On March 23, 2011, the world lost an icon, an actress and an outspoken champion for people living with HIV/AIDS. Elizabeth Taylor became the voice for the voiceless thousands, speaking tirelessly and working actively on behalf of people with AIDS and their families for nearly 30 years. She died of congestive heart failure at age 79.
At the outset of the AIDS epidemic, many in positions of power and influence from the halls of government, the pulpit and mainstream media shamefully chose to ignore the onset of a deadly disease. But not Elizabeth Taylor.
Her dedication to helping people infected with HIV began in the early 1980s when she founded the National AIDS Research Foundation. She joined forces with Dr. Mathilde Krim’s AIDS Medical Foundation in 1985 to create amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. On amfAR’s behalf, she traveled the world, spreading her message of compassion and tolerance, pushing for a more vigorous global response to the epidemic and raising millions of dollars for AIDS research.
When asked why she decided to become involved with AIDS, Elizabeth replied with characteristic bluntness: “I kept seeing all these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything. And then I realized I was just like them. I wasn’t doing anything to help.”
Elizabeth Taylor lent her iconic image to those who had previously been invisible, and her compassion and determination to a cause many others shunned. Her willingness to speak out against apathy and silence in the early, frightening days of the epidemic and her instinctive empathy for those in need earned her a place as one of the most influential advocates for people living with HIV in the U.S. and around the world.
“Celebrity is not something that comes without responsibility,” she once said. “If I can help further a worthwhile cause simply by lending my voice, I feel that it is my place to do so.” She testified before Congress, most memorably rounding up Senate support for the Ryan White CARE Act of 1990. In 1991, she founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to support organizations providing direct care and services to people living with HIV/AIDS. To date, her foundation has distributed more than $12 million to AIDS service organizations across the country.
Elizabeth Taylor’s extraordinary achievements as an actress and activist earned her numerous accolades and honors, including two Academy Awards for Best Actress, the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the French Legion of Honor, the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and a Presidential Citizens Medal.
“Elizabeth Taylor first embraced people with AIDS when doing so was considered by most people in the public eye personally unspeakable and professionally dangerous,” said Tom Viola, BC/EFA’s executive director. “Elizabeth didn’t care. She knew only that her friends were dying; abandoned, denounced and too easily reviled by far too many. Her courage and willingness to speak up created a ripple of compassion against a rising tide of prejudice that moved the entertainment industry into action and then an entire nation to care. Her heart knew no bounds. She will be remembered as a great actress, a fierce advocate for those once outcast and a remarkable woman.”
“I did not come here to be liked. I will not be silenced. I will not give up and I will not be ignored.”
– Elizabeth Taylor, testifying before Congress in 1990
In 1981, she starred on Broadway as Regina Giddens in an acclaimed revival of Lillian Hellman’s classic The Little Foxes opposite Maureen Stapleton, Tom Aldredge and Dennis Christopher. The production, which played 126 performances at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre), garnered five Tony Award nominations, including a nomination for Elizabeth as Best Actress in a Play.
When photographer Rivka Katvan was permitted to photograph the cast backstage, she captured Elizabeth in a moment of quiet at her dressing table at the “15-minute call.”
Last year, Rivka donated a print of that photo to BC/EFA for the Broadway Flea Market’s Grand Auction . At the request of her good friend and Actors Fund Trustee Dale Olson, Elizabeth graciously signed the print. It arrived back in our office too late for last year’s event. It will hold a place of honor in Shubert Alley this coming September.
In memory of Elizabeth Taylor and in honor of her extraordinary passion and activism, BC/EFA has made a $10,000 donation to amfAR to support the Mathilde Krim Fellowships in Basic Biomedical Research.