Dame Elizabeth Taylor, the two-time Oscar winner and dedicated AIDS activist whose acting prowess, glitzy lifestyle and larger-than-life celebrity established her as Hollywood royalty, has died. She was 79.
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Taylor died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles surrounded by her four children, Taylor's rep said. Battling ill health and scoliosis in her later years, Taylor had been hospitalized for the past six weeks for congestive heart failure. She underwent a heart procedure to repair a leaky valve in October 2009.
"My Mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love," Taylor's son, Michael Wilding, said in a statement. "Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world. Her remarkable body of work in film, her ongoing success as a businesswoman, and her brave and relentless advocacy in the fight against HIV/AIDS, all make us all incredibly proud of what she accomplished. We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it. Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts."
Born Feb. 27, 1932, in Hampstead, England, to American parents, Taylor and her family relocated to Los Angeles during her childhood. At the age of 9, Taylor was discovered by studio executives and shot her first film, There's One Born Every Minute.
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By 12, Taylor was a full-fledged star after headlining the hit National Velvet, in which she starred as a young girl training her showjumping horse for the Grand National. Taylor followed it up with a string of box-office successes before tackling the shift that few child stars today even master: the transition into adult roles.
Much of Taylor's earlier adult fare featured romantic comedies and dramas, including 1951's A Place in the Sun, for which she earned rave reviews. It wouldn't be until the late '50s that she established herself as a prolific acting force in the twilight of Hollywood's Golden Age. After starring opposite James Dean and Rock Hudson in Giant, Taylor landed three consecutive Academy Award nominations for 1957's Raintree County, 1958's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and 1959's Suddenly, Last Summer.
She won her first best actress Oscar in 1961 for BUtterfield 8 and her second six years later for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Taylor is one of 11 women to have won two leading actress Oscars.
In 1960, Taylor became the highest-paid movie star of the time after signing on to 1963's Cleopatra for $1 million. The film became infamous for many things: its massive budget that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox; an extended shooting schedule; director and cast changes; Taylor's near-fatal illness that required a tracheotomy; and her affair with co-star Richard Burton.
The relationship was scandalous from the get-go as both were married to other people at the time. The Vatican condemned Taylor for "erotic vagrancy" before the pair wed in 1964. One of Hollywood's classic couples, Liz and Dick was also one of the most volatile. After numerous separations, a divorce and a remarriage, Taylor and Burton divorced for good in 1976.
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Burton, who died in 1984 at age 58 of a cerebral hemorrhage, is said to be the great love of Taylor's life, which included many high-profile romances — including a fling with Howard Hughes — and marriages to six other men. She wed hotelier Nicky Hilton when she was 18, followed by actor Michael Wilding, producer Michael Todd, and singer Eddie Fisher, to whom she was married when she met Burton. Following her unions to Burton, Taylor married Sen. John Warner and construction worker Larry Fortensky, whom she met at the Betty Ford Center in 1988 when they were both battling drug dependencies. Longtime friend Michael Jackson escorted Taylor down the aisle at her 1991 nuptials to Fortensky at Neverland Ranch. They divorced in 1996.
As film roles dwindled after her Hollywood zenith, Taylor, who re-teamed with Burton for several films throughout the '60s and early '70s, segued into TV movies and turned her focus to outside interests. She retired from the screen in 2003.
Friends, colleagues remember Elizabeth Taylor for her generosity and those "unforgettable eyes"
An avid collector of jewelry, Taylor launched House of Taylor Jewelry for which she created designs. She also started a fragrance line that includes White Diamonds, a noted best-seller.
Taylor is perhaps, though, most well-known for her work with HIV/AIDS research in her later years. She became the face of the cause in the early '80s — a time when mere mention of the disease carried instant stigma — after she formed an AIDS research project following the death of her friend Rock Hudson. She joined forces with Dr. Mathilde Krim to create The American Foundation for Aids Research (amfAR). In 1991, she created her own foundation, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF).
Elizabeth Taylor admitted to hospital for congestive heart failure
Despite declining health — in addition to the congestive heart failure and scoliosis, she had two hip replacement surgeries, pneumonia and skin cancer — she worked tirelessly to raise AIDS awareness. In 1997, she delayed surgery to remove a benign brain tumor to attend a dual 65th birthday celebration and AIDS benefit.
The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and amfAR have raised more than $270 million combined.
"AIDS is both my passion and my obsession," Taylor said. "I was there at the beginning, and I pray I'll be there at the end."
Taylor is survived by four children, Michael Wilding, Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd and Maria Burton; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A private family funeral will be held later this week. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Fans can leave messages on her Facebook page.