March 23, 2011 at 12:56 pm EST | by Peter Rosenstein
Remembering Elizabeth Taylor

Dame Elizabeth Taylor has died and for those of us of a certain age she was an icon and our connection to Hollywood. It made me feel very old when one very young man in my office said, “Oh I remember her. Didn’t she do a commercial for a perfume?”

But to me she was the epitome of a star. It would be hard to name anyone in today’s Hollywood that can compare. Taylor did everything big. She had the most public illnesses, the biggest diamonds, the biggest marriages and the biggest affairs and divorces. At a time when you couldn’t bring a dog into England without a six-month waiting period she and Richard Burton parked their yacht in the Thames River so her dogs could live there. She truly became a legend in her own time.

I first fell in love with Taylor when I saw her in “National Velvet.” That was long before I accepted that I was gay. Then came movies like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which I thought she was the sexiest and most beautiful woman I had ever seen. When they filmed “Cleopatra” in Rome I was mesmerized by her and followed every headline from her affair with Richard Burton while she was still married to Eddie Fisher to her near death experience with pneumonia.

Then came her acceptance of the Academy Award for “Butterfield 8,” a lousy movie and as she herself said, a sympathy award, not for the movie but for just surviving. Her heroic walk to the stage to accept that award with her tracheotomy scar clearly showing was a sight to behold. Her second Academy Award was well deserved for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” her best role.

I got to meet Dame Elizabeth the first time in the mid-’70s when she and Shirley MacLaine co-hosted a fundraiser for Bella S. Abzug (D-NY) at Prive, a club in Manhattan. Taylor was in one of her heavier stages at the time and dressed in one of her ubiquitous caftans. But her violet eyes and incredible face were still mesmerizing. During that campaign she gave Bella a small diamond on a gold chain.

Bella wore that diamond for years even as she gained weight and the diamond seemed to disappear into her neck she could be heard to say to people proudly, “Elizabeth Taylor gave me this diamond.” I had the pleasure of meeting Taylor and seeing her in person a few more times. Once at an event at the Air and Space Museum, then at an AmFar fundraiser, at the ribbon cutting for the Elizabeth Taylor Center at Whitman-Walker Clinic and at Woodies for the unveiling of her first perfume. Each time I fell in love again.

Taylor was a star and there was no denying it. She could behave like one at times but at other times, like at the Bella event, she was sweet and gracious.

But more than her life as an actress and star I will remember Elizabeth Taylor for her humanitarian side. There are many beautiful people and many famous ones but it was Elizabeth Taylor who brought the epidemic of HIV/AIDS to the attention of the world. She raised millions of dollars to fight the epidemic and got President Ronald Reagan to acknowledge it for the first time. She wasn’t afraid to speak out and make HIV/AIDS her cause back in a time when so many shied away. She was also a true supporter of the State of Israel giving millions, often anonymously, to institutions there.

One of her quotes that I love is when she was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth and said, “I have been a broad all my life. Now I am a Dame.”

Elizabeth Taylor will always be remembered for so many things and each person who ever saw her, met her, worked with her or just went to one of her movies will have their own memories. I will always remember her as my first love as unrequited as it was.

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