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Elizabeth Taylor: Front-Page News To The Last

Iconic screen legend Elizabeth Taylor, pictured in 1961, died on Wednesday. She was 79.
Iconic screen legend Elizabeth Taylor, pictured in 1961, died on Wednesday. She was 79.

When Richard Burton first took up with his co-star in Cleopatra, he claimed to be astonished at how famous she was. "She knocks Khrushchev off the bloody front page!"

When Elizabeth Taylor — or, as many remembrances, including this one, I suppose, couldn't resist putting it, Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky — died this week at the age of 79, she shared the front page with an earthquake, a nuclear crisis, and rising revolutions.

Elizabeth Taylor never lost top billing.

She was besieged by paparazzi with sizzling flashbulbs from the time she was a teenager in 1944's National Velvet. She made more than 50 films, won two Academy Awards, and wore some of the world's glitziest diamonds, but was wise enough to once tell The New York Times, "I've been lucky all my life. Everything was handed to me. Looks, fame, wealth, honors, love. I rarely had to fight for anything. But I've paid for that luck with disasters."

Her third husband — Mike Todd, one of the two of the seven husbands whom she truly loved, she volunteered to interviewers — died in a plane crash just before Elizabeth Taylor gave birth to their daughter. The man she married twice, Richard Burton, drank, hounded around, and threatened to drag her down, too.

She had heart operations, a brain tumor, a tracheotomy, a hysterectomy, pneumonia, deep depressions, and a double hip replacement.

"When they knock you out," she once told writer Marjorie Rosen, "it gives you time to catch up on your beauty sleep."

She suffered a lot of self-inflicted disasters, too — problems with drink and drugs — for which she was bold enough to seek help in the public eye.

Elizabeth Taylor's real life — not the one on film reels — reminded people that beauty and money sometimes buy a lot of heartache, too.

In later years, the elegantly dark beauty with spectacularly violet eyes that smoldered in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and made the yellow rose of Texas wilt in Giant, put on weight. And, she gained stature. She learned about the toll of AIDS when she saw so many of the people who helped her make movies die. In the 1980s, she was one of the first people to speak out for those who were sick with a disease that still carried a stigma.

"Everyone was running for cover," Jack Larson, the actor and composer, told Biography magazine. "And then Elizabeth Taylor came out of the woodwork and put her great heterosexual reputation and beauty on the line ... she turned the public perception of AIDS around."

Elizabeth Taylor left the screen, and became a star who shined light on something that needed to be seen.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.