Updated: Elizabeth Taylor, who died this morning at 79, was, in the words of one writer, “the patron saint of AIDS.” Following the death of her friend Rock Hudson in 1985, she was a critical voice in mobilizing entertainment and the arts in supporting research, but just as important was her role in using her celebrity to speak out at a time when the crisis was fraught with stigma, the first Hollywood figure of her stature to do so.
After helping to start the American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1985, having co-hosted the first major AIDS fund raiser, she later established her own foundation, which provides support services and prevention education. One of the highlights of her activism was speaking before the UN General Assembly on World AIDS Day, as attention focused on battling the disease in Africa and elsewhere.
She also was a Washington wife: She married John Warner, a former secretary of the Navy, in 1976, who was elected to the Senate two years later. By all accounts, she hated it. USA Today reports that, after making a big splash on the campaign trail, showing up in a tiger-striped pantsuit too woo delagets at a state party convention, she found D.C. “so ego-oriented it makes Hollywood look like chopped liver.” She saw the role of political wife as “domestic Siberia,” although she was able to build on her connections as she trekked to Capitol Hill to testify for increased funding for AIDS research.
Kevin Sessums of Poz magazine in 1997, via LGBT POV: “Washington is the hardest town for a woman in the world—especially if you’re married to a politician. If the woman is the politician, then it might be quite different. But if you’re wedded to the politician, it’s like your lips are sealed. You are a robot. They even tell you what you can wear. You can imagine how that sat with me! I was told that I—me!—was not allowed to wear purple because it smacked of royalty.
“For the two months of campaigning, I obeyed them. But then, after the election, the Republican women gave a luncheon in my honor for all that I had done for the campaign, and I put on my purplest Halston pantsuit. I told them the story that the women who ran John Warner’s campaign had forbid me to wear purple. I got up and pointed out one specific woman. I said, “That one! Right there!””
Her son, Michael Wilding, issued this statement: “My Mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love. Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world. Her remarkable body of work in film, her ongoing success as a businesswoman, and her brave and relentless advocacy in the fight against HIV/AIDS, all make us all incredibly proud of what she accomplished. We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it. Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts.”
Her family is asking that contributions be made to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
Nancy Reagan: “Elizabeth Taylor was a dear friend. I knew her from our days together at MGM when she was just a teenager, and I watched her grow into one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. She was passionate – and compassionate – about everything in her life, including her family, her friends, and especially the victims of the AIDS. She was truly a legend and we will miss her.”
MPAA’s Christopher Dodd: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of Elizabeth Taylor. Her artistic contribution to the motion picture industry is immeasurable. In a career spanning more than 70 years and 50 films, her talent endured the test of time and transcended generations of moviegoers. She truly was an American icon, whose legacy went far beyond her acting skills, most notably in her efforts to lead the battle against HIV/AIDS. Our thoughts are with her family and her many friends and fans during this difficult time.”
Nancy Pelosi, via Twitter: “Her work on HIV & AIDS, esp when others stayed silent, saved lives.”
Barbra Streisand: “It’s the end of an era. It wasn’t just her beauty or her stardom. It was her humanitarianism. She put a face on HIV/AIDS. She was funny. She was generous. She made her life count.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): “California has lost a great star today. Elizabeth Taylor in ‘National Velvet’ inspired my childhood love of horses. Her passion for life and devotion to those less fortunate will continue to inspire me and others. I send my condolences to her family, and to her fans all over the world. Elizabeth was one of the greats and will be remembered as such.”
Shirley MacLaine: “I don’t know what was more impressive her magnitude as a star or her magnitude as a friend. Her talent for friendship was unmatched. I will miss her for the rest of my life and beyond.”
Mickey Rooney: “Our loss in the motion picture business with Elizabeth Taylor’s passing is momentous. She was a lady who gave of herself to everyone. I know I consider it a great personal loss.”
Michael Weinstein, AIDS Healthcare Foundation: “She was a singular champion for AIDS activism. She did it before it was fashionable. She spoke truth to power on a variety of issues, including chiding President Reagan for not saying the word AIDS and not funding work on AIDS. Her organization had no overhead, and it helped fund AHF and other organizations in Los Angeles. She was American royalty. For her to say something and show compassion, changed the game. Her passing is very, very sad for us. And she is irreplaceable in terms of her voice and work on AIDS.”
Other AIDS activists shared their tributes with LA Weekly’s Patrick McDonald here.
C SPAN has video of Taylor testifying before Congress in 1990 along with Pelosi and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and appearing before the National Press Club in 1996, below.