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Elizabeth Taylor, Beauty Queen, Dies

The iconic movie star and fragrance pioneer dies at 79.

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Elizabeth Taylor

Photo By WWD Archive

Elizabeth Taylor

Photo By WWD Archive

Her costumes could be influential, as well. The evening dress Edith Head designed for Taylor’s role as a society girl in 1951’s “A Place in the Sun,” for instance, a strapless white dress with a boned bodice, detailed with daisies, inspired the most popular prom look of that year, while a white dress Taylor wore as Maggie the Cat in 1958’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was licensed by its costume designer, Helen Rose, and sold in the thousands. Photos of Taylor wearing a slip in 1960’s “BUtterfield 8” are unforgettable.

Regardless of her style, though, she was, simply, Elizabeth Taylor. Nothing else really mattered.

Tamara Steele, senior vice president of global fragrance marketing at Elizabeth Arden, began working with Taylor 11 years ago. “Elizabeth Taylor saw this as her business — her home was House of Taylor Headquarters,” said Steele. “The juice was the most important thing for her, and she created fragrances she would love to wear and was proud to give to her friends. She was very knowledgeable about fragrance notes. She instinctively knew quality and wouldn’t compromise, and she was proven to be right all the time. She touched every element of her fragrance brand. She loved to design her fragrance bottles — she had exquisite taste and her bottles were like little jewels. She put her signature and sign-off on everything, including the holiday gift sets and the famous holiday watch gwp [gift with purchase]. She will be greatly missed. This is a sad and hard day for us.”

The actress was also known for her commitment to AIDS-related charities. After her great friend and “Giant” co-star Rock Hudson died from the disease in 1985, at a time when Hollywood and the fashion industry were reluctant to embrace AIDS activism, Taylor became an important fund-raiser for the cause. She was the founding international chairman of amfAR, and also started her own AIDS charity, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. She was given the amfAR Award of Courage in New York on Feb. 9 but could not attend because of ill health. Her friend Elton John accepted it on her behalf, saying, “She earned our enduring love and respect for her compassion and her courage in standing up and speaking out about AIDS when others preferred to bury their heads in the sand.”

Another longtime friend, Valentino, who designed her wedding dress for her last wedding, said, “She was an extraordinary human being. She sold all her jewels in the early Eighties to build 15 day hospitals in Africa. Together, we created a charity for children with AIDS in Italy, and I personally saw her sitting on the floor next to terminally ill people, holding their hands and comforting them.” Then he added, “I will miss her forever and miss her calling me with the nickname of Rudy.”

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born on February 27, 1932, in Hampstead, England, the daughter of Americans Francis Lenn Taylor and Sara Viola Warmbrodt. Her father was an art dealer and her mother a former actress. When World War II began, the family, including her older brother, Howard, returned to the States, settling in L.A. Elizabeth’s first film was with Universal Pictures, “There’s One Born Every Minute” (1942). Then MGM gave her a standard seven-year contract and cast her in 1943’s “Lassie Come Home.” At 12, she appeared as Velvet Brown in MGM’s 1944 film “National Velvet,” the story of a young girl who trains her horse to win the Grand National. The film was a runaway success and made Taylor a star.

“Life With Father” (1947), “A Date With Judy” (1948) and “Little Women” (1949) were three of Taylor’s hits as a teenager. But “A Place in the Sun” put her in a new category altogether. She radiated warmth and charisma in her role as the glamorous, wealthy Angela Vickers, who comes between George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) and his pregnant, working-class girlfriend (Shelley Winters). This role gave the first indication that Taylor could be a fine dramatic actress.

Regarded by many as the loveliest woman in the world in the Fifties and Sixties, she became a perennial cover subject for Life when that magazine was a bellwether of American culture. She had starring roles in more than 50 films, including “Giant” (1956), “Raintree County” (1957) and “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959).

A drama queen in more ways than one, Taylor lived life on a grand scale, marrying eight times, including twice to Welsh actor Richard Burton. She divorced her first two husbands, hotel heir Nicky Hilton and actor Michael Wilding, and her third, Todd, was killed in a plane crash in 1958. Her next marriage, in 1959, was to Todd’s friend, singer Eddie Fisher, who unfortunately was still married to America’s sweetheart, actress Debbie Reynolds, with whom he had a daughter and a son, when his romance with Taylor began. Taylor was labeled a home-wrecker on an endless series of fan magazine covers, and only won back some public support when she almost died from pneumonia.

“Maybe I’ve been around so long that people expect me to survive,” Taylor told WWD in 1996. “And I guess they must want me to survive. My life has had so many ups and downs that sometimes it takes even my breath away.”

In 1960, Taylor became the highest-paid actress of the time when she agreed to accept $1 million to play the title role in 20th-Century Fox’s “Cleopatra.” (She reportedly requested the then-unheard-of sum because she didn’t want to do the movie.) On the troubled set, she and Burton, who played Marc Antony, kindled their incendiary romance, which created an epic scandal because she was still married to Fisher and Burton was married to his first wife Sybil and had two young daughters. The film, plagued by endless delays and cost overruns, became a punchline for comedians and wasn’t released until 1963. Taylor, for her part, was condemned by congressmen, while the Vatican accused her of “erotic vagrancy.” When Burton appeared in “Hamlet” on Broadway in 1964, huge crowds gathered outside the theater simply to see the couple leave together. The endless paparazzi stakeouts and tabloid coverage of the duo prefigured the massive ranks of paparazzi that feed the tabs today.

The two married for the first time in 1964. Burton and Taylor’s wildly over-the-top lifestyle — replete with extensive entourages for each star and seemingly endless purchases of property and world-class jewelry — came to overshadow the accomplishments of both. Some of their joint acting projects — such as 1967’s “The Taming of the Shrew” — were both critical and financial successes, but their films together began to bomb as their 10-year first marriage was winding down. The pair’s epic bouts of fighting and drinking had also grown stale. Their second marriage lasted less than a year.

In addition to her Academy Awards and a Golden Globe, Taylor received the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the French Legion of Honor and the Presidential Citizens Medal and was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Taylor is survived by her children Christopher Edward Wilding, Michael Wilding Jr., Liza Todd and Maria Burton.

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