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.