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Elizabeth Taylor: Lone Star in the Fight Against AIDS

Wednesday, March 23, 2011 - 09:33 PM

WNYC

I'm visiting Los Angeles this week and, in this town, there is no story bigger than the death of a film icon. And there was no bigger star than Elizabeth Taylor. The City of Angels is in mourning.

While she reigned for decades as America's greatest beauty on screen and off (and famously married America's most dashing men) she was as much a political animal, fueled by a sense of decency that would not allow her to remain silent at a time of national crisis.

I'm talking, of course, about AIDS. Younger readers will not, but I am just old enough to the dark early days of HIV and AIDS. And I remember Elizabeth Taylor most of all, not for the breathiness of her famous voice, but for fact that she lent that voice to a community desperately in need of one in its moment of despair.

For in the early days, there was great desperation in the gay community around a mysterious disease that silently making its way across the country. Men were dying at unbelievable and increasingly uncontainable rates. Even after the disease was given a name - Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome - there was no effective treatment for the myriad diseases striking down these men, many of them young. Soon, entire other communities were affected and, eventually, entire communities were being wiped out in record speed.

Then there was the discrimination. The stigma attached to the disease was intensely negative, viscous. Many went so far as to suggest that the disease was visited only upon communities morally deserving of the blight - and, therefore, not deserving of federal funding for research for treatments or a cure. Most were deafeningly silent. Few had the courage to stand up for what was right.

But Elizabeth Taylor did. She lent her considerable star power to the fight against AIDS.

When her friend Rock Hudson was dying of AIDS at the age of 59, in 1985, she was not afraid to speak out:

"He is our brother," Miss Taylor said. "He is someone we have loved and broken bread with. Please God, he has not died in vain."

In the immediate aftermath of Hudson's death, a benefit organized by Taylor, to raised more than $1 million.

1985 wasn't that long ago. But it was an eternity in the fight against AIDS. It is ironic that today Nancy Reagan remembers Elizabeth Taylor for her compassion for "the victims of the AIDS," when her husband, as president refused to say the word "AIDS."

Elizabeth Taylor understood the power of that. So she took to the airways saying, "AIDS" over and over and over again. In so doing, She normalized the national conversation about the disease.

There was more. She was one of the founders of American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) as well as The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. She raised millions of dollars for AIDS research. There is even an AIDS clinic in Washington D.C. which bears her name.

I was just a kid when this mysterious disease hit New York City. But my father was an artist and many of his friends and colleagues were felled by it. I remember (as if it were yesterday) an article on the front page of the New York Times Metro Section: "A Disease's Spread Provokes Anxiety." (That article has stayed with me, ever since.) Most of all, I remember thinking how hateful it was that sick people were being isolated and abandoned, just for being sick.

Elizabeth Taylor The Movie Star was really before my time. I grew up with Elizabeth Taylor The AIDS Activist. Finally, here was someone with some political clout who wasn't afraid of a person living with AIDS. Here was someone who wasn't afraid to speak out. Finally something will change, I thought. And it did.

Today, we can point to Taylor's commitment. She offered hope, at a time when hope was needed. She put her money where her beautiful mouth was. And most of all, she changed public opinion. After all, what is all that fame and fortune good for, if it's not to do good with.

Elizabeth Taylor died, I am sure, hoping for a cure. We owe it to her to keep that hope alive.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.

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Comments [2]

Paul Brown from NYC

I guess I have just those few extra years on you Jami that I remember Elizabeth the star first. Not in first release but in "special re-releases" of her movies that played at local cinemas.
As a gay man her impact in movies like "Suddenly Last Summer", "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (Tennessee Williams plays which dealt with 'homosexuality' though the 1950's censors) well her sense of humanity was already evident. Before we knew her later work with aMFAR we knew she was a accepting and a friend. And for a gay man growing up in those years (and later) her vicarious friendship was a touchstone.

In the 1960's there were only two people in the world who virtually launched our current concept of pavarazzi: Jacqueline Kennedy & Elizabeth Taylor. You couldn't find a magazine without one of the other on the cover.
They defined our concept of Jetset. Taylor did her own makeup in "Cleopatra" and if you ever wonder where the MOD eye makeup look of the 60's came from--it came from directly from LIZ! At that time all women wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor, giving rise to a decades later quip, "Isn't it ironic how we all wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor.....and now we do!!" She wouldn't mind. She herself said, "People look at me and say, 'She's not all THAT special' and you know they're right!" But in fact they were wrong she was THAT special. She merely realized that her physical beauty was skin deep. She had much more to offer.

In the end (and from the beginning) Elizabeth Taylor the person was a star shone brighter than Liz Taylor the movie Star ever could. How many know that in her mid-30's, the end of the reign of even the most beautiful actresses of that era, Elizabeth Taylor the Businesswoman made hundreds of millions of dollars with her perfumes--far more than she ever made even as a #1 Box Office film star. And she donated millions of those dollars not just to AmFAR but to her many other charities.

I mourn her passing as I would any other close friend I've virtually grown up with my whole life.

Mar. 27 2011 05:40 PM
Spence Halperin from Manhattan

Beautiful essay. This old guy is very happy to see that younger folks understand how important Elizabeth Taylor was to the fight against HIV/AIDS. She was not grandstanding or using this "issue" as a way to advance her career or reputation as we see stars doing today. No, she was just responding as a decent human being, throwing her considerable resources into the fight.

Mar. 24 2011 08:30 AM

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