in 1997, “I use my fame now when I want to help a cause or other people.”
Taylor’s death might be regarded as the end of an era, but her career both defined and ushered in a new one. I’d wager that without Taylor’s example, there may have never been an Angelina Jolie or even a George Clooney.
Taylor was among the first film stars to parlay her fame into tenacious humanitarian work. That legacy, and her indelible persona, will always be worth learning about.