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Elizabeth Taylor’s Other Life

An interview provides a peek at her private side

Elizabeth Taylor Dies of  Heart Failure

— Douglas Kirkland/Corbis

Elizabeth Taylor, once one of the most beautiful and watched women in the world, fought illness and pain for much of her life, so it was hard to believe Wednesday that she was really dead at 79.

Taylor was buried Thursday in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles. But she told me in a 1996 interview that she was unafraid of death because, “I don't think death is the final challenge.” I asked, “What is?” “I don't know,” she replied. “But I think, something. I don't think the soul just disappears.”

A two-time winner of the Academy Award and the first actor to make $1 million for a role (a fact about which she was very proud), Taylor was a talent whose movie career came to a less-than-stellar end in 1994 with the live-action feature The Flintstones. By then Elizabeth, as she was called by friends, was in the perfume business and expanding her brand.

She loved being a businesswoman —– as she put it —– and she walked her talk, getting behind her new products with national promotional tours that took her (and tiny dog Sugar) to department stores around the country to meet and greet mobs of fans. She even answered personal questions as they sniffed and spritzed her Passion or White Diamonds.

She put equal passion into her fundraising work to find a cure for AIDS, a cause she got involved with because her friend, the movie star Rock Hudson, died of the disease. Taylor at first worked with amFar, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, but in 1991 she started her own organization, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which in the beginning she ran by herself from her dining room table.

Taylor, who told me she did not care to write a book about her life “because then I’d have to relive it,” had revitalized her life and work many times. She believed in love, and being in love meant marriage in her day, which is why she wed eight times to seven men. When I met her at her Bel -Air home to talk in 1996 she was recovering from her eighth busted marriage. That was husband Larry Fortensky, a construction worker whom she met in the Betty Ford clinic when both were in treatment for dependence on alcohol and painkillers. (They married at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.) After sharing with me that her physical relationship with Fortensky had been harmed by her three hip surgeries, she declared, “I will never marry again.” She remained true to her word.

Dressed in a purple caftan the morning she welcomed me to her art-filled living room, Taylor was once again dieting —– “I absolutely HATE dieting,” she lamented. She was getting ready to do a spate of publicity for a set of CBS sitcoms on which she appeared, so there were no chocolates on the coffee table, just tea. Some forget that Taylor wrote a popular weight-loss book in 1988, Elizabeth Takes Off, which was more than a guide to her diet. She was frank about her weight problems, confessing that they were connected to her self-esteem and loneliness.

“Though I always adore good food, the call of the double-chocolate fudge in the freezer is a lot softer when I’m busy and content,” she wrote. “The Perugina chocolate creams I left out for guests don’t whisper in my ear as I try to fall asleep when my life is filled with work and people I care about.” It is astounding stuff coming from a woman who was considered among the world’s most beautiful. But perhaps it is part of why women were drawn to her as much as men. She showed her vulnerability publicly.

It’s ironic that Elizabeth Taylor died of heart failure as her heart had soared and shattered through all those marriages beginning with the first one at 21 to Nicky Hilton. Richard Burton was the love of her life —– she married him twice —- but theirs was a tempestuous and eventually untenable pairing. For all the scandals related to her marital demises, none revolved around money. She left each husband without asking for anything — she was proud of that, too. Sen. John Warner, to whom Taylor was married from 1976 until 1982, told me that when they were together living in Washington, D.C., she had her money, he had his money and they both contributed to “the cookie jar,” which they used for joint household expenses.

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